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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Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar
Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar, an unhinged spot with its own custom-made robata grill, takes more chances with its menu than Roka does. The free edamame that starts the meal may be the last straightforward item on your table, which could include bento sliders, uni alfredo soba, and unagi doughnuts. This sounds like Moto on three hits of acid, but some of it actually works. A lot of it does not.
Chances are, you heard about Union before it opened. The owners, Worachai “Chao” Thapthimkuna (former exec chef at Sushi Wabi) and Mike Schatzman (former sales director for Visa), launched a savvy Twitter campaign that kept the place germane through a series of clever videos, like one celebrating a new maki creation called a Rahm Emanu-Roll. The space, a Technicolor fun house of curvy staircases, high ceilings, and stylized graffiti, captures that vibe. Another big chain-mail sculpture—what gives? But the centerpiece, a gas-powered robata grill enclosed in glass, features seats right in front so patrons can watch the chefs in their natural habitat, like lions at Lincoln Park Zoo. You half-expect a manager to warn you not to tap on the glass.
The grill quickly sears whatever comes near (“There is no low and slow here,” says Schatzman), and the chefs skewer and set ablaze seemingly anything they can get their hands on. Alligator, squid, cauliflower, and monkfish all get turned into kushiyaki, with varying degrees of success. Beef tongue comes across like tender pot roast but with tantalizing blackened edges and an accompanying Japanese curry; it fares better than an oddball fish cake oozing with togarashi and Wisconsin pepper Jack. The cauliflower, spiced with Cheddar and red miso, sings; the tofu with rice puffs only mumbles.
The playful kitchen staff throw ingredients like okra and collard greens into the sushi rolls—to the point where you find yourself wishing they’d rein it in, as they do on the highly sculpted but lovely tamago (sweet omelet). After slogging through venison tartare, a meat-loaf-like hunk overpowered by an egg yolk, caramelized onions, seaweed, and a zillion other distractions, I gravitated to (relatively) normal dishes, like a luscious Berkshire pork loin kissed with coconut milk and dripping with Japanese curry-peanut sauce, topped with fried onions, and plated on enoki mushrooms. Then again, I also found the bright orange uni alfredo soba, with its perfectly done green-tea noodles mingling with creamy sea urchin and an explosion of salmon roe—a dish that has no business existing, much less succeeding—strangely alluring. Who can explain such things?
Union’s drinks lean to rococo cocktails and agreeable sakes like the ultrasmooth “flirtatious” Water Place “Mizubasho” Gunma, and its servers tend toward well-trained hipsters in jaunty hats. Our guy pushed the yuzu ice studded with raspberries, blueberries, and mint leaves for dessert, which doubled as a refreshing palate cleanser after the shenanigans that preceded. He also couldn’t stop talking about the robata grill, which periodically shoots up flames to remind you of its prowess. “Our goal is to get more adventurous and creative over time with the items that we cook at the robata,” says Schatzman, and you’ve got to admire his audacity. Now if only Union could balance the adventure with some restraint. Just because you discover fire doesn’t mean you should devolve into pyromania.