'Robata'-style grilling in Chicago

August 19, 2011 8:48:23 PM PDT
Grilling is nearly a sport in Chicago, as many of us try to take advantage of the warm weather.

But in Japan, grilling is more of an art, with special emphasis placed on the charcoal. A wave of "robata" style grills has sprung up recently.

From Union Sushi in River North, to the Tokio Pub in Schaumburg, you're seeing the term "robata" grill more often. But purists would argue that this high-heat method of searing and cooking must not use gas, but rather, the imported - and expensive - binchotan charcoal from Japan. We found just two chefs in town relying on this unique heat source.

Some chefs take pride in their knives; others, their ingredients. For Dan Tucker, it's both of those of course, but he's also proud of his charcoal. Because at Sushisamba Rio in River North - which features both Japanese and South American flavors - Tucker imports the expensive binchotan charcoal directly from Japan.

"The branches are fired in a kiln 'til they glow bright cherry red. Then they're banked in pure white sand which results in a charcoal that's almost glass or ceramic-like. It allows you to cook things that would normally be overwhelmed by a traditional hardwood grill over a live fire," Tucker said.

Tucker loves to grill scallops or even hamachi collar over the intense heat - the bones keeping the flesh moist and flavorful. Even short ribs get that blistered exterior, which is impossible to duplicate over gas or standard hardwood.

"You get caramelization and sear and this kind of beautiful crust like especially on the skirt steaks and the filets," he said.

Just a few blocks away, the new Roka Akor is also featuring robata-style Japanese grilling, but the space devoted to their grill is somewhat more extensive.

"Binchotan is amazing temperature control, it stays always like a certain temperature. Really good for cooking the food and seasoning," said Executive Chef Ce Bian.

Bian will first sear items like chicken or wagyu beef over the binchotan, then move them over to a section burning mesquite wood, which adds subtle flavor. Even prawns get the robata-style treatment, along with more delicate items like sweet potatoes and asparagus.

"And this is like simplified, but really flavorful. That's the kind of thing we're doing here," Bian said.

There are other new places - like Yuzu in Ukrainian Village - claiming to serve robata-style grilled food, but again, they have a gas-only operation, so technically, it would not be classified as true robata.

Sushisamba Rio
504 N Wells St

Roka Akor
111 W Illinois St

Also mentioned; places using gas "robata" grills rather than with binchotan charcoal:
Union Sushi & BBQ
230 W. Erie St.

Tokio Pub
1900 E. Higgins Rd., Schaumburg

1715 W. Chicago Ave.

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