If you've been around long enough, you start to catalog the past lives that certain spaces have had when you see them in a new incarnation. Walking through the dining room of ROKA AKOR to the stairs to reach the downstairs bar, I was struck by the sudden realization that though I had been inside that space before as Zinnia and Scott Howard, this was not a place I knew anymore.
For example, the 68-seat bar itself didn't exist as part of past restaurants in that location. The new space is cozy, a mix of industrial with natural elements like the bar top made from a slab of a fallen tree, or the almost topographical reliefs that the shaped planes of wood collectively cast from the walls. The U-shaped layout with tables along the walls creates a series of little nooks to sit in, perfect for catching up while enjoying a cocktail and charcoal-grilled skewers from the robata.
Managing the bar program is Daniel Hyatt, who made his name running the exceptional Alembic bar in the Upper Haight. The bar's focus will lean towards whiskies, with a full selection of Japanese whiskey to be enjoyed as highballs (a traditional beverage to pair with skewers in Japan) or neat. To complement the whiskey, Hyatt will be making his own clear ice blocks in house with a Clinebell and carving chunks to order from a specially designed, led-lit, barside block holder.
Joining Hyatt behind the bar is Luis Villavelazquez who is going from baker to shaker. Villavelazquez recently left La Victoria to open up his own retail spot (location TBD), and will be helping Hyatt and crew with bar prep and managing production of housemade ingredients like a plum cordial with ginger and kombu, Sightglass coffee extract, flavored honeys, and other fun ingredients.
The cocktail list is still being finalized, but Hyatt explained that he "really wanted to go with an old steakhouse vibe: big martinis, big Manhattans... something that you could actually sit with for a while." One of the cocktails that will make it on the list is the Lima Bean (Encanto Pisco, lime, local honey, Peruvian bitters, salt), which has a wonderfully refreshing salted Japanese plum (ume) quality that was neither savory nor sweet.
Rounding things out will be four beers on draft with an additional 25 bottles, highlighting Japanese beers. The bar will also will have a substantial house infused shochus displayed on a back wall of the bar. The infusions will include some year-round flavors, but also rotating seasonal infusions incorporating local produce.
The full restaurant menu of grilled items, sushi, and other Japanese dishes will be available at the bar. The menu will blend traditional fare with some inspired and whimsical dishes like uni severed with burnt lime half and chicharrones. Squirt some lime onto the roe, place a piece onto a chicharron and crunch away. Rich without being excessive, but totally unique, the dish shows a hint of what's to come.
While the work crews are moving full steam ahead, the opening date is currently set for the end of June/beginning of July (no set date has been confirmed at this time).
ROKA BAR (in the basement of ROKA AKOR), 801 Montgomery (at Jackson)