Roka, Mayfair (£)*
30 North Audley Street, London W1K 6ZF (other branches in London, but pop-up brunch only served at the Mayfair branch)
Summary: Excellent food and impeccable service meet at one of my favourite brunches of late. The succinct menu offers pleasant twists on classic dishes, all well-priced for the quality. I loved everything I tried, and am looking forward to the permanent return of this brunch in the New Year. Verdict: 9.5/10
Value for money: 9.5/10
Practical details: This was a pop-up brunch running through November only, and I was informed that they plan on launching it permanently in the new year. This brunch menu was only served at the Mayfair branch; the Aldwych and Canary Wharf branches offer a fixed price, set menu brunch (different menus at both locations). Reservations required.
* Roka is traditionally an expensive restaurant, on average £50-60 per person (without alcohol). The price indicator here reflects the price of the brunch being reviewed, which was very good value!
Roka is better known for its high-end robatayaki (Japanese grill, which involves cooking over smoking charcoal), and you can expect to pay a generous amount for a meal there (what I heard somebody describe as a ‘fur coat’ meal, ha). However, every Saturday during November, the Mayfair branch had a pop-up brunch, serving up a succinct a la carte menu with a twist on standard brunch dishes, all at quite reasonable prices. I heard ‘pancakes’ being mentioned and had to investigate…
(note: this was one of several brunches I had and posted about in another post, see here to check out the other places)
Roka is chic and sleek. Dimly lit inside, with clean lines, dark wood furniture, and a minimalist design – the kind of place where chunks of wood form the handles on doors. The focus of the restaurant is the open kitchen, where the robata is located: the charcoal grill where most of the cooking for which Roka is known gets done.
I was welcomed warmly as I entered. As a solo diner, I was offered the choice of either a table, or a seat at the bar where I would have a direct view of the kitchen and chefs in action. No contest, I opted for the latter. The head receptionist helped me find the best seat at the bar, and gave me a choice of the Saturday papers to read after I had perused the menu and ordered.
On my first visit I tried the pancake with caramelised pecans (£8). It was in fact a light, spongy sweet potato pancake, filled with caramelised nuts, rolled up like a Swiss roll, and served with warm caramel sauce. It was a dream: sweet, light, comfortingly sticky with the caramel sauce, with a delicious crunch from the finely chopped nuts. YUM. I loved it so much I ordered it again on my next visit, when I also tried more from the menu (I know, I didn’t eat for the rest of the day).
This time, I tried the Tokyo Beni – smoked salmon and poached eggs with yuzu hollandaise on a shiso waffle (£12.90). I didn’t expect to like smoked salmon and egg together (I’m not an Eggs Royale fan), but when even the Head Chef recommends it, and the salmon has been smoked in-house, then it’s a worth a try.
It was unexpectedly delicious, even the hollandaise which I normally avoid; the infusion of the citrusy yuzu cut through the creaminess of the sauce (which can be cloying) and made it light and quite refreshing. Replacing the muffin with a shiso waffle (shiso is a herb in the mint family – think of it as Japanese mint) was a lovely twist, and the salmon was exceptionally delicate in flavour, and light.
My only small niggle was why they didn’t make the waffles fresh to order: I saw small piles of them by the cookers in the kitchen, so presumably they heated them up when they were ordered, but I think they would have been crispier if they were made fresh and served straightaway. As it was, they were soft and still nice, but that crispness would have made them even better.
To be honest, just the Tokyo Beni would probably have been enough – it looked quite dainty but was actually quite filling – but I wasn’t leaving without trying those pancakes again, so they were my second course (I promise I don’t do this very often)…
It was just as good as the first time. The ideal would be to have a savoury main like the Tokyo Beni (the mushroom and shiso brioche also sounded interesting, as did the avocado on squid ink toast), and half of the pancake, so that’s perfect if you come with somebody, or you may be able to take the rest away for later (didn’t ask so not sure, but that would be great).
I found the drinks to be quite expensive – the juices were about £5, cocktails about £10 – so didn’t bother ordering them. I was happy enough with the food alone.
What made this brunch such a great experience overall was the exceptional service throughout: from the head receptionist to the waiting staff to the head chef and his team, everybody was approachable, warm and friendly. They even charged my phone for me, which was a lifesaver when you have an iPhone which lasts for about 15 minutes before it needs reviving.
It was quiet at brunch time, so the kitchen was fairly quiet too. It got more exciting when they switched over to lunch service at noon, and even more chefs came out like a team line-up to turn up the grill, and start unpacking, preparing, and cooking the fresh fish and meat.
I loved the entire experience: I was treated like a valued guest, offered a great seat, and provided with comforts to make my meal really relaxing – like the paper, and answering any questions I had about the menu. I particularly loved not being rushed to leave, but being allowed to linger after I’d finished my meal and read my book, talk to the staff, and watch the chefs at work. It was just a great lazy brunch in a place where I had not expected it to be so relaxed and enjoyable. I really hope they do bring the brunch back permanently, because I already have a few people I want to share it with!