For what feels like an eternity, I have been driving past 2929 Weslayan – anticipating the momentary opening of ROKA AKOR. For so long. Seriously, even the vinyl “opening soon” sign faded from exposure.
So anxious, I am here on the second night of business. And so are all the Roka Akor heavies – corporate chef, executive sushi chefs, regional and national managers.
It is a bright and sunny six o’clock and the blond wood dining room and bar are vibrant with chatty customers. So sun-bright that the daylight blows out the subtlety of the back-lit wine cellar designed to glow like the orange coals of the robata grill. But the glow grows as the sun sets and these fire-colored lights hint at the attention to detail one will encounter throughout the evening.
Honoring tradition while employing futuristic equipment, this Michelin Guide-recommended restaurant group, based out of Scottsdale, pole vaults over the current bar of excellence in Houston.
“We can get fresh fish flown in from the Tokyo market, flash freeze it to minus 80 celsius in a matter of minutes, bring it back to temperature and serve it the next day,” says CE BAIN, the corporate chef, in town to get the staff off to a proper Roka Akor start.
(According to city health codes, all fish served raw must be subjected to a deep freezing process to kill off parasites. The cryogenic equipment leaves the cellular structure of the fish intact, making the sashimi and sushi impeccably delicious, with an ocean-fresh integrity of texture.)
Except for a small fish prep kitchen (where the whole fish are turned into loins and the cryogenic freezer lives), the entire, pristine kitchen is on display – the fry station, the dessert area, the sushi counter and then the hearth of it all, the robata grill glowing orange heat from the intense coals of compressed white oak charcoal.
A cryogenic freezer and one big, bad, four-tier robata grill. Roka Akor – wow.
A self-described sushi, seafood and steak house (best sushi restaurant in US by Travel + Leisure magazine), it is challenging to decide what to order. You don’t have to decide: Say the magic word Omasake – the chef will just start sending out dishes. Omasake – translates to “entrusting your fate to the chef” – and why not? He knows the freshest and the best. FYI: Roka rolls old school style; one order of sushi = two pieces.
The sashimi is deliriously impeccable. The fish glistens, the cuts precise, the pieces perfectly mouth-size, the array stunning. The added flourishes scream luxury: hamachi tinged with 24 karat gold leaf; Ossetra caviar dots the seasonal deluxe sashimi platter.
On the menu, there is even a Premium Blue Fin Tuna flight. If you thought Toro was the ultimate, just wait until you are introduced to Chu Toro or Hon Maguro.
Buttery uni (sea urchin roe), so ocean-fresh knees go weak. Bain has honed his craft to such a level of expertise that he can tell by taste and appearance the source of the uni. “I like the uni from the waters off Hokkaido – the ocean is deeper, the water is colder there – the uni is better.”
Wasabi is house-grated, soy sauce housemade. And Himalayan pink salt grated tableside. (And an excellent, novel flavor enhancer.)
Attention to detail, mind-boggling. Even the small, decorative, crystal clear chunk of ice on the sashimi platter receives attention.
The spotted prawn sushi – amaebi – more, please. Other small dishes of wonder – bite-size rolls of paper-thin Wagyu beef wrapped around a crispy matchstick of pickled daikon with a shaving of black truffle on top. The dreamy Toro tartare topped with Ossetra caviar, a cute quail egg and useful taro chips. Should you prefer a cooked appetizer, consider the delightful, citrusy, robata-grilled diver sea scallops with Yuzu sauce accented with wasabi dust.
And then…then there is beef – wondrous, delirious beef – the prized and rare, the incredibly marbled, certified Kobe beef (that can only come from select cuts of select bulls and virgin cows of the Tajima strain of Wagyu cattle raised in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan). On this day – a Tuesday evening – corporate director of operations Mo Habul confides, “Monday night, so many customers ordered Kobe beef, we are worried about running out before next allotment arrives.”
“We basically have to guess what our monthly needs (as regards Kobe beef) will be,” says Bain. “We can order direct from Japan but we are not importers and our importers bring in only enough to fill standing orders.”
“Kobe beef is very delicate, very difficult to work with, very expensive. The fat melts at room temperature. It must be fresh,” says Bain. He almost chuckles when he adds, “We serve it as point of pride – not profit. One wrong cut (he points to a chef trimming out a magnificent loin and portioning it into steaks) too long out of the refrigerator, we lose a lot of money.”
“Me? I prefer the Waygu beef from Hokkaido – the wind, the temperature – it is a little colder than in Hyogo – the soil, the grass is all a little different – generates more fat. I think better meat,” mentions Bain.
Seared with the intense heat on the lowest rack of the vertical robata grill, a chef deftly moves these prized steaks up the various levels of the grill until the meat is ready to be sliced, plated and delivered to the table with flourish that $32 to $50 an ounce (3 ounce minimum) steaks demand.
Get a front row seat to this ballet of heat and meat at one of the eight seats at the robata counter.
If you are a true foodie, stop in for a late lunch – and you might be lucky enough to catch chef filleting a loin of Kobe or Waygu. A sight of ecstasy.
And save room for dessert. Such as the warm Valhrona chocolate cake with oozing almond caramel center.
Roka Akor is rocking it and worth the wait.
2929 Weslayan St. | Houston, TX 77027
713.622.1777 | www.rokaakor.com