Famed for its prime Mayfair spot in London, Roka is the brainchild of Zuma co-founder Rainer Becker. The Japanese restaurant brand made its way to Saudi Arabia first with an outpost in Riyadh in 2021, followed by one in Jeddah this year.
I have visited both restaurants in the past year, and came away impressed with not only the food, but also the stylish venues and savvy chef Libor Dobis, who oversees the restaurant’s Middle East operations.
What to expect and where to sit
Roka in Riyadh benefits from a prime corner location amid the cluster of restaurants in Tahlia Street.
The 5,629-square-foot venue has indoor seating on the ground floor and terrace seating on the first level, ideal for the cooler months.
The Jeddah outpost, meanwhile is located on Jeddah Walk on top of a structure that resembles a cruise ship, fitting for the coastal city. The bright and airy venue has floor-to-ceiling windows and wood panel interiors, as well as a terrace which, we are told, “comes alive every night”.
Both venues are instantly recognisable by their stylish exterior and wavy design, symbolic of the restaurant’s Mayfair and Charlotte Street outposts in London.
Roka specialises in Japanese robatayaki cuisine (or “fireside cooking”) and the robata grill is the base for the dishes at both venues.
In Riyadh, my dining companion and I started with the delightful soft shell crab maki (90 Saudi riyals, $24) and panko Spanish red prawns (SAR85). The latter are a must-try and pair well with a delectable wasabi mayonnaise. The iceberg lettuce salad with caramelised onion dressing (SAR65), too, offers a complexity in taste that belies the simplicity of its ingredients.
At the Jeddah restaurant, we started with spicy edamame (SAR40), albeit it was more sweet than spicy, and a small but tasty white miso soup with chilli oil (SAR40). By comparison, the fried soft-shell crab with chilli and shiso sauce (SAR90) was well cooked but underwhelming.
A classic on this menu, the rock shrimp (SAR95) was perfectly crunchy on the outside and tender within, with the dressing on the side for those who want to keep things light. Both the salmon nigiri (SAR45) and seafood dumplings (SAR100), however, were a touch too dry.
When it came to the mains, the delightful yellowtail sashimi with yuzu truffle dressing (SAR115), which we had as a main in Jeddah, had a tangy, zesty kick that served to refresh the palate.
In Riyadh, we tried the chicken wings with yuzu kosho honey (SAR50) – which was outstanding in taste and presentation, and the lamb cutlets with Korean spices and sesame cucumber (SAR200) which infuse the beautifully marinated meat with a strong, moreish flavour.
The rice hotpot with Japanese mushrooms and shaved truffle (SAR240) went a bit overboard with the mushrooms and would benefit with some space for the rice to shine.
The star of the show in both outposts, however, is the black cod.
For a seafood dish to outperform the meats is interesting, but that’s exactly what the black cod marinated in yuzu miso and pickled radish does (SAR240 at both branches).
Unlike most restaurants that tend to drown the tender fish in sauces, the chefs at Roka have managed to achieve the perfect balance of flavours, while still letting the beautiful simplicity of the flaky and moist cod shine through. This is definitely one of the better versions of the dish we have tried in Saudi Arabia, and punches well above its weight.
The desserts, too, deserve a shout-out. I would visit Roka simply for its sweet treats.
In Riyadh, we had the dessert platter (SAR99) with a smoked coconut parfait with passion fruit, raspberry and lychee, all tasting outstanding. The cotton-soft cheesecake (SAR75) was a sensory delight that came with robata-grilled pear and cream cheese ice cream, as was the crunchy banana ice cream puffs with miso-lime toffee (SAR75).
In Jeddah, we picked a cheesecake again, this time with strawberry (SAR70), which did not disappoint and was at once light and luscious. The passion fruit sorbet (SAR15) is a good option for those who like sour desserts.
A chat with the chef
Unsurprisingly, chef Dobis says fish is his favourite ingredient, not least because it is extremely rich in protein. “On Roka’s menu, we tend to cook fish in different ways, such as blanched, seared and fried, as well as on an open fire with charcoal, which is where our robata grills come in handy. It is the heart and soul of our restaurants and also allows guests to see the chefs in action.
“I believe in respecting nature, keeping our food simple and clean, and keeping an open mind to customer feedback. After all, food has the power to connect people and bring happiness,” adds Dobis.
Other than those dishes we tried, the chef’s recommendations include: yakisoba noodles or baked potato with yuzu cream for vegetarians, which he says is “specifically designed for Middle Eastern tastes”; beef fillet with sesame, chilli, and ginger sauce for meat eaters; grilled tiger prawns with Japanese hollandaise, yuzu, and tobiko for seafood lovers; and chocolate matcha pudding for those with a sweet tooth.
Prices and contact information
Appetisers range from SAR55 to SAR100 ($14 to $27); mains from SAR65 to SAR485; and desserts from SAR70 to SAR110.
For reservations, contact Roka Riyadh on 00966 9200 12327 and Roka Jeddah on 00966 9200 17652.
These reviews were conducted at the invitation of the restaurants