I have to confirm something you probably know about me already: when it comes to food, I’m kind of an insufferable judge. If someone were to ask me about using canned mushrooms or jarred alfredo sauce, I might not say anything other than “hey, anything on the stove is plus one for cooking!” On the inside, though? Hoo, buddy. Let’s just say that I’m a volcano of sadness, rage and indignation. No canned mushrooms, people. No jarred alfredo. You’re better than that.
The other area that I have a lot of trouble with is Asian fusion restaurants. I remember when it seemed like there was a sleek, lacquered-surfaced Asian fusion restaurant around practically every corner. Was it 2005? All I know is, the music was a blend of house and techno, tempura flash-frying sushi rolls were all the rage, and it seemed like everyone had some sort of wasabi-soy-ginger-bok choy mess sitting on a plate with a lukewarm piece of grilled salmon slathered in sticky-sweet teriyaki sauce. While I can appreciate that Asian food suddenly was en vogue and so I no longer had to slink around to hole-in-the-wall Chinese joints with greasy laminated menus and peeling vinyl seats, I still couldn’t get on board with the fact that a restaurant could get away with calling itself an “Asian fusion” restaurant simply with the liberal use of soy sauce, some salted edamame pods and a rice steamer.
When we moved to Charleston from Malaysia three years ago, I have to admit that after spending time sweating it out at various hawker stalls located everywhere from dark alleys to parking lots, it just didn’t seem right to start frequenting restaurants in town that required me to get dolled up in my finest to eat stir fry. This feeling is exactly why I wouldn’t let the hubby talk me into eating at O-Ku, a glittering modern sushi joint on King Street, for nearly the entire time we’ve been living here. Without knowing a single thing about the place, I judged. I judged it as a place to be seen, a place where sushi was pretty but not edible, and a place where eel sauce, tempura flakes and spicy sauce were slathered atop poorly-constructed rolls like preschool craft projects.
The hubby finally wore me down one night when I was having one of my irrational cravings for sushi. We’ve rotated through a series of Japanese restaurants in town because the Gravy Baby lives for the stuff (seriously, at the grocery store earlier this week, he declined pizza night in favor of a couple of boxes of sushi from the refrigerator case, and I mean, who are we to deny the kid). All of them have decent sushi, but we’ve yet to be wowed by any one place.
Until O-Ku, that is. On our first visit, we were impressed with the creativity of ingredients in the sushi, particularly with the use of pickled onion, a great Southern touch to a spicy red snapper roll. A spicy teriyaki pork belly with melted cabbage sitting atop a healthy dollop of kimchee puree was a combination of buttery decadence with nice heat. Our favorite dish was O-Ku’s interpretation of a Hawaiian poke (a marinated fish dish native to Hawaii), which blended together several different types of fish in a fruity, light marinade. I could’ve eaten an embarrassingly large amount of that poke along with the giant, heaping slice of humble pie I’ve had to digest.
Even better is that O-Ku currently runs half-off specials on their sushi rolls on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 5:00-7:00 pm, and in response we’ve run the kids over there on a few occasions. I’ve gone from that person who shuns the overly trendy sushi bar to the person who hauls in booster seats and tries to seat her toddlers in a lounge area. It’s not a sexy look, I know, but the kids love it there. So much, in fact, that the Gravy Baby has already begged us to let him have his fourth birthday party there.
I mean, can you even imagine what that scene might look like? I envision 19 or so preschoolers righfully turning up their noses at marinated raw fish. In the center of it all, the Gravy Baby, wearing a Spider-Man mask and superhero boots, sits calmly eating his specially-created nigiri plate.
Luckily, I have five months to convince him that pizza and cake is a better way to go. Wish me luck.
O-Ku | 463 King Street | Charleston, SC