I was saddened to learn that Sushi Roku closed its doors on Third Street near La Cienega. The other locations in Santa Monica and Pasadena are still open. Owner and partner of Innovative Dining Group (IDG), Michael Cardenas started his career as a teppan chef in San Diego after graduating from culinary school in 1981. He forged a partnership with IDG in 1997 to open the first Sushi Roku on Third. With its success, he brought his brother Tom Cardenas onboard to help expand the restaurant dynasty.
Their latest endeavor is a new concept restaurant ROKU, in the beautiful space that was once RivaBella off Sunset Blvd. I was recently invited to attend a dinner at ROKU and curious to see how they changed the decor of a spectacular Tuscan-inspired dining hotspot into a lively Japanese Tappanyaki, sushi bar and fine dining destination.
ROKU offers Hibachi dining with a personal chef preparing meals in an interactive environment for two to 28 guests. Teppan chefs cook up A-5 Japanese Wagyu, Matsuzaka beef, Santa Barbara spot prawns, and vegetables at grill tables. The night I dined, there were a group of Australian visitors having a grand time at one table.
At the nearby sushi bar, Chef Jiro Kobayashi rolls the freshest fish daily in both traditional and modern sushi preparations. Guests may choose the Omakase or Chef’s Choice option to be surprised throughout their meal.
I met my group out on the patio to sample from the progressive menu in the indoor/outdoor space. Many of the dishes were similar to the iconic Sushi Roku brand. I also noticed a selection of handpicked sakes, crafted cocktails and a large selection of Japanese whiskey.
We started with the spicy Sunomono smashed pickled cucumber that offered a nice crunch and kick to excite the palate. This is one of the most popular items on the Roku Red Sun Happy Hour.
For an elegant appetizer, the salmon caviar is thinly sliced pink curls of fresh fish around daikon radish, shiso leaves, and topped with a heaping spoonful of midnight black osetra caviar.
What I liked about RivaBella was the tableside dining. They offer it a ROKU too. A large bowl filled with crushed ice is placed in the center of the table. Inside is a smaller bowl with raw and chopped toro, the fatty underbelly of tuna. Surrounding the bowl are seven smaller bowls that include chopped onions, caviar, soy and ponzu sauce. It’s prepared before your eyes and the delicacy is spooned into a edible rice basket. This would have been perfect, yet the creative basket was too delicate and crumbled easily. I wished it were a little more dense to break in bigger pieces to use as a cracker.
The ethereal fluke sashimi is tiny bite size pieces of raw fish splashed with a burst of kumquat and yuzu vinaigrette. These morsels and decorated with minuscule flower petals and microgreens. It’s ideal to use chopsticks to pick these off the plate.
Another stunning dish is the blue crab tartare with uni and caviar on top. It was adorned with a lovely magenta and white tropical flower.
A plate of roasted shishito peppers dusted with aged parmesan, vinegar and toasted sesame seeds arrived to our table. These slender, finger long peppers have a thin green skin that blisters when charred, offering a smoky essence. Shishito is a chili pepper with a tip that looks like a head of a lion. We cautiously bit into each one before popping the entire pepper into our mouth, because one out of ten peppers are very spicy. Out of five I bit into, only one singed my tongue.
For another appealing earthy flavor, I enjoyed the wood fired Eryngi mushrooms marinated in a plum vinaigrette and bathed in an almond butter. These mushrooms are also called the King Trumpet mushroom, because they look like the instrument with a thick and meaty stem and a small tan cap.
ROKU is able to grill many dishes, because of the wood fire pizza oven installed for RivaBella that they kept intact. My favorite was the wood fired kabocha and butternut squash that glistened with a Japanese sesame chili paste. Kabocha is also known as Japanese pumpkin. It offers a pumpkin and sweet potato flavor and is a pleasing and popular vegetable in tempura.
For entrees we enjoyed the sea bass and wild mushroom “Toban Yaki” resting on top of three different types of mushrooms in a creamy yuzu butter sauce.
Prime New York Strip was meat dry-aged for 40-days and the same quality meat served across the street at the restaurant BOA. The steak at ROKU is marinated in a yuzu kosho fermented paste made with green chili peppers, shaved yuzu peel and salt. It’s sliced uniformly and arrives on a platter with roasted vegetables that included tomatoes, squash and Brussels Sprouts.
Before dessert we finished with four pieces of Matsu Sushi that arrived with sliced ginger. There was a salmon sushi with a slice of cucumber and spoonful of caviar, and pieces of sea bream, yellowtail, and albacore.
Executive Chef Tyson formally at Chi-Lin, the exquisite Chinese restaurant that shared a kitchen with RivaBella, now helms the kitchen at ROKU. He make his signature XO fried rice with Lap Cheong sausage, egg and shrimp. Lap Cheong is usually dried, hard sausage made from pork that is smoked, sweetened, and seasoned with rose water, rice wine and soy sauce.
His baked crab hand rolls stuffed in rice paper is served warm with a slightly sweet soy sauce.
Fully satiated, I only had enough room left for one taste of three speciality desserts that included a green tea circular tiramisu with flowers, a caramel pot de crème, and rich molten chocolate lava cake with berries.
ROKU offers a unique vibe offering elevated Japanese comfort food with exciting flavor profiles that are artfully plated.
You must park valet or find a meter. Be sure and get your valet ticket stamped and the end of your meal to pay a reduced parking fee. $$$ Open for Lunch Monday through Friday: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The Red Sun Happy Hour is Monday through Friday from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Dinner service begins at 5:30 p.m. 9201 Sunset Blvd. (310)278-2060.
This article was also published in the Beverly Press February 18, 2016.