Momotaro, West Loop Japanese Style

MomotaroWith warmer temperatures in Chicago, dining invitations are coming in steadily. In a single day, I had an invitation to lunch for a sampling of Mediterranean food and an invitation to a dining event involving several Italian eateries later in the afternoon. To add to my plate, my restaurant advisor had booked me for dinner at Momotaro in Chicago’s West Loop at 820 W. Lake Street. Arriving for early dinner on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant generated a feeling of Friday after work. The dining area was filled and the energy was high. With the understanding that Momotaro prepares dishes for those who like small plates, we agreed to order several items that were good enough for getting a range of tastes.

One item we started with that we had not indulged at any Japanese restaurants was ikejime. Think of an orange gazpacho served with harami sashimi that comes atop ice. You put the sashami in the gazpacho and then enjoy. The pro was the dish was so blooming good. The con was the dish was so blooming good that we wanted it in a larger portion.

Ikejime

Ikejime

The unagi don was a highlight. This came in a small bowl as a mix of barbecued eel with shiitake and kanpyo mixed in rice. The unagi don was rather reminiscent of bibimbap prepared tableside at Korean restaurants. A plus to this menu item was that there was a liberal amount of barbecued eel for the feast.

Unagi Don

Unagi Don

Next for our palates was kani jomaki. This was a maki roll filled with cucumbers, crab, eel, and tomago. After a brief dip in the accompanying soy sauce, the rest was devoured without use of the sauce. If you order this dish, do not use soy sauce. This maki roll should be enjoyed without any palate disruptions from extra sauces.

Kani Jomaki

Kani Jomaki

Sticking with eel as a main ingredient, we had una kyu. Again, this was a maki roll that did not require soy sauce for dipping. Since there were some flavourful dabs on the plate, we used those instead. Outstanding and nothing but fresh taste of eel, this roll was more fantastic than most specialty rolls. Simple is often better, as was the case here.

Una Kyu

Una Kyu

Now that our rockets had been primed, the kani miso was the final countdown to liftoff and we were well on our way to the stars. I love seafood. However, my restaurant advisor feens for crab and the kani miso was a crab lover’s vice. There was creamy crab miso inside of a crab. Served with sourdough, there was no conversation while devouring this dish. There were the occasional acknowledgements of “This is delicious,” “Wow,” and “I don’t want this to end,” though.

Kani Miso

Kani Miso

And as all good things must come to an end, we had an ebi sashimi as a l’amuse between dinner and dessert. Rather than the ebi being served inside of a shell, butterflied, or simply outside of the shell, the chef had prepared the shrimp to a tartar texture.  This was a new way of having shrimp and one that satisfied the palate.

Ebi Sashimi

Ebi Sashimi

One dessert consisted of green peaches with a meringue crumble and a dollop of vanilla ice cream. This was another surprise, as one always think of peaches that bakers put into peach pies and peach cobblers. Green peaches are different, with the same burst in flavour, and rather sweet. For anyone saying, I will not eat green peaches, Sam I Am, you will after you have them at Momotaro.

Green Peaches and Cream

Green Peaches and Cream

The final dish was a citrus angel food cake with fruit and ice cream. If one could describe a flavour, think of a dreamsicle. The combination of orange from the cake and vanilla from the ice cream took me back to my youth of having a go of those frozen treats no sooner than my parents brought them into the house. After so much food, this dessert, as was the plate of peaches and cream, was light.

Angel Food Cake with Fruit and Cream

Angel Food Cake with Fruit and Cream

Momotaro always makes the list of top sushi restaurants to sample from in the city. The menu isn’t extensive, so the potential for being overwhelmed with too many options is small. I highly recommend getting a taste of as many small plates as possible and indulging the hot plate items. Yes, you can have sushi, nigiri, and sashimi from any Japanese restaurant. Momotaro seems to do an outstanding job letting diners enjoy a different variety of other Japanese delicacies while maintaining authenticity in the output. West Loop cheated with drawing a crowd with wide palates with the opening of Momotaro.

Momotaro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Izakaya Mita, Sashimi and Robata

During my last restaurant outing, I was in Bucktown enjoying some French food. Next to the French restaurant is a Japanese restaurant named Izakaya Mita at 1960 N. Damen Avenue. Looking in from the outside, there was an intimate feeling about the restaurant that I thought would make it ideal for checking out, that being there would be no extreme crowds. Well, leave it up to me to go on a Friday night and experience a crowd. Anyone who has gone will agree that there is a good reason for the congestion.

Sake

Sake

Seaweed

Seaweed

On the evening that I went, I had come off of a ridiculously nerve-grating day at work. The best way I figured I could null the desire to scream at the top of my lungs was to imbibe a flight of sake. My server was grandtastic — new word of the day — coming up with recommendations and explaining where they were produced, the ingredients in the liquid recipe, what made them spectacular, and pairing them with the dishes I ordered. For example, I had a refreshing sake that went very well with a small bowl of spicy seaweed.

Tuna Sashimi

Tuna Sashimi

There was an inquiry of whether I would like to sample some raw seafood. This gave me the indication that sashimi was perhaps on the offering. It was. I had some meaty tuna sashimi with another glass of sake. For those who may want to indulge this full coloured, mouth-watering lovely should note that it is a small plate with four succulent slices of resh tuna. It is still a splendid order as a small plate.

Salmon Sashimi

Salmon Sashimi

The same can be said of the salmon, which I had with my third sake option. Salmon is one dish that I never tire of eating. When it is cooked such that it is tender and flaky, complaining is never an option. Having it sashimi style has now gotten me addicted to enjoying it before being seared by a flame. There was nothing stringy, fishy, tough, or chewy about the salmon. If it had come on a larger plate as a larger portion, I would have been even happier than I was with it as a small plate option.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

By the time I was finishing the salmon sashimi, my sister had arrived. That meant more food. It did not mean more sake. While she ordered some dishes and cocktails, the latter to take her mind off having had a mad week at work, I ordered some mushrooms for sharing. Grilled to tenderness and accented with a light sauce, we devoured these fresh mushrooms and noticed that they had the flavour of the garden variety that had not been rushed in growing. There was a reminiscent moment of when we had tasted mushrooms at a favourite sushi and robata grill restaurant named Yuzu in Chicago’s West Town neighbourhood.

Beef Tenderloin, Salad

Beef Tenderloin, Salad

Another shared dish was beef tenderloin over small salad. Neither one of us is a fan of rare or medium rare meat. Imagine both of our surprises when we had gobbled these rare morsels to completion. There were no overpowering herbs and spices in the recipe, so there was enough taste in whatever marinade the chef used to prepare the meat. Nothing was overcompensated and that may have been why it was easier for us to navigate the raw meat without thinking much about it, until we had gone around the plate sopping up the last bit of juice with the lettuce.

Green Tea Mochi Balls

We sat and caught up with other about the week for several minutes before ordering light sweets and green tea. My sister had green tea cheesecake while I had three green tea mochi balls. Not only are mochi balls a swell palate cleanser, but they are also light on the stomach after a hearty meal. The green tea was definitely good for digestion after all we had eaten. This was loose leaf green tea, too, so I was thoroughly content.

Green Tea

Green Tea

Izakaya Mita is not a large sushi bar, but it is most definitely a fan favourite for a lot of individuals. It may be that the Wednesday I went to the French restaurant was indicative of a lighter night. Fridays may be the beginning day of the weekend when everyone wants to enjoy fun, excitement, fellowship, and good food way from home. With this being my first visit, the one server who gave us recommendations was the only indication I have for superb service. I don’t have to be redundant and say ad nauseam that the food is worthy. What I will say is that one may find plenty pretentious Japanese sushi, yakitori, and robata restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area. Izakaya Mita doesn’t pretend. They’re just damn good.

Izakaya Mita Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Top 10 Jaunts for 2013

December has arrived and it is during this time that I always ponder whether there was something I had intended to do between January and the end of November, but somehow never got around to doing. I swear time went slower when I was a kid. The summers dragged on forever — and I didn’t complain. Christmas break felt like a whole month. School was the equivalent of endless punishment. Fast forward to age 45 and each year feels compressed from a full twelve months to about seven. However, I still get to partake of my favourite hobby second to photography: eating. And for the end of 2013, I decided that I would do something different — a list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2013. So, this post will be dedicated to the restaurant discoveries that tempted my palate. Since I have already written extensive blog postings for each, I will only present highlights.

10. Pasteur
I had spent a lot of time in the Edgewater neighbourhood during the summer. My favourite Indian restaurant is there. One day while walking down Broadway, I happened to see a building full of Chicago architecture with a menu in the window. Having passed the building many times, it looked too fancy to register as a restaurant, but I was glad to have been in a casual mood the one Saturday I stopped and took notice of it. The food was outstanding and the service was top. From the interior, one can easily get the sensation of being in Europe, but it’s the Vietnamese influence in the food that pops. With the menu items supposedly having a French and Vietnamese fusion, I didn’t detect a heavier French accent. It was the Vietnamese flavours that stood out more. In the future I shall return for more good food and great service, and hopefully see if there is more balance to the menu.

Pasteur, Collage
9. Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery
A great friend had sent a text message to me to prompt me about Freddy’s while I was at an Italian restaurant on the Far North Side. She had already enlightened me to a few cafes and restaurants in Berwyn, so I trusted her recommendation. She gave me the formal introduction to Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery. This is a small grocery store with an annex built on to the side of the market for those who wish to sit and eat without having to rush home to devour the food. There is authenticity to every dish that puts a lot of big box Italian restaurants to shame. It’s evident when you enter the door and see the long line that stretches from the door, to the back of the grocery store, all along the counter, and up to the cash register. I think the trip out to Cicero is worth it, but I advise you to be prepared because staring at the selection of delicious food behind the counter may throw you into a food frenzy.

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

8. Silom 12
Grub Hub is a beautiful thing and a glorious thing during the winter when delivery is a viable option. I had tried Silom 12 numerous times as a take-away choice when I was too lazy to operate my own stove. Not once was I dissatisfied with what I had ordered. Well, while I was having my hallway bathroom remodelled this summer, I needed a moment to escape from the sound of drills, saws, and banging. Where should I find myself but at Silom 12 for a proper sit-down. And oh was I pleased beyond words. Logan Square is one of America’s hottest neighbourhoods and with the addition of restaurants like Silom 12, it’s easy to understand why. One would think that the price per dish may make the cha-ching sound. No, the price, service, and food make a harmonious sigh of satisfaction. Well, let me take that back and make it personal. I made a harmonious sigh of satisfaction with each bite of food I took and believe me when I say that I ate a lot.

Silom 12

7. Masouleh
When I first moved to Chicago, I spent a little over a year in Northbrook. There was only so much that I could take of the sound of crickets. New York City had spoiled me. So I moved into Chicago proper and my first Chicago apartment was in Rogers Park. At that time Rogers Park had a heavy Mexican influence. Fast forward to 2013 and there seems to be more diversity gracing the Rogers Park landscape. One addition to the neighbourhood is Masouleh. I had met up with some friends after work one Friday evening and had fallen in love with the place after only having some herbs, cheese, and radish put on the table. It was authentic and when I say authentic I mean the flavours popped the way I remember Iranian food tasting. I don’t mean plain hummus and pita bread either. I had to return for my very own adventure and by the time I had finished a parfait glass of Persian ice cream, I was typing my initial blog post from the moon.

Masouleh

6. Kabul House
The first restaurant I went to when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup was Kabul House. It was at a different address. Months had passed and then a few years went by. When I had made plans to return, it was closed. Then there was a cloud of sadness because I remembered the food being so delicious. My friend and I were at the restaurant for hours, slowly taking care of the fine dining that came from the kitchen. Well, I was informed that Kabul House had opened at a new location. I had added it to my list and during Memorial Day, I was so glad that I went. Let’s just say that I rolled my eyes and I don’t mean as in disgust or to be cheeky. Oh, off with the person’s head who said that it’s never as good as the first time. It was better the second time around.

Kabul House

5. Pannenkoeken Cafe
If anyone ever starts rattling off the old adage that the best meal of the day is breakfast, tell them to put a footnote on that and immediately rush to Pannenkoeken Cafe. I am not one for eating lunch or dinner delights from Germany because they are heavy on the stomach. Not quite as sleep-inducing as Eastern European food, but you will drag afterwards. A German breakfast, on the other hand, causes the angels to sing. Pannenkoeken Cafe is a small cafe, so getting there early is advisable. Now, although the breakfast isn’t heavy on the belly, it is filling. So, you have to go on several visits. You have to. You must! Don’t even think about The Original Pancake House. Make your own pancakes at home, but go to Pannenkoeken Cafe for a proper breakfast that will give you a perpetual smile.

Pannenkoeken

4. Den Den Eritrean Restaurant
Rogers Park has developed a bit of magnetism to it thanks to the addition of a few ethnic eateries. There are several Ethiopian restaurants in Edgewater. While going to Masouleh one evening, my great friend who had recommended Freddy’s to me pointed Den Den Eritrean Restaurant out to me. I don’t think I had taken a few steps before I retrieved my smart phone and blocked some time for a visit. I had never thought of any Eritrean representation in Chicago’s culinary landscape. Everything about Den Den was top-notch. While I can’t say that Eritrean and Ethiopian are the same, the food preparation, serving, and method of eating the food are the same. However, Den Den takes the top spot among the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago. And I’ve been to all — except one that I zipped pass while speeding up Ashland Avenue.

Den Den

3. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine
Skokie has a small section in a business district that isn’t on a busy street. Had I not gone to Kabul House to renew my food vows, I never would have stumbled across a restaurant that has some cultural significance to me. When I saw the word “Jamaican” flash in front of my eyes, the return to the small stretch of Oakton Avenue was mandatory. The saltfish and ackee, callalou, rice and beans, beef patty, and june plum juice reminded me so much of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen that I spent almost every Saturday at De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine. And when I didn’t get back during a Saturday visit, there were occasional trips for take-away throughout the week. Certainly when you find something with a cultural attachment, it’s hard to detach.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican

2. Roka Akor
Earlier in the year, I wanted to try something new in the downtown vicinity. Most restaurants in downtown fall into the tourist trap or “big box” categories. You go and then tell your friends that you had gone to such-and-such restaurant because that’s where all of the Joneses had gone before you. But Roka Akor is where you go when you want to keep up with the Williamses. I was blown away on the first visit with the good fortune of having a server who had hit the mark on every menu choice offered as an option. There wasn’t one dish to be placed in front of me that I wasn’t raving about by the second bite. Getting to sit at the robata grill was a splendid option because I got to chat with the sous chef and the sashimi chef. You can’t do that at just any restaurant, and certainly not at a tourist trap or “big box” eatery.

Roka Akor

1. Basil Leaf Cafe (Tie)
Coming up with the number one spot was hard — and I’m not saying that just to have something to say. I started the year off with Basil Leaf Cafe being the first ethnic restaurant I was sampling. This was also the first time that I had decided to have a degustation without ordering from the menu. I trusted my server to make all recommendations and bring to the table a soup, a salad, two entrées, and a dessert. Basil Leaf Cafe had raised the bar up through the clouds and even on return visits, I was always in awe of how I could simply state that I liked seafood and vegetarian dishes, hand the menu back to the server, and let him or her bring to the table culinary choices that had indicated that they apparently listen to their dining patrons.

Basil Leaf Cafe

1. Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill (Tie)
I don’t know where to begin with Yuzu. This was another hard decision because I wanted there to be ten restaurants on my Top 10 list. It turned out to be eleven because Basil Leaf Cafe and Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill were deserving of the top position. My first visit to Yuzu had moved the expectation bar way up. No one disappears behind a door and comes back with a delectable dish. The sushi station and the robata grill are on full display, so you know exactly what you are getting. I was curious as to how a sushi bar could have a constant flow of patrons early in the day on a summer Saturday. It was after the first bite of some grilled eggplant from the robata grill that I understood why. Based on all of the robata grill items and sushi that my server had brought to the table, I honestly believe I could have won the lottery if I had asked her for the winning numbers. Everything was delicious.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

I am hoping that 2014 will not be as busy and fast as 2013 has been. Yes, there is the saying that you should take time to smell the roses. But when there is the aroma of some inviting food wafting from the kitchen, put those roses in a vase and go see what the source of the aroma is. I know that I shall do just that in the New Year. I have to come up with ten more new restaurants for 2014. That means weight gain. Oh wait, no, that means I had better get started coming up with a list of eateries to sample throughout 2014.

And at this time, I would like to thank all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup and who have been giving me encouragement. Enjoy the holiday and may the New Year bring you joy and continued peace. And if none of that, then may some server bring you a dish that makes you sing a happy song.

All on Cue, Japanese Barbecue

Gyu-Kaku

My New Year’s Resolution for 2013 has been rather simplistic — get my weight up to 230 pounds. That may seem like a piece of cake for some people. But in my Disney show, my high metabolism does not allow for me to balloon that fast. The good thing is that my appetite from having started working out last year got me up to 215 pounds. My height has been a blessing in terms of distributing my weight gain, so I don’t look as though I weigh over 200 punds. The weight training I have been doing so far in 2013 is blowing up everything to the point where my wardrobe is fitting snug and the protein powders keep me in the refrigerator — even in the middle of the night — when I’m not at a restaurant ordering from a menu. I will be at my target weight in no time and then probably find myself wondering what a few additional pounds on top of 230 would look like. Needless to say, in my Disney show, I will enjoy getting there.

Miso Soup

In keeping with my constant appetite frenzy, I had met with a friend at a Japanese barbecue restaurant that she and I had gone to a few times during the summer. To the casual pedestrian, Gyu-Kaku at 210 E. Ohio Street in the Streeterville neighbourhood may look like a tourist trap. Only once you go in and hear all the Japanese being spoken do you realize that this restaurant is a haven of authenticity. For me, it also means a lot of food and me diligently working towards fulfilling my New Year’s Resolution quite possibly well in advance of the year ending. As frosty as it was outside and being only a few blocks away from Lake Michigan where the wind was whipping back and forth between the skyscrapers, sitting down at a table with a hot barbecue grill in the middle was a splendid option.

Salad

We started with drinks, one thing that bartenders at Asian restaurants do to complete satisfaction. My friend had an Asian pear martini. I had a lychee mojito. Martinis and mojitos are as popular as or more popular than beer in Chicago. And bartenders get martinis and mojitos right. Along with our drinks came miso soup. Noting from an off-the-shelf carton, I can attest. There was no salt in it. Any time a dish comes heavy with salt, that is a huge indication of something not being homemade. All you get with the miso soup at Gyu-Kaku is flavour, not the risk of high blood pressure. I turned my cup up and slurped it true Japanese style. The soup was delicious and it warmed me up on the inside. There was no need to be a prude about it. After we had finished our cups of happiness then came a cup of pure bliss. If you have ever had salad at a Japanese restaurant, then you know what it is like to be in good favour. Cucumber, cherry tomatoes, fresh lettuce, eggs, cheese, ginger dressing, and smiles are all you get. It was exactly what we wanted, as we had anticipated devouring some of the salad ever since we had decided to meet at Gyu-Kaku for dinner.

Salmon

We had ordered the Geisha course, which was enough for two people. Just as the first round of meat and vegetables arrived for us to put on the barbecue, there was some sashimi salmon brought to the table. Served raw, we employed our chopsticks and worked them on the salmon without dropping anything. Well, whatever we did drop ended up on our tongues where it eventually disappeared down our throats. The sashimi salmon was the last bit of raw meat that we had. It was then time for us to begin grilling our own meat and continuing with our moment of food happiness.

On the Grill

With the Geisha course, my friend and I were presented with a few marinated meats that we  had to grill ourselves. Prime rib eye stead. Bara kalbi. Chuck kalbi. Bistro harami. Shrimp. Vegetables consisting of corn, onions, bell peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms. Smiles. Since we are regulars at Gyu-Kaku, we knew the routine as far as how long each meat was to remain on the grill and whether to place the items in the middle or on the sides. We were quite efficient and even slick enough to pluck some of the meat from the grill with our chopsticks. With amazing agility, we grilled, ate, had conversation, and nodded with appreciation for all the good things that had been seasoned well, cooked to our satisfaction, and gobbled to completion. Move over Korean barbecue. Hello, Gyu-Kaku.

Bibimbap

Now, of all the menu items to come with the Geisha course, the one that I love the most is the bibimbap. Queue scene with me walking like the Frankenstein monster, arms outstretched, and moaning. What do you want? Bibimbap. What do you like to eat? Bibimbap. What can you not get enough of? Bibimbap. You’re a zombie, so now what do you want? Bibimbap. Prepared tableside in a hot concrete bowl, my friend and I requested to have our bibimbap spicy. We are not adverse to having the flavour of our food pop by the addition of peppers. Bibimbap is not meant to be served like baby food. It is meant to make the scalp exhale heat. And on what was very much a frosty Friday night, we were zombies that groaned, grunted, and applied our chopsticks to our bowls of bibimbap. Have you ever known the Frankenstein monster to derive any pleasure before the townspeople torched to tower to which he fled? He should have been granted a taste of bibimbap. He may have become a welcomed part of the community.

S'mores

After polishing off all the delectable meats, vegetables, and further making ourselves bibimbap-satisfied zombies, we sat for a moment before indulging a sweet. We were always accustomed to sitting downstairs and had never paid attention to the area beyond the upstairs bar where we often wait before getting our table. Well, this evening, we sat in the upstairs part of the restaurant, which is past the upstairs bar. Same cozy ambience and still filled with other Japanese who were no doubt happy to have a restaurant in the city reminiscent of what they had in Japan, we took it all in as we let our stomachs settle. And then came the dessert option. Marshmallows, dark chocolate, and Graham crackers sat on a plate before my friend and I got our skewers and sang our own brand of a campfire song while roasting our marshmallows. Nothing spectacular and no presentation with a wow factor, as it was just us preparing our own dessert. If you ever engage the notion of making samores in the future, I highly recommend dark chocolate and if it is bittersweet chocolate, all the better. For an after-dinner drink, it was loose leaf green tea for us. None of that what-not in the bag, especially with us being tea snobs. And we drank it without any sugar, which was an indication that it was a very, very good leaf. When we were done, we banged our glasses on the table and yelled “arigato” to our server. Well done.

Green Tea

Gyu-Kaku is whistling distance from the Magnificent Mile. For those with milder palates, there are numerous restaurant options to satisfy your appetite. But for those who love a good adventure, Gyu-Kaku is certainly an option I would entertain every time the chance comes up. It is a great place to go with friends who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and taking part in the cooking process of the food. Everything is marinated to perfection, if not beyond idyllic. All you have to do is engage, enjoy, and appreciate the package. Perhaps in your very own Disney, you too will walk around like the Frankenstein monster, grunting, growling, and gobbling all good things Gyu-Kaku can put in front of you. And would you look at that. I am now a little over 215 pounds, per the scale. I’m well on my way.

Gyu-Kaku Chicago on Urbanspoon

Degustation Japanese Style

Roka Akor

SakeDuring the week of 3 February 2013 through 10 February 2013, many restaurants were participating in Chicago Restaurant Week. I had received an email about some of the restaurants and their menus, several that piqueing my interest. One restaurant that stood out on the list was Roka Akor, at 456 N Clark Street.  The River North section of Chicago is already filled with notable high-end restaurants that have reasonable prices for those who appreciate good food and who also do not want to worry that the final bill will leave them gasping in shock. Having gone to Bombay Spice Grill immediately next door, I had made a mental note to visit Roka Akor to see if the menu had items that would be a good fit for Chicago Alphabet Soup. Looking at the menu display outside the restaurant is one thing. Sitting still and looking at the menu online is another and it was reviewing what Roka Akor had for the appetite that made my decision to go for a seating that more easy. One thing that stood out more was the Robatayaki style cooking that the restaurant employs. I had experienced Robatayaki style cooking in Japan, but not in America.  I made a reservation so that I could arrive early for dinner, well before the serious dinner crowd started to file in. I had plans to do some serious photography and while making the reservation, I was clear about that so that I could get a seat where I would not be in the way of the staff or other dining patrons. Plenty of seating and romantic ambience, I was ready for my food adventure. Much to my surprise, I got a seat right in front of the Robatayaki bar and sashimi bar. Yes, I was ready for action.

Seared ScallopIn keeping with indulging degustations in my dining excursions, I scanned the menu and when the server came by to ask if I was ready, I gave my response. I had been waffling between going with the Restaurant Week menu, picking random items from the different sections of the menu, or letting the server have carte blanche with the selection. The menu for Restaurant Week had items on it that I have eaten countless times, so that option was thrown out. Picking items from the menu at random was another idea that I took a pass on because I would have selected comfort items. So, it was putting the selection into the capable hands of the server that I went for. An indication that I was in good hands was the glass of sake that he had recommended, and I am kicking myself for not remembering it. I remember my server’s name and his face, though, which means I can always go back and request that very sake. But, it was a sake that was smooth going down and with a hint of a floral note.  Now, I will be the first to admit that I have not come close to achieving wine, spirits, or sake snobbery. However, I could find myself navigating a room with a glass of the sake that I had and pretending to be higher above my station than I am already. I thank my server for opening my repertoire more.

SashimiFirst to the table was a grilled diver scallop. This was not just the usual morsel that comes with some seafood dishes. Seasoned with lemon sweet soy, crushed wasabi pea, yuso mayonnaise, and purple shiso crust, my fork sank through it without any effort and I smiled a wide smile as my teeth sank through each bite. Of course, the scallop was more of a starter than anything else, the initial presentation had me wondering if I was going to be in store for aesthetically pleasing dishes to the visual senses while compromising flavour. Oh was I wrong. Not only was the scallop anything but tough but you could taste the flavours, none competing with the other. The sushi chef had mentioned that this particular dish was one of his favourites and it was really nice to know because there was thought put into presenting something for me that the chef actually preferred. I doubt that it was because he had prepared it that he viewed the dish highly. It was just delicious. The same was to be said for the butterfish and tuna tataki that the sashimi chef had prepared. Yet again, there was a small dish of what looked more artistic than culinary. There was no rush, so I took small bites and enjoyed each with the accompanying sake. By the time I had completed two of the pieces, I had acknowledged that Roka Akor was not just a restaurant of visually stunning dishes but it was a fine dining establishment with a sushi chef, sashimi chef, and cooking staff that give attention to making sure each taste a dining customer has guarantees a return visit. In the same fashion that the sushi chef had explained the dish, since I was sitting at the counter, the sashimi chef did the same. And, thus, began conversation about Roka Akor in Scottsdale, Arizona, and in London, United Kingdom. And there was dialogue such that the chefs inquired of how I had become interested in blogging ethnic restaurants. It was not just me taking photos and scribbling dishes, but there was suddenly a feeling that I had gone to friends’ homes and told to make myself comfortable.

Sashimi Platter

The next dish was one I saw being prepared that I thought was going to another dining patron. There was no tossing items on the plate or rearranging anything haphazardly. There was an attention to detail and a display of care that had I caught on videotape, you would be able to see a bit of love going into the preparation. I had to ask if I could photograph the process, only to find out that the platter was for me. For a noticeable moment, I was rather speechless.  Here was a dish that you see in magazines and on television shows, a product after styling and polishing. I was watching magic. I was anticipating bliss. When all was done, a sashimi platter on ice was placed before me and all eyes were on me as my server explained what the treat entailed. Bluefin tuna, stripe jack, amber jack, oyster with ponzu sauce and fresh lime, shrimp, head of shrimp, salmon with truffle butter, super white tuna, yellowtail, red snapper, and Japanese seaweed salad with ponzu sauce. It is rhetorical to mention that the only thing I could mouth was, “Wow!” At my age of 44, I have been to restaurants on the high-end that have presented dishes that were fitting for pedestals while fitting for throwing against the wall. Restaurants that were all the rage, touted as bigger than life, and Roka Akor places a sashimi platter in front of me that deserves more high praise than I can type. Every morsel of seafood on the platter was fresh, obvious from the lack of fishy smell and absent of any questionable taste. And still, the sake that I polished off with the platter was an ideal pairing.

Seafood PlatterMore conversation was had while the next course was being prepared. The idea was to give me an idea of all the offerings that Roka Akor has without having me sample every item that there was on the menu. Since the sashimi chef had wowed me with the cold platter of delectable sashimi, the sushi chef was composing a platter of cooked seafood. And again, I was blown away with a selection of the absolute best, freshest seafood. Grilled Pacific lobster, Alaskan king crab, roasted Fanny Bay oyster, and tempura huma huma were all I needed to state with clarity that I had been to heaven. I shall start by saying that the texture of oysters never curried favour with me. However, the grilling of the oyster yielded the texture found in mussels. The seasoning of the oyster painted another smile on my face that stretched with each bite of the flavourful lobster, crab, and huma huma. Another thing to note is that while the plate looked substantial, I was not stuffed to capacity after I had completed the dish, licked my fingers, and raised my arms in the air as though I had defeated an aggressive boxer. I have enjoyed seafood this flavourful and fresh on the West Coast, East Coast, and along coastal countries abroad. As far inland as Chicago is, the seafood much be imported fresh, daily in order for the dishes to be so exquisite while remaining void of muddy flavouring. And my taste buds were appreciative of the seasoning to the seafood not being overpowering or overcompensation in any manner. The mark of an outstanding chef is knowing the right balance or ratio to make a dish pop. I will be the first to say that no one can argue that the chefs at Roka Akor do anything less than produce the best dishes for the palate.

Dessert Platter
By the time I had finished the cooked seafood platter, I requested some time before the dessert came. In Asian dining, desserts are not heavy, so I had a bit of confidence that I would be able to handle whatever was in store. I had completed a second glass of sake and my server brought a Riesling that was almost sweet enough to be a dessert wine. When the dessert had finally arrive, I understood why there was a tempering of the wine that was accompanying the work of art that I stared at in amazement. There was a medley of fresh fruit: watermelon, honey-dew melon, raspberries, blackberries, oranges, pineapple, and pomegranate. Included was a scoop of raspberry sorbet that I swear had been made fresh in the back with crushed raspberries. I have not had any sorbet from the market with such flavour that pops. And if all of that was not enough to make the most cantankerous food critic stand up and dance, there was a ginger crème brûlée topped with a few kernels from a pomegranate that puts crème brûlées at other restaurants to shame. This I am not making up for effect. After you have had crème brûlée regular style, tasting a hint of ginger in it somehow makes everything okay in the land. Ginger, like cilantro, goes great with many dishes. And as to the dessert at Roka Akor, I now find it hard to debate anyone about fruit not being the perfect wrap-up for a meal.

Preparing Sashimi Platter

Having recently entertained a degustation where I had given the server free rein to come up with the courses for me and having enjoyed the whole experience more than I could say, I was impressed even more with the culinary options I had at Roka Akor. The server said that they all are basically experts in the restaurant’s menu. Yet and still, recommending dishes for someone who is a stranger and every recommendation coming out a success means that something else is working right. The next time a list of top restaurants gets published, Roka Akor should be on that list.

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