This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Roka, which opened on Charlotte Street five years ago, has always seemed to me to embody the cosmopolitan nature of London’s restaurants.
Although its principal cooking tool is the Japanese robata, or charcoal grill, Roka was brought to life by Rainer Becker, a German chef who worked for several years for Hyatt in Asia, and Arjun Waney, an Indian businessman who made his money in the US, following the success of their initial Japanese restaurant, Zuma in Knightsbridge. Roka has subsequently spread its wings to Hong Kong; Scottsdale, Arizona; and a second London branch will open in London’s Canary Wharf in mid November.
Roka’s immediate attractions are obvious to those sitting at the large wooden counter that surrounds the grill on three sides. There is constant action from half a dozen chefs; clouds of steam rising to the ceiling as the food is cooked; and driving music. All the ingredients of a film set but the food is much better.
This creativity is carried through into Roka’s dessert menu, which not only includes some intriguing terminology such as a passion fruit ‘tamago’ and a chocolate ‘tsubo’, but also several unusual ingredients such as crunchy jivara (a Valrhona chocolate blended with malt). It also has an instant appeal, perhaps partly due to the clarity of its layout, as became obvious from watching the couple next to us who initially waved away the dessert menu and then almost fought over who would finish the mango and almond cake with miso and caramel ice cream which they had, perhaps unwisely, decided to share.
The following afternoon I sat down with Julien Philippe, the pastry chef rightly credited at the bottom of the dessert menu, to listen to how he creates his desserts and what he has in mind for the new restaurant.
Philippe, 32, seen here at Roka in this photograph by Daniel Lynch, initially trained as a scientist in Bordeaux before realising that ‘he was not cut out for sitting at a bench in the laboratory’. Hospitality training followed, then a move to England, where he managed to get a job at what was then the best restaurant in Brighton but where the only vacancy was in the pastry section.
He soon appreciated his good fortune. 'Pastry chefs have far more freedom than the other chefs in the kitchen, who invariably have somebody right above them watching everything they do', he said. 'Obviously I talk through everything I’m planning with Rainer but if he is happy I’m left alone to create my dishes and to train my staff.'
Having joined on the day Roka opened, Philippe is now responsible for the 10 pastry chefs at Zuma and Roka as well as those at the new site, but he is well aware of how he has to adapt his desserts to each restaurant’s differing clientele.
Zuma, as the oldest and biggest (it served almost 600 customers on the Sunday before we met) has the most loyal clientele and therefore there is the most resistance to change. Philippe explained that most of the desserts were in place before he was given overall responsibility and that one dessert, described as The Special but in effect a classic, warm chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream, accounts for almost a third of all sales. 'I simply cannot touch this dish much as I would like to change it. I just have to ensure it’s always excellent'
The small pastry section at Roka, hemmed in, not atypically for London, by a low ceiling and a pillar right in the centre, sells between 110 and 190 desserts on a busy night when the restaurant will serve a total of 360 customers. A crucial factor will be how efficiently the rest of the kitchen performs, Philippe explained. 'If the customers get their main courses in good time, then we have a chance to impress them', he added.
Although the proximity of the busy washing-up section just past Philippe’s pastry section produces excessive humidity for certain of his dessert creations, Philippe is able to see which plates invariably come back clean and are therefore most appreciated.
'We sell about 25 portions a night of what I call a raspberry and white chocolate usugiri, Japanese for a thin slice. There is nothing intrinsically Japanese about this but this is a dish which combines raspberries, lychees, chocolate and rose water on a crème anglaise that seems to have almost universal appeal', Philippe said.
His first, and so far only, trip to Japan earlier this year, included an unforgettable meal at RyuGin in Tokyo, from which he learnt a new technique for serving his ice creams. While these had been presented on thick cubes of ice used in the bar, he has now switched to presenting them in a more contrasting style on the briquettes used on the charcoal grill that have been put through the dishwasher four times to ensure that they are clean and safe.
Stronger Japanese influences pervade his coconut and passion fruit ‘tamago’ and the ingredients behind the peanut, vanilla and chocolate tsubo, or pot, although Philippe was candid enough to admit that this is their reworking of what makes a Snickers bar so moreish.
‘Tamago’ is Japanese for egg and this dessert is a hollow coconut sphere into which the passion fruit is injected as it is ordered and then spills out as soon as it is sliced. But two lesser ingredients, candied nori, or edible seaweed, and a touch of salt, really give the dish the lift and Japanese characteristics that Philippe is always searching for.
The significant change in the chocolate tsubo, or pot, is that in making the chocolate ganache or filling Philippe has substituted soy milk for cream, which results in a soothing texture somewhere between sorbet and ice cream. This has the added advantage of not splitting as easily as the original recipe. But Philippe added that the soy milk has to be richer than the brands most readily available in the supermarkets.
Philippe admitted that he has to write dessert menus that combine dishes requiring a uniform standard of execution but differing times of execution and this latter factor will be particularly crucial at Canary Wharf as it will initially be busier at lunch than in the evening. But the charm of his profession is to create new desserts, impressionable combinations of flavours, and explore the potential for the sharing platters of desserts and fruits that have also been a hallmark of Roka since it opened.
'I am always looking for the next thing', he added. 'I’m not sure where the inspiration will come from but usually a couple of glasses of good red wine does the trick.'
Roka Restaurants, www.rokarestaurant.com