I’ve been informed by some of my more urbane friends that this is the time of year when one’s thoughts inevitably turn to gardens in bloom, landscape redesigns, and all those cute little pastel ensembles that got packed away last September.
Not in our house. ’Tis the time when Pitmaster Kate (i.e., the better half of this column) begins to drop some not-so-subtle hints that I should reacquaint myself with our backyard grill.
Enter Roka Akor, the new sushi and robata grill in Oakbrook Center, which is just as likely to save your spring as it did mine. Why? Because the chefs manning the robata grill—a four-tiered beauty that burns wood as well as both white and traditional charcoal—can do things with fire that will leave even the most seasoned of backyard barbeque warriors slack-jawed with delight.
Visit Roka’s main dining room—comfy and modern—and you’ll see what I mean. Almost every seat provides unobstructed views of Chef Ce Bian slicing sashimi, sizzling steaks, and searing scallops with a synchronized grace I haven’t seen since we booked a “Cirque du Soleil weekend” in Vegas about a decade back.
Roka’s impressive escolar tataki—pesto-topped folds of snow-white fish curled around white asparagus—is as clean-looking as its citrus-kissed yuzu-shallot dressing is delicious. It’s your best segue into Bian’s Technicolor sushi platters.
Those, by the way, are a sight to behold, blooming with the kind of jagged shapes and luminescent colors you’d find hidden away in the dark depths of the Pacific Ocean. Bian buries LED lights in a giant circular bowl and then covers them with ice so the presentation gives off an almost otherworldly glow.
Then he builds a three-dimensional world on top. Blocks of ice jut up like see-through crystals, giant scallop shells provide shade, and tiny beds of flowers imbue color. Amidst this scene, ultra-tender slices of sushi lean against shiso leaves—crimson cuts of tuna, orange salmon, and pale yellowtail.
It was followed by pleasantly pungent slices of vinegar-dipped mackerel, seared on one side for a bit of a crunch. I also recommend the grilled sea scallops, which come sprinkled with a spring-worthy dusting of ground Wasabi pea dust.
You can certainly chose your own selections, but first-timers are best served by letting Chef Bian cook for them via his $98 or $128 signature omakase offerings.
Either way, find your way to the robata-seared entrées, which span both land and sea. Bian uses the base of the robata for deep searing, then moves his proteins up the ladder, first to caramelize and then to allow the steaks and seafood to soak up the aromas of the wood and fire.
For example, you’ve likely encountered an ocean worth of miso black cod offerings over the years, but this one is particularly succulent. The fish is loosely tented with a giant oba leaf, so the grill infuses the leaf’s aromatics directly into the cod. An additional sweet swirl of yuzu-miso sauce and pickled onions provided a balanced blend of sweetness and acidity.
It was Roka Akor’s robata steaks, however, that made the deepest impression. Truth be told, our two domestic wagyu steaks vastly outperformed what I usually fire up at home.
My wife fell madly in love with the chili ginger sauce that accompanied her wagyu filet, which was cooked just the way you want it: a thick crusty strata of char that recedes, layer by layer, into a rare center.
But for my money, the wagyu sirloin is the best steak on the menu, as it comes with a giant vivisected bone glistening with marrow and crunchy bits of panko. It’s also accompanied by a side bowl of truffle aioli. Combine the two and you’ll never look at a bowl of Béarnaise the same way again.
For dessert, go with a simple scoop of pear sorbet (think: honeyed pear Icee). Or better yet Roka’s warm chocolate cake if you want to end with a dark chocolate bang.
By the time our check arrived, my wife—having gotten her fill of barbecue—gracefully reached over to my hand and asked the only logical question that could follow, “Now, about
that sad-looking flowerbed in our backyard …”
Roka Akor, 166 Oakbrook Center in Oak Brook, 630-634-7652, rokaakor.com/oak-brook/