For freshly prepared sushi served in a trendy setting, make the journey to NoMa to grab a bite at O-Ku, a restaurant specializing in Japanese cuisine.
The first thing diners notice when they walk through the doors at 1274 5th St. NE is the windowless wooden oak door that welcomes guests into the restaurant’s tucked away sushi bar. True to its name, which translates to “oak” in Japanese, O-Ku’s decor is subtly woven with oak tree imagery, from the front door to the restaurant’s black slate walls lined with oak leaf cutouts and illuminated with a soft golden glow.
Circular glass light fixtures hang from the unfinished ceiling, lighting the spacious dining room. The dim, elegant lighting combined with the latest pop remixes playing comfortably in the background creates an elevated ambiance throughout the restaurant.
Serving dinner Monday through Saturday, O-Ku provides a modern atmosphere to try new takes of classic Japanese dishes. After your meal, head down the street to check out music venues like Songbyrd and local boutiques.
Seating is up for grabs at the bar, which serves the full menu in addition to drinks. High top tables are available for groups of three to four, making O-Ku a fun spot to grab a special dinner with a small group of friends.
The restaurant’s menu provides sushi and sashimi specialties as well as contemporary robata-style dishes, which are dishes prepared in a similar type of cooking to grilling or barbecuing and involves cooking over hot charcoal on a flat and open surface.
Among the menu’s eye-catching dishes are the Japanese wagyu grade steak seasoned with fresh wasabi ($19), shrimp and scallops seasoned in a yuzu-miso butter ($16), as well as the vegetarian option of wild mushrooms served with a soy glaze ($14), all prepared in the robata-style. Traditional sushi rolls are also available on O-Ku’s menu and range from $14 to $18.
Try one of O-Ku’s specialty cocktails like their shobo Thai served hot with rum, mocha pumpkin spice and coconut whip ($13) to pair with your meal, or opt for a Japanese beer ($6-$10), an alcohol-free drink like house Thai tea ($6) or a refreshing blueberry, cucumber lemonade ($7).
Out of O-Ku’s list of signature nigiri, which are sold by the piece and keep the spotlight on the fish, I tried the torched scallop nigiri ($11), consisting of a rectangular piece of scallop atop a bed of rice and garnished with a small slice of orange, garlic chili oil and delicate microgreens.
Sophisticatedly presented in the center of a small black plate, the nigiri is served alongside small dishes of wasabi, ginger and soy sauce. The scallop’s mild flavor was enhanced by the subtle smokiness that came through from the light sear atop the scallop, and the dollop of garlic and chili oil added a surprisingly powerful spice to each bite of the nigiri.
Despite coming in a small serving size, the dish packs in a range of flavors. The warm spice from the chili is balanced by the sweetness of the orange, and the leafy green garnish added a simple freshness to the fish.
To pair with my main dish, I tried O-Ku’s spicy crunchy salmon roll ($14) which is a personal go-to order, so naturally I was curious to see how O-Ku’s would compare to versions of the dish I’ve previously tried. Delicately sprinkled with small puffs of tempura crisps, the added crunch on top of the salmon roll provided a change in texture compared to the soft and tender scallop in the nigiri. The flavors of spice from the creamy sauce drizzled across the roll was contrasted by the mildness of both the avocado and cucumber tucked inside, complementing the slightly smoky flavors in the scallop nigiri.
O-Ku incorporates elements of traditional Japanese cuisine and presents them in a sophisticated and chic environment. The restaurant’s combination of earth tones, oak wood and colorful lighting added to the experience of eating chef Michael Legg’s flavorful and meticulously-presented nigiri.
Next time you’re in NoMa, seek out O-Ku for its fresh and flavorful sushi served in a modern yet laid-back setting.