The basement of Roka in Fitzrovia is pretty dead at 6.30pm on a weekday evening. Instead of 2-4-1 tack, the Shochu Lounge has come up with an interesting concept to pull in a crowd – a deeply involved and loooong tasting menu, served at the bar, with elaborate cocktail pairings.
The kaiseki cocktail pairing is a fairly restrictive experience – the small bar in the middle of the otherwise spacious lounge in the basement can only accommodate a handful of people. And diners have to arrive for a prompt 6.30pm start. With the focus very much on the bartender’s flair, it’s more fringe theatre than early supper.
This is also an olfactory rollercoaster of an evening
Your full enjoyment of this particular tasting menu is going to depend on how much you like dark spirits. There’s a lot of whisky in the mix, and some of the cocktails are definitely strong rather than easy drinking: you might think a martini with Tanqueray 10 would be unchallenging, but when it’s mixed with sake that’s been infused with chamomile, and yellow chartreuse (40%), you’re going to sit up and take notice. This is also an olfactory rollercoaster of an evening – the smell of fermented buckwheat emanating from a glass is startling. And not necessarily in a good way. Then there’s yuzu, which is pure wonderment in both aroma and taste – citrus perfected. With seven courses to go through, each glass is smaller than the norm. Sensibly.
The food element of the tasting menu at Shochu Lounge will be familiar to most diners with a penchant for Japanese cuisine. And while they’re presenting it as kaiseki, it’s less esoteric than you’d find in a high-end ryokan: scallop roasted with wasabi mayo; a superb quail, cooked on the robata; wagyu nigiri, blowtorched to be given the flavour of luxe bacon. A chunky beef rib with nashi pear is a highlight – the slight funk of the cow is offset with elan by the sake in the aforementioned martini. As is the case with a genuine Japanese supper, the carbs appear at the end, to fill up any space you might have left: a king crab and wasabi hot pot comes with what might be the best cocktail of the evening – a smoked Japanese colada, made with sticky caramelised charcoal from the robata grill upstairs.
We wish the brightly illuminated behind-the-scenes kitchen area was less apparent from the barstools down in the Shochu Lounge, but this is still a pretty room. And when the barman starts hacking, fairly explosively, at a giant cube of ice as if we were at Bar Basso in Milan, it certainly feels like one of London’s more serious mixology joints. Three hours of kaiseki and cocktails might be too much for some, and if you sign up for it, you’ll experience a radical change in atmosphere from the calm of 6.30pm to the throng of the 9pm arrivals, but it’s certainly one of the more interesting evenings out that London has to offer right now. C
Shochu Lounge, Roka, 37 Charlotte Street, London W1T 1RR
020-7580 6464; rokarestaurant.com