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Offerings from the grill at Union Sushi

The Fire Inside

by Michael Nagrant | Men's Book Chicago magazine | November 8, 2011

The first flake of snow often coincides with the first silent tear of the year in the manliest of men. And by that, we mean guys who run their grill and smoker setups harder than a Kentucky Derby colt all summer. Thankfully, due to a slew of new restaurants across town introducing Japanese robata grills to fire up bites like Wagyu beef, short ribs and tongue, it’s never been easier to defer to the weather. Heck, one of these spots allows you to grill your own, so you don’t even have to give up the tongs. Really, the only compromise you might have to make is trading in that Goose Island 312 you usually nurse fireside for a Hitachino ale. Because one size never fits all, we’ve compiled a list of robata grill spots, both new and venerable, that honor every type of man out there. We also call out the best cuts and quaffs.

For the Man Who Has Everything: Roka Akor
Unlike most of the other spots on our list, this is one of the few places in town that fires its robata with traditional Japanese white charcoal, or binchotan, which burns hot and smokes very little. From hand-grated fresh wasabi root, as opposed to the usual reconstituted chalky powder, to beautiful maple-wood joinery at the bar, everything at Roka is about elegant detail. And that’s definitely the case with the $144 eight-ounce Grade 10-plus Wagyu beef, marbled like a slab of hand-quarried Italian granite. Though it’s not grilled, the prawn and scallop ramen on the lunch menu features the best handmade noodles in Chicago.
Choice Cut: Robata-grilled Australian Grade 10-plus Wagyu beef with artisan salts
Killer Quaff: Flying Pegasus Kire Sake—the Ferrari of sakes, a true companion to beef
456 N. Clark St., 312.477.7652, rokaakor.com

For the Man With an Inner Teenager: Union Sushi & Barbeque Bar
While there’s a clear Japanese influence on the food in this River North spot, the industrial metal work railings and graffiti-tagged walls are skate-park cool. Though partners Mike Schatzman and chef Worachai “Chao” Thapthimkuna didn’t put in a half-pipe in the dining room, there are plenty of great grill-fired goodies to grind on.
Choice Cut: Grilled beef tongue with Japanese curry
Killer Quaff: Yamato Sling featuring gin, sake, lemon, Bittercube cherry bark and vanilla bitters with a touch of seltzer
230 W. Erie St., 312.662.4888, eatatunion.com

For Mr. Cool: Yuzu Sushi & Robata Grill
Hidden in a little storefront located amidst vaquero shops and dollar stores on Chicago Avenue, this is probably the only spot in town where line cooks wear natty fedoras. Throw in some 100-year-old reclaimed wood banquettes and a few panels of manga comics on the walls, and you’re at the coolest grilling scene in town.
Choice Cut: Robata-grilled pork shoulder with honey garlic sauce
Killer Quaff: Yuzu is BYOB, so we recommend Yamazaki 12-year-old single-malt so you can toast, like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, to “Suntory Time!”
1715 W. Chicago Ave., 312.666. 4100, yuzuchicago.com

For the Sophisticate: Sushisamba Rio
If you like rooftop cabanas, moody lighting and pulsing electronica, you’ll settle into this longtime River North staple quite comfortably. Don’t let the sceney vibe fool you, though. Executive Chef Dan Tucker, an Alinea alum, makes food so good it’ll thump you harder than the restaurant’s music program. Like Roka Akor, he uses pricey exotic binchotan to fire his meats.
Choice Cut: Hamachi kama, or collar, with ponzu
Killer Quaff: Pisco sour
504 N. Wells St., 312.595.2300, sushisamba.com

For the Do-It-Yourself Man: Hae Woon Dae
We’re not entirely sure it’s wise to get too close to cast-iron grates blasting hellfire after a few cocktails. Still, there’s no better place than this Roger’s Park Korean barbecue spot to grill your own spicy protein at 3am while scarfing down copious free sides, including fiery kimchi and fluffy pajun—a sort of Korean omelette. Though the grill here isn’t a robata, we included it because Hae Woon Dae is a riot, and the interactive nature of Korean barbecue is probably the closest you’re going to get to a Weber in December in Chicago.
Choice Cut: Kalbi, or sweet and spicy red-chili marinated short ribs, along with a side of hae mool pah jun—a fluffy egg pancake filled with seafood and scallion
Killer Quaff: A cold OB, the Korean answer to Budweiser
6240 N. California Ave., 773.764.8018