A Soho Japanese restaurant will celebrate its first birthday by raising a glass of Sake with the first one hundred diners through its doors this month.
ROBATA, situated on iconic Old Compton Street, and specialising in Japan’s traditional charcoal cooking, will be toasting with a choice of the traditional rice wine or Prosecco on Friday 27 March.
The Japanese izakaya-style venue is the passion project of entrepreneur Sonny Huang, 27, who opened the restaurant last year, in an effort to better acquaint London diners with robata – the term given to a traditional Japanese charcoal cooking method from which the restaurant takes its name.
Sonny said: “This traditional cooking method is extremely popular in Japan, but is not as well-known as it should be in the UK.
“In fact, this was one of my main motivations in bringing this concept to London, having visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka & Hokkaido, researching their izakaya-style restaurants.
“Sometimes, we would be visiting two to three different izakayas a day and eating until we couldn’t move… This, of course was all in the name of research!”
The restaurant is an elegant, edgy space, seating 50 covers, designed by Southwark-based multidisciplinary design and architectural studio, Turner Bates, where the open robata kitchen takes centre stage for diners to enjoy the spectacle of the working kitchen.
Sonny said: “Open kitchens in my eyes are a must. Food that you can see being delicately prepared and cooked just adds to the experience. We have an excellent chef’s table in front of our robata kitchen, where guests can see our skilled chefs and their delicate cooking process from start to finish.”
The robata cooking method uses white oak “bincho” or Japanese white charcoal, which has several unique properties; it burns almost completely cleanly, producing very little smoke or flame, and burning at a far higher temperature than Western charcoal grills.
This high-carbon charcoal is produced from oak trees and crafted by artisans, making it extremely pure and totally odourless, upon leaving the kiln, it’s smothered in sand and ash, giving it its white appearance.
The kitchen is led by head chef, Charles Lee, who has worked in a number of Michelin starred restaurants during his career before arriving at ROBATA.
He possesses a strong command of Asian cooking from across the globe, and has devised a menu that showcases the diversity of Japan’s cuisine.
Sonny said: “Charles Lee is a talented and creative chef and we pride ourselves on using the best of British produce, the finest and freshest ingredients. We’ve had many Japanese customers who absolutely love the food here.”
Precision is essential when cooking Japanese robata, as the heat of the charcoal cannot be changed.
The chef has to cook each different food for differing periods of time.
During the cooking process, the juices from the food drip onto the surface of the charcoal, forming smoke that rises and surrounds the food, and the high, intense heat and pure burn of the charcoal creates a crunchy outside that preserves the juicy, delicious inside, giving it a unique, pure flavour.
Sonny said: “Robata is a Japanese tradition that was first introduced by ancient fishermen, who took boxes of hot coals with them on their boats to warm their food, as they gathered their day’s catch.
“While the cooking method has largely stayed the same, we have devised a menu made of modern interpretations of some of Japan’s most prized dishes.”
Being based in the heart of Soho was extremely important to Sonny, when he was scouting locations to bring his dream of ROBATA to London.
He said: “Soho is the place where everything is going on in London – restaurants, bars, nightlife, shopping – a true leisure destination and securing a prime Soho site was difficult.”
There are already expansion plans in the pipeline, as soon as the perfect site becomes available.
The team are currently looking for a second London location and plans are in place to also introduce ROBATA to the city of Birmingham, where Sonny hails from.
He said: “I would actually say I was destined for the restaurant industry, since I’ve been involved in it since my early teens. I started out as a kitchen porter washing dishes and eventually moved to other roles such as chef, waiter and bartender to gain a better understanding of restaurants.
“To further develop my business knowledge, I moved on to study business management at the University of Manchester, whilst also continuing to gather experience in the food and beverage world.
“Four years after graduation, I knew I was in the right position and mind-set to open my own concept and ROBATA was born.”
Sonny’s life revolves around food: on a rare day off from the day job, he tries to visit as many new restaurant and foodie openings as he can to keep on top of current trends.
His favourite dish on the menu is also ROBATA’s signature dish, wood flamed Iberico pork pluma: 200g of Iberico pig, cooked over charcoal and spiced with black pepper and sweet pickled green apple.
He also recommends one of their best-selling dishes, a fan favourite, miso aubergine, a sweet miso infused aubergine served with pickled shimiji mushroom and red chilli.
Sonny said “We are a small, independent business, that’s already been a big success.
“The best thing about running ROBATA is seeing a restaurant full of happy faces that is down to the enjoyment of the food, drinks, service and atmosphere that we create here.”
ROBATA 56 Old Compton Street, Soho, London, W1D 4UE www.robata.co.uk