If you think you know Japanese cuisine as beautifully presented raw or cooked seafood, a trip to OKU will reveal that there is so much more to enjoy, writes Petty Elliott.
Some of us like the comfort food value of ramen, even shabu-shabu, karaage and yakitori. Then there are the ‘bento box’ fans. Perhaps you prefer Kaiseki Ryori where you can savour multiple courses of perfectly balanced cuisine, offering plenty of intense tastes and capturing seasonal variety. But karaage fried chicken as haute cuisine? That’s just one example of the truly new experience on offer at OKU.
Tucked away on the ground floor of Kempinski Hotel, OKU is a worthy new contribution to the increasing depth and variety of modern Japanese food in our capital city, with hints of fusion and dishes served with plenty of imagination. I believe the meaning of OKU implies something private, intimate, profound and deep. Even if my understanding is not 100 per cent correct, it very well describes the zen-like ambiance, minimalist décor and fine food of this two month old establishment. Decorative golden stones and a bonsai tree atop a shaped table greeted my two guests and I as we took our places in the main dining area. It’s a wide, open space featuring about sixty seats with adjacent bar and sitting area. Beyond a beautiful small garden with more bonsai trees is another thirty seats. The ‘interior landscape’ brought back memories of a visit to the famous Nanzen-ji temple in Kyoto; simple, yet elegant and natural. There’s an open kitchen in the corner and two private rooms at the far end right corner of the restaurant. A metal bird sculpture dominates the middle of the room.
The menu choices are wide. The list includes small hot and cold dishes, soups, sushi and sashimi platters, a range of mainly charcoal-grilled main courses, rice, udon noodles, and some interesting desserts. Surprisingly there was no ‘omakase’ where the chef selects dishes for the guest. But if your fellow diners are sake lovers, there is plenty of choice.
My two companions and I agreed to share a few dishes as a starter to our meal. Oku karaage, the signature dish, is highly recommended. Karaage chicken is normally deep-fried, featuring sake, soy, ginger and garlic and served with the popular kewpie mayonnaise. Oku karaage is on another level. Arriving on a slate plate, small blackwood logs hold three servings encased in a delicate black squid batter with an injection of teriyaki and balsamic reduction. The taste was as good as the impeccable presentation, a light crunchy texture giving way to saltiness and a touch of sweetness. I warn you now, one piece will simply not be enough!
The very pretty Usuzu Kuri, was a combination of salmon and trout carpaccio and truffles with ponzu, the Japanese citrus, and soya sauce dressing. Appetizing, fresh and colourful with tiny purple flowers this meeting of Italian and Japanese concepts was delicious indeed.
Our third small plate was Ajitama, smoked organic eggs and shiguren beef mince cooked with sake, ginger mirin and soya sauce. The presentation was playful with two sliced eggs in a smooth black bowl with straws and a glass lid to contain the smoke until opened – with a touch of drama – in front of the diners. The deep smoky aroma went well with the creamy texture of the perfectly cooked eggs and for me a pinch of salt into the egg yolk would have given one more layer of flavour. Try it!!
Three pieces of charcoal-grilled Japanese Unagi; eel served with rice crackers and petals of orange nasturtiums was also beautifully presented. The eel was intense, a sweet but bold flavour with a very soft texture to contrast with crunchy, thin rice crackers. The flavours in the dish reminded me of Indonesian sweet soya sauce.
The last sharing plate was buta salad, mixed greens with pork belly and my favourite classic white sesame dressing. Chef Kazumasa Yazawa (Chef Kaz) adds a touch of ponzu, producing a fresh and delicious offering complemented by nasturtium leaves. The pork belly was cooked to perfection, soft after simmering over a low heat for many hours. I wondered aloud to my friends if some searing might create more texture and colours.
My main course was delicious medium tender Angus beef cooked simply with salt and served with ponzu, black garlic puree, wasabi and garlic chips. Diners are given the chance to indulge in their own personal combination from all the ingredients provided on the plate.
For dessert, we shared Yuki, yuzu chocolate mousse, lemon curd dulcet sponge cake and crunchy chocolate pralines. It proved a perfect dessert for sharing, as the portion was generous. The dish offers a pleasant balance of flavours for the yuzu chocolate mousse. Each of us indulged in a sorbet dish which came in 3 different ice-lollies – sisho and plum, it was delicious. Beetroot and orange sorbet was another good combination and some added orange zest would have been welcome. The winner was the pineapple and lime sorbet – literally the taste of sunshine.
Oku is a must-visit dining destination for Jakarta foodies. It works well as a venue for business lunches, special dinners, ladies’ lunches and as an after-work destination. Chef Kaz, who counts renowned Japanese chef Tetsuya Wakuda among his mentors, has brought something new to Jakarta with creative presentation and amazing flavours. I wish him well and will definitely return when I can, especially for the Japanese style variety of small ‘tapas-style’ plates.
Hotel Indonesia Kempinski Jakarta, Jl. M.H Thamrin No.1
Central Jakarta 10310
Phone: +62 21 2358 3896