My eyes are always drawn to the minimalist but contemporary sleekness of Roka Akor Japanese Steakhouse sitting right on the corner of Clark & Illinois in the heart of Chicago’s River North area. After strolling past a sea of swanky restaurants and upscale bars, the decor of the restaurant always captures my eye, especially at night with the lavender colored lights peeking from inside the restaurant illuminating the exterior and the bright neon lights bursting through the “Roka Akor” logo subtly sending every passerby an invitation to “come in”.
Earlier this month, I had an opportunity to dine in at Roka Akor’s Oakbrook location in celebration of 95% of their menu offering gluten free options. I was curious not only about how much my taste buds would like (or not like) their contemporary robata Japanese fare, but equally curious to learn about the origins behind the restaurant’s name and the culture that influenced it.
The Restaurant’s name is derived from two words: RO and KA. RO means “hearth”, a gathering place where people socialize and take in the ambience. KA stands for “burning fire and projecting energy”. What’s even more interesting is the history of Japanese robata and how it ties back to the meaning behind Roka. Robata originates from a centuries-old country style of cooking by northern Japanese fishermen around a communal style hearth (irori) that serves as a cooking area and a heat source which can be found on the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido.
As an avid appreciator of diversity and culture, learning historical facts of a country, the locals, the music, the arts, the origins of the food, and beyond gives me a world lens and a greater appreciation of learning more about another culture outside of my own. Food is one of the many channels that gives us an opportunity to explore the world (sometimes without even leaving the comfort of our homes), and that’s what makes the experience so damn beautiful.
I’m going to do you a favor and make this short and sweet (let’s get to the good stuff!). Here’s my list of top favorite dishes I highly recommend off the menu for you to try.
Side note: Aside from robata, Roka Akor also offers cold appetizers, hot appetizers, modern style nigri, and premium sushi and nigiri.
Have a seat at the table, and let’s dig in.
Robata Grilled Pork Belly, Pickled Radish, Tarragon Miso (pictured above) - I admit, I have sinned. I went against my “no pork” strike and gave into this dish. Quite frankly, I don’t regret it. The tenderness of the pork belly, the tang of the Tarragon miso sauce and crunch of the pickled radish was a perfect marriage of texture and flavor. Highly recommended.
PREMIUM SASHIMI & NIGIRI:
Deluxe Sashimi Platter - I’m not a fan of sashimi. But, this dish made the list due to its gorgeous presentation (peep the gold flake), the assortment of sashimi offered, the freshness and overall quality.
The salmon was my favorite out all the sashimi. I recommend this platter for those who enjoy the acquired taste of quality raw fish.
Chilean Sea Bass with Tomato dashi butter and shiso aioli - The only con about this seafood dish was the small portion size. My stomach and I could agree that I wish there was more. Aside from the small portion size, this dish was perfect. Very light, the sea bass was tender and flavorful, and the presentation reminded me of a contemporary art piece hanging on the wall of an upscale art gallery. This is a perfect starter dish if you don’t have much of an appetite. If you’re really hungry, I would recommend ordering some dishes from the robata grill selections, hot plates (or cold plates, whatever your heart desires) so you’re fully satisfied.
ROBATA GRILL SELECTIONS: PRIME STEAKS | DOMESTIC WAGYU
Snake River Farms American Wagyu Filet (8 oz.), Chili Ginger - One word. Waygu. An 8 oz tender cut wagyu filet that has the perfect amount of pink in the middle because, in my opinion, wagyu that’s cooked “too well done” takes away the moisture out of the meat and its natural flavors. Grab a piece of the wagyu (chopsticks optional) and dip it in the chilli ginger sauce for an added kick of sweet and spice.
Dessert Platter (Chef’s Selection) - I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but the house made seasonal sorbet selection in this dessert platter made it the list. I loved the assortment of sorbet flavors like the green tea and mango accompanied by fresh cut apples, oranges, and grapefruit slices. The cherry on top, the candied leaf. Too cute.
Here’s a list of a few of Roka Akor’s gluten-free menu items if that’s your vibe:
Escolar Tataki with White Asparagus and Yuzu
Spicy Tuna Tartare over Crispy Rice
Wagyu Beef and Kimchi Dumplings
Lamb Chops with Korean Spices and Smoked Eggplant Salad
+ plus more
Sakeberry Fizz - My night ended with a full belly and a Sakeberry Fizz (mivueasho ginjo sake, strawberry basil puree, grayspeak vodka, prosecco and lemon juice). This drink made my list of highly recommended menu items to order at Roka Akor due to, of course, the mivueasho ginjo sake, the fruity tones of the strawberry, the freshness of the lemon juice and basil, and lastly, the perfect acidic bubbly from the prosecco. This is perfect for those with an appreciation for a refreshing semi sweet palette.
The meaning behind Roka grew deeper for me after dining in. Roka Akor truly is a communal hearth, a gathering place, and a hub for ambience that gives you a peek into Japanese culture at the comfort of your table. Even though contemporary in style and ambience, there’s tradition through the food. There’s a special energy that teleports you back to the northern island of Japan, Hokkaido with a greater appreciation of the origins of the food and those that prepared it.
Thank you to the sous chefs that beautifully prepared each of the courses, and the entire Roka Akor team for their hospitality.
*ROKA AKOR OAKBROOK PROVIDED ALL SERVICES COMPLIMENTARY. ALL OPINIONS ARE MY OWN.