The hot grills and cool fish of modern robata-and-sushi restaurants have been making a big impact on Houston in recent years. Kata Robata, Ka Sushi and Kuu are just the significant members of the category that can be filed under 'K' (though celebrity chef-driven Katsuya by Starck, now closed, couldn't quite hang in there).
Add another big-name entry to the trend with the anticipated summertime opening of Roka Akor on the bottom floor of the 40-story 2929 Weslayan high-rise in Highland Village. The California-based restaurant was rumored to have been interested in leasing a ground-floor restaurant space in the new development since last summer.
But Roka Akor isn't just any upscale Japanese restaurant. The flagship American location was named one of Bon Appétit's top 10 sushi spots (along with the flagship Austin location of Houston's Uchi) and one of Travel + Leisure's best sushi restaurants in the country. The Houston Roka Akor will join four other links in the chain, including critically acclaimed locations in San Francisco and Chicago.
Houstonia made a call to the brand's corporate chef, Ce Bian, currently based in Chicago, to find out what to expect when Roka Akor Houston begins serving, hopefully in August. Bian began with the Zuma restaurant brand—which also owns Roka, in its native London, the city where Bian kicked off his career—before opening the Scottsdale restaurant in 2008.
Bian is already planning the menu for the Houston location with its chef de cuisine, current San Francisco Roka Akor executive sous chef and native Texan, Justin Reding. "We have our concept. We have our signature dishes. That won’t be changed," he says. "Usually we take our signatures and go looking for local ingredients to complement our menus."
Bian talks up the prime steaks (including wagyu), cooked over the charcoal robata grill, but also mentions other robata dishes not featuring beef. Lamb cutlets with Korean spices and yuzu-miso-marinated black cod with pickled onions are among the dishes sure to be on the Houston menu, the chef says.
So why did the brand choose Houston for its next opening? "The culinary [scene] is getting better and better," Bian says of the Bayou City. Comparing it favorably to better established food cities such as New York and San Francisco he adds, "I can definitely see Houston has become one of them. It’s a great opportunity to be part of that culinary environment. We just want to be part of it."