Chow Bella

A sophisticated taste of Japan, via London

If you want to eat Japanese food day in and day out, without eating the same dish twice, you'll have a hard time doing it in Phoenix.

Yes, Japanese restaurants are cropping up like weeds, especially in the northeast Valley, but if you're looking for something the busts out of the typical sushi-and-tempura format, good luck to you.

Don't get me wrong -- I love all that, and can eat an obscene amount of sushi (at Hana, they give me my own boat!). But there's so much more to the cuisine, and so few places that deliver something unusual. I swear I'm not jaded -- just a little wistful.

Naturally, I was very curious to find out what kind of food they'll have at Roka, the first U.S. outpost of the high-profile London-based Japanese eatery. It's scheduled to open in Scottsdale in mid-January.

"Robata-yaki," they tell me. Okay, I need details. Yasu Sushi Bistro on Cactus is already doing robata-yaki, so I want to know what Roka's version will be like. (BTW, robata-yaki is all kinds of goodies grilled over expensive oak charcoal -- everything from skewers of chicken and green onion, to more complex dishes. So tasty.)

Well, now that I got my hands on the executive chef Nicholas Watt's menu, I'm psyched. Doesn't it just figure -- I've got an empty stomach, lunch is a ways off, and now I'm drooling over dishes I won't get to taste for a very long time. I hope Roka's worth the wait.

I'll be upfront and say yes, they will have sushi and tempura. And I'm fine with that, especially looking at some of the novel combinations: yellowfin and bluefin tuna nigiri; temaki filled with tempura king crab leg, avocado, rock chive and yuzu mayo; and maki filled with shiitake, enoki, bean shoots and miso, or a spicy Korean-style roll with roast pork loin, shiso, and chili cabbage. (Sounds far-out, but it's the vinegared rice that defines sushi, not fish.)

The robata offerings look really intriguing. Among more than a dozen and a half vegetable, seafood, and meat options, I'm eyeing the grilled prawns seasoned with yuzu koshu and chili paste; tofu with barley miso, ginger, and shichimi; quail marinated in plum wine and red miso; honey-basted duck breast with sansho pepper; and wagyu beef with fresh wasabi and eryngii mushrooms. Cue the sound effect for a rumbling stomach....

Beyond that, a few of the appies and other dishes have caught my attention. The two gyoza options look good: pork and scallop, or lobster and abalone -- mmm. There will be homemade tofu (which I love), and spinach-sesame salad, a dish that's ubiquitous in most cities, but somehow absent from Phoenix menus. And I'm looking forward to two kinds of kama-meshi, old-fashioned rice hot pot dishes that I've definitely never seen in these parts. Roka will offer lunch and dinner tasting menus, too.

I don't know how much you follow design, but if you do, then you might've heard of Super Potato, the firm that's responsible for many a stylish destination in Tokyo, from the Muji flagship store to the Caretta Shiodome, a futuristic skyscraper complex that you'll inevitably have to circumnavigate if you want to visit the historic Hamarikyu gardens. Super Potato and designer Noriyoshi Muramatsu, responsible for the design of the London Roka, will design the Scottsdale location as well. The 7,500-square-foot freestanding building will be the first retail component to open at the Artesia residential development, at the northeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Indian Bend.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig