The GRUB GUIDE To What’s Hot . . .

Roka Akor's steak made over the robata grill. (Photo: Roka Akor)

I’m betting a collective groan happened when folks in River North found out that yet another sushi spot was opening in the neighborhood. It’s not like the area is short on sashimi and maki rolls, so making a big splash was essential when Roka Akor Sushi & Steak set up shop in July across the street from celeb-magnet Sunda.

Lucky for Roka Akor, its reputation preceded it as parent company JNK Concepts has opened three successful locations in Hong Kong, London and Scottsdale, Ariz. But for the finicky Chicago diner, especially in the downtown area, you still need more than just a name to impress.

They’re hoping diners will warm up to Roka’s robata grill, which is a dominant part of the restaurant’s dining room. The traditional, Japanese-style cooking device is in open view and takes its name from the Japanese word for “cooking with open flames.” A number of dishes are grilled on the robata, including a flavorful Yuzu Miso-Marinated Black Cod, Wild Jumbo Tiger Prawns and the hard-to-get Australian Grade 10+ Pure Bred Wagyu Beef that’s the juiciest piece of meat we’ve ever seen.

Executive Chef Ce Bian also features two omakasa menus, the Japanese version of a degustation. It comes highly recommended if you’re adventurous enough to allow the chef to go a little crazy with dishes not featured on the menu.

What also sets Roka Akor apart from its competitors is the drinks menu. Oh yeah, they’ve got sake, Japanese beer and Asian-inspired cocktails, but you’ll also find a unique list of Shochu infusions that are specially served over a hand-chipped block of ice. There’s Coconut & Ginger, the sweet and spicy Mango & Chili, and a curious blend of Black Cherry & Pepper.

The signature grilled lamb chops from Bombay Spice. (Photo: Bombay Spice)

Adjacent to Roka Akor is sister restaurant Bombay Spice, a contemporary Indian restaurant putting updated spins on classic dishes. There are quite a few popular authentic Indian restaurants in River North and Streeterville, but what sets Bombay Spice apart is its dedication to healthier choices that are also bursting with flavor. All dishes are prepared with olive oil rather than ghee or butter, and it makes a difference in the grilled lamb chops, shrimp tikka skewers, and various roti and naan sandwiches. But one of our faves is the chickpea cerviche appetizer, a hearty and filling dish served with traditional crispy Roti bread. And those who’d rather customize their dinner can do so with the “create your own entrée” option that allows you to pick a protein (chicken, lamb, seafood, tofu), choose a house-made sauce (curry, masala, vindaloo, korma) and add a starch (basmati rice, brown rice, quinua or noodles).

More exploration of fine cuisine can be found at EL, a new venture by MeatyBalls food truck owner Phillip Foss. The ballsy, six-seater in the heart of Pilsen features the experimental food he really wants to cook. It's only open Thursday-Saturday with one 6pm seating for a degustation-style supper. He's brought aboard former Kith & Kin Executive Chef Andrew Brochu to help out in the kitchen. The only way to snag a hard-to-get reservation is by email, which you can find right here.

So Scott Harris, the principal guy behind the Francesca restaurant brand, changed Francesca’s Forno’s name during its extensive renovation, but then decided to keep it. And that’s a very good decision, seeing how loyal customers filled up the space in its opening days. New Executive Chef Larry Tio's crafted a small plate Italian focused menu, with salumi, traditional pizzas and pastas with seasonal ingredients. There’s also a number of craft beers, specialty cocktails, and an affordable wine list of eco-friendly, sustainable, bio-dynamic and organic labels.

And Tribute opens in the South Loop, offering area residents an offbeat, upscale dining experience that’s been lacking in these parts. Helmed by Canadian Lawrence Letrero, the kitchen is cranking out dishes using local and sustainable products supporting Midwestern farms and suppliers. Letrero is also no stranger to Chicago’s culinary scene as he previously worked at Perennial (now Perennial Virant) under Executive Chef Ryan Poli as well as Karyn's On Green.