It was dark, rainy and blustery the Sunday evening my husband and I drove to Roka Akor Restaurant to meet fellow journalists Dorothie and Suru. I wondered as traffic remained at a standstill whether we would ever reach our destination and if we did, would it be worth this effort? It was definitely worth it. This restaurant is amazing. Chicago Splash Magazine reviewers, Dorothie, Suru, Barbara and Leon each had more than one visit to Japan and were curious about Roka Akor’s approach to Japanese food and found it different and better than the Japanese food we have had previously.
Entering the restaurant, we were warmly greeted by hostesses, Allison Brown and Tori Tindle. Immediately ahead was a lounge area where guests can enjoy drinks while relaxing or waiting for friends to arrive or a table to become available. With a slight turn, the space just seemed to open up. The design offers Zen calm with lots of zip. The architecture by Dwayne MacEwen has been called Zen-Chic. In the center is the kitchen with a traditional sushi bar attached. Guests were seated and enjoying themselves. Tables that surrounded the area offered many seating choices. Various shapes lent interest and offered different kinds of seating arrangements with the tables being round and square, larger and smaller. To the back there were booths abutting a cooler where we chose to sit where we were part of the activity and away from it. It was perfect for visiting. The wine bottles looked attractive and decorative and only later did we learn it is a cooler that holds a wall full of bottles of red wine with a temperature that is kept at 68 degrees. Another cooler kept at a lower temperature holds while wines but we didn’t see it. A huge light over the cooking area and two other lights near the window gently change colors keeping the room interesting and exciting.
From our dining experience we can certainly see why Roka Akor was voted one of the Top 10 Sushi Spots in the United States by Bon Appétit magazine. Many of Chef Ce Bian's creations were unique in our experience, absolutely delicious and memorable. We were told that guests who would like to do sake pairings and wish to stay within a budget can request a pairing menu to stay within a designated amount of money. However, the huge menu includes nine categories of choices starting with side dishes for $5.00 and ranging to the "Decadent" at $128 per person offering rare and hand selected ingredients. The range of wine, beer and sake was equally impressive.
The dishes served to us included many house favorites. We requested that pork items be excluded and vegetarian items be included (one of us is a vegetarian). We were presented with wonderfully flavored dishes that fit our restrictions, paired with delicious and surprising sake.
Manager Wesley Turner and server Michael Holtzman were very attentive. They saw to it that the pacing of the food served was comfortable, answered our questions and were a fountain of information about ingredients and how the food was prepared. They also explained where the sake originated and how it was made and what flavors predominated.
After the first taste Leon said, “ I’ve never tasted sake like this”. All of us agreed.
Sake Pairing: Water Flow
Robata Grilled Shishito Peppers
Burnt Tomato Salad
Seaweed Salad (Not listed on our dinner menu, but available upon request)
There were two dishes of peppers, one with shaved Bonito on top. This dish was amazing. The heat of the peppers, the temperature, that is, rose and the curled bits of bonito “danced” to our delight. The flavor of the peppers was unusual, spicy at some times more than others but pleasant and a wake up for our palates.
The Tuna Tataki, Burnt Tomato Salad and Seaweed Salad were delicious, the flavors wonderful but the Butterfsh Tatki was a surprise. We agreed this was one of the best dishes we had. The sake was perfect.
Sake Pairing: Azure
Crispy Prawn Chirashi Maki Roll
The Crispy Prawn Chirashi Maki was very, very good but the Avacado Maki roll was so unusual and outstanding I recommend ordering it when dining here. The way the rice stayed together was very pleasant and unusual. The sake was very good but not our favorite.
Sake Pairing: Seven Spearsmen
Yuzu-Miso Marinated Black Cod
Spicy Fried Tofu
NY Strip Steak with Truffle Aioli
The Yuzo-Miso Marinated Black Cod was a surprise and another favorite. It was moist and flavorful and the texture perfect. The Spicy Fried Tofu was very pleasant and a lovely vegetarian item. The NY Strip Steak with Truffle Aioli was tender and flavorful and the portion generous enough to take some home. The Robata-Grilled Cremini Mushrooms was another vegetarian offering and the texture and flavor was superb.
The Seven Spearsmen sake was outstading.
Sake Pairing: Yamayuzu (Mountain Citrus)
Dessert Platter: Cut fruit, house-made sorbets, ice creams, and a variety of in-house baked goods.
How could we manage dessert, you may wonder? We did, too. But it did not prevent us from polishing it off instantly. After our initial delight, we hardly waited to enjoy how beautifully it was presented before tasting the sorbets, ice creams, moist delicious chocolate cake and crème brulee. The fruit enhanced all the rest and was delicious, too.
And who knew there was dessert sake -and just wonderful, at that?
What a lovely and unique dining experience. This is not your usual Japanese fare. Try it and you will see. We found the valet parking at $12.00 convenient and reasonable.
456 Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60654
Photos: Leon Keer