By Haley Licata and Anthony R. Licata
Haley Licata is the project coordinator for the Chicago Cold War Oral History Project at the Chicago History Museum and author of the blog, "The State I Am In." Her father, Anthony R. Licata, is the chief operating officer at Shefsky & Froelich Ltd.
Roka Akor, the stunningly loud Chicago outpost of the Scottsdale-based chain of upscale sushi restaurants, manages to overcome the din and strike just the right balance between style and substance. The sleek but welcoming interior combines a range of unique textures and materials to draw the eye through the space. Prominence is rightly given to the open kitchen, where the curious can watch sushi chefs and grill-masters employ their craft with impeccable precision — just don't bother to ask questions because you won't be able to hear the response.
Young and beautiful Chicagoans with nothing serious to discuss flock to Roka Akor for the after-work cocktail scene, and with devilishly potent mixed drinks and an encyclopedic offering of sakes, it's easy to see the appeal. A strong selection of small plates like perfectly-spiced wagyu beef and kimchi dumplings provide an intriguing spin on classic izakaya fare.
Diners are encouraged to order a variety of dishes and share. The sushi, ostensibly Roka Akor's raison d'être, was indisputably fresh and of the highest quality, though their signature rolls don't bring anything new or exciting to the table. Where the restaurant truly shined was its offerings from the Japanese-style robata grill.
Scallops arrived perfectly caramelized from the heat of the grill, while remaining succulent and moist on the interior. A sublime black cod was somewhat difficult to eat with chopsticks, but its richness was perfectly balanced with a bright sauce and acidic pickled onions. Cumin-scented pork tenderloin also stood out among the meat options, but it was the transcendent steak that stole the show. Lovingly sliced into bite-sized morsels to encourage sharing, the meltingly tender meat perfectly replicated the experience of eating genuine wagyu beef in Kobe.
The only place where the menu falters is dessert, where the offerings were lackluster across the board. An unusual green tea custard was so salty that it almost veered into savory territory, while banana and mango cakes were bland and unremarkable. Even the chocolate cake, usually the dependable stalwart of any dessert menu, suffered from an off-putting, rubbery texture. One would be better off satisfying their sweet tooth with a piping hot order of churros across the street at Rick Bayless' Xoco.
It must be emphasized, however, that Roka Akor is better suited to social entertaining than any remotely significant business interaction. Unless both parties are fluent in sign language, it is impossible to carry out a conversation in the crowded dining room. Roka Akor is ultimately a place to see and be seen, but not heard.
Visit Roka Akor at 456 N. Clark St., or rokaakor.com.