Man cannot survive on Netflix, sourdough bread, and webinars alone.

The Serb and I decided to eat out at a restaurant instead of staying in again with my famous home-made gnocchi.  The Serb seemed happier about not having gnocchi than having a meal at a nice restaurant.

So, we unsealed our vacuum-packed outdoor clothes from storage, found something that still fit, and jumped in the car with the enthusiasm of a cat chasing a laser beam.  The Serb insisted we each open a fresh facemask for the occasion. “What if we meet someone we used to know?” she said.

Our destination was Roka, a restaurant that had just arrived in Dubai back in March and has been on my ‘to visit’ list for the last 23 years.

Poor Roka restaurant.  Brand spanking new to Dubai, Roka spent much of their cash on a fancy launch party, opened to the public for about ten minutes, and then had to close their doors for what must have felt like the longest two months ever.

Roka has a separate entrance in the stunning ME by Melia hotel, with a tiny elevator taking you upstairs to the main dining room.  There is a sign that requests for only two people at any one time in the elevator.  I’m not sure if that is for social distancing reasons or to account for lockdown weight gain.

The hostess greeted us with an enthusiastic welcome and ambitiously asked us if we had a reservation.  We had, and she led us into the dining room immediately and offered us a table. We choose a banquet table in the corner of the room.

I had clearly forgotten how to slide gracefully onto a banquet bench.  However, the hostess waited patiently until I had huffed and puffed myself into position, fighting every single satin cushion along the way.  I wanted to mention how abundant and strangely frictionless the cushions were but thought worse things were happening in the world.  By the time I was settled, the Serb had already read the menu and knew what she wanted.

The tables were generously spaced out across the room, and the only tell-tale sign of reduced capacity was the length of exposed banquet bench that was hidden by hundreds more of those slippery cushions.

The Serb ordered a glass of prosecco, and the waiter informed us it would be served in a plastic cup as per requirements.  Both of us drink most of our beverages from plastic cups these days anyway, so it wasn’t a problem.

Roka is known as Zuma’s little sister and has several locations across London.  The interior is organic and natural with brushed concrete, raw wood, metal, leather, and foliage.  Their signature robata grill overlooks the dining room.  There is a terrace that probably won’t be used until the summer months are over.

The menu is fundamentally Japanese, with sushi, sashimi, and tempura anchoring the menu. The Roka section is where you will find all their signature dishes, and the robata section is home to the traditional Japanese charcoal grill, comprising of meat, fish, and veg.

A few other tables were eating, and I quickly checked the face mask etiquette.
It seems as soon as you were seated, the face masks came off.  It would have been helpful for the restaurant to bring a small stool for our facemasks, or perhaps even a mask hook at the side of the table.  I’m just kidding – my mask never leaves my chin these days.

We ordered directly with a real human waiter, who explained the dishes, asked for any allergies, offered suggestions, and spoke in full sentences.  It was the most I’ve concentrated in weeks.

Not even a pandemic can kill the sharing menu.  They say if there was a nuclear holocaust, only two things would survive — cockroaches and sharing menus.  We ordered two types of dumpling, the beef and ginger, and the black cod and king crab.  We also ordered Yakitori Negima, grilled chicken skewers, and Maitake To Yushi Yaki, grilled maitake mushrooms with a truffle butter ponzu.  We also had the avocado maki and the Ebi No Tempura, rock shrimp with chili mayo.

The avocado maki was fresh and crunchy, although if I order again, I will go for something a little more adventurous. Avo Maki is like entry-level maki. Maki 101.

The dumplings were fabulous. I’d forgotten what hot food was like.  They were generously filled and grilled perfectly on one side.  The ginger cut through the umami of the beef, resulting in a fine and well-balanced dumpling.

The black cod and king crab gyoza was equally as good, firm, well flavoured and brought to life by the chili dressing.

The rock shrimp tempura was delicately crisp but not crunchy.  They were on the pale side of golden and firm yet juicy. Dipping them into the chili mayonnaise seemed unnecessary until you did, and then your mouth lit up with spice and heat.  I snuck a shrimp into my facemask, for a snack later on.  Pro-tip – facemasks are excellent for hiding small snacks without anyone noticing.

The staff were attentive, professional, and showed no sign of rust or cobwebs. You could tell who the managers were as they wore premium black face masks, and the servers wore the disposable blue/white ones.

The yakitori Negima arrived as expected – charred, slightly crispy, sticky, and sweet.  The flavours were great, especially the bitterness of the char against the sweetness of the sauce. However, I felt the chicken was slightly overcooked, and although Roka’s version was good, I’ve had juicer skewers in my time.

The Maitake mushrooms are famous for their immunity-boosting properties. Maitake means dancing in Japanese, and people were said to have danced for joy when they discovered them. These mushrooms are hearty and thick, with plenty of umami and substance. Add the slight burn from the grill, and they could also make you dance with joy. However, I missed the truffle butter ponzu though – either they clean forgot it, or my taste buds are going, and I should move into self-isolation 14 days.

Visiting a good restaurant is one of life’s greatest pleasures. It is up there with filling a glass bowl with crisp apples and ripe plums. It’s like melting butter on hot toast or the smell of freshly cut grass. It’s like getting a really good haircut or remembering a time when you physically couldn’t stop laughing with someone. It’s like the smell of wet earth after a storm, the chorus of your favourite song, or the happy giggle of a baby.

Like restaurants, none of these things are essential for our survival, but life would be infinitely more miserable without them.

Roka is a world-class restaurant, and I am so pleased to see it, and many other restaurants across town, slowly open their doors and welcome customers back.  Roka is not a cheap meal – lunch for two set us back 530 aed, which for me, means this is a special occasion venue, rather than a regular haunt.

Delivery food is great (*ahem, check out @fsallstars) but nothing comes close to the full restaurant experience.

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