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What to Drink at Roka Akor, Opening Monday

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Jul 8, 2011 9:05PM

To ensure its liquid offerings were up to snuff with Chicago's cocktail-savvy diner, Roka Akor Sushi & Steak brought on bartender Dante LoPresti, formerly of Mercadito's basement cocktail lounge, Double A, to assist with the Japanese-leaning bar program. When it opens to the public on Monday, the expansive 200-plus-seat River North space will become the second Roka Akor location from Arizona-based JNK Concepts. (Bombay Spice, also opening Monday next door, is another of the restaurant group's concepts with a location in Arizona.) We met up yesterday with LoPresti at Roka Akor's bar to hear about what he and his team have in the works.

Most notably, Roka Akor will offer a host of shochu infusions. Shochu is a medium-proof Japanese spirit typically made from barley - although varieties made from buckwheat, sweet potato and other base ingredients also exist. Roka Akor is currently infusing bottles of barley shochu with several different fruits, spices, ginger and honey to create stand-alone cocktails, which will be served on the rocks, using hand-cut ice taken from giant blocks kept at the bar. (The infusions were not quite ready to taste or photograph at the time of our visit.) LoPresti said Roka Akor is using a special machine that can accelerate and intensify the shochu-infusion process. Asked exactly what kind device they have and how it works, he simply, slyly replied that "it's proprietary."

Some elements of the cocktail program were ported over from the Arizona Roka Akor location, although LoPresti has added a signature cocktail of his own creation to the list that he calls "THE ONE." Priced at $18 on the preliminary cocktail menu, "THE ONE" is the most complex of the list, owing to the ingredients involved: Bombay Sapphire Gin, junmai sake, Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, housemade kombu-infused soy syrup, ginger, fresh lemon juice and a lemon peel garnish.

Kombu is a seaweed in the kelp family that contains glutamic acid, which mimics naturally the savory umami flavors of MSG. With the inclusion of the kombu and touch of low-sodium soy sauce-based syrup, LoPresti intends to enhance the drinker's experience of the cocktail's other dominant notes (trace amounts of salt can boost our reception of other flavors). A sip delivers fleeting moments of smoke, savory and slightly sweet. A drink for those of us with a bit of a salty tooth.

The egg-white-froth-topped Whiskey Plum Sour is another standout of the list. Its Japanese credentials include 12-year-old Yamazaki single-malt and Plum Gekkeikan, which play off lemon and Angostura bitters.

As its subtitle suggests, Roka Akor will deal in sushi and steaks when it comes to food, with the latter fired on a huge robata grill that, unlike others that have turned up lately in town, will be fueled by charcoal and wood, not gas.

How with Roka Akor do, being across the street from Sunda? That remains to be seen, of course. But the restaurant is making a case for itself as a place to grab a tasty well-crafted cocktail. And one thing is certain: we'll be back to try the infused shochu.

Opening Monday, July 11, Roka Akor Sushi & Steak is located at 111 West Illinois Street.