A Stake In Sushi
text by David M. Brown | photos courtesy of Roka Akor
“Being typecast as a sushi restaurant was our main problem when we first opened. People said, ‘Oh, Roka Akor, that’s a sushi place. But I don’t like sushi,” recalls Executive Chef Jason Alford, who’s been part of the award-winning Scottsdale restaurant since its first sashimi was sliced and wasabi served.
Steaks are as much specialty here, too, as traditional sushi, sashimi and nigiri. Chef Alford buys celebrated Niman Ranch meat for its domestic streak, oxtail and pork belly. He also uses the California company for his Niman Ranch Bone Marrow with Squid Ink Brioche and Japanese Mignonette.
For almost eight years, Roka Akor has been a foodie getaway teeming with welcome, equally a destination to enjoy friends and quality food. “Roka” means a meeting place where food and drinks are shared, and “Akor” is a burning fire and projecting energy.
Just north of Indian Bend Road and the Scottsdale Seville, the 200-seat Roka Akor was the second of the namesake JNK Concepts restaurants to open, following London. Founded by Dr. John N. Kapoor because of his passion for international cuisine, the Scottsdale-based company now also has three additional Roka Akors in San Francisco, California, Chicago and Skokie, Illinois, as well as two locations of Marigold Maison Indian Cuisine and an Énolo Wine Café.
A signature of Japanese-cuisine preparation, the focal-point robata grill is surrounded by contemporary décor and lighting. From the fire, the chefs are always receptive to questions about the cuisine – except when they are yelling “Onega Shimasu” to patrons who are often uncertain what is happening. “That’s roughly, ‘Service, please.’ They’re calling out to the wait staff to pick up the food that has been prepared,” chef explains. “We don’t use heating lamps here. We want our guests to receive their food as it has just been prepared.”
As quick as an echo, the restaurant hears an even more laconic “Hai.” That’s “I’m on my way” from a waiter somewhere in the restaurant, responding that they’re already scurrying to the receiving counter for the platings. Almost immediately, guests are enjoying their food.
“The term ‘robata’ originates with the fishermen of the northern coastal waters,” he explains. “They would cook the fish on the boats with different charcoals and share the bounty with one another, using their oars.” Oars aren’t offered here for imbibing or for rowing, but chopsticks or standard cutlery will introduce regulars and newcomers to a wide variety of food and drinks to satisfy just about all palettes. This includes vegetables with Japanese-inspired marinades and sauces, seasonal specials and many nouvelle Japanese items.
“We’ve changed a lot here, but we’ve also kept a lot of our signature items,” chef says. These include the broiled lamb and black cod, staples at all company locations. The Roka Akor menu includes cold appetizers, hot appetizers and robata grill selections with specialty rubs and dressings such as the wafu dressing, a savory soy vinaigrette, with the 12-ounce Prime Rib Eye; the chili ginger sauce accompanying the 8-ounce or 12-ounce Filet and the signature black truffle-infused aioli for the Prime New York Strip Loin.
All of the fish items, such as the Yuzu Miso Marinated Black Cod with Pickle Red Onions, include healthful Himalayan rock salt, and the Japanese Wild Mushroom Rice Hot Pot has a black truffle option. And, for patrons who wish “to entrust the chef,” Omakase can be selected for a personalized tasting menu driven expertly by Chef Alford and crew.
Chef Alford, an Oregon native, chef moved to the Valley in 2005 to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale. He began instead to work for Scottsdale Culinary Hall of Fame inductee, Chef Anton Brunbauer at Barcelona, a well-respected North Scottsdale restaurant. “‘I’ll tell you everything I know,’ Chef Brunbauer told him. “So, I skipped culinary school. Some people like me learn better when you throw them in the fire.”
When Barcelona closed two years later, Alford applied for work at Fleming’s in Scottsdale, but he couldn’t find it. Just up the street, he saw Roka Akor had just opened and spontaneously stopped to speak with Chef Bjorn Weissgerber, who had been brought in from London to open the restaurant.
“‘Can you cook scallops?’ he asked me and I said ‘Yes.’ ‘Can you cook 1,000 of them?’ I nodded, so I started as a line cook and have been here since.” Chef Alford continued to work with Chef Ce Bian at the restaurant after Chef Weissgerber departed.
Alford misses his native Willamette Valley, which encompasses the areas from Eugene north to Portland, known worldwide for its award-winning Pinot Noirs. In particular, he misses the area’s overall bounty: truffles and mushrooms and filberts and blackberries and huckleberries, all nurtured by the great glacial soil and all of that Pinot-nurturing fall and winter rain. For vintners’ dinners, he’s even brought to Roka Akor Willamette Valley wine-growers such as David Adelsheim, founder of the eponymous vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains AVA.
With memories of his fertile birthplace, Chef has chosen to showcase Arizona bounty and seasonal specials at Roka Akor, which company management encourages. He buys bread from Noble Bread, Phoenix, for example, which he uses in dishes such as the Salt Springs Mussels with wild mushroom and ginger ponzu. The British Columbia mussels are plump and sweet and might be the best you’ve ever had.
And he likes to use citrus and other products from local growers. “I’m a believer in utilizing what is around us, what’s good and local,” chef says. For instance, McClendon’s Select in Peoria provides the yuzu, a Japanese-native citrus with a lime/mandarin finish, for the Butterfish Tataki and the Charred Octopus Salad. Tataki is Japanese for “seared rare.” Accordingly, Gorogias also muddles yuzu into some of his cocktails.
Chef had an opportunity to open the Chicago Roka Akor a few years back, but he was happy to return to the Valley, not only because of the Midwest cold but because that great city is already a great food town. “They’re already well known, but coming back here was great,” he says. “I want to help build something in Phoenix. We are still educating and we’re getting there. Together with what other chefs are doing in town at their kitchens, I want Roka Akor to be a part of that.”
Roka Akor is open for dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5−10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 5−11 p.m. Bar Roka opens a half hour earlier on those days. For a menu, see www.rokaakor.com. : :