Thursday, September 20, 2012

Roka Akor, Chicago Wine and Food Pairings

Inspired by flavors, textures and fresh ingredients from the menu, DMAC Architecture designed Roka’s Zen-chic space with natural and reclaimed materials and an emphasis on craft and creativity. The immense restaurant is split into unique areas that are unified by natural materials including wood, rocks and old nails. The main dining room includes a sculpture composed of repurposed nails that DMAC commissioned as a large-scale pavilion over the open robata grill. The bathrooms were conceptualized as walking into an idealized forest where mesquite wood poles make the rectangular-shaped space. The bar, a centerpiece of the restaurant, features rounded chocolate leather and wood bar stools and includes a live-edge walnut top over a black slate base. The back bar wall is made of white limestone and flanked by horizontal bands of rustic raked poplar. Two tiger marble communal tables stand next to the bar and provide a natural break between the bar and lounge areas.

Roka Akor Chicago Collage

Roka Akor, upon entry, is both eye-catching for the design, yet not threatening, as sometimes modern design can be. This is a welcoming open space (thought there are hidden corners). Interesting design and elements and oversized artwork that are also part of the design make for a contemporary feel while also retaining a sense of comfort. A clean design is matched by an overall cleanliness, including window ledges and bathrooms, each a notorious overlooked element.

Front and center is the Robata Grill, with its multiple layers allowing for a variety of grilled finishes, and based on a traditional communal grill where groups converged to eat together. Really exciting to watch the dishes being put together in the open, seeing the skilled knifework needed to trim the fish just so.

We met the General Manager Steve Tindle, who was also acting the part of sommelier for our dinner that evening. We gave him the unenviable task of pairing wines for our mismatched palates – my vegan proclivities balanced by Laima’s desire to try any and all of their sumptuous offerings. As Rob Holder, Roka Akor Director of Beverage for Roka Akor and Bombay Spice Grill, also a Wine and Certified Sake Professional, tweeted to me later about his effort: “Not easy at all! Some veggies don't play nice with wine.” With this herculean task ahead of him, Steve sat us down, told us a bit of his background and the restaurant’s, and we got started.

Roka Akor Chicago Shishito Peppers

Course 1: Robata Grilled Japanese Shishito Peppers with Ponzu -- paired with the Sauvignon Blanc, ‘Te Muna Road Vineyard’ Craggy Range, 2009 (Martinborough, New Zealand). The smokiness and vegetal elements of the peppers were nicely balanced by the acidity and pop of this wine, along with Sauvignon Blanc’s natural herbaceous qualities.

Roka Akor Chicago Sashimi and Golden Beets

Course 2: Salmon (Sake) and Big Eye Tuna (Mebachi Maguro) Sashimi for Laima, while I had Golden Beets with daikon -- paired with a Georg Breuer Riesling (Rheingau, Germany). Steve and I both confessed our love for the adaptability of Riesling, and this wine certainly strutted its stuff, the slightly oily texture and taste riffing off the saltiness of our respective dishes. The freshness of the fish was matched only by the fresh look of the entire presentation.

Roka Akor Asparagus Maki Roll and Roasted Pork Belly

Course 3: Asparagus Maki Roll for me (with ginger and wasabi) and Robata Grilled Pork Belly with Marinated Golden Beets for Laima -- paired with a Littorai Pinot Noir Savoy Vineyard (Anderson Valley, California). I like asparagus in rolls, though I would have preferred that they omit the avocado and wrap them in soy paper instead, but otherwise very good. The marinated golden beets were a tasty surprise to both of us.

Roka Akor Fried Tofu and Marinated Cod

Course 4: Spicy Fried Tofu with Avocado and Mixed Greens was my vegetable dish, while Laima enjoyed Yuzu Miso Marinated Black Cod with Pickled Red Onions -- paired with the Vietti Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne (Piedmont, Italy). The Fried Tofu was crispy around the edges while chewy and soft in the middle, and the greens boasted a gingery vinaigrette (possible kiss of death for a wine). The Barbera stood up to it, also complemented the tofu, yet managed to find a way to match the cod – amazing! The pickled red onions were a surprise, and one of the many wonderful side bites we enjoyed throughout the meal.

Roka Akor Wagyu Beef and Mushroom Hot Pot

Course 5: For Laima, the meat course was the Australian Grade 10+ Pure Bred Wagyu Beef with Artesian Salts (a selection of 3 with wasabi on the side) and Japanese Wild Mushroom Rice Hot Pot with Black Truffle for me -- paired with a de Bardos ‘Ars Épica’, Tempranillo (Castilla Y León, Spain). To say that these two dishes were beyond luscious and decadent does a disservice to them. The earthiness of this wine was reflected so clearly in the beef, mushrooms, and black truffle that it almost seemed vinified specifically for our meal. Outstanding pairing.

Course 6, Dessert: Mango cake with brown rice ice cream and fresh mango -- paired with The Royal Tokaji Wine Company, Aszú 5 Puttonyos, ‘Birsalmás’ (Tokaji, Hungary). The mango cake had an interesting texture and taste, seeming very authentic, but paled, in my opinion, next to the amazing brown rice ice cream, topped with crunchy puffed rice. The fresh mango was a refreshing complement and echoed nicely the tones of the sweet Tokaji.

Our dinner was, in a word, inspired. To pick wines that matched my veganish courses while also complementing Laima’s meat and seafood dishes is downright extraordinary. Steve managed to do so perfectly each time!

Service was obtrusive, in a positive way, if that can be. Water glasses refilled, plates cleared, food presented and explained, every aspect was just so. Every question and remark was treated with respect, with team members returning to the kitchen to check on ingredients for us and to explain inspiration for dishes as well. The staff took great pains to modify dishes in order to make them as vegan as possible, often letting me know about the substitutions. Nicely done, all in all.

We met the Chef while awaiting our coats and, he admitted, while some do not look fondly on vegans and vegetarians, he enjoyed the exciting challenge. He and the rest of the cooks certainly were up to the task – I never felt slighted. Each gorgeous dish brought out for Laima was paired with something equally inspired for me as well. Each item also tasted incredibly fresh.

This is a restaurant where, upon entering, the design is one’s first impression. By the end of the meal, all we could think about was the outstanding service, wine, and food, and the glorious experience it all added up to – Roka Akor should be on your go-to list, at least once (though I’m sure you’ll want to go back, we certainly do).

For locations, reservations, and more info, visit the Roka Akor website, like them on Facebook, and follow on Twitter!

Roka Akor on Urbanspoon

Disclaimer: This wine tasting meal was comped for me for review purposes, courtesy of Roka Akor. I was not compensated in any other way for the review, was not obligated to give the restaurant a positive review, and all opinions are my own. Some information in this review was taken from the company website.

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Restaurant Information

* Restaurant Name
Roka Akor | Chicago
* Overall
* Neighborhood / Cuisine
Near North Side
* Street Address
456 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60654
* Phone
(312) 477-7652

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