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Table Hopping: Roka Akor’s grill enhances local specialties

Jason Alford, executive chef at the new Roka Akor in Westfield Old Orchard Mall in Skokie. | Lee A. Litas~for Sun-Times Media
Thick Abalone mushrooms from Wisconsin are dipped into citrusy ponzu, grilled on the robata grill and topped with house-cured, large Ikura salmon roe, spring onions and topped with lemon ($6.50). | Lee A. Litas~for Sun-Times Media
Brussels sprouts are fried crispy in rice oil for this dish seasoned with tangy Japanese mustard and topped with salty bonito shavings of dried skipjack tuna ($4.50). | Lee A. Litas~for Sun-Times Media
A mountain of melt-in-your-mouth sashimi offers a dazzling array of chef selections (3- types $19 / 5- types $31). | Lee A. Litas~for Sun-Times Media
Roka Akor's beet salad sports shaved root vegetables, crunchy tamari almonds and a jalapeño miso dressing ($9). | Lee A. Litas~for Sun-Times Media

“Food is my passion,” enthused John Kapoor.

Kapoor is founder of JNK Concepts, parent company of Roka Akor, one of a chain of Japanese restaurants that recently opened in Skokie’s Westfield Old Orchard shopping center. Originally a pharmacist, Kapoor had the prescience to introduce robata-style cooking to a mass Western market some five years ago.

A Japanese word for “fireside-cooking,” robatayaki grilling was first used by Japanese fisherman centuries ago to cook their catch and keep warm. The method grills foods slowly over charcoal, which infuses them with barbecue flavor without frying away any original taste or adding extra fat.

“Robata grilling was something very unique but not available here in the States (and) I thought people in this country would love it,” said Kapoor.

He opened his flagship eatery, Roka Akor, in Scottsdale, Az., and has expanded the concept to San Francisco and Chicago’s River North. The plan is to open one in every U.S. metropolitan center.

“Every restaurant is going to showcase the best of local cuisine,” added Jason Alford, executive chef at the Westfield Old Orchard restaurant.

“So if in Scottsdale you have amazing citrus to make local yuzu sauce, in the Midwest we have mushrooms, beets and root vegetables that are indigenous and beautiful here,” noted Alford.

Alford likes to change people’s minds about vegetables. One of the tastiest and simplest dishes on Roka’s menu is the fried Brussels sprouts. Made crispy with rice oil, they’re seasoned with tangy Japanese mustard and topped with salty bonito — shavings of dried skipjack tuna ($4.50). Completely addictive and available in vegan, and even gluten free options (sans bonito).

“People think Asian cuisine is unhealthy, salty and full of MSG,” said Alford. Instead of using the shortcut of adding MSG for added umami (an extra taste element), Alford insists on having all Roka’s sauces made in-house. Being allowed to steep and thicken naturally without additives makes all the difference.

“It’s in the details,” said Alford. “The restaurant is beautiful, the food has got to have that same kind of aura.”

Tipping its hat to the best of the Midwest, Roka features thick Abalone mushrooms from Wisconsin as a small plate. Dipped into citrusy ponzu before heading to the robata grill for a quick sear, they are then topped with house-cured, large Ikura salmon roe (caviar which pops in your mouth), fresh spring onions and a spritz of lemon to complete the dish ($6.50). Sliced thin, the thick fungi have the consistency of scallops.

There’s a dazzling array of chef’s selections, including Ora King salmon — which Alford has dubbed ‘the Wagyu of salmon’ — from a sustainable farm in New Zealand that are standard on Roka’s sashimi chef selection platter (3- types $19 / 5- types $31).

“I consider all the chefs in our group to be artists. I encourage that and never ask them to compromise on the quality,” said Kapoor. “I think that differentiates our restaurant.”

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