Some tend toward thick rolls packed with fish and crab and drizzled with spicy sauce. Others tend to stick to plates of lean sashimi and lightly seared tuna tataki.
My routine is simple: I like to sit at the sushi bar and order nigiri. That’s it. If I sit anywhere else, I tend to find myself leaning over to look longingly at the sushi bar, feeling like I’m missing out. Nothing satisfies my craving like a simple, perfectly cut piece of nigiri handed right over the glass of the sushi bar. I tend to think of it as a minimalist pleasure.
A funny thing happened on my first visit to O-Ku Atlanta, the new sister restaurant to O-Ku in Charleston. I grabbed a seat at the sushi bar and ordered a Yo-Ho Suiyoubi No Neko, a delightfully mild Belgian wit beer brewed in Japan. Just as routine, I picked out a few pieces of nigiri from the menu. But, not long after, I started leaning back on my chair, looking at the rest of the restaurant, feeling like I was maybe missing out.
This is no fault of the nigiri. All of the pieces I’ve tasted at O-Ku were more than fine, some legitimately great. Of O-Ku’s signature nigiri, the Sake was both richly fatty and brightened up with citrus flavors. The Hiramasa, a piece of yellowtail adorned with ponzu, jalapeno, cilantro and herb oil, was bewitching and complex. As should be expected, the Yakiniku Wagyu, a $7 bite of lightly seared wagyu beef, melted in your mouth like a slice of decadent beef butter. All of which is to say nothing of the quite fine traditional nigiri selection.
This precision is aided, no doubt, by Jackie Chang, O-Ku Atlanta’s executive chef, formerly of the much lauded Umi in Buckhead. Every night I’ve been in O-Ku, I’ve noticed his watchful eye peering across the work happening in the sushi bar.
But, treating O-Ku like any other sushi restaurant, to be judged on the minimalist notes of raw fish and rice, is to miss the point. The best seats at O-Ku are in the dim, main dining room, where attractive people clink cocktail glasses and seem to glow in the amber light. And some of the most interesting dishes at O-Ku come from the kitchen.
In this way, it’s helpful to remember that O-Ku has Charleston in its DNA, too. The irreverent mural near the bar of a robe-clad monk on a Vespa-style scooter is a good reminder not to take things so traditionally. So, order up a cocktail. I was pleased to see the bar is making its house gin and tonic with Jack Rudy, a highly superior tonic syrup from Charleston. My date enjoyed the lightly sweet, lemongrass-infused Shogun.
The karrage oysters were lovely, fried in the lightest of batter and topped with a fish-egg aioli that rounded out the salty, creamy bite. They arrived plated in individual half-shells, a pretty trick.
I was equally pleased with the scallop tiradito, a plate of luscious scallop hunks dressed with truffle-spiked soy sauce, shaved truffles and tiny dots of caviar. The composition was a beautiful little study in black-and-white. The portion was small, as it should be. These flavors are big.
If you’ve got a big party, you might want the bowl of rock shrimp tempura. I liked the way the heat of red chile cut the sweetness of the tomato confit sauce that was clinging to the shrimp batter. Two or three are a perfect treat, but the portion is large and the bites feel heavy. If you try to finish the whole bowl, like I did after my companion gave up, the sweetness and grease can be too much.
There are some outright duds on the menu. The lobster temaki, an attractive trio of butter-cooked lobster hand rolls adorned with strands of red beets and asparagus, were punishingly dry on the night I tried them. I attempted to fix the problem with a dip in soy sauce, but that, along with the black volcano salt already seasoning them, only made them punishingly salty, too.
On the other hand, the kani truffle nigiri, a long stretch of king crab meat, is infused with so much butter that it will drip down your chin. That was too much for my date, but I loved every decadent morsel.
You might want to round your meal out with a roll, or more nigiri. Like I said, everyone has their own sushi routine. But I was very happy to end my most recent meal with the roasted sea bass, which arrived at our table with a smoldering curl of cedar paper. The smoke was like a microscopic whiff of campfire. The fish was salty and sweet on the caramelized exterior, rich and juicy on the interior, and plated atop a deeply savory bed of scallions and mushrooms.
O-Ku’s not what I tend to think of when I think sushi, but that’s the point.