At Roka Akor, expense-account surf and turf | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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At Roka Akor, expense-account surf and turf

A pricey steak house/sushi temple pulls ahead of the neo-Japanese pack


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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!

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