You know how every time you hear there’s a new steak house in River North you slap your forehead and bury it in a bowl of arugula? Jesus, how many feedlots can we feed to these conventioneers?
I’m getting a similar feeling every three days or so when I hear someone’s opening a new izakaya, yakiniku, or robatayaki downtown. Nobody’s selling schoolgirls’ underwear from vending machines yet, but the neighborhood is becoming a regular Roppongi for restaurateurs selling some fantasy version of meat on a stick for stumbling salarymen (see Gyu-Kaku, Union Sushi & Barbeque Bar, and Takashi Yagihashi’s forthcoming Slurping Turtle). It makes me want to commit seppuku with a pair of chopsticks.
That’s what I contemplated when I sat down to my first meal at the latest—Roka Akor, a surf-and-turf chain import from Phoenix (via London and Hong Kong)—but every time I moved for my snap-apart wooden chopsticks, a busser leaped in ninja style, snatched them away, and replaced them with a new pair. Somewhere in the rain forest an orangutan was weeping.
Disposable chopsticks seem, at first, like an anomaly here. The space, which currently fills with the usual crush of me-firsters and plastic surgery disasters, is loud and swankily designed, with a plush, dark lounge, towering wine wall, and a massive LED sculpture clad in a barn-nail mesh that hangs over the brigade of black-clad line cooks surrounding the flaming grill (no two bandannas alike!).
Yet I don’t think the chopsticks are saying “We’re too cheap to get washable, reusable ones.” Rather, “You’re not too cheap to worry about the number of chopsticks Mother Earth can give us, are you? Now, would you like black truffle shaved over your rice?”
In that way Roka Akor reminds me of our more traditional downtown temples of red-muscled excess. It’s pricey, the menu is mined with opportunities to make it pricier, and the busser might forget to mention that the sparkling water is a Norwegian designer brand in a ridiculous bottle and it’s going to cost you $7.
I don’t know why places like this aren’t nonstarters in our current economic climate. That said, this is not an ordinary meat-on-a-stick joint—there is no stick meat, for one thing. That charcoal-fueled robata grill is utilized for a series of vaguely Asian-accented ribs, chops, and seafood items, but mainly on steaks, such as a 12-ounce prime rib eye, cooked precisely to order, dressed in soy vinaigrette, and shareably cubed and stacked in a pyramid. Delicious, and bonus: more chopsticks!
The grill also turns out similarly knifed, lightly charred gelatinous pork belly and sweetly glazed pork ribs—neither any particular challenge to delicate dentition—and a set of lamb chops, mildly seasoned in some undefined blend of “Korean spices.” And it produces a very simple and satisfying grilled mackerel that your server might try to talk you out of because “it’s a very strong fish.”
I don’t know why I ordered it, because relative to how it retails, it’s also an obscenely priced fish at $22—but that’s $10 cheaper than the six-inch tiger prawns he might suggest in its place. My table ordered those too, but the heat was much kinder to the oily, healthy, sustainable fish than the crustaceans, which were fresh and sweet but cooked to rubber.
That sort of upselling seems to be ingrained in the otherwise capable servers, though some expensive upgrades seem worth heeding the pitching. For an extra $14 we did get the truffle shaved over our wild mushroom hot pot. When mixed in it makes all the difference in the world to the tiny-grained, somewhat mushy rice.
And a certain degree of extra guidance is necessary to navigate the overcategorized menu, its first page dominated by sides such as the above and a crowded but tempting array of hot and cold appetizers. Among worthy recommendations: plump wagyu and kimchi dumplings bursting with spicy fat, jiggly grilled scallops with shredded shiso leaves, and bowls of red miso soup bathing tender lobster nuggets. There are traps, however: at this time of year there’s no excuse for thin slices of watery, flavorless so-called “burnt” tomato in a composed salad of grilled eggplant and more soy vinaigrette.
Given this wide-ranging menu, it’s a surprise that Roka Akor’s sushi program commits so few of the foolish crimes against raw fish prevalent these days. Sure, you can get your Dynamite scallop roll topped with “dynamite sauce,” but it’s filled with real crab, and the thin discs of bivalve aren’t lost among either. Assorted sashimi plates are beautifully composed, mounted atop bowls of crushed ice and accompanied by real wasabi grated at the table. I only wish the rice used in the maki was at a similar level. Instead, it’s indistinct and unremarkable, echoing that served in the hot pot. But overall this is as close to a minimal, traditional approach to fish as you’re going to find among the recent crop of neo-Japanese fun houses.
And along with the Homeric sake and wine list, Roka Akor is less like those than the expense-account steak houses in the neighborhood. It’s just a particular variety that affords you the opportunity to order that market-price o-toro. So if you’ve got a grudge against the depleted bluefin tuna and have the corporate card in your wallet, why not? Let God punish the board of directors.