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Ericandblueboy

O-Ku - Charleston, SC-Based Japanese with Sushi and Robata near Union Market - Opening Chef Bryan Emperor Has Departed

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O-Ku is located in a building next to Union Market.  It is currently helmed by opening chef Brian Emperor, who is apparently well established as a Japanese cuisine chef

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We inquired about the omakase ($80 and $120), which generally consist of dishes selected by the chef from the menu.  We decided to order on our own so as to  get dishes we want and avoid dishes we don't want.

Executive Summary:  Awesome (and priced to match)

We  started with 3 items from the Robata Grill, hanger steak, chicken meatballs, and yakitori (chicken thighs).  The steak was tender and well seasoned and should be ordered by anyone who loves heifers - I don't think the garlic chips added much though.  The chicken meatballs were heavily laced with scallions and the dip is made with raw egg - I think it's pretty tasty (but probably even tastier if made with pork).  And the chicken thighs were good too.

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That was followed by some fantastic tempura soft-shell crab roll.  Actually, the two end pieces were tempura soft shell crab, the 3 middle pieces were filled with delicious snow crab meat.  All the pieces were topped of wasabi tobiko but none were polluted with avocado as stated on the menu (maybe there was avocado in there but I don't recall tasting any).  What I did taste was the fresh crab meat.

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Then came the sashimi.  We went with the Kindai o-toro, aburi toro (aburi means lightly torched, hence the whitish color), and Hokkaido scallop.  The blue-fin is decadently fatty but the winner is the Hokkaido scallop, which tasted sweet and pristine.

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Finally, we had sweet prawn, anago, signature anago, and sea urchin sushi.  Again, the quality of the seafood is top notch but I don't have an impression of the rice (it's like the rice isn't even there).

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With a couple of drinks a piece, the bill was $110 with tax per person.

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We had a snack at the bar. No comments on drinks, as I am drying out for a spell. $16 Hangar steak was really really good. Clear soup ($5) was amazing, made with seasonal veggies and some sort of smoky seaweed. And I had some sashimi, two generous slices per order:  $7 scallops, $5 salmon, $5 big eye tuna, and $5 hamachi. All were very nice, and priced like a bargain. 

Space is quiet but looks like it could throw down, upstairs is a nice rooftop dining area and cocktail lounge. Towards the back on the main level is probably th most civilized area, with tables and bar seats around the food prep and grill. 

Edit: main criticism I have of this place is a lack of legit veggies. No seaweed salads, etc etc. 

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Had a disappointing experience here on Saturday night. I agree that the quality of the fish was great, but the rice really tanked the nigiri and the rolls.  We ordered a ton and with drinks came to $150/ pp( 2 drinks and bottle of sake).  Drink were the highlight( service was excellent as well)

Has potential but I have feeling consistency is going to be an issue with a place that large.  

The vibe of the place reminded me of Tao meets nobu — not my favorite.  

If I am going to drop bucks on sushi would prob go to ogura or omakase at Takumi.  

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I had dinner here the night Eric posted about his meal. There is one thing to get here, and it's as good as anything of its type in DC: Sashimi. The Sushi has the same, wonderful fish, but the rice is sorely lacking - the Sashimi is what you should come here to order, and you should order it in abundance - it's every bit the equal as the fish you get at the Sushi Bar at Ogawa, and is as good as any Sashimi that I've ever eaten. Run, do not walk, and get this Sashimi.

I'll try to put out some more details later, but remember: Sashimi, Sashimi, Sashimi.

Do you see Eric's picture of his Sashimi Plate? It is every bit as good as that picture looks (although I think his back piece of toro looks something like chu-toro compared to the o-toro in front - what was the MP on the o-toro?). He didn't get the prawns, but I did ($12 for two pieces), and they were as good as any Prawns I've ever had. Cut into three pieces (tail, body meat, and tip end), and all three pieces were compelling. As much as I *loved* the scallops, I loved the Madai and the Prawns more still - they were like eating glistening silk, tinged with the freshest flavors from the sea.

There were two Junmai Ginjo sakes on the menu - the one on the bottom has new oak, and should be avoided. The one second from the bottom is night-and-day better than the one on the bottom (and they're the same price - $80 a bottle, if I recall). Make sure to ask the sommelier for the one *without* oak - he should remember me because I detected this, and he looked like the cat that ate the canary when I asked him if the sake I ordered had new oak, sheepishly nodding his head :) (he cheerfully replaced it with the one that didn't, as they serve the oaked sake by the glass, so no harm done to the restaurant). Unoaked sake smells faintly of Cocoa Puffs; oaked sake smells of woody pine resin, and it's not a pleasant bouquet - ask for a small sample of each, and you'll be able to tell right away: The difference in aromas is as different as smelling an apple vs. an orange - you don't need an experienced palate to tell the difference - even if you're racked with self-doubt, you'll know within 2-3 whiffs and sips, I promise.

Order Sashimi, and order with reckless abandon. The Shu Mai were good also. 

Sake gaffe aside, the service here is outstanding in terms of effort and friendliness. Everyone here is *so nice*.

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Also, sushi rolls are $5 from 5-7pm, Mondays and Wednesdays. For now.  Cheap way to see if the rice is any better. 

EDIT:  it’s actually half price sushi rolls, so more like $7-8. 

Edited by DaRiv18
Correction
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Good tip on happy hour, I'll have to give that a shot.

We were there last night for dinner, and ordered all over the menu, although hit the sashimi section hard. I agree with Don on the sashimi in general, and the prawn in particular. It was all spectacular. In addition to our sashimi we got the tempura soft shell crab roll, and it was good, although I wouldn't feel the need to order it on a return visit. And we ordered the "Steak" which is different than the hangar steaks ordered above. It's shaved ribeye wrapped around shishito pepper and pearl onion, fired on the robata grill, which was recommended by our server. I'd probably just do the hangar next time which is significantly cheaper. The ribeye was challenging to eat with chopsticks, and I don't think the shaved and wrapped preparation really added anything. But it was still very good. From the "Raw" section we got the hamachi, which was basically pieces of hamachi sashimi with a gochujang sauce. I would have rather just ordered hamachi sashimi. 

Service was weird. I didn't feel like our server had a good handle on the menu, and as a result wasn't able to really answer rather basic questions. And when I attempted to order a glass of red later in the meal and tried to order the Gamay I was told they didn't have it because it wasn't the correct season for gamay. 

On the whole, however, I'm glad it's there, and I'll definitely go back. Didn't get the chance to check out the roofdeck, but I look forward to doing so. 

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Very odd experience on Saturday night.  We had a later reservation (9:15) and arrived to a relatively full but not packed restaurant.  This is a huge space but there isn't a ton of place to sit, which I'm not complaining about but it's interesting.  Agree with the poster about the vibe resembling Tao, which was definitely a bit of a turnoff for me at my rapidly advancing age.

We asked to sit at the sushi counter as opposed to the table that we reserved and were fortunate to get the 2 spots right in front of the robata, with a view of all of the action.  Our server arrived and seemed either confused or overwhelmed, which was a theme that continued throughout what turned out to be a marathon meal (not by our choice).  To give him the benefit of the doubt, it appeared that he was waiting on both the sushi counter and tables in front of it, which was probably too much for how busy it was.  He was harried, to say the least, and it was hard to blame him, but what I did take issue with was his attitude in waiting on us.  After seated, he stopped by to tell us that he would be right with us, and after 10 minutes there was no word from him despite buzzing around the area chatting with and waiting on other tables.  I flagged down the manager and asked for some water and a bottle of Cherry Bouquet sake, which by the way if you go, do not order, it was saccharine-tinged and far from a pleasure to drink.  No one's fault on that but our own, but wanted to put out fair warning.  Our waiter was the one that poured our sake when it did come, and I mentioned to him as he was pouring mine that we were ready to order if he was ready to take our order.  I didn't say it in an annoyed tone or in a way to rush him, just to politely let him know to stick around for our food order before he disappeared for another 15 minutes.  His response to this was "Yes, if you'll wait for me to pour the lady's drink, I'll take your order."  Huh?  I get it, maybe a tough night, but this is the wrong foot to start off, and this attitude further permeated the rest of our meal.

This was too bad, because the sashimi that we ordered (thankfully read Don's post before going) was outstanding.  The hamachi and kampachi were the best I have ever had.  The Kindai Otoro and Chutoro were equal to the best that I've had.  The scallop and uni were splendid.  The aforementioned prawn might be the perfect expression of that crustacean.  You could do a sashimi sampler here all day and be a very happy camper, it was remarkably fresh and fairly priced IMO.  The challenge here was the service, as they were delivered incomplete, which the server took as annoying feedback and said he would go back to reorder.  He returned again with the wrong order, and gave me a double order of the uni to make up for getting it wrong the first time.  At 99% of restaurants, they would do this to correct their mistake from the first round, which is always appreciated.  Unfortunately, he charged us for 2 orders of the uni on the check.  Maybe he thought that doubling the order for us was somehow correcting his mistake from the first round, but this just didn't sit right with me.

The rest of the meal after the sashimi, unfortunately, was a bit of a mess.  My wife has a soft spot for constructed sushi rolls, and picked out the Spicy Tuna and Rock Shrimp rolls.  These were odd, because they didn't come out with the sashimi, which would have been fine if they didn't come out 30 minutes later after asking 3 times.  Clearly there is a problem with the order and delivery system here; most places will deliver the sushi/sashimi directly to you if you're sitting at the counter, which would make a lot of sense here as well.  Instead, they take it back to a rack in the kitchen and have servers pick it up and bring it around from there, which I can only assume was cause for confusion and result in our order being delivered to different tables once or twice (I watched it being made several times, each time thinking that it was ours).  The wait wouldn't have been bad had the rolls been at least decent.  They were not.  The Spicy Tuna was your garden variety roll.  It wasn't bad, per se, but no better than something you would get at Momiji or any other low priced sushi joint in the city.  Very blah. The Rock Shrimp roll consisted of 6 pieces of hard rice wrapped around some cucumber and scallions topped with painfully overcooked rock shrimp.  No cohesion, very dry, and totally underwhelming after the sashimi.  Speaking of overcooking, I got a very prolonged view of the meat coming off of the robata, which was manned by the Chef, and I found that he was overcooking pretty much every piece of meat that he put on there.  Also, he was dipping meat during cooking in marinade multiple times during the process, which I found odd.  We were still a bit hungry at the end of the meal, but tired of the whole ordeal by 11:00PM and got the check, which at $215 pre-tip was sticker shock after the poor service and uneven food.

It'll be hard to justify going back here unless they open for lunch to stop in a grab a quick bite of sashimi.  I can't see this place getting any better than it is now, as the upstairs had kind of a club feel and I could see them starting to find ways to milk money out of the place rather than focusing on quality as it ages.

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1 hour ago, DPop said:

This was too bad, because the sashimi that we ordered (thankfully read Don's post before going) was outstanding.  The hamachi and kampachi were the best I have ever had.  The Kindai Otoro and Chutoro were equal to the best that I've had.  The scallop and uni were splendid.  The aforementioned prawn might be the perfect expression of that crustacean.  You could do a sashimi sampler here all day and be a very happy camper, it was remarkably fresh and fairly priced IMO.

Wow, what a read this was. Seriously, thank Eric about the sashimi: He had sent me a PM about the sashimi, curious about my opinion - it was he who thought it was as good, or better, than anything in DC, and he was right - I went that very same night, and merely confirmed his impression - I wouldn't have gone had he not posted.

The sushi rice was pretty bad, right? I didn't want to come out and say it, but it just wasn't good - I've never seen a larger discrepancy between sashimi and sushi (although it sounds like our fish was better than yours).

You know, my server was *extremely* nice, but he was the one who completely botched the sake order - I specifically told him I didn't like oak, and he recommended one of the most oak-ridden sakes I've ever tasted - it was borderline undrinkable. It was the sommelier (F&B Director?) who noticed we weren't drinking the sake, and corrected the mistake.

PS - To those who weren't there to experience it (meaning: everyone in the world other than me), this is going to sound ridiculous, absurd, and even naive, but the best sashimi I've ever had was at Monterrey Bay Fish Grotto - read for yourself. Eric, I see you had that same dish I had at Monterrey Fish Grotto: Which did you prefer: that, or this?

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There have been so many mixed reviews at O-Ku that I decided to try it again, focusing mainly on their Sashimi. Instead of resolving uncertainties, I've managed to raise even more:

Here is the order of Sashimi, consisting of 11 items:

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It's beautiful, right? Very much unlike Eric's more-straightforward presentation up at the top, and very much unlike my more-straightforward presentation from two weeks ago.

Which brings me to two lists of pros and cons about the meal:

Pros: The sushi bar is lovely, the sashimi is beautifully presented, the total price for 11 items (*) was a relatively inexpensive $78 (although keep in mind that one plate of food was $78!), the cocktail (Shogun ($10)) was well-made, the Echigo Red ($9) was very good, the Uni was some of the best I've ever had, we were comped a delightful order of Nigiri Sea Trout for having ordered such a large plate, two orders of Shiu Mai and Gyoza were fine.

Cons: First and foremost, the sashimi was served much too chilled, it was markedly better on the previous visit, this time falling into the "very good but not outstanding" range (the temperature actually changes the texture of the fish, and also mutes the flavor), the otherworldly King Prawn (described above) were a shadow of their former selves - one prawn, split, instead of two prawns, split three-ways each, there were simply too many fruits, leaves, and flowers which detracted from the fish, service was well-meaning but "overenthusiastic" (I'll leave it at that - you know what I mean), the King Crab ($12) had too much lime and wasn't that great, my dining companion - after about the 4th piece - volunteered, without provocation, that "this was better the last time," and she was right - quite honestly, it wasn't even that close.

Let me summarize by saying that if visual presentation means a lot to you, then you might just love this Sashimi; for me, the actual fish - the temperature, quality, and the balance of the dish as a whole - far outweighs the visual presentation, so for me, I'll probably take a break from O-Ku, while not dismissing it entirely.

(*) Zuke Maguro $5, Kindai Chu-Toro $8, Tasmanian King Salmon $4, Aburi Salmon $4, Hamachi $4, Kanpachi $4, Madai $6, Hokkaido Scallop $7, Uni $13, King Crab $12, King Prawn $11

This is not a "negative post" so much as a counterbalance to my previous rave about the Sashimi - I can easily see any given person going either way with O-Ku, when evaluating their meal. Incidentally, Chef Emperor was there, manning the robata, seemingly with a very deft touch.

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On 8/20/2018 at 5:08 PM, DonRocks said:

PS - To those who weren't there to experience it (meaning: everyone in the world other than me), this is going to sound ridiculous, absurd, and even naive, but the best sashimi I've ever had was at Monterrey Bay Fish Grotto - read for yourself. Eric, I see you had that same dish I had at Monterrey Fish Grotto: Which did you prefer: that, or this?

Kindai Tuna? I ordered it and it's not available. The chef concocted up a substitute that was fantastic and compliment of the chef.

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After a very expensive omakase dinner at O-Ku, I woke up wishing we had gone to Ogawa instead. There were a few GREAT dishes but far too many okay dishes, and even some duds for the $100 price tag. Service was a rollercoaster, going from great and funny, to non-existent, to a bit off putting. We appreciated that the server, Marge, put together a special omakase tasting for our pescatarian friends (one with a gluten allergy).  We did not appreciate her suggesting the two most expensive sakes on the list when we asked for recommendations. Also, the runners who brought the nigiri course did not describe the fish to us, leaving us a little confused. 

The good and the great: Sea bass with puffed rice, ribeye steak, sashimi, nigiri. The sea bass (in a sesame sauce) and the steak (on a skewer) were cooked perfectly. Both just melted in our mouths. My friend says she was ready to tilt the plate to her mouth to drink the sesame sauce that accompanied the sea bass. As mentioned above, the raw fish here is amazing. Easily the standout and @MichaelBDC and I definitely craved more (despite being very full by the end of the evening).

The not so good and the bad: For the cooked dishes @MichaelBDC and I received the steak mentioned above and braised pork belly, which was fine but not great also something similar to what we make at home. Given the option between more sushi or pork belly, we would do more sushi hands down. Our friends received Japanese curry with sides of daikon and broccoli rabe. The curry was at room temperature and not particularly interesting and the broccoli rabe was simply steamed and cut into bite sized pieces. The best of the bunch was the daikon which was nicely marinated and crunchy. The biggest miss was the makimono, or rolls. We were stuffed at this point and received cucumber roll, yellowtail, and King California. The rice was very dry and the rolls were poorly wrapped. The seaweed barely held together the rolls and they fell apart as soon as we picked them up. Would have been a bigger disappointment if weren't so full at that point. 

At a high price point, we really expected to be in sushi heaven. In my view, the makimono (which, a la carte range from $10-$17) was inexcusable and I don't see a reason to go there ahead of Ogawa, Gakyu, and even Sushi Capitol (while the fish might not be as stellar, is still half the price).

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In Tom’s chat today

Quote

Glad to hear O-Ku went the extra mile, and that you enjoyed the food, too. Since my review, the opening chef, Bryan Emperor, decamped for Las Vegas. 

🤔

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