Melissa Blease discovers some tantalising Japanese dishes at Robun’s new fine dining establishment in George Street – from Chicken Karaage and Nasu Dengaku to Bluefin Tuna Tatare and Japanese Mochi – and talks to CEO Roger Payne
Zensai, karaage and ikageso; moriawase, kaburimaki and fukusai: my notes for this review of Robun – the brand new, super-stylish Japanese-themed restaurant on George Street – are sending my spellcheck into meltdown, let alone testing my (limited) knowledge of authentic Japanese food to the limits. Where to start? Ask an expert!
“For sure, it’s very different to more familiar restaurant menus; it’s a work of art!,” says Roger Payne, CEO of Enhanced Hospitality, the fascinating company responsible for enhancing the eating out scene in Bath. “But it really is a menu for everybody. I wouldn’t say it’s a grazing menu, but it’s certainly worth sharing your way through it; the Nigiri and Sashimi Set, for example, is a wonderful starter for four or a main course for two, and the Ribeye Wagyu – the best steak you could possibly imagine – arrives at the table small-chopped, perfect for picking at alongside other dishes. Personally, I’m a massive fan of the Wagyu Beef Tataki starter, and the Bluefin Tuna Tatare is, to my mind, incredible. After that, perhaps Black Cod in a Den Misu marinade, maybe share some prawns or ribs too, and make sure you have the hand-finished Kimchee Fried Rice with an egg on top – oh, delicious! I’m getting hungry now, my mouth is watering…”
Mine too – which is why I ate at Robun not long after I’d talked to Roger. But before we sat down to eat, I was hungry for more from this convivial Bath resident who has been a restaurateur since the 1980s and whose boutique hospitality company is also responsible for London’s highly acclaimed Ginsa St. James Japanese dining experience as well as providing fresh, wholly authentic Japanese food to Selfridges’ food hall.
“I was at the traffic lights on George Street about a year ago when I saw that the restaurant space was available,” says Roger. “What a great location! Bath’s gastronomic scene has really, really blossomed over the last few years; there are some fantastic operators here now, really wonderful. But I wanted to bring something different, something new, to the city, and I believed that a Japanese-themed restaurant would fit right in.”
‘Fitting in’ has turned out to be an understatement. Since opening its doors at the end of July, Bathonians have cheerfully chopsticked their way through that menu to rapturous results. “We had one family who came twice in one day; they had a small plate of Maki Rolls for lunch and decided to come back for dinner!” says Roger. “The menu suits all budgets, and children and young people love it too. Yes, you can blow out on the Wagyu beef or a whole lobster. But there are soya and mirin ribs too, and beef sirloin – you could have steak and wasabi fries for the same price as steak and chips in a gastropub; you can choose what you want to spend. And because we’re a fresh food restaurant with an open kitchen, everything on the menu is prepared to order so it’s easy to create spectacular vegetarian dishes and bespoke orders to specific dietary requirements, which fits in with the current modern ethos. I know we’re good at what we do, but we’ve been bowled over by the reception in Bath.” And on that note, I went to find out why.
Robun’s airy, spacious dining room brings ancient Japanese design traditions around balance, order, symmetry and cool, cool colour together in perfect harmony, while subtle floral flourishes and beautifully detailed Japanese artwork further adds to the effortlessly chic vibe. It’s the kind of environment that makes you welcome whether you’re dolled up in full-on formal dinner attire or you’ve dropped in on a whim while shopping on Milsom Street: special but not snooty, and glamorous in an unforeboding, understated way.
Once settled at our table, the menu that creates so much spellcheck havoc felt far less… well, daunting; elegantly succinct summaries of each dish gently guide you along the way, and the impressively well-informed, friendly staff are easy-going tour guides.
A dinky little pile of crispy onions looked like tourmaline gemstones discovered in an ancient jewellery box…
Given such an environment, pre-dinner cocktails seemed appropriate; cue curtain up on Robun’s thoroughly theatrical Old Fashioned, served on a glass bell dome that, when the cloche was lifted, briefly surrounded us with a deeply seductive waft of whisky-suffused smoke. Our tipple was perfectly partnered with a generous tumble of flamed edamame coated with a bold chilli paste sauce… and after that, the magic really started to happen.
Our feast of Robun highlights included, in the first wave, a dish of salaciously juicy fried Chicken Karaage (think, a super-elegant Japanese version of a certain well-known high street brand of fried chicken), the pop-pop-pop of the chicken counterbalanced by a second very sophisticated opening dish of silky slivers of Wagyu Beef Tataki bathed in a delicately tangy ponzu sauce.
The waves continued to wash up over our table, bringing semi-translucent Bluefin Tuna Tartare in a light dressing of more yuzu, this time with sesame oil; featherlight, spice-sprinkled tempura-battered Vegetable Kakiage; massive, whole grilled king prawns drenched in garlic-infused shiso butter; glossy lamb cutlets still gleaming after their 24-hour Korean-glaze marinade; deeply umami Nasu Dengaku (how – how! – a chef can do something this beautiful with slices of aubergine is totally beyond me)… and sweet, lustrous little bite-sized cubes of rich, buttery Wagyu beef, served with hot/sour/salty Namjin, fascinating truffled teriyaki and fun-packed pepper sauces.
Every dish was exquisitely composed; every component (herbs, flowers, spices; pools of miso, piles of caviar; tangles of crispy noodles, shredded daikon, delicate strings of carrot, and more) had a place, and every component made the most of that place. Sprinkles of sesame seeds added sprinkles of stardust, a dinky little pile of crispy onions looked like tourmaline gemstones discovered in an ancient jewellery box – even the perfectly fried egg on top of the Kimchee Fried Rice was a catwalk superstar, ready for its close-up. And after all that… Japanese Mochi, rice-wrapped ice cream dumplings (yes, really) and a black truffle chocolate torte so good that even I, who claims not to be a fan of ‘the sweet stuff’, was almost moved to tears.
But after all the intriguing questions that the menu raised and all the answers that Robun so gracefully supplied, one enigma remained. Why the restaurant’s name? “Kanagaki Robun was a late 19th-century Japanese author, journalist and food writer,” says Roger. “He’s widely credited as being the father of Yakiniku, a Japanese term that, in its broadest sense, refers to grilled meat cuisine – Japanese barbecue, if you like – and he was the first person to link western and eastern food. Robun was also the very first publisher of Manga comic art in the world, hence our full size, Manga-inspired murals! We sincerely hope that, in doing what we do, we’re doing him proud.”
This is fine dining at its best, unstuffy and great value for money. Gochisousama, Robun!