Roka Akor (Chicago): Chef Ce Bian presents simple and fancy fare at a sushi-robata grill restaurant

Chef Ce Bian pays exacting attention to the ingredients in his cuisine, down to the freshly grated wasabi he serves with his sushi. Photo by Lara Kastner

Roka Akor’s executive chef Ce Bian is a master when it comes to transforming the humble into the sublime.

Forget the obligatory toothpaste-like green dollop of wasabi paste on your sushi plate, for example.  Nope, Bian sends his staff around with a Japanese wasabi grater and a fresh chunk of wasabi root.  And wasabi isn’t the only ingredient that the chef frets and fusses over.

“I’m really picky about my materials.  I believe the ingredients are everything for this restaurant,” says Bian, who has quickly gained a following at this new high-end sushi and robata grill restaurant.  (The River North branch, an offshoot of a well-regarded Scottsdale, Ariz., eatery, has been a fiery-hot destination since it opened in July.)

Bian uses local ingredients when he can, but is willing to fly in fish from around the world to offer fine-quality sushi. Photo by Lara Kastner

Bian doesn’t hesitate to grill only prime- grade beef on his three-tiered charcoal-fueled robata or fly in the freshest fish from around the globe for his sashimi and nigiri, he says.  But he also sees the value of using simple ingredients and seasonings and straightforward preparations.  Sometimes a dash of salt and pepper before the prime rib eye hits the robata is as crazy as it gets.

“You want to taste the flavor of the steak or the sashimi or the fish,” Bian says.  “You want to take the flavors up but not overpower them.”

This isn’t meant to give the impression, however, that Bian is some kind culinary slacker in a chef’s jacket and bandanna.

After all, there’s the considerable menu to consider.  Unless you’re dining with a team of sumo wrestlers, it would be impossible to power through its offerings in one sitting.

The extensive menu offers a variety of sushi, starters, grilled entrées and sides. Photo by Lara Kastner

“It’s a really wild menu,” Bian says.  “There are a lot of different categories.  It goes wide.”

And indeed it does — in addition to both basic and challenging sushi, there are scads of hot and cold appetizers and tempura to choose from.

On the robata side, Bian offers a rainbow of veggie dishes in addition to traditional grilled meats and seafood.

Presentation also is essential to the Japanese dining experience, Bian says.  And he goes to great lengths to offer wildly artistic creations that combine both traditional Japanese presentation elements — daikon radish sculptures, edible flowers — along with his own creations.

“People not only eat the food, they also eat the plate,” he says.  Factoring in how a dish looks and smells, “you may even love it before you even taste it.”

Bian has a point.  There were a lot of love-at-first-sight moments as The Husband and I worked our way through Roka Akor’s menu with Henry, a hardcore foodaphile who had won a Fine dining experience at a fundraiser for Chicago’s Farther Foundation.

Presentation is important in Japanese culinary tradition, and Bian showcases his simple foods in artistic ways. Photo by Lara Kastner

Starting at the top of the menu, we selected super-fresh, clean and subtle bluefin tuna sashimi ($12) as our palate-cleansing opener.  We could have stayed in sushi-land all evening — the artfully decorated deluxe sashimi platters that continually passed by our tables were seductive masterpieces.  But instead, we decided to go as deeply into the menu as possible.

The Husband and I crave simply grilled and seasoned hot peppers — from Mexican jalapenos to Spanish pimientos — so we were happy to see robata-grilled shishito peppers ($7) on the appetizer list.  Here, Bian does an Asian twist on the flamers, dousing them with cooling soy ponzu and finishing them with smoky bonito flakes.

One can make a complete meal out of Roka Akor's sushi, but we suggest going deeper into the menu. Photo by Lara Kastner

Henry was a good sport, letting this total stranger dip her spoon into his lobster red miso soup ($8).  The rich and pleasantly briny broth was a nice break from standard-issue restaurant miso.

We finished our appetizer course with Roka Akor’s pleasantly plump signature wagyu beef and kimchi dumplings ($10) before heading over to the robata offerings.

After much discussion, Henry selected the yuzu miso-marinated black cod ($32) with pickled red onions. The firm and mild fish was accented with a gently sweet Asian citrus- and ginger-spiked sauce.  Props, once again, to Henry for graciously offering up samples without hesitation.

In return for Henry’s good deeds, I shared my three Korean-spiced grilled lamb cutlets ($32) with the guys.  Sauce was superfluous, as the slightly crispy chops packed enough garlic and heat on their own, and needed no additional help.

The Husband took an unexpected detour and happily ordered more sushi, including fresh cuts of yellowtail, salmon and an encore of bluefin.

If you have a few extra bucks in your pocket, go ahead and splurge on the shaved black truffles. Photo by Lara Kastner

But, like Henry and me, he was all over those robata vegetables, which Bian grills just long enough to caramelize their exteriors and give them a light “charcoal flavor.”  Tender sweet potatoes ($5) were simply dressed with ginger-spiked teriyaki and an ample dash of salt.  Lightly charred sweet corn ($5) could be greedily rolled in butter and soy.

We also accented our entrées with a robata-cooked Japanese wild mushroom rice hot pot ($11). Cleverly served in a cast-iron pot set atop a wood base, the stick-to-your ribs dish proved a solid side.  But our group concurred that it would have been “more interesting” had we coughed up the extra $14 to have it topped with shaved black truffles.

Forging ahead, but losing steam, we moved on to desserts and settled on two.  Smooth baked green tea custard was served with gooey robata-grilled caramelized bananas ($8).  Rustic spiced banana cake ($12) featured Bian’s house-made coconut sorbet and chocolate-ginger sauce.  But The Husband insisted we swap the sorbet for Bian’s bolder espresso-stout ice cream.

If he was bothered by the substitution, Henry did not let on.  Now that’s a good sport.

Roka Akor
456 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois  60654

Roka Akor on Urbanspoon

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