If you’re looking for a modern, revitalized taste of Japanese cuisine — one that treads the line between simple innovation and pure genius — Roka Akor in Oakbrook is a well-contested start. An amalgamation of upscale cooking techniques and eclectic decor, Roka Akor is truly a culinary force to be reckoned with, one whose wide array of vegetarian dishes is a true treat for any palette.
The moment you step into Roka Akor, you’re immediately taken aback by the profound urbane feel of the space. Towering dark wood beams are strewn about the entryway, speckled with dainty panels of glass and a mix of traditional Asian deities. A large Buddha statue sets the mood for the restaurant with its earthy colorway and speckled streaks of gold.
A few steps past the entryway will reveal a colorfully illuminated open-kitchen that blends seamlessly into the piece of art that is the dining space. Elegant, yet casual — colorful, yet muted. Dainty, golden lights hang from the ceiling, casting a golden hue over the glistening glassware and imposing tempura platters. A sizable, color-changing light panel hung just above the sushi bar truly encapsulates the cultural juxtaposition of Roka Akor. A smoky aroma — something between the earthy smell of soy sauce and the fragrance of miso — hangs ever-so-slightly in the air, only interrupted by the excited chatter of a typical dinner conversation. Between the strikingly modern decor, upscale ambiance, and inviting smells, it’s impossible not to start salivating even before you even order.
The restaurant’s aim is simple: to blend an upscale environment with the all-encompassing flavors of Japan. With everything from sushi and ramen to Japanese-marinated meats and bold rice dishes lining the menu, there’s no shortage of robust flavors. Roka Akor manager Rich Baca oversees the kitchen and service making sure it’s up to top-notch quality. Having managed at Michelin-recommended Nicksons Eatery and Emmy Award winning Rockit Ranch Productions, Baca is well-versed in the vast world of fine-dining.
“Roka Akor opened just about two years ago and it aims to be a modern Japanese steakhouse that specializes in sushi and steak,” Baca explains.
Personally, I’d say it was a success.
The first dish presented before us is the sweet corn — a grilled corn-on-the-cob that’s liberally glazed with a housemade miso-butter and soy reduction. The dish comes out looking like a true masterpiece, with a finely sliced spring onion garnish and silky sheen that catches the light in mystifying angles. A smoky aroma arises from its slightly-charred edges, a harbinger for the impeccable depth of flavors that this dish brings.
A few bites reveal a strikingly savory, complex flavor profile with sweeter undertones from the soy reduction and corn itself. Although the glaze might stick to your hands considering just how rich and velvety it is, you forget it’s even there once you take a few bites. The corn is extremely succulent and perfectly translates the fiery intensity from the grill into the more delicate, fermented flavors of the glaze. There’s a particular crunch to the dish that adds this feeling of satisfaction that — when coupled with the full-bodied taste — honestly makes you wonder how a simple vegetable has been elevated to achieve this level of delectability. In this one dish, Roka Akor is able to maintain the simplicity of modern cuisine with the dynamism of Asian flavors. It’s a truly heavenly combination.
The next dish that’s brought out to us is the spicy fried tofu — golden-brown tofu that’s crisped to perfection and served with a dollop of wasabi aioli, avocado relish, and Fresno chilies. The tofu is arranged in a staircase pattern on a glazed, off-white colored plate that accentuates the inviting contrast between the vibrant greens of the accompanying sauces, the rosy hue of the chilies, and the glistening golden of the tofu. It’s truly a sight to marvel at.
The tofu come in perfectly proportioned bite-sized pieces and, frankly, this is a dish you’re going to want to eat in one bite. The heat from the wasabi aioli is immediately the first flavor to reach your taste buds, the slight heat tickling the back of your throat as your face suddenly comes alive with vigor. The tangy sweetness of the avocado relish and freshness from the chilies mellow the wasabi and create the perfect segue to the tofu. When it comes to the tofu though, there’s nothing special — it’s just tofu. Tender and salty as you’d expect from tofu, it’s honestly the perfect medium for all the other flavors to shine. Roka Akor’s masterful creation of balance in their dishes is primarily what defines them as a key part of the Oakbrook food scene.
After enjoying other notable appetizers including their vegetable tempura platter, complimentary roasted beetroot salad, vegetable tempura sushi, and crispy brussel sprouts it was time for the main dish: the Japanese Mushroom Rice Hotpot. Slow-cooked in a traditional wood vessel, it tastes and smells and like nothing you’ve ever eaten before; it’s an unparalleled experience. The dish is actually brought out in the hotpot and a waiter opens and serves it at the table.
From the moment the hotpot is opened, an array of senses are promptly stimulated — the earthy, umami smell of mushrooms and soy drifting up in a cloud of steam. Cooked to the point where each grain of rice has a bite but still feels super velvety, the rice is a very rich, hearty dish. A variety of mushrooms from oyster to shiitake are liberally sprinkled about the dish along with some Chinese chives that constitute a very dynamic flavor profile. Nutty notes from the soy and earthy tones from the mushrooms interweave to create this caramelized, bold flavor that just keeps you coming back for more. It’s almost like a mushroom risotto, except it’s Asian. And better.
A rollercoaster of flavors and eight dishes later, it’s time for the most eagerly awaited course of the night: dessert. Asian restaurants aren’t typically known for their desserts, but Roka Akor takes every opportunity to defy this notion. They masterfully blend sophisticated European cooking techniques with staple Asian ingredients, making for — arguably — the most interesting flavor combination that I have ever eaten in my 16 years of existence.
One dessert — a dish that I could keep on eating for days upon days on end — is their ube pot de crème. It’s basically the smoothest, most luscious custard on the planet and it’s made with ube — a purple Filipino yam that becomes extremely sweet when cooked. It’s topped with a puffed rice and sesame cracker along with fresh fruit. The taste is indescribable in words, it’s something so unique and transcendent that you just have to taste it for yourself.
With no other restaurant in the area that merges such a refined, upscale ambiance and decor with truly innovative cuisine, Roka Akor is an experience worth every last penny. Roka Akor accomplishes what it set out to do not only in a way that shapes the local food scene but in a way that defines the delicious legacy of Japanese cuisine.
Roka Akor is located at 166 Oakbrook Center in Oakbrook. Learn more by calling 630-552-6159 or visiting them at www.rokaakor.com.
Aryav Bothra is a food critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl