Roka is to Zuma what Robin is to Batman – sidekick, invariably yes, but a sidekick with a very distinct character of its own. Less pretentious than its more famous stablemate it definitely is, but Roka is still very much an upmarket Japanese Izakaya style robata restaurant and bar. Located on Level 1 of the Zaha Hadid designed Opus by Omniyat in Business Bay, I couldn’t help wondering if the so Zuma entrance elevator was by accident or design. Inside, I loved the way interior designer Noriyoshi Muramatsu has weaved wood, stone and metal to create an earthy yet sophisticated cocoon within the neo-futuristic building he was given to work with – no easy task – yet the result of his work is as beautiful to behold as it is to dine in. I think I liked the Japanese whisky lined bar the most, the little action figures in-between some of the bottles summing up the mood – cheeky, playful, fun – Hai!
My dashing BFAM, José Diego, and I were at Roka to try their business lunch which, at Dhs115 per person for four starters and a main, promised to be pretty darn good value if nothing else. Quite by accident we were seated inside but right beside the entrance to the outdoor dining terrace, so we got the best of both worlds. Up until the wait staff came and waved their forget everything bad in the world magic wand, I was a little miffed at not having been offered a seat outside; either when I made my on-line reservation 48-hours earlier or when I came in. Not that I would have sat outside, I probably wouldn’t have. I just would have liked to have been given the option – just saying.
We were looked after by a slender young Florentian with a husky Janis Joplin voice and a twinkle in her eye. Isn’t it interesting how face masks have honed-in our skills at noticing other features in a person’s face? She recommended, in typical “you must have” Italian style, the gyuhireniku wagyu to kinoko – beef fillet, chilli, ginger and lemon to you and me. It was cooked a little further along than my medium rare preference but not enough to be off-putting, especially not after a quick dunk into the sweet-savoury dipping sauce it came with – oof! I felt our other main, the tai no miso-yaki – sea bream fillet, ryotei miso and red onion, was also a little overdone. But again, not enough to complain about (this is an observation).
If our mains were not quite perfect, our starters were, especially the age nasu no goma-ae – warm eggplant, sesame miso and katsuobushi (dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna also known as bonito flakes). José Diego and I had a full-on Zorro swordfight with our chopsticks for the last piece until, much to the relief of the on looking staff, we resolved to trade with the equally good (and my favourite) gyuniku to goma no gyoza – beef, ginger and sesame dumplings. All four (are you hearing me? four!) of our starters were amazing. Not so the dessert platter which we ended our meal with. I felt it had fruit (I get fruit at home) where it should have had proper desserts…like the delicious chocolate fondant filled with a greenish brown liquid chocolate (macha maybe) for which another vigourious chopstick fight erupted.
José Diego and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal and had a lot of fun to boot. Sparkling water, dessert, coffee and tip did see our equal split of the bill going up to Dhs200, taking it precariously close to big brother Zuma’s business lunch. That may be, but personally I would choose Roka any day. The fact that there was a nod and a smile from behind every mask, that the staff, even the restaurant manager, were so friendly, chatty and approachable, that the food was more or less amazing (who cares if it wasn’t perfect?), and that you are fed enough so you don’t need to pop into McDonald’s on your way back to the office – these are the little things which make all the difference. I can’t wait to take my Negin there on date night. Hmph, who needs Batman anyway…
#1 Food Blogger on Zomato Dubai – 2018, 2019 and 2020
Xerxes physically dines at, or orders from, each and every venue he reviews. He pays in full for whatever he and his companions eat, drink, take away or occasionally throw at each other. Xerxes accepts no money, gifts, discounts or free meals in return for reviews or favouritism. What you have read was NOT influenced in any way by the venue. Join his culinary journey on Instagram: @ravenousxerxes or reach out to him via email on firstname.lastname@example.org. @jdmanzanera