Eater contributor Catherine De Orio is a blogger, writer, entrepreneur, and TV and radio personality. In her weekly Tasting Trends piece, she scours the city for what's trending on the dining scene and where you can taste the trend. Follow her culinary adventures on Twitter @CatCalls. This week's trend: Robata-style Grilling.
Sumi Robata Bar[Barry Brecheisen]
Robatayaki (Robata) cooking, which translates to 'fireside cooking' has been slowly burning in Chicago, but this style of cooking has been used in Japan for centuries. Tokyo-born chef-owner Gene Kato of Sumi Robata Bar chats about all things robata.
"The idea came from the Japanese tea ceremony," Kato explains. Living areas in older Japanese homes have an irori (charcoal-fired pit), recessed into the floor, with a chain and s-hook suspended from the ceiling for a teakettle to hang and heat over the flames. "Over time the idea to cook food in the fire pit came into play starting with Nabemono (Japanese hot pot dishes)," he says, "and then eventually robata." Northern Japanese fisherman began to utilize this method of cooking as a way to have hot food while out at sea for a few days. Unable to start a fire on the boat, since they were primarily made of wood, they would bring a box of pre-lit charcoal onto the boats that just needed to burn for the duration of their trip. As a nod to this history, some Robata bars will serve food on oars as they were used to pass food around the boat.
"Robata is a great introduction to Japanese cuisine because Americans can relate to barbecue," says Kato. And that is basically what this is: Japanese barbecue. Although the flavors of this style of cuisine may be more robust, don't expect the strong, heavily smoked, char of western barbecue. This technique still embodies the principle tenant of Japanese cuisine: simplicity. Quality ingredients and technique reign supreme. "Simplicity should not be confused with being easy," says Kato. "I have been focused on this for years, but am still perfecting it and improving how I cook." An ingredient is the focus of robata "no garnish, no sauce, so little to no room for error."
These days electric and gas robata grills abound, but traditionally this technique involves using hardwood charcoal in a boxed grill. "We use 100% white oak," says Kato. Known as bincho-tan, this pricey Japanese charcoal is highly compressed, allowing it to reach incredibly high temperatures and retain that heat very well and evenly for long periods of time. It burns white hot with no flame and the release of very little smoke imparts a more delicate flavor than one gets from traditional grilling. "In other grills, a lot of ash is created and the fire is externally so hot that a little breeze will cause it to flare up, heavily charring the outside and kicking up ash that adheres to the food," explains Kato. With this style of grilling, the charcoal burns so hot, it's possible to get a great sear on an ingredient, while leaving the inside moist and juicy.
Manning one of these grills requires a lot of attention. The heat changes depending how the coals are stacked to maintain heat and it is so hot that the ingredients need to be tended to constantly to ensure even cooking. But once mastered, the options are endless.
Kato says most things can be prepared on this grill, but the foods that lend themselves best to robata-grilling are those that are too delicate for traditional grilling or "can be cooked from their raw state without having to be blanched or par-cooked before grilling."
At Sumi, Kato shies away from skewering and slicing everything that goes on the grill. "The philosophy being that the more an item is cut or punctured, the more surface area that is exposed from where the flavorful juices can bleed out," explains Kato, "Keeping it in a larger piece allows the item to retain moisture while cooking." So, he keeps delicate ingredients like shrimp and lobster as well as duck and Japanese beef in as large a portion as possible so they retain moisture and give the full experience of the quality of that particular product. "I want the natural flavors to shine through and for the guest to get the very best for what they spend," says Kato.
And what do you wash it all down with? A beer of course. "It works well with the fattiness and smoky flavor of the grilled ingredients," says Kato.
Check out charcoal (not gas and electric) fueled robata-style grilling at these places:
Sumi Robata Bar | 702 North Wells Street |312.988.7864
Chef Kato's casual, but lively restaurant has something for everyone. The beef tsukune sliders use a housemade ground beef blend that is shaped like a sausage, skewered, grilled and served in a steamed bun with a miso-mustard sauce. "This is what a Japanese hot dog would look like," Kato jokes. For the more adventurous, check out the signature beef tongue dish. Gyutan. Follow the grilled items with udon noodles or one of the desserts for a clean finish to the meal.
Arami | 1829 West Chicago Avenue | 312.243.1535
Expect to find inventive robata dishes coming out of Chef Ty Fujimura's kitchen. Think tofu with bourbon, temari, negi and sesame flavors or the gyu, a simple beef strip kissed with silky uni butter.
Japonais | 600 West Chicago Avenue | 312.822.9600
Australian Rock lobster tail basted with miso butter and shiitake mushroom is a delicious staple on the menu, but keep an eye out for specials like togarashi marinated Jidori chicken thigh topped with aonori or Chilean seabass with sliced shishito peppers and miso butter.
Roka Akor | 456 North Clark Street |312.477.7652
Open for lunch and dinner, you can your robata fix any time of the day. Grilled seasonal vegetables are elevated with truffle-soy butter and the black cod skewer is yuzu-miso marinated and served with a refreshing mizuna salad.
Yusho | 2853 North Kedzie Avenue | 77.904.8558
Award-winning Chef Matthias Merges gives his take on Japanese street food at his Avondale eatery. The menu changes, but there is always a selection of robata-style options on the menu. When available, the hamachi collar is a don't miss. And for a unique take on a classic Japanese dessert, check out the skewered and grilled mochi.
Slurping Turtle | 116 West Hubbard Street | 312.464.0466
Robata-style grilled items at Chef Takashi's hip River North spot can be found under the Bincho-grill section of the menu. In addition to myriad meat, fish and poultry options, he offers some vegetarian options like the shishito peppers with bonito flakes and kabocha squash.
Tanuki | 3006 North Sheffield Avenue | 773.360.1950
This Lakeview byob offers well-executed classic robata-grill items like hotate-bekon, succulent sea scallops wrapped in bacon, beef short ribs as well as a selection of vegetables.
SUSHISAMBA Rio | 504 North Wells Street | 312.595.2300
One of the first places in Chicago to use a bincho-tan fueled grill, its robata offerings showcase the Japanese-Brazilian-Peruvian influences for which the restaurant is known. A traditional steak skewer is dressed with Malbec butter, while the octopus is paired with potatoes, botija olives and rocoto, a Peruvian chili jam.
Catherine De Orio dishes on all things cuisine, cocktail and cosmopolitan for editorial and broadcast outlets locally and nationally. You can follow her on twitter @CatCalls