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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
23 Jul 2004

Roka, the exciting, informal, and, given its capital cost of £2.2 million, not too expensive Japanese restaurant which has just opened in central London, has an even more international cast than most.

Nick Watt, the head chef, is a New Zealander who has worked in Japan; the designer is Tokyo-based Noriyoshi Muramatsu of design consultants Super Potato; Arjun Waney, its financial backer, is Indian by birth although he worked in the US before moving to London; and controlling the purse strings on a day to day basis is a management account born in Kenya. When the waitress brought us our first course of sushi she explained that she came from a small island south of Sicily where tuna fishing was a way of life until, as she put it ’modern technology and modern boats whisked all the fish off to Tokyo’.

The man responsible for pulling this team together is Rainer Becker, who was born and trained as a chef in Germany before a decade as Executive Chef for the American owned Hyatt Corporation in their hotels in Sydney, Tokyo and London until the opportunity came along to open Zuma, the highly successful Japanese restaurant in Knightsbridge two years ago. Becker, however, remains so cognisant of all that he learnt chez Hyatt that he continues one of their standard management practices just before any new restaurant finally opens for business. They intentionally crash the system.

“We began by inviting in all our friends and the staff from Zuma and then we held a few days of ‘soft openings’ for the public. But on a Saturday night in between we deliberately invited too many for the kitchen and the waiting staff to cope with. And things go wrong and break down. But then we have a drink and analyse all the weaknesses that have become apparent and as a result we know what to put right. And most importantly, when we finally do open properly, we are not feeling too comfortable to be able to give a really good service.”

It would be inaccurate to describe Becker as a chef of the old school, an autocratic disciplinarian, but there is no doubt that he is hugely motivated. “I left Hyatt because I was about to turn 40 and I felt my adrenalin level was not high enough, that my blood was not boiling. For me there has to be a positive fear of failure, that’s what makes opening restaurants so exciting.” And although he dismissed any notion of wanting to build a restaurant empire he did mention that if ever the possibility arose to open a restaurant in the now derelict Battersea Power Station he would be the first to volunteer. “The energy of that building is just amazing."

In the interim there is the challenge of maintaining standards at Zuma, which serves 450 to 500 customers a day, and introducing Roka to an increasingly competitive market.

“What we are trying to do here,“ Becker explained in the ????DESCRIPTION OF THE  [STATE OF THE] BUILDING, MAYBE LOCATION???, “is to cook the kind of food young Japanese like to eat - less expensive and less formal than the traditional sushi and sashimi - and above all to serve the type of food that I remember appeals to foreigners working in Japan, best exemplified in the Inakaya [LOCAL] restaurants in Tokyo. And to create the kind of place and the kind of atmosphere where I and the other chefs in Tokyo used to like to go to sit, drink and eat in when we had finished cooking.”

Roka’s physical attractions will easily entice any curious passer-by. It occupies a large corner site WHERE? with glass windows on both sides (which Becker looks forward to opening when the weather permits) that allow a clear view across the mainly wooden interior to the rebato charcoal grill which provides a large proportion of the menu.

“We have put the grill in the centre of the restaurant because traditionally the kitchen is the centre of the home, it’s the gathering point. Everything is on display and the chefs wear waiters’ uniforms to ensure that there is no barrier between the two, “ said Becker. Round the grill is a thick wooden counter where customers can sit, eat and watch the action, a counter Becker explained with some pride came from a 270 year old elm cut down fifteen years ago from a forest in Ireland.

Because of the grill and the decision to incorporate strong Korean influences (the kitchen makes two sorts of kimchi, Korean pickle, one traditional and the other incorporating radishes), the flavours are distinctive, clean and not overpowering . There are some excellent sashimi and maki rolls, given extra authenticity by small mounds of namanori , seaweed imported directly from Japan; soothing bowls of homemade tofu with chili, ginger and sesame and lots of grilled vegetable combinations: long, thin aubergine with mirin and soy; braised daikon, a Japanese radish, with a barley miso dressing and asparagus with sweet soy. Lamb cutlets are grilled with Korean spices, as are quail which are then chopped into bite sized chunks. Skewers play a big part too holding together pieces of marinated chicken with leeks, pork and surimi crab and calves liver with soy and sake.

Justifiably proud of everything Roka exemplifies, Becker is particularly pleased by two aspects of his new restaurant. The first are the menu’s two apparently traditional rice hot pot dishes, one vegetarian, the other incorporating Cornish crab, which Becker has modified by adding wasabi and flying fish roe to make the dish slightly more liquid in the style of a risotto.

The second is the Schochu lounge underneath the restaurant which along one wall incorporates fittings from an old Japanese distillery and, to Becker’s great satisfaction, serves its cocktails with ice chipped from one huge block, as they do in Japan, rather than with ice cubes. Schochu is a Japanese spirit, distilled in a similar fashion to vodka but from sweet potato, barley or rice and then flavoured with myriad different fruits, large bottles of which line the walls of the restaurant and the bar downstairs. I was taken with the grape-flavoured schochu, less impressed with the mint although cleverly there are enough different flavours to induce enthusiasts back on a very regular basis.

Roka would be an exciting addition to the London scene on its own but what makes it increasingly so is its location in the middle of an established restaurant cluster. Next door is the authentically Spanish Fino; opposite are the long established Pied Terre and Elena’s L’Etoile and along the road, Passione, and the soon-to-open Dim T. This will not only guarantee choice and keen prices for the consumer but also ensure that if Becker can secure the appropriate permission next spring to close Charlotte Street one Sunday and hold a restaurateurs’ street party, as he did so successfully with Zuma this year, this will be one party not to miss.

Roka, 37 Charlotte Street, London W1T 1RR, 020-7580 6464. Closed Sunday lunch.