Rey Lopez
Rey Lopez

The executive chef at D.C.’s newest sushi restaurant hopes O-Ku is the right mix of Japanese cuisine and Southern hospitality. Bryan Emperor moved to the District from Charleston, South Carolina, where there is already an O-Ku. The restaurant has other locations in the South, but Emperor says the menu in D.C. is unique in large part because it’s the first O-Ku to have binchōtan charcoal grills. It opens Friday near Union Market at 1274 5th Street NE. 

Emperor went to college in Japan and then worked the Japan desk at an investment bank on Wall Street. The job frequently took him back to Japan. “I entertained portfolio managers in Tokyo restaurants and fell in love with the food so much that I quit the bank and went to cooking school,” he says. 

One of the best places to start on the menu is the “signature nigiri,” featuring sliced fish over a bite-sized mound of rice decorated with flavor enhancers on top. Tuna gets a dollop of creamy anchovy sauce and salmon is boosted by a golden tomato confit and smoked sea salt. Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro introduced D.C. to this style of nigiri. 

Emperor says the King California Roll has been the biggest hit amongst recipe testers. Instead of artificial crab stick, the roll is stuffed with King crab. He also recommends the aburi-style sushi. These flame-kissed nigiri lack the butane taste that can come from sushi chefs searing fish with a flame out of a can. O-Ku uses charcoal from its grills instead.

There are also some heartier dishes available, like beef short ribs, pork belly, and Korean-style beef bulgogi. 

The 120-seat restaurant from Indigo Road Restaurant Group has a downstairs dining room, second floor lounge, and roof deck. The drink program focuses on Japanese whisky. Reservations will be accepted on SevenRooms. 

Starting Friday, O-Ku will be open Mondays through Wednesdays from 5 to 10:30 p.m. and Thursdays through Saturdays from 5 to 11 p.m. It is closed on Sundays. 

O-Ku, 1274 5th St. NE; (202) 888-8790;