I tend to get skeptical when I hear of a Japanese restaurant opened by a non-Japanese chef. My experiences at those places have usually ended up disappointing, as time after time those chefs purporting to showcase the refined cuisine of a food-crazed country fail to capture the subtlety of flavor and texture that makes Japanese food one of my favorite categories. When I heard of an izakaya-inspired restaurant opened by a Caucasian chef who spent his time at wd~50, I debated whether I should check out this place. One Friday evening, my wife Jun and I needed to get a quick dinner nearby my office in Midtown East before heading out to see a ballet show, so I used that occasion to check out Oka. Well, I stand corrected, not all Japanese restaurants run by non-Japanese chefs are terrible. There were some pleasant surprises that we discovered during our dinner.
The concise menu at Oka is not quite authentic; rather it is somewhat of a modern (but I wouldn’t call it fusion) interpretation of izakaya food, mostly in small plates (not exceeding $15 in most cases) and ideal for sharing. We didn’t eat any novel, eye-popping dishes; we both had been to dozens of izakayas before and therefore know what kind of food we will get. Yet, the kitchen did a pretty good job of putting some subtle twists here and there. Start with salmon roe with yeasted sunchoke puree, which was quite delightful with the way the salty sensation of salmon roe worked together with the creamy puree.
Grilled hamachi collar was another wonderful dish, with the fish more or less perfectly cooked and with minimal seasoning; Jun ended up picking out the entire flesh out as we savored the very nice balance of flavor and texture of the collar. Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) is a dish that is hard to mess up with, yet a hint of yuzu vinaigrette added another dimension to an already aptly fried pork. While I had a bit of a gripe with its portion size, the ochazuke (a bowl of matcha dashi broth poured over rice) with scallop was quite aromatic. The only disappointing dish during our dinner was potato salad with buttermilk, pickled celery and cheese, which didn’t quite have the smooth texture we were used to from Japanese style potato salads.
Oka doesn’t accept reservations and the dining space is not quite spacious, so if you want to avoid wait times, I suggest showing up on the earlier side of the evening for dinner. There is a full bar with sake options by the generously poured glass. The restaurant feels more like a modern Asian fusion restaurant than a traditional izakaya, but its clean look with optimally bright lighting can appeal to a lot of people for a variety of occasions (there was a couple two tables across from us that we were pretty sure was on the first date after meeting online). If you want to check out a new Japanese restaurant with some nice twists to what you know about izakaya food, Oka is a place worth considering.
- Creativity: 8.0/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 8.0/10
- Flavor: 8.0/10
- Texture: 8.0/10
- Value: 8.5/10
Address: 439 3rd Avenue, New York, NY 10016
Telephone: (929) 367-8607