Three eateries in Chicago's River North neighborhood highlight robatayaki. Yet one has kicked things up a bit on the robata grill, venturing into the realm of delectable and unusual food for Chicagoans.
What Is Robatayaki?
What exactly is robatayaki? Robatayaki is Japanese-style barbecue -- seafood, meat, and vegetables are grilled over a hot flame of charcoals, called the robata grill. Folklore chronicles this food preparation back to the 1600s in northern Japan.
River North Restaurants Trending With a Robata Grill
In Chicago's River North, a trio of Chicago restaurants within a 1-mile radius proffer sushi and foods prepared on the robata grill. Because Chicago upholds a strict indoor air quality ordinance, these dining establishments have customized grills that don't use charcoal.
On the southwest corner of Illinois and Clark Street, Roku Akor barbecues steaks, seafood, and other usual fare robatayaki-style. Travel five blocks north, and SUMI Robata Bar (Huron and Wells), the latest arrival, focuses on the traditional Japanese robata-grilled cuisine (steak, fish, and vegetables).
The idea of barbecuing over a robata grill is nothing really new, but Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar is the first Chicago restaurant to revolutionize it in River North. For restaurateurs Mike Schatzman and chef Chao, the research for unique foods commenced as a global expedition, tasting different street fare and foods prepared on the robata grill. After gathering six months of culinary intelligence spanning two continents, Chao developed what some might deem an intimidating menu. Chao unites usual ingredients with unique foods, such as grilled alligator and barbecued kangaroo, on the robata grill.
Unique Foods Off the Robata Grill
"Kangaroo tastes like a cross between beef and lamb, but without the gaminess," explains Chao. Union Sushi imports its kangaroo from Australia. To ensure succulence, the kangaroo bathes in pineapple and a soy seasoning overnight. The next day, the tenderloin is barbecued at 600 degrees on the robata grill.
"Because the texture changes after it cools down, kangaroo has to be eaten within five minutes," advises Chao.
But the real standout among the sushi, kangaroo, and other unique foods prepared at the Chicago restaurant is the robata-grilled alligator. Union Sushi imports its alligator tail from a farm in Louisiana. The preparation starts the day before in a marinade of Kirin beer and garlic soy. Served atop a puddle of pureed sweet potato and punctuated with crunchy water chestnuts, the confluence of sweet, savory, creamy, and crunchy culminates into an indelible encounter with alligator.
Find Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar at 230 W. Erie St. in Chicago.