Mr. Robata

Japanese grilling at SushiSamba Rio

The name SushiSamba Rio may evoke thoughts of splashy design and cross-cultural sushi.

But a recent addition to the River North restaurant's kitchen is a serious engine of Japanese gastronomy: chef Dan Tucker's robata, a Japanese-style grill whose origins date back to fishermen in the 1600s.

In keeping with the robata's rustic roots, Tucker crafted his own by stripping out the restaurant's gas-fired grill, installing a custom-welded stainless steel box–and making numerous trips to Home Depot.

The contraption packs a ton of heat, says Tucker. And the traditional Japanese slow-burning oak charcoal (binchotan) that fuels it adds a savory, smoke-kissed flavor to everything that graces its grill.

Short ribs, skirt steak, baby octopus, scallops, salmon and vegetables–asparagus, sweet potato, mushrooms–are brushed with soy, mirin, sake, sugar and lemon during a quick spin on the grill ($6 to $12). During the week, seasonal flatbreads–topped, for example, with chorizo, manchego cheese, red chimichurri and mizuna ($13)–share the space.

Recent specials have included blistered sweet corn drizzled with spicy mayonnaise, and grilled peaches with a caramelized glaze ($8). Bone marrow, foie gras and sweetbreads have crossed its path, too.

And Tucker's just getting started: "If you can grill it, we'll throw it on there," he says.

SushiSamba Rio, 504 N. Well St.; 312-595-2300 or sushisamba.com