Nippon noshing: Rokai brings a little bit of Tokyo to the D.F.

Bijou sushi at Rokai
    “It makes me want to cry!” exclaimed Nanae, a chilanga of part-Japanese descent. “I haven’t had sushi so good since Tokyo” she explained, wiping away a tear. We were feasting at Rokai, the new spot for eclectic and extraordinary traditional Japanese cooking. Seated at the house's two tables, pushed together, were this reporter, the chef of one hot corner Roma bistro who knows a thing or two about fish, and a group of very professional diners--all of whom had been to Japan.

Master chef Hiroshi at work
 Rokai, situated on a quiet street in the formerly gastronomically sparse Colonia Cuauhtemoc, is a venue for master chef Hiroshi Kawahito’s fine-tuned cooking. The judiciously brief  menu features an omakase,  which translates as “leave it to you”, i.e. what the chef wants to serve: it's a multi course Japanese feast. I’ll leave it to this chef, L.A.-born of Japanese ancestry, who moved to Tokyo where he learned the fine art of sushi cutting. New to Mexico, he’s a master of raw fish. His menu that includes a soup, a karaage dish (miso marinated and sauteed), a katsu (breaded and fried), as well as plates of fine sushi and sashimi, is creative and intriguing. But this simple description doesn’t do the menu justice. Each plate, arranged with a savvy designer’s eye by assistant Daisuke is a work of art unto itself.

 Pulpo (octopus) appears in various guises, but always takes a starring role. As “carpaccio”, sliced razor thin, it’s buttery, and complemented with a sprinkling of black and white sesame seeds, so that its delicate flavor is never trumped. A deep fried morsel works less well, as the texture becomes a bit rubbery, but graceful aromas still tickle the nose.

 Katsu is a huge category in the Land of the Rising Sun and is one I usually avoid, as these deep-fried milanesas seems more about crunchy fried-ness than anything else--but not here.  A katsu lamb, served with a little bowl of tartar sauce, is crusty without, juicy within, a perfect balance – and the delicious ovine umami survives; the mundane is transcended.

carpaccio de pulpo
A karaage-style bacalao has been expertly baked; the simple, intense but gentle fishiness of the cod is winningly complemented by the caramelized miso and mirin sauce – the bistro chef approves, downing the last bite with a knowing smile on his face.

Finally, I feel like Audrey Hepburn at Tiffany’s when the most gorgeous plate of nigiri sushi I’ve ever seen is unceremoniously set at the table. Each adroitly crafted morsel sparkles jewel-like and defies the eater to touch. But we do, again and again, because the supremely fresh fish, along with its bed of rice, seasoned just so, is too good just to look at.

Rokai’s hand-printed menu also offers three a la carte categories. Five Nigiri, the previously mentioned hand pressed sushi, four rolls, none of which contain that most vulgar of adaptations, cream cheese, and seven or eight special cooked dishes, such as the aformentioned cod karaage and lamb katsu.  

Kasaage bacalao
The clean open space, designed by Diego López, features white-on-black aquatic images on the walls and lots of wood.  An open kitchen and a sturdy sushi bar spotlights the chefs at work.

The omakase at $490 for 2 people (lunchtime a bit lower) is a good deal. But such good Japanese food should be priceless.

いただきます - ¡Buen provecho!

Rio Ebro 87, between Rio Lerma y Rio Panuco
Colonia Cuauhtemoc
Tel. 5207 7543
Open Monday through Saturday from 2 - 5 and 7 - 11 p.m.

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