Robatayaki, sometimes shortened to robata, literally translates to fireside cooking. And, similar to a traditional campfire, this Japanese food is a social experience that even kids enjoy. While hard to find, at least in San Diego, seek it out in Japan as a healthy alternative to sushi or ramen — though, don’t get me wrong, you can really fill yourself with robata without effort. If you’re visiting Tokyo with kids and don’t mind the cost, all ages love the theatrics and the food.
What is Robata?
Robata actually refers to the method of slow-grilling seafood, vegetables and other delectable eats on flat grill above charcoal. A menu really isn’t necessary as the raw food is artfully presented on the table or bar in front of you. Just point to what you’d like. Used to my flaming deluxe barbecue, I was wondering why it took certain foods so long to cook. Now, I know why–robata is like art and no flames touch the food.
The charcoal used isn’t what you’d toss into a Weber, but rather, it’s compressed aromatic hardwood like oak that is heated up until it’s just about to flame.
Portioned on small sticks, the chef scoops the raw food up with a long paddle to bring it to his work station. With a shout of Japanese words I didn’t understand, the food was returned to us on a paddle after if was grilled. My daughter enjoyed grabbing the plate off the long paddle as well as selecting her own food.
History of Robata
Centuries old, robata originated in Hokkaido, an island in the northernmost part of Japan. Local fisherman there used flat irons as a heat source as well as to grill food. Some say that pre-heated wooden charcoal was placed in boxes as a way to keep food warm while others say robata was a method used to cook the catch of the day on land. I’m sure it’s a combination of both. And, the paddles? Using those in a robata restaurant is a tribute to the fisherman who are credited with developing this cooking style.
A government campaign advertising Hokkaido as a rustic destination (today it is popular for skiing), resulted in this style of Japanese food spreading across the country.
About Robataya in Roppongi, Tokyo
The pouring rain outside amplified the cozy atmosphere inside this tiny restaurant. Reservations are certainly recommended, but on a rainy weekday at 5:00pm, we were alone inside with the staff–a fact my shy 5-year-old found intimidating, at first. I, on the other hand, look back on it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience because were the beneficiaries of their undivided attention.
I am grateful that she eventually warmed up to the animated chefs and servers. I mean, they were creating origami napkins in the shape of E.T.
And, that’s when I learned my then 5-year-old had expensive taste in meat. While I was fiddling with my camera, she pointed to the Kobe beef and before I knew it, the chef was working his magic on the most
expensive delicious two cubes of melt-in-your-mouth steak I’ve ever tasted.
Thank goodness she enjoyed much less expensive, equally good fare, too.
Of course, sashimi is available for those who want their food to stay raw.
And, this oyster was talked up by the server so I couldn’t resist pairing it with cold, unfiltered sake.
I am not sure how I managed to not photograph our grilled robata dishes. We ordered plenty. My daughter and I shared chicken, corn on the cob, asparagus, fish, and much more.
In fact, I thought ordering a live tiger shrimp right out of the tank would scar her, but she said ok so I added it to our long list of food.
Kids will love the theatrics associated with robata. From hand gesture jokes to the enthusiastic grunting each time a dish was ready, this isn’t your average dinner experience.
Yes, it’s expensive. It was a great recommendation from the concierge at Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi (click to see why the hotel is perfect for visiting Tokyo with kids).
We don’t cut corners when we dine out. I had some sake and a glass of wine addition to the accidental Kobe beef order. It was about ¥25,000 for the two of us which at the time of this writing, is $250. Was it worth it? Yep, mostly because it’s nothing we can repeat any time soon. Not like that — in Roppongi, Tokyo with the restaurant all to ourselves.
Postal Code : 106-0032
1F 4-4-3 Roppongi Minato-ku Tokyo, JAPAN
+81-3-3408-9674 (From Overseas)
There are branches in New York City and Seoul.