My husband and I first visited O-Ku a few weeks ago during our ill-fated visit to ArepaZone at Union Market. We were walking around all the Scooby-Doo warehouses in the area looking for a good roof deck to get some drinks on and figured out that one of them belonged to O-Ku. Now, their storefront looks like the entrance to a secret sex club. So I guess my husband’s love of drinking on roofs trumps any discomfort he may feel with being put in some creepy Eyes Wide Shut scenario. Should I be worried about this?
When we entered it the first time, we found a very hip and trendy (and remarkably dark!) Japanese restaurant. After confirming that they did indeed serve mother-in-law-friendly food too, I made a reservation. I knew it could go either way. Traditionally, the better the place looks, the less effort they put into the food. I wasn’t holding out for O-Ku by any means.
This time, from the get-go, the service was outstanding. We ordered dishes a few at a time and they didn’t come out fast, but they came out at the right time. I appreciated this balance between feeling taken care of but not feeling rushed. The staff was super attentive in the meantime. We started with two legit sour beers, a wine, and a cocktail from their interesting and not-overpriced (for DC) list! We also ordered the edamame and the shu-mai. The dumplings came with an additional spicy soy sauce, and our waiter was kind enough to add an additional one to the usual order of three. They were soft, gingery, and delicious.
During our next round, we (and by we, I mean I, because we all know who does the ordering of shared plates in this family) went for the yakitori. They brought out these two delicious, spicy-sweet skewers of tender, melty chicken. I was not expecting anything amazing but everyone was super happy with this.
Next came the bulgogi (which our server recommended over the pork belly). It came with sweet chili paste and (not enough) lettuce leaves to make into pork tacos. The meat was excellent and it was a good-sized sharing dish. Highly recommend.
My mother-in-law was willing to try sushi but only if it was cooked. So for her, I ordered the crunchy prawn makimono and for the rest of us, I asked for the spicy tuna, my go-to. We waited for so long for this sushi. We were seated in a place where we could see the chefs hard at work making beautiful sushi for everyone around us. We saw plates of it coming around left and right. What the hell, O-Ku? Then the manager showed up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Your sushi accidentally went to the wrong table. But they’re making it again right now.” We didn’t mind sitting, but internally I knew that this was the test.
And then…they made it right! Two plates of sashimi arrived: the tuna and the salmon! “A gift from us for our mistake,” our server told us. I hate admitting that the consolation prize was actually the best part of the night, but I was impressed not only with their generosity (this wasn’t no skimpy sashimi) but also with the quality. They were both incredibly melt-in-your mouth, with complementary sauces. And our sushi did eventually arrive, and it was fabulous.
The spicy tuna was particularly good, with a strong zing of wasabi in the aioli, crunchy veggies inside, and a generous portion of fish laid over the top. And my MIL enjoyed the crunchy prawns too, which was a major win for sushi restaurants all over DC (and her! and us!) And considering that I’d spend $12 for a gourmet roll at basically any old neighborhood trash sushi joint, I’ll gladly pay $15 at O-Ku.
We closed out and went upstairs for a round of drinks at the upstairs bar. I can’t recommend the Improvised Tea Ceremony cocktail enough. It’s great for anyone who has ever drank Thai iced tea and thought, “You know, this needs liquor.” Which I have. Obviously.
Price: $40-60 per person, depending on how fancy you wanna get.
Bottom line: I’m so glad that O-Ku turned out to be a success in that it was both a delicious crowd-pleaser and also not full of naked people in animal masks.