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Review: O-Ku Sushi serves up delightful, fresh surprises that are a notch above the norm

One of the almost daily fish deliveries that O-Ku Sushi gets from all over the world is a weekly “mystery box” from Japan. Part of the contents of that box are showcased in a four-piece fish sampler, available as nigiri or sashimi.

Because the selection changes so frequently, you won’t find this sampler on the menu. Your server will tell you about it, describing each fish in this week’s offering. Take her up on the offer, and you’re in for the first of many delightful surprises that O-Ku Sushi has to offer.

But be forewarned: O-Ku’s fish sampler will spoil you for the run-of-the-mill offerings at other Japanese restaurants. A recent nigiri sampler at O-Ku featured striped jack (shima aji), opaleye, grunt and sea robin. All were irreproachably fresh-tasting, and each garnished with a different topping, from a tiny nasturtium leaf on the opaleye (a mild-flavored, firm-textured fish new to me) to chopped chives and a dab of sturgeon caviar on the sea robin.

Given the unusual fish selection and attention to detail in presentation, you may also be surprised to learn that O-Ku is a chain, albeit a small one. The original is in Charleston, S.C., with other locations in Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, D.C. Another location is slated to open soon in Nashville. O-Ku is owned by Indigo Road Hospitality Group, which also owns Oak Steakhouse next door; both are on the ground floor of The Dillon. Like its beefy sibling, O-Ku aims for the premium tier in its category.

The Raleigh location hits the target on all counts. Service is as well-trained as it is welcoming. Don’t be surprised if you express a fondness for, say, uni, and a few minutes later she brings you a complimentary sample nestled in a cucumber cup.

The dining room decor does its part, too, in creating a suitably upscale mood. Bare tree branches painted ivory, mounted on slate gray walls; large barrel shade pendant lamps; and everywhere you look, warm wood tones — pine plank floors, honeyed oak ceilings, polished tabletops — all conspire to set a mood that’s at once dramatic and casually inviting.

If you started off with that fish sampler, you’ll know you’re in good hands if you decide to go all in on the omakase ($100 per person, plus another $45 for wine and sake pairings).

Those would be the hands of executive chef Richard Fong and his crew. Fong’s 30-year career has taken him from his native Hong Kong to New York to the Triangle, where he was sushi chef at the excellent (but now shuttered) An Asian Cuisine in Cary.

You don’t have to shell out serious coin on the omakase to enjoy the benefits of Fong’s experience. Chef’s choice nigiri and sashimi samplers are available in generous $35 and $50 versions. Or order à la carte, choosing from some two dozen options, including local rarities such as live scallop (when available) and jellyfish.

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Given the unusual fish selection and attention to detail in presentation, you may also be surprised to learn that O-Ku is a chain. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Even if you consider yourself a sushi purist, you may find yourself tempted by the likes of usuzukuri (salmon sashimi in ponzu with an earthy whisper of truffle, garnished with wasabi stem and black volcanic salt). Or lobster temaki, a trio of elegantly presented hand rolls, spilling nuggets of lobster and asparagus onto a rustic earthenware platter. Speaking as one purist to another, I say don’t give in to the temptation.

And don’t turn your nose up at the section labeled O-Ku Nigiri, where you’ll find creations such as Hamachi Sunazura (yellowtail belly and jalapeño-shiso pesto) and the over-the-top Oooh Toro (fatty bluefin tuna, black truffle, sturgeon caviar and fresh wasabi). Or Hakozushi, where contemporary riffs on traditional Osaka-style sushi (pressed in a wooden box mold, yielding a squared-off sushi) include the likes of Samurai: layers of torched tuna, avocado and sushi rice topped with kimchi aioli.

House specialty rolls are a decided notch above the norm, too, delivering a generous fish-to-rice ratio and a surprise at every turn. The Black Widow roll, for one, wraps soft shell crab, snow crab and avocado in a shroud of squid ink rice as black as its name. Even the familiar Rainbow roll is refreshingly different, with seasonally changing fish and a distinctive presentation.

Most of Fong’s 30 years of restaurant experience were spent with a sushi knife in his hand, so it may come as a surprise to learn that the chef also knows his way around a kitchen. An entire section of the menu is devoted to robata yaki, grilled over the intense heat of white oak coals in a Japanese robata grill. Options range from Japanese seven-spice chicken yakitori to a lavish surf and turf of wagyu steak and cold water lobster. I had my eye on the live scallop with truffle butter, but our server sold me on the salmon with hydro lettuce and wasabi remoulade. I have no regrets.

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The Black Widow roll wraps soft shell crab, snow crab and avocado in a shroud of squid ink rice as black as its name at O-Ku Sushi in Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Fried oysters are exemplary, and you’d never know that the tempura-like batter is gluten-free. Blistered shishito peppers, dressed in a sheer, subtly sweet soy sauce punctuated with garlic and crushed chile, make a fine palate-priming starter. O-Ku’s chicken teriyaki will erase all those memories of cloying renditions you’ve had elsewhere. And if you thought springtime in the South was too hot for a Japanese noodle dish, then O-Ku’s udon — with lobster, scallop, asparagus and shiitakes, all entangled in a sheer glaze of umami-rich uni sauce — will set you straight.

Thinking of skipping dessert? Think again. The options here go far beyond the standard ice cream mochi to include the likes of O-Ku s’mores to a chocolate bento box. I call dibs on the sata andagi, Okinawan-style doughnut holes with ginger sugar and miso caramel.

At the end of the meal, you’ll find one more pleasant surprise tucked in with the check: a card describing O-Ku’s weekly specials. Bottles of wine and sake are half price every Sunday night, and sushi rolls are half price Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. And you thought BOGO rolls and first-rate sushi were mutually exclusive terms.

O-Ku Sushi

223 S. West St., Raleigh

919-792-3777

okuraleigh.com

Cuisine: Japanese

Rating: 4 stars

Prices: $$$-$$$$

Atmosphere: dramatic, upscale-casual

Noise level: moderate

Service: well-trained and welcoming

Recommended: fish sampler, usuzukuri, lobster temaki, fried oysters, robata yaki, uni udon, sata andagi

Open: Dinner nightly.

Reservations: accepted

Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; complimentary valet parking available.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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