Whole lobster tempura

Fire Escape

by Michael Wren | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | NS magazine | October 4, 2013

It’s inevitable. Settle into the new outpost of Roka Akor in Old Orchard and your eyes will be drawn to the massive four-tier grill stationed in front of the restaurant’s open kitchen. That impressive piece of equipment will be conducting pure magic before your very eyes—the fine art of grilling without smoke.

Trust me, you don’t have one of these in your backyard. It’s a custom-made robata grill designed to warm Japanese-style binchotan charcoal, which burns three times hotter than American briquettes for up to five hours—almost completely smoke-free. Your typical Weber reaches 1,500 degrees. This beauty gets up to 1,900 with grace and gentility—searing steaks, seafood and chops in an envelope of blazingly hot air, instead of scorching flames and acrid smoke.

Roka’s grill masters—who’ve trained at the restaurant’s other locations in downtown Chicago, London and Hong Kong—carefully shift fillets of seafood, steaks and chops onto different parts of the grill, balancing the tenderizing heat of the binchotan with small pockets of aromatic planks of mesquite.

It’s grilling redefined—a modern reinterpretation of a time-honored cooking style begun by Japanese fishermen hundreds of years ago.

The house’s prime rib-eye option with wafu (a soy-based vinaigrette), for example, is a steak-lover’s dream. Each slice—perfectly pink without the slightest touch of crusted char skin—gushes juices like a ripe peach. And Roka’s grilled yuzu-miso black cod is equally enthralling. Tented inside a curled Japanese hoba leaf, it arrives at your table looking like a miniature sailboat—with a toothpick as a mast and the hoba leaf blowing in the wind. It’s beyond fork-tender, shedding sweet layer after layer like a melting caramelized onion with skin that literally dissolves on contact with your tongue.

There’s an exquisite sense of balance—sweetness wrestling with umami, spice set against floral flavors—to most of Roka’s menu. Outside of a small and underperforming Asian noodle selection, most offerings find that elusive niche between traditional and new age. Slices of butterfish are wrapped around thin spears of white asparagus and then brushed with a delicate yuzu-shallot glaze and topped with basil. A sweet beet salad is dressed in a gently spicy jalapeno-miso vinaigrette with crunchy almonds. And brussels sprouts arrive lathered in a Japanese mustard with shaved-to-order bonito flakes on top, which writhe and curl atop the dish like wilting pink flower petals.

Should diners want to experience a more traditional sushi dinner—complete with a list of elaborate maki rolls—that’s available as well, including a stellar list of cocktails and sakes. But, ultimately, it’s the offerings off the robata grill that are poised to make Roka Akor a hot spot for some time to come. Prepare for a centuries-old Japanese cooking technique on the North Shore that proves to be more than worth the wait.

Roka Akor
4999 Old Orchard Center Skokie, 847.329.7650, rokaakor.com

Mon.-Thu. 11am-10pm
Fri.-Sat. 11am-11pm

Starters $3.50-$15; grill $15-$32; maki $8-$18; nigiri and sashimi $5 and up; rice, noodles and tempura $9-$12

What to Eat
Butterfish tataki with yuzu-shallot dressing and shiso; roasted beet salad with jalapeno-miso dressing and tamari almonds; Omaha prime rib-eye (12 ounce) with wafu and wild forest mushrooms; yuzu-miso black cod with pickled red onions.

An Intimate Experience
For a restaurant set in one of the biggest malls in the area, Roka Akor has a surprisingly small footprint. That’s a plus. The space is cozy and intimate, providing everyone unobstructed views of the action on the grill.

Sweet Spot
Normally, desserts are an afterthought at most Japanese restaurants, but Roka Akor makes a mean toffee cake with coffee ice cream that’ll keep you smiling—and pleasantly perky—all night long.