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What Makes Robata-Style Grilling So Tasty?

By Anthony Todd in Food on Dec 28, 2012 5:00PM

A rendering of the interior of Sumi Robata Bar

Robata-style grilling has been a growing restaurant trend for several years now. It sounds exotic, the results are dramatic and delicious, and people love grilled food, so who really cares what exactly goes into it? Well, as it turns out, we do. We sat down with Chef Gene Kato of the soon-to-open Sumi Robata Bar to learn the origins and secrets of Robata.

Robata means "fireside cooking" in Japanese, and, put simply, that's what Robata is: Japanese-style grilling. For all those people who think Japanese food begins and ends with sushi, Robata grilling actually has a much longer history and tradition. "Robata started in northern Japan and it actually came from the Japanese tea ceremony," explained Chef Kato. "If you see really old homes in Japan, in the center of the living space there would be a dug out pit. In the center of the pit, you had charcoal and there would be a chain hanging from the ceiling. At the end of the chain, you'd lash your teakettle. So that would heat the teakettle, and that's how the tea ceremony was done."

How did this get us to tasty grilled goodness? "People eventually started using that same technique to cook. Typical dishes included hot pots, and eventually Robata came out of that. People would transfer the hot coals into boxes so that fisherman could have hot food on their boats. All they had to do was continue the fire. The boats back then were made of wood, so there was no real way to start a fire on the boat. So this was a great way to have hot food on the boat." Traditionally, to honor this history, some robata restaurants will serve their food on the end of a stylized paddle.

To do Robata grilling, you need a very special kind of charcoal - not the stuff you put in your Weber. "Those bricks with the hollow centers? Those are imitation. They aren't 100% solid wood. Those are called starter charcoal. Even to start the fire with that kind of gives an off taste," Chef Kato told us. For Robata, he uses white oak "bincho," a compressed hard-wood charcoal that looks like a black cylinder. You don't cover this stuff in lighter fluid - instead, Chef Kato puts a rack over his cooktop and lays the charcoal on top of that, covers it in foil and waits until it's glowing red.

If you see leaping flames at a Robata restaurant, they're doing it wrong. "Bincho doesn't burn - it doesn't flame up. It's so hot it's past the point of flaming. It just glows. A lot of the Robata places, you see all this flame and fire. I know it's exciting, but in the sense of true Robata cooking, that's a negative. If you get the flames (you get them because of the grease from the meat) it actually makes the food taste scorched. Whereas the whole point of the technique technique is to get the juices to drip out from the ingredients and cause that little puff of smoke to enhance the flavor of the food."

Unlike a stovetop, you can't adjust the heat when you're working with charcoal this hot. Instead, the chefs have to adjust the height of the food for each ingredient and carefully track the time it stays on the grill. "It looks simple if a professional is doing it, but there is a lot of experience needed to do it right. Imagine: if you're on an open stove and you want to saute something, you can go from low to full blast. Here, you have to control that by the height of the charcoal, how you stack it and how you spread it out within the space of the grill. It's quite complicated to understand how to get that heat, and you have to adjust it to each ingredient."

What do you put on this grill? A lot, it turns out. "Anything that has a good fat content, like 100% Wagyu beef from japan! Beef takes on the smoky flavor well, and the heat is really intense that you get a really crunch crust on the outside. The inside is melt-in-your mouth. It can be tougher to do seafood, because fish can be very delicate and very flaky. You have to control the heat and make sure you place the fish on the right spot. Something like the cheeks, collar. They're great. There is bone structure to the collar so it will hold the meat. Not a fillet, something with structure." Vegetarians aren't out of luck either. "Vegetables are great too. Potatoes! Take a sweet potato, poke holes in the foil and put it in the warm ashes left over from the grill. You'll have a great savory smoky aroma."

All of these treats will be available at Sumi Robata Bar when it opens. The goal is to open the restaurant by the end of the year, but the date hasn't firmed up yet. What we find most refreshing about Chef Kato's vision for sushi is that he isn't trying to invent some new flashy fusion cuisine to impress Chicagoans. "It's not so much me doing my version of Japanese food, it's about me giving Chicago something that is authentic. We're not going to try to do everything; ramen, tempura. There's a time and place for that, but i want to give customers something that's honest. We're not going to put shaved daikon and orchids and ginger and all that on everything. We want to put all that money into the product - a better, thicker piece of meat or fish."

Sumi Robata Bar will be located at 702 N. Wells.