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It often takes time for Japanese food trends to strike Chicago’s fancy, unless they’re paired with sushi. We want to like shochu, we really do, but we just don’t get it. Maybe someday. Japanese curry? An acquired taste that many of us have yet to acquire. The recent izakaya wave, along with promises of a new noodle house/pub this fall from Takashi Yagihashi, has helped, but at Roka Akor and Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar, we finally get the one concept that’s foolproof: meat cooked over an open fire. Whether it’s from Texas or Tokyo, that’s a trend Chicagoans can get behind.
Robata grilling, at least as it is traditionally done in Japan, involves an irori (a sunken hearth or sandpit), a pyramid of long, smokeless binchotan charcoal from oak trees, and skewers of meat slowly caramelizing near the glowing fire. Around these parts, SushiSamba Rio and Yuzu Sushi & Robata Grill have tried a version of that, and Japonais has been planning a robata lounge on its river walk for some time. Even the mighty Lettuce Entertain You launched Tokio Pub in Schaumburg earlier this year.
But right now, ground zero for robata cooking is at the corner of Clark and Illinois Streets, where Roka Akor, the animated offshoot of a hot spot in Scottsdale, Arizona (and London), grills its skewers on crisscross steel screens atop 1,800-degree mesquite coals. It’s not an irori, but the effect is the same. A hood overhead sucks the heat, removing smoke from the equation, which produces a masterful prime rib eye with rich caramelized edges that crisp before your eyes, minus the off-putting carcinogeny tang. I’m a little pork-bellied-out from the rampant pigapalooza of recent years, but Roka’s pork belly bites, served with wonderful marinated beets and ringed with a juicy fat layer, are tender as hell. For local carnivores, robata dining may be the most exciting import since the Brazilian churrascaria invasion of 2003.
Roka seems to use the robata for everything (shishito peppers! chicken wings! rice cake?), and you can watch the whole process in the open kitchen, visible through a prominent hanging chain-mail sculpture. But few of the 250 covers a night appear interested. The airy space, lined with twisty columns that look like giant Jenga pieces reimagined by Gaudí, is elbow-deep in its own action and noise. Half originates in the throbbing lounge, populated by tanned and toned women with blood orange margaritas and the men who guard their purses. The rest emanates from a tightly packed dining room and an eager staff scurrying around in mock turtlenecks that look like something my wife would have made me take to the Salvation Army in 1998.
A lot of the hubbub, naturally, is for Roka’s sushi. It’s not paradigm shifting, like the flawless rolls turning West Town upside down at Arami, but much of it is pretty good, such as a gilded wagyu tartare gunkan maki topped with caviar and wasabi. The chef’s terrific sashimi selection includes salmon, yellowtail, eel, fluke, striped bass, and an absurdly large block of ice. They must have a freezer the size of Honshu in the back.
The rest of the menu is a mixed bag. Standouts such as lightly battered fried squid with jalapeño rings share space with fiascoes like salt-grilled saba, a mealy mackerel splayed on the plate with nary an ounce of self-consciousness. The best desserts, like a peanut-topped warm chocolate cake with coffee ice cream, are not Japanese, but Roka Akor’s goofy enthusiasm overshadows its flaws. After a while, you stop separating the authentic from the invented and simply enjoy the fire.
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