Black Roe Mayfair review by Chris Zacharia
It’s hard to resist the exotic. Especially when it comes to food.
We all flirt with the idea that by eating something from far away a part of us will, momentarily at least, be transported too. So we slave away over unnecessary midweek tagines, buying cookbooks promising food so exotic you’ll barely recognise it.
It doesn’t get much more exotic than Hawaiian food. Immediately you imagine grassy peaks, the sweet sound of the ukulele, deserted beaches. How could its exported cuisine possibly live up to the dream? Yet Hawaiian food – and in particular, poke, a raw fish dish – has been earmarked as the next big culinary craze.
Black Roe Mayfair, occupying the site of the short-lived but superb Bouillabaisse, wants to capitalise on London’s new hunger for poke. Originating in Hawaii, poke is a raw fish salad, a cousin to sushi and sashimi, often featuring tuna.
If Hawaiian food is cool this year, it’s going to need some stylish settings. Ironically lit by neon lighting, bedecked with crate-style tabletops and sleek leather, Black Roe is edgy.
And yet as I sit down in my dimly lit booth, I can’t help but notice similarities to Bouillabaisse, a more traditional seafood restaurant serving impeccably fresh fish which was quickly closed to make room for Black Roe.
Thankfully, the attention to detail and ethos of Bouillabaisse has been bequeathed to its successor. Cool or not, Black Roe Mayfair is first and foremost a seriously good restaurant. Bringing the colours and aromas of the pacific to central London is a big ask – and they’ve pulled it off with swagger.
The menu is divided into poke, appetisers and food from the grill. Keen to get to the bottom of the poke craze, we order two different bowls. Both of them things of beauty, adorned with hibiscus flowers, sporting banana leaf fins and showered with sesame seeds.
Classic Ahi Poke (£7.95), a colourful riot of succulent yellowfin tuna chunks in a sesame soy marinade, is a wholehearted success. Chunky and robust, the delicate fish is more than a match for the nutty marinade.
Though more complex, the ‘Black Roe’ Yellowtail & Ahi Poke (£8.95) is based on the same principle of simple, fresh flavours. A heap of sweet yellowtail mixed together with more rose-coloured chunks of ahi tuna, topped with a signature mound of glittering black roe.
Flecks of onion and parsley bring a welcome tartness to the treacly flavour of the fish. A spicy yuzu sauce adds fire, but bullies the delicate flavour of the fish: the sesame marinade of the Classic Ahi dish is a better fit.
It’s not hard to see why poke is such a hit. Scoop a heaping spoonful of fish chunks, sesame seeds and roe, and savour the tender symphony of tropical flavour. Bringing the sour citrus uppercut of ceviche together with the delicate combinations of sushi, it’s familiar but while being beguilingly distinct.
Having scraped every last sesame seed from the ornate ceramic bowls, we’re well pleased with our introduction to Hawaiian cuisine. But there’s more. Ahi tataki toasted brioche (£13.95) is a surreal splash of tropical tones, a miniature Hawaiian island on an oval plate.
Seared tataki tuna slices, earth-brown on the rim and jam-coloured in the middle, are loaded with vines of watercress, bursts of hibiscus, lashings of chilli oil, foothills of crumbly brioche and smoked aubergine, surrounded by an archipelago of chive. It’s stunning: for a few moments we don’t dare to pick up our cutlery, unwilling to disturb the beauty.
Of course after a few awed murmurs, we dive in. If this dish sounds complicated, the flavour is anything but: zingy, crisp and bold, the fleshiness of the tuna is elaborated by spice and oil and buttressed by the brioche. We scoop, wipe and lick until only a few smears of the masterpiece remain.
Scallops (£14.50) arrive in sea-shell chariots. Sitting in the centre of the shell like a pearl, a mound of scallop wearing a quiff of quinoa crowned with a golden hibiscus is shaded by a bright green stem of cress.
Again, we’re delighted: the effort to bring the vibrancy of the Pacific to the tabletop adds so much to the meal. It helps that these scallops are a fine example of the dish: squidgy, tender and redolent with smoke, with a honey-like mango salsa for sweetness.
Blowing everything else out of the water, the octopus is our favourite dish of a very strong bunch. They say that if you don’t like an ingredient, it’s because you’ve yet to try it in the right dish. I’ve never been a big fan of octopus, but at Black Roe every mouthful of it is absolutely superlative (£10.50).
Marinated in soy sauce and cooked in soda water, this is no ordinary octopus. Two cylindrical copper-coloured coils, scorched by that smoke grill, lie beside a bay of lemon celeriac mousse and a ludicrous truffle aioli.
Take a nugget of the octopus, bathe it in the aioli and the mousse, and close your eyes. Each bite unleashes a burst of juiciness, a flurry of sweet, smoky flavour. With the zesty citrus cutting through the charcoal, with the truffle aioli adding subtle earthy tones, every mouthful is both instantly delicious and lingeringly rich. Miraculously free of chewiness, the octopus is beyond tender. By the end we’re devastated to see the last chunk disappear from the plate. A total triumph.
The rest of our dishes display the same admirable experimentation, but without quite hitting the same high notes as the octopus or the tataki. Cajun-style blackened sea bass (£14.95) with pineapple salsa is expertly cooked, but the peppery crumb is an uneasy partner to the fish.
By the time the smoky lamb rack (£15.95) arrives, we’re overpowered by the smoky flavours. An undeniably effective Kiawe Wood Grill culminates in a nervous reliance on a single dominant flavour. Served with a spicy red coconut salsa and twigs of rosemary, the lamb is as tender as you’d hope, with a punchy paprika seasoning. It’s a robust and compelling take on a traditional dish; had we not had so many smoky dishes beforehand, we would’ve devoured the lamb in half the time.
Dessert is simple and refreshing. We’re tempted by a chocolate ‘shake ‘n’ bake’ for two (£12.50), but we opt for a simple sorbet. Black Roe have intelligently composed a rejuvenating medley of sorbet flavours, from lemony sorrel to sour yuzu. It’s two scoops for £5.95, and a fitting conclusion to the meal.
For all its tropical trimmings, Black Roe Mayfair succeeds because it gets all the basics right: high-quality, fresh food, prepared with imagination and flair, and served by excellent waiting staff. They’ve managed to bring Hawaii to the table. It’s enough to make you fall in love with the exotic all over again.
Words: Chris Zacharia
See here for Black Roe menu
4 Mill Street
Tel: 020 3794 8448