From its opening in 2011, Roka Akor Steak & Sushi has appealed to River North diners with Japanese cuisine that is at once upscale and earthy. Taking its first name from two words, ro (“hearth”) and ka (“fire”) — with its second/mirrored name tacked on to distinguish North American outposts from the original location in London — Roka Akor describes its cuisine as robatayaki (“fireside-cooking”). When I sampled its six-course winter kaiseki menu (a traditional multi-course dinner) with a friend who had lived in Japan, she identified the restaurant’s style as izakaya (“open kitchen”). No need to quibble over vocabulary, however. Whether defined as robatayaki or izakaya, Roka Akor’s food is palate pleasing.
For a thorough Chicago Splash review of this architecturally eye-catching restaurant — which has blessedly dampened sound levels that permit conversation — go to
As popular as it has proved to be, Roka Akor is not resting on its laurels. In addition to its regular menu, it offers special seasonal menus tied to the solstices. Just as the sun reaches its low point on December 21, 2012, the restaurant will launch its six-course winter menu, dishes guaranteed to relieve the chill.
The kaiseki menu effectively provides more than six courses. Case in point: a first course of oysters served three ways. The trio begins with the briny zing of a raw Kumamoto oyster, with extra punch from ponzu mignonette, chives and lime. Next up (still on that first course) is a delicately fried tempura oyster with ginger and parsley, followed by a roasted oyster with yuzu koshu soy butter, both of them hearty enough to stave off hunger pangs.
Another triple-header for the second course, the chef’s sashimi selection, all outstanding. I sampled creamy escolar (tuna, sometimes called butterfish), lightly cooked salmon and my favorite, truffled hotate (scallop) nigiri. All of the fish was impeccable.
As satisfying as sashimi is, it leaves room for more, in this case a third course of gobo (burdock) soup with root vegetables. Served in charming wood boxes, the soup was delicate and not spicy, an understated palate cleanser.
Alaskan halibut cooked on the robata (the grill at the heart of the restaurant’s open kitchen), served with chile miso butter and parsnip chips, made up course number four. The hearty fish dish segued smoothly into the fifth (meat) course: robata grilled Wagyu (Kobe beef filet mignon) confit short rib with truffle maitake mushroom, accompanied by grilled teriyaki sweet potato. Melt-in-your tender with an agreeable smoky taste, the beef was my favorite dish of the winter kaiseki menu. It proves that Roka Akor takes the “steak” part of its name seriously.
Last was a selection of desserts, which might include apple tartar with fig puree, creamy mango cake and toasted rice ice cream, all light and pleasant ends to a winter meal of upscale comfort food.
Along with the $85 six-course winter kaiseki menu, the restaurant is featuring three new winter cocktails, priced at $13 each: Kabocha Pumpkin, Japanese Cocktail (with shochu, a distilled beverage, unlike sake, which is brewed) and Hot Buttered Sake. The drinks conjured up an evening by the fire, but they were too sweet for my taste. A better bet might be to indulge in one of Roka Akor’s many sake selections or one of its premium spirits, chilled without becoming diluted by a sparkling sphere of ultra-dense ice.
Roka Akor Steak & Sushi
456 N. Clark, Chicago
Lunch Monday through Friday and Sunday from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm
Dinner Sunday through Wednesday from 5 to 11 pm, Thursday through Saturday from 5 pm to midnight
The adjoining Sake & Shochu Lounge stays open until 1 am Sunday through Wednesday, 2 am Friday and 3 am Saturday.
Photos: Leanne Star