Spotlight on Roka at ME Dubai

Can the Japanese robatayaki restaurant dethrone its sibling Zuma?
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Pressure doesn’t get much higher than being the child of Rainer Becker and sibling of internationally acclaimed Japanese restaurant Zuma.

Success is an expectation, not an aspiration, but so far Roka has more than kept pace with its family.

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Also serving Japanese cuisine, Roka has five locations in London, with its flagship Charlotte Street outlet considered one of the city’s top restaurants with actual British royalty dining alongside American film star royalty regularly.

Dubai has been chosen as its first international outpost, joining Zuma and a host of other high-reputation imports in the city. But while the likes of Zuma and double Michelin star-winning franchise Marea chose prime locations in the financial district, you’ll find Roka in the still up-and-coming Business Bay.
Not that its new surroundings are any less lavish and eye-catching. The Opus by Zaha Hadid has been a fixture in Dubai’s skyline for years as it prepared to open, the hollow-centred building finally doing so earlier this year.

It houses the ME Dubai by Melia hotel which in turn contains Roka, but with its own outdoor entrance it has an individual sense of identity.
“The area is great as there are lots of businesses based their as well as residential buildings, it’s also very central which means it’s easy for visitors and tourists as well,” says general manager Daniel Petermann.

Like much of the staff, Petermann has experience with the brand in London, having joined as assistant restaurant manager at Charlotte Street before transferring to Dubai with Zuma, and he feels the restaurant’s reputation has travelled with it.

He says: “I think that we have a lot of Roka fans in Dubai who are very excited that we have transported the restaurant. With Roka we have a relaxed and casual environment but the quality of the food and service is very high.”

Offering contemporary Japanese robatayaki, Roka Dubai won’t stray too far from its tried-and-tested formula in London, says executive head chef Libor Dobis.

“It is very similar. Of course we had to allow for cultural changes and quite a few new additions we have added to the menu.  For example, bone marrow with miso bun and onion salad; chicken wings with yuzu, chilli, and honey from the robata dishes and red prawns kushiyaki and sweet potato tempura from the hot kitchen.”

Roka fans will be excited to learn that the brand’s group executive chef Hamish Brown’s signature dishes such as yellow tail sashimi with yuzu truffle dressing will also be included, giving the menu a healthy division between Roka classics and regional additions.

Dobis says Roka will be prioritising high quality ingredients while ensuring to use local suppliers for fruits, vegetables, and even protein, highlighting the chicken as being of particularly high quality. In fact, Dobis says that “some of the quality is perhaps even better than some products we get in London”.

Handpicked from around the world, Dobis says his kitchen team is “amazing”. “Some key management such as our sous chef and head sushi chef came from London and both chefs have been working for Roka for some time.  The team is on the smaller side as we are only open for dinner to start with, in the future as we open for lunch and brunch the team will expand.”

According to Petermann, Roka is hoping to attract customers for everything from casual midweek dinners to date nights and celebrations, with the menu being “varied and value-driven”.

The interiors have been designed by Norisan Muramatsu, who works with Rainer Becker on all the group’s aesthetic styles.

“The look is very distinctive with rough wooden walls, a modern industrial feel accompanied by lots of plants, light and high ceilings,” explains Petermann. “The design was inspired by ‘Mottainai’ a term deeply embedded in Japanese culture to repurpose old or damaged materials.”

For Petermann, the look and feel of the restaurant combines to create the signature Roka mood.

He says: “There is so much energy which guarantees a vibrant atmosphere; from the robata counter to our semi-private dining room to the main restaurant area. But what cannot be forgotten is our stunning terrace overlooking the Burj Khalifa district – it’s very special.”

Opening in March, Roka’s launch plans were curtailed by the coronavirus, but Petermann says they made the most of the time they had, soliciting customers for their opinion.

“The feedback during our soft opening was very good, especially regarding the food,” he says. “We are very grateful that we were able to get so many existing fans and industry peers to visit us, their constructive feedback was priceless and it really motivated us to keep pushing harder.

“Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 crisis we had to temporarily close four days after our official opening. Now the whole team is just aching to get back into action.”

Roka take-two is underway now.

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