Tucked away in South End — one of Charlotte’s most popular neighborhoods — you can find O-Ku situated next to the light-rail in Atherton Mill. The third O-Ku location to open, it’s preceded by the original O-Ku in Charleston, SC, which opened in 2010, and their second location in Atlanta, which opened last December. While the sushi scene in Charlotte isn’t lacking, O-Ku definitely brings something new to the table (or sushi bar) with their contemporary touch on Japanese entrées and sushi, their selection of craft cocktails and their fresh ingredients that come from fish markets in Tokyo and Hawaii and local Carolina purveyors such as Inland Seafood, Lowcountry Shellfish, Ambrose Family Farm, Blackbird Farms and Limehouse Produce.
While at first glance O-Ku’s new location may appear to simply be a large, wide-open dining room, it actually gives a nod to the historical Charlotte mill in which it’s situated — with its exposed brick walls, cedar beams and large windows. Although the space itself is large, the plush chairs, soft lighting from Edison light bulbs enveloped in oversized lampshades and friendly staff give it an intimate and warm atmosphere.
With a drink menu composed of a variety of sake, beer, wine and craft cocktails, there is definitely a variety — you just have to pick your poison. To maintain its theme of supporting local business, O-Ku features an assortment of beers local to the Queen City from beloved breweries such as Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, Sycamore Brewing and Birdsong Brewing. One of O-Ku’s bestselling cocktails is the Sugar and Spice, which is made with habanero-infused vodka, lemon, passionfruit and features a sugar rim. The sugar rim and passionfruit gives it a sweet beginning but that habanero-infused vodka will finish it off with a spicy punch that gets you all warm inside. The Jasmanian Devil — a Charlotte favorite (and mine as well) — was recommended to me by General Manager Justin Shoener as a must-try and it did not disappoint. O-Ku’s Jasmanian Devil is made with habanero-infused rum, passionfruit, lime and mint. Dangerously delicious and not too overpowering, it’s the perfect pairing for all of your sushi selections. O-Ku also has a list of yummy Mocktails to choose from, too, for non-drinkers.
Behind the sushi bar you can find Executive Chef Michael Chanthavong and his team artfully constructing both traditional rolls and O-Ku signature dishes that have an innovative take on traditional Japanese sushi and cuisine. Sushi lovers are not without options, as the sushi selection includes makimono rolled sushi, nigiri, sashimi and boxed-style sushi called Hakozushi. Alongside some makimono classics like spicy tuna crunch roll, spider roll and California roll, there are less traditional Japanese rolls like the potato roll, a sushi roll that is wrapped with fried shoestring potatoes — an obvious Southern favorite. Apart from traditional nigiri (which is sushi over rice), the menu also features “O-Ku Nigiri,” which includes traditional-style Nigiri with fun and flavorful accompaniments. I tried the salmon nigiri, which came finished with a truffle chive crème fraîche, lemon zest and ikura, and the snow crab nigiri (one of my favorites), which was topped with soy truffle butter and sea salt.
Among the Chef’s Specialties are a variety of fresh options curated by Chef Michael. A couple of favorites include the yellowtail carpaccio, recommended by Chef Michael himself, and the tuna tartare. The yellowtail carpaccio is served with cilantro, serrano pepper, mango and ponzu sauce, which gives it the perfect combination of salty, sweet and spicy. The tuna tartare is prepared with avocado, Asian pear and tobiko, topped with a quail egg and surrounded by wontons that, when combined, is so smooth it melts in your mouth.
One thing I can say for sure about the fish and produce at O-Ku is that the quality is outstanding. After doing my fair share of sampling at their sushi bar I can confirm that when it comes to creating innovative dishes and rolls, O-Ku has their methods perfected down to a flavor science. For any Charlotte foodie, O-Ku sushi is a great addition to South End’s faction of tasty restaurants. If you like flavorful food, sophisticated cocktails, a cozy atmosphere and awesome service, O-Ku should be your next choice for dinner and drinks.
O-Ku is located in the Atherton Mill at 2000 South Blvd., Ste. 510, Charlotte, NC 28203. Hours are Monday through Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. To learn more, call (704) 594- 1922, click here or visit them on Facebook.
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