New Japanese joint Roka Akor gets the details right
Somebody at Roka Akor really did their homework.
When I heard that this spin-off of Roka, a London-based Japanese restaurant, was coming to Scottsdale, I felt ambivalent. On one hand, the menu looked mouthwatering. But I wondered whether we really needed one more trendy Japanese joint — especially one imported from England, with a third location in Macau, of all places. I was concerned it would be all flash and no substance from this fledgling chain.
But now that I've checked the place out, I've decided I really like it. Yes, this market may be swamped with Japanese eateries, but Roka Akor goes a long way to set itself apart from the sushi pack.
First of all, it specializes in robatayaki, Japanese-style grilled dishes; a few are traditional, but many have a creative, contemporary spin. Of course, there's still a whole menu of sushi and sashimi — including California rolls, for the less adventurous — but it's the non-sushi items that will turn heads.
I also like the atmosphere. The restaurant's exterior is disappointingly generic (it's part of Artesia, a new upscale residential development on Scottsdale Road, north of Indian Bend), but inside, it's surprisingly chic.
A smooth wooden bar wraps around the robata area at the middle of the space, where you can sit and watch the cooks grill skewers of seafood and assemble intricate dishes. Pounded-earth walls and glowing paper lamps are rustic touches in an otherwise sleek dining room. And off to the side, there's a bustling, freestanding bar, whose focal point is a huge, bubble-free block of ice, illuminated to a bluish-white gleam. Every so often, a bartender saws away at it to make ice cubes.
Those labor-intensive cubes, which look pretty inside glasses of fruit-infused shochu, remind me of one more reason I'm impressed with Roka Akor: Attention to details. Like I said, these folks studied up, and it shows up in tiny ways that I appreciate.
For example, customers get an oshibori before the meal — a courtesy that too few eateries offer in these parts. (An oshibori is a steamed hand towel that's a given in Japan, whether at a fancy sushi restaurant or a cheap train-platform curry stand.) Technically, because it's summertime, the oshibori should be chilled, not hot, but that's a seasonal thing that I wouldn't expect most Americans to know. (Same goes with edamame, which should be served cold this time of year.)
Another welcome detail was authentic seasonings and garnishes. The last time I was served real wasabi root, freshly grated with a sharkskin grater, it was at Sea Saw. And the last time I got sashimi on a bed of crushed ice, garnished with a pinch of beni-tade (a peppery, red-black microgreen), it was in Tokyo.
Roka Akor's main weakness, on my visits, was the service. Don't get me wrong — it was quite good, but just not consistent enough, considering how much money one has to shell out for dinner here.
Servers got a lot of things right, from refolding my linen napkin when I stepped away from the table, to earnestly answering questions when I quizzed them. Everyone seemed to be good-natured and enthusiastic. And sometimes the pacing of the courses was spot-on. But at other times, I'd be sitting with an empty water glass and an empty cocktail glass, or waiting way too long for my next dish to show up. It was hard to tell if Roka Akor was understaffed or just unorganized. (The restaurant's been open five months, so neither's acceptable.)
Tapas-style "small plates" restaurants have gotten a mixed reception in Phoenix, but the concept works at Roka Akor — mainly because that's how the Japanese eat. Almost everything is geared to sharing, although the portions are small, so you end up trying a lot of different things. There are also two tasting menus available, both of which give a thorough sampling of dishes from the regular menu.
My first impressions of the food were immediately favorable, which surprised me a bit. A simple bowl of edamame was perfectly cooked, with soybeans that tasted fresh, and a sprinkling of good sea salt. Delicate handmade gyoza were filled with a mixture of pork and scallop, and I detected some fresh ginger in them, too.
Spinach salad was summery, with creamy sesame dressing, salty little circles of sliced yama gobo (pickled burdock root), and curls of daikon radish. And two kinds of tempura were equally scrumptious. Succulent tempura rock shrimp were coated in the lightest veil of fried batter, while soft, crispy chunks of butternut squash, topped with shaved red onion and shiso microgreens, came with warm pepper dashi to pour over it.
Raw fish dishes defied my expectations. Sashimi yellowtail and tuna were okay, while salmon was quite good, and fatty tuna (o-toro) was incredibly luscious. I'm not big into norimaki, but the softshell crab roll had one hell of a big, meaty crab tucked into it, and came with a great spicy chile mayo dip. Two pieces of nigirizushi filled with minced wagyu beef were tasty, topped with caviar, scallions, and ginger, although butterfish tataki was more memorable. Each slice of fish was draped over slivers of white asparagus, served with an aromatic yuzu-shallot dressing.
I'd certainly order sushi here again, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it like I would the robata items, which were nicely prepared. Classic yakitori skewers of chicken and leek were lightly charred and glazed with teriyaki sauce. Tender asparagus shoots got a similar treatment. Chunks of eggplant, cooked to an almost fluffy consistency, were doused in a fragrant blend of mirin, soy, and ginger. And saikyo yaki (yuzu and miso-marinated black cod) was savory and ultra buttery, wrapped in a big leaf propped open with a bright pink shoot of pickled ginger.
Those dishes were delicious, but a few more were downright dazzling. Juicy lamb cutlets seasoned with Korean spices came with a side of mystery dip that tasted like chile-miso paste. A single grilled wild Madagascar prawn took the prize for most dramatic, with its head perched on the plate along with a skewer of smoky-sweet body meat, which took on a spicy tanginess from dabs of yuzu kosho (a paste of yuzu, chile, and salt). And moist, honey-glazed duck breast was outstanding, paired with a bowl of ripe mango balls in a mildly spiced glaze.
I also tried a couple things that were neither robatayaki nor sushi. Foie gras no umeshu fumi was an intriguing creation, with two tangy-sweet slices of chilled, seaweed-wrapped foie gras, a soft, fat plum, and a pile of lacy, black squid ink crackers. Meanwhile, kama meshi was a hot pot filled with three kinds of Japanese mushrooms, wild mountain vegetables, and creamy, risotto-like rice — a homey, comforting contrast to that esoteric foie dish.
A server explained that Roka's London headquarters hired a French pastry chef to create the desserts — that makes sense, considering how traditional Japanese sweets are made with beans and rice flour and things that might not appeal to Western palates. (I love them, though.)
So even though I hadn't expected dessert to blow me away, I was pretty psyched when the Roka Akor dessert platter showed up. What a decadent display — fresh strawberries, blackberries, lychees and mango; molten chocolate pudding cake with a gooey matcha middle; custard topped with diced fruit and chunks of honeycomb; and scoops of ice cream arranged on a block of ice. The "Raspberry and ivoire chocolate usugiri" turned out to be a confection of orange cake, raspberry ganache, fresh raspberries, lychees, and white chocolate curls, all arranged on a pool of vanilla-rose crème anglaise.
I'm so glad dessert wasn't an afterthought. Add that to Roka Akor's list of details done right.
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