I was invited to bring a friend to attend a party introducing Roka Akor’s new after-work bar menu. Roka Akor’s bar/lounge area, dubbed Roka Bar, now has its own bar menu – available daily from 5pm to 7pm, and 9:30pm to closing – and its own mixologist, Jason Huffman.
The food is distinctly bar snack-y with Executive Chef Ce Bian’s modern Japanese flair. The drinks are well balanced; they go down quite smoothly.
Mr. Huffman has introduced crafted cocktails to Roka Bar. He’s not just mixing drinks, either: he infuses shochu with flavors such as blueberry mint and raspberry ginger, makes ginger beer, and mixes delicious drinks. None of the drinks we tried were too sweet, and they all accompanied the food nicely.
Both my friend and I fell in love with A Farewell to Arms, vermouth-based cocktail that was pretty much perfect. Mr. Huffman doesn’t just make drinks, infusions, and beer, he knows all about all things alcohol. He knows from whence the vermouth in A Farewell to Arms hails and is aware of Japan’s “ice culture.” What his knowledge of Japan’s ice culture means to Roka Bar’s patrons: ice of different sizes and shapes based on the type of drink, and sometimes a show of hand-chipping ice during the preparation of a cocktail. Drinks and a show.
Other than the A Farewell to Arms, I can also recommend the Roka 75, a take on the French 75; the Roka Mule, complete with service in a copper mug; and the Shochu Smash that has the bonus of pretty fruit and fresh mint. Really, I can’t imagine that any of the mixed drinks at Roka Bar under Jason Huffman’s watch could be bad.
We all know we’re too ol–, er … mature to do all that imbibing without some food in our bellies. Roka Bar’s new bar menu can help a lot. Roka Bar is a sleek and sophisticated River North spot, not a sports bar, so there isn’t any popcorn, there are no saucy chicken wings.
Instead, Roka Bar has Sweet Corn Tempura with Truffle Aioli and Chicken Yakitori, decidedly more upscale snacks. The Sweet Corn Tempura with Truffle Aioli is ok, but I think it will taste better later in the year when corn is in season locally; what we tried had decidedly starchy corn. The Chicken Yakitori was grilled and sauced chicken thigh served on a stick. Meat on a stick is rarely wrong, and at Roka Bar it’s very right.
Craving a burger? Try the Roka Akor Chibi Burger served on a brioche bun with red onion and avocado. Or, if you’d prefer something less traditional on a bun, go for the soft shell crab slider.
The bar menu has plenty of fried options, which are always a good foil to alcohol. The Shrimp and Lobster Tacos with Scallop Ceviche have friend shrimp and lobster and raw scallop inside a crisp fried “taco” shell. The Fried Squid with Lime and Serrano Chili has a satisfying crunch. The Braised Duck Spring Roll with Apple and Grapefruit has a rich filling, a blistery, fried exterior, and fruit toppings that cut nicely through the richness.
Of course we could live on fried food (and alcohol) alone, but we know we shouldn’t, right? Not to worry at Roka Bar. Roka Akor has been recognized as a Top 10 Sushi Spot in the US by both Bon Appétit and Travel & Leisure so they have delicious sushi. We tried several maki including spicy tuna maki that was actually spicy, something that, in my experience, seems to be rare.
Other not-so-fried options include Chirashi Tartar on Lotus Chips, a single bite of tender raw fish on a thin slice of crunchy lotus root, and Waygu Beef & Kimchi Dumplings that contain a nice contrast of rich meat and fermented cabbage. There’s the ubiquitous edamame, but Roka Bar’s version is nicely spiced.
The Prime Filet with Chili Ginger Sauce is meltingly tender. The Robata Grilled Bone Marrow with Sesame Nori Toast is so, so rich, and delicious. My dining companion claimed he didn’t like bone marrow until I explained it was essentially meat butter, and he tasted Roka Bar’s take on it that included a schmear of grainy mustard. He’s a convert.
The entire bar menu is meant to share so go with some coworkers after work.