It's not impossible to find good seafood in the Valley but there are certainly times that we feel the inconvenience of being in the middle of the desert.
The distance from the coast, however, hasn't stopped many an adventurous restaurateur or chef from setting up shop around here. It also hasn't stopped some from turning around and creating some of the best Japanese food in the country. As an example, the Valley's own Roka Akor in Scottsdale was named one of Travel + Leisure magazine's best sushi restaurants in 2009. Its sister location in Chicago also won a Michelin recommendation this year.
At a media dinner last night, Roka Akor Executive Chef Jason Alford showcased the restaurant's robatayaki style of cuisine, which involves cooking in the irori, or the traditional charcoal-fired hearth. The restaurant's robata (translated as "around the fireplace") doubles as the main piece of kitchen equipment as well as the centerpiece for the restaurant's warm but sophisticated atmosphere.
Our four course meal started with an abalone mushroom with ikura (salmon roe) and lemon-ponzu sauce, and salmon tataki with black sesame and pickled shitake.
The restaurant specializes in new takes on classic Japanese dishes and serves both sushi and steaks. It's a concept that came to the Valley by way of the restaurant Roka in London, which is headed up by Chef Ce Bian. Roka Akor Scottsdale opened in 2008, the second is in Chicago, and the company expects to open a third location in San Francisco this summer.
Alford followed up the first course with diver scallops and pork belly topped with house-made kimchee. The classic surf and turf combination transitioned us into the last course of grilled Niman Ranch strip loin, crispy brussles sprouts and a duck confit and foie gras rice hot pot.
The wine options for the evening included a special treat for red drinkers and a Chardonnay for whites. We'd never encountered the South African varietal of red grape called pintoage before but it paired nicely with all four courses.
The Japanese egg custard, called chawanmushi, we had for dessert may have been the highlight of the dinner with desert orange blossom honey flavor and a perfect balance of sweetness.
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For the everyday diner, Roka Akor offers both omakase, a Japanese phrase that means "I'll leave it to you" meaning the chef creates a custom meal, or traditional menus. They usually recommend you go with the former to have the most fulfilling experience.
We also have to recommend one of their sochu infusions -- if you haven't had the Japanese distilled beverage before, then Roka Akor's seasonal infusions are a great place to start. They also have happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. and industry night every Sunday. Sign up for an industry card at their website (if applicable, of course) and they'll give you 41 percent off your entire check.
For more information visit the Roka Akor website and check out our list of the best Japanese restaurants in the Valley.