Brett McKee, the proprietor of downtown stalwart Oak Steakhouse, has expanded his culinary footprint considerably in the past year. Last fall, he and Steve Palmer, his partner in the Indigo Road Restaurant Group, brought upscale comfort food to Mt. Pleasant with 17 North Roadside Kitchen. Now they've turned their sights on Japanese cuisine with O-Ku on Upper King Street. To head the kitchen they recruited chef Sean Park, a veteran of Raleigh's Giorgios Hospitality Group. The trio has created a striking restaurant that pays exquisite attention to both the interior setting and the inventive Japanese fusion menu.
Inside the old Waterworks space, O-Ku is big and bold, with a sleek design dominated by dark brown wood and lavender accents. The dining area is a single long room with polished wood floors, exposed brick on both sides, and dark brown columns down the middle, decorated with clusters of stripped oak branches that look like complex stag horns. A long, well-appointed bar runs along the right side of the room, and a wide sushi bar with four glass-topped coolers lines the back. Three massive black-framed mirrors hang from the walls, and rows of giant hanging lamps provide a diffused light.
Park's menu is compact. A small list of salads range from the simple, like the ika sansai ($10) with seasoned squid and seaweed, to the over-the-top, like the seared Kobe tataki ($30) served with caviar and truffle over microgreens. The entrée menu is small, too, with just four items: a miso-marinated Chilean sea bass ($40), the "O-Ku donburi" rice bowl ($18), and lobster robatayaki ($35) with mushrooms, asparagus, and miso butter. The recently added New York strip ($30), which is sliced into medallions and served over a bed of vegetables, brings a little red meat to the mix.
But O-Ku is really about the sushi and small plates, not entrées. The traditional sushi items deliver very clean, fresh standards like yellowfin, hamachi, and shrimp as well as rarer exotic items like uni, kajiki, and otoro. The real emphasis of the menu, though, is the special rolls.
The guys at O-Ku know their market, and they dish up pop-sushi with the best of them. The tastes in this genre lean toward the soft, creamy, and deep fried — preferably all together. The baked scallop roll ($16) does just that, with slices of California roll with soft crab and avocado topped with warm scallop and melted mozzarella cheese. The potato wrap ($15) features shrimp tempura andavocado wrapped up in a thick layer of shoestring potatoes. It's basically fried shrimp and soft avocado rolled up in French fries, and they fly out of the kitchen two and three at a time. But, as pop-sushi goes, they're some pretty impressive creations.
O-Ku can do lighter, more inventive rolls too. There are basic combinations like the Zen ($9) with seasoned pickled vegetables, and a fruit roll ($11) with crab salad, avocado, mango, and kiwi. The daikon roll ($12) has a long list of ingredients: tuna, salmon, escolar, crab, and flying fish roe combined with cucumber, avocado, and kaiware (radish seed sprouts) and rolled up in a double layer of very thinly sliced pickled daikon radish. Sliced into five rounds, the multitudinous flavors meld well, and the pickled daikon is a perfect tangy wrapper and makes for a really fine roll.
For me, however, O-Ku shines brightest with its appetizers, which are really more like small plates ideal for sharing with a table of friends. The yellowtail carpaccio ($15) delivers six oblong slices of yellowtail arranged along a long, narrow white plate. Each half-inch thick piece is topped with a single thin slice of serrano pepper drizzled with yuzu truffle sauce and sprinkled with chives. The yellowtail is clean and fresh with a tender-but-firm texture, and the yuzu truffle sauce really makes the dish — subtle and flavorful with tangy citrus and earthy notes that contrast perfectly with the smooth fish.
The wasabi scallop ($18) is the kind of combination that begs to be deconstructed and analyzed as you eat it. Slices of tender scallop are mixed with fiery wasabi, fresh greens, and yellow and red teardrop tomatoes, all dressed with a blend of sharp balsamic vinegar and tart sudachi ponzu sauce. Hiding away in the mix are little orbs of crisp Asian pear that explode with sweetness as you bite them. There's a mysterious smoky flavor, too, that lingers elusively among the other elements and ebbs and flows with each mouthful. Like most of the small plates, the scallop dish has an elegant presentation, arriving in the well of a dome-like plate and garnished with a dramatic diamond-shaped, green banana leaf.
The appetizers show off the fresh flavors and clean preparations that are Japanese fusion at its best. The ceviche scallop martini ($12) offers big chunks of white scallop marinated in a mint yuzu vinaigrette and garnished with a fan of cucumber and Asian pear sliced so thin they're almost translucent. The usuzukuri ($14) combines paper-thin slices of whitefish with fleur de sel and a drizzle of ponzu sauce. These exquisite dishes go down easy and light, and you can quickly eat yourself into a second mortgage if you aren't careful.
The small plate selection stumbles — as it does on the sushi roll menu — only when it deviates from light, subtle flavors and goes for more heavy concoctions. The lobster green tea soba noodle tempura ($15) is a mouthful to say and even more difficult to eat, especially with just a pair of chopsticks. It's a very dramatic creation that will grab the attention of your fellow diners: big chunks of white lobster wound in a thick cocoon of long soba noodles that are somehow fried or toasted until crisp and nutty brown. Unfortunately, it's very salty, and the crisp layer of noodles stabs your mouth as you bite through and leaves behind a slightly burnt flavor that just doesn't work.
The bar at O-Ku gets as much attention as the dinner menu. It offers a dozen premium sakes, of which the bartenders will helpfully provide samples and recommendations, along with a respectable list of white and red wines. O-Ku has a list of a dozen East-meets-West fusion cocktails, too, like the Yuzu-tini (Hangar One vodka, nigori saki, and yuzu juice) and vodka with ginger-basil lemonade.
O-Ku is a high-energy place that will make a big dent in your wallet, but the Indigo Road Group team knows what they're doing. It's almost frightening how quickly the big room fills up on a Saturday night, going from all but empty at 6 p.m. to jammed and hopping within half an hour. It's a winning combination of sleek, upscale atmosphere and intriguing, well-executed food. O-Ku has already made a big splash on King Street and will likely remain one of the hottest spots in the current downtown dining scene.