Sumi Robata Bar grills Japanese-style

March 2, 2013 8:36:37 PM PST
Just because a restaurant is Japanese, doesn't mean it's all about sushi. Take Sumi Robata Bar in River North, for example. The narrow kitchen up front showcases two blazing grills, where the art of robata is practiced with great care.

"Comes from Northern Japan, and it was a way for fishermen to have hot cooked food on their boats," said Sumi Owner and Chef Gene Kato.

If grills are the machines, then it's the charcoal that fuels them. An expensive, hard-to-find charcoal, actually..

"A hundred percent binchotan or sumi - white oak," he said. "The result, product that you get is something that's very compressed, which means that it's going to hold the heat very evenly."

It also burns much hotter than hardwood. Take skewered shishito peppers or asparagus, for instance. After a brief rub of oil then seasoned with salt, within minutes they're transformed into blistered, charred vegetarian snacks. With heat that high, imagine what it does to juicy chicken thighs or off-beat cuts like pork jowel. It's not all nose-to-tail here though, there are plenty of choices.. even one that resembles a ground kefta kebab, topped with a bit of sweet miso mustard.

"The beef tsukune, it's very similar to a burger in a sense, but it's really soft and then we serve it with steamed buns so you get that really contrast in texture," said Kato.

Kato also has some non-grilled items.. Like a light, delicate appetizer of thinly-sliced tuna, dressed with fresh avocado and bright citrus.

"So we add tempura shallots, fried shallots, and then we add ohba, which is Japanese mint leaves, so it kind of adds a sharpness to the dish," he said.

Desserts are on another level completely. From "coffee and doughnuts" - think green tea on one side; chocolate-filled dough on the other.. To the most delicate blood orange composition, consisting of sorbet, gelee and fresh segments.

"Present something that's very fresh, very light," said Kato. "The whole dish is blood orange, but you get the different elements of the fruit."

One of the nice things about dining at Sumi is the ability to have a more interactive experience. You can sit at the bar, talk to the chefs, have a conversation, and if you're still hungry, just ask them to keep cooking for you.

The restaurant also has a small bar with a separate entrance on the side of the building, which includes a small, private dining room.

Sumi Robata Bar
702 N. Wells St
(312) 988-7864