First Look: O-Ku
The Charleston transplant joins the wave of new sushi restaurants to hit Atlanta
A wave of sushi-inclined Japanese restaurants has washed over Atlanta in the past year. Buckhead got Doraku and Katana, Inman Park welcomed MF Sushi back to town, and now Westside is awash with sashimi and nigiri thanks to Wagaya, Eight Sushi Lounge, Ginya Izakaya, and today's First Look: O-Ku Sushi. So how's a sushi restaurant supposed to break out from the pack? For O-Ku, the answer lies in a combination of location and pedigree, plus the intent to offer a more approachable high-end sushi experience than those of revered Atlanta sushi temples like Tomo and Umi.
Open since mid-December, O-Ku anchors the new Westside Ironworks development (also home to a Tom + Chee franchise, and soon Atlanta's second Barcelona Wine Bar). This is yet another stylish redevelopment of formerly derelict industrial space. O-Ku benefits from Ironworks' best feature — a stunning eastward view toward Midtown's sparkling skyline. (Come springtime, look for O-Ku to open up its rooftop bar/patio to make even better use of that view.) The restaurant's spacious interior offers plenty of exposed brick and warm wood, a traditional bar that looks like it could have sprung from any given Houston's, and, of course, a sushi counter where you can watch the chefs do their thing. There's also a playful mural that depicts a red-robed monk riding a sky-blue motorbike under cherry blossoms.
O-Ku is among several Charleston-based restaurants that have expanded to Atlanta: Sean Brock's Minero, Callie's Hot Little Biscuit, and O-Ku's restaurant group siblings Oak Steakhouse and Coletta in Avalon. Esquire magazine named O-Ku among the best new restaurants of 2010. Travel + Leisure named it one of the country's top sushi restaurants in 2012. For the Atlanta outpost, O-Ku poached executive chef Jackie Chang from Umi. So you've got a management team with a track record for success and a head chef who's learned from Umi's Fuyuhiko Ito, one of Atlanta's most heralded sushi pros.
The menu is typical of higher end sushi houses, with a heavy focus on sashimi, nigiri, and sushi rolls, plus an assortment of cooked starters and entrées such as miso-marinated black cod. There are plenty of signposts that point to O-Ku's luxurious intentions — foie gras, A5 Wagyu beef, caviar, and truffles in the form of shavings, sauce, soy, and butter. The prices, too, reflect luxury status, with the entrées running close to $30, or the O-Ku Kase tasting menus that cost $75 or $100 per person. Most of those dishes that offer truffle and uni or otoro understandably come with the dreaded MP (market price) signifier, meaning you have to ask to find out how much they cost. That said, if you stick to cheaper dishes such as agedashi tofu ($7) or a basic spicy tuna roll ($9), you can escape without crashing your bank account.
While the Umi training is evident in the chef's signature nigiri — like a simple Hiramasa yellowtail with a touch of herb oil, ponzu sauce, and a thin sliver of jalapeño ($5 per piece) — many of the dishes we tried were drowned in sauces. The smoky sake (seared salmon) appetizer ($13) offered thin slices of fish practically swimming in sauce, with the shallow pool of the plate completely covered in sweet citrus honey vinaigrette. The otoro spoons ($23) that came highly recommended by our well-intentioned, if admittedly new-to-sushi, waiter suffered a similar fate, with five individual spoons offering an overpowering puddle of soy sauce beneath small portions of otoro tartare and uni. And the rock shrimp tempura? O-Ku takes a different tack than the much-replicated Nobu version, employing clingy tomato confit and a sweet Korean chili paste over a heavy breaded coating, all of which weigh down the delicate crustacean.
Your taste buds may be more receptive to a potential sauce onslaught if you down a few drinks from O-Ku's extensive bar menu, which offers plenty of sake, cocktails, wine, or craft brew both Southern (Westbrook, Wild Heaven) and Japanese (Yo-Ho). The cocktails offer clever combinations with a few Asian accents, but don't stray too far from the classics. The Peaceful Warrior ($11), for example, employs green tea and yuzu to complement the silver tequila, but really ends up tasting like a typical (well-made) margarita.
Order up the aji skeleton, take down the thin slices of aji sashimi graced with fresh grated ginger, then crunch away when the kitchen brings out the fried fish bones — they go great with a cold craft beer and a view of the Midtown skyline. There's even a Monday and Wednesday happy hour when sushi rolls are half price. After all, O-Ku wants to make sure you don't start eyeing the other handful of sushi joints just down the street.