The sushi scene in Charlotte just got a little bit more crowded.
O-Ku – described by its owners as “traditional technique with a modern contemporary style and a little bit of Southern fusion” – officially opens today at Atherton Mill, the retail hub in South End that also is home to Big Ben British Restaurant & Pub, Anthropologie and Luna’s Living Kitchen.
Charleston-based restaurant group The Indigo Road took the wraps off the new space (formerly home to the relocated Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery) Thursday night, when a surprisingly large crowd of invited “VIP” guests packed into the small dining room as largely peaceful protesters demonstrated in front of CNN and Fox News cameras barely a mile away.
Though the event was more of a “show-off” reception than anything that could give an accurate representation of what actual dinner service will be like, we have details to share with anyone who might want to check out the place this weekend.
Where might have you seen or eaten at an O-Ku before: In Charleston, where The Indigo Road restaurant group opened the original O-Ku in 2010, or in Atlanta, where Indigo opened a second O-Ku last December.
What’s in a name: The Indigo Road’s first restaurant was the high-end Oak Steakhouse in Charleston, where the focus is American. For the sushi concept, the group simply translated the name into Japanese.
What you’ll see when you walk into the Charlotte location: A single, wide-open, 3,800-square-foot dining room with a look that is both industrial – exposed brick walls, historic windows, exposed cedar ceiling beams – and warm, with oversized lampshades emanating their glow via Edison-style lightbulbs, manzanita branches and plush, lavender-covered chairs. It definitely feels small, but Indigo Group managing partner Kimball Brienza says: “When you get into restaurants that are just so big, and you’re doing that many people – especially with this style of cuisine – I just find it challenging to do that that well, with that many people.”
Whose food you’ll be eating: The executive chef is Michael Chanthavong, who is unknown and untested in Charlotte (he moved here recently from the West Coast). Chanthavong’s cousin is Kazu Murakami, executive chef at O-Ku Charleston.
What’s on the menu: Sushi fans will find a decent selection of nigiri and sashimi, as well as box-style sushi options (called hakozushi here) and rolled (makimono) sushi. The latter list features old standbys like a Rainbow Roll ($14) and a California Roll ($12), but there are also O-Ku originals like the Salmon and Lemon Roll ($12). Some of the more-intriguing offerings, however, are cooked, including: the South End Shrimp ($12), a unique-to-the-Charlotte-location twist on rock shrimp, tossed in a cream chili paste with tomato confit and topped with crushed peanuts; a hot Uni Pasta ($21), which is house-made black squid ink linguini topped with a garlic uni cream sauce and candied bacon; and a Lobster & Wild Mushroom ($29) that is finished over a flame tableside, using a cast-iron skillet. The actual physical menu, by the way, is presented on a thin slab of wood described as reclaimed from a barn in West Virginia.
The best thing we sampled: The White Fish Crudo (a $12 chef’s specialty) – paper-thin slices of hirame (a type of flounder) punched up with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, lime zest, microgreens and a little dab of holy basil pesto: bright, clean, light flavors.
The second-best thing we sampled: O-Ku’s signature cocktail, the Sugar & Spice – a martini with habanero-pepper-infused vodka to give it some heat, passion fruit puree to give it some sweet, a touch of simple syrup and fresh-squeezed citrus juice, served sans ice.
Our initial thoughts, in a nutshell: The pedigree would indicate that O-Ku will do well. Good sushi options in South End are fairly limited, with only Nikko standing in its way (and that place rarely comes up in conversations about hot spots anymore). But like Nikko, it’s a little off the beaten path. Atherton Mill has a big footprint in South End, O-Ku is a bit hidden over on the north side of the complex, and won’t benefit from the visibility that Nan & Byron’s, The Liberty or even Luna’s have in trying to court a similar type of customer. On the other hand, there’s a light-rail stop right around the corner, which helps. Bottom line: If you’ve been trying to get more excited about sushi in Charlotte, O-Ku is worth a look.
Dinner: 5-10:30 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 5-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday. The bar will stay open later, “depending on the crowd,” Brienza says. NOTE: O-Ku will be closed this Sunday “to give the staff some rest, because they’ve been rigorously training for the last two weeks.” It starts seven-night-a-week service on Monday.
Prices: Starters and sides, $3-$8; nigiri and sashimi, $3-$11; chef specialties, $8-$25, hot entrees, $18-$28; rolled sushi, $8.50-$24.
Address: 2000 South Blvd.
Parking: Complimentary valet.