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Big and beautiful, D.C.’s newest Japanese restaurant masters the grill

Chef Bryan Emperor works the robata grill at O-Ku D.C. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Washington’s newest Japanese restaurant has me at the door. O-Ku D.C., located across from Union Market, is accessed by pulling a leather grip, smooth as a glove, attached to a handsome slab of red oak. The detail feels promising. A place that pays attention to such minutia is probably particular about bigger things, like what’s for dinner.

Admittedly, I’m trying to keep an open mind. O-Ku, the Japanese word for “oak,” comes to the District from a Charleston, S.C., restaurant group, the Indigo Road, which opened the first O-Ku there in 2010, followed by outposts in Charlotte and Atlanta. Next up: Raleigh and Nashville.

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Fairly or not, chains come with some baggage, preconceived notions included. Steve Palmer, managing partner at the Indigo Road, wants District denizens to know that while his Japanese restaurants share a label, that’s pretty much where the similarities stop. Every outpost looks different, he says. None have in common even a single dish. “We’re hiring chefs, not kitchen managers,” he says.

Bryan Emperor, the chef at O-Ku D.C., went to college in Japan and became a sales trader in New York. One of his more enjoyable tasks was entertaining portfolio managers at fine restaurants in New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong. He became so passionate about Asian food that he ended up leaving finance for cooking school, after which the 2003 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America went on to apprentice in Japan, where he cooked in both Japanese and Korean kitchens, and serve as a line cook at the original Nobu in Manhattan.

O-Ku’s introductory plates reflect the chef’s travels. Korea inspires, among other dishes, the chicken wings, fried to a soft crunch and tossed with a moistener extracted from ginger, chili sauce and brown sugar, then freckled with fresh sesame seeds. China is responsible for the juicy, pork-and-shrimp steamed dumplings known as siu mai and the lamb chop teetering on a thatch of blanched julienne potato, seasoned to rouse taste buds with Sichuan peppercorns. The meat is cooked on equipment no other O-Ku can claim: a robata grill fueled with petrified white oak from Japan called binchotan .

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The signature nigiri are sold by the piece and keep the focus on the fish while slipping in a pleasant enhancer or two. Big eye tuna, red as steak, is adorned with a dot of creamy anchovy sauce and micro-parsley, and Hawaiian prawns, seasoned with herbed salt from the South Carolina low country, sparkle with a squeeze of lime from a slice whose rind is cut to create a tiny twist.

The regular sushi, alas, can be pedestrian. Kanpachi, or amberjack, finds us chewing (and chewing) to cut the fish with our teeth. Uni from Chile lacks the maritime freshness that fans of sea urchin have come to expect from the role models sourced in Santa Barbara or Hokkaido in Japan. Slices of unadorned raw fish are ill-served by rice that is cool to the touch and also underseasoned. Where’s the smack of rice vinegar?

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Omakase, or “chef’s choice,” can be experienced for $80 or $120. Initially, the chef created the tasting menus from the a la carte selections on the standing menu, which saw takers grazing on golden Wagyu beef croquettes garnished with a dot of rémoulade, a clear soup flavored with not much more than sea kelp (it’s restorative), a school of raw fish of uneven appeal (see above) and a dessert that nearly eclipses much of what comes before it. I left no trace of the lemon grass panna cotta topped with yuzu-honey served in a lovely parfait glass. By the time you read this, Emperor says he will have tweaked the omakase script to include more seasonal or otherwise special items. Look for cherry tomatoes stuffed with raw tuna, and asparagus in a rice cracker crust.

Emperor defines his food as “progressive Asian cuisine” based on Japanese technique. By now, you should know what’s best for you: anything cooked. The rolls assembled with soft-shell crab or rock shrimp, fried so you can hear them crackle, make satisfying eating, especially at happy hour, when all the rolls are half price. (The crisp soft-shell crab shares space with snow crab and buttery avocado; rock shrimp gets bundled with cucumber, scallion and pungent shiso.)

Better yet is anything warmed on the robata, designed so that the heat rises rather than wafts to the sides, where the sushi chefs toil, and reaches a temperature of greater than 1,000 degrees. Skewers of rib-eye are particularly good, their light sear giving way to a pop of pleasure as the tongue encounters prime beef, scallion sweetness and a rush of fat. Chicken thighs pass through a light marinade before they’re held to the fire and sprinkled with shichimi pepper. Lovely. In contrast, ribbons of fatty pork slicked in red chile pepper paste — the chef’s nod to bulgogi — are good only for their crisp ends. The superior main dish is oven-roasted sea bass carpeted with puffed rice and encircled by an inky black sesame ponzu sauce.

When owner Palmer tells me half of O-Ku’s sales are hot food, I nod on the other end of the phone. If something has come into contact with sizzling oil or a flame, it’s likely worth your time.

The door to O-Ku D.C. turns out to be the first of multiple design flourishes. Diners enter to find a dim but romantic bar, metal panels of which reference its source of inspiration with laser-cut oak leaves illuminated from behind. From there, patrons may be led around a corner to a table in the main dining room, where light wood alternates with blue-gray paint on the walls, or the 12-seat sushi counter. On a clement summer night, trek to the rooftop, where the full menu is offered beneath strings of lights and with a pigeon’s-eye view of Union Market and the top of the Capitol.

Wherever you’re led, there will be black napkins on the table, servers bearing sliced citrus and cucumbers for your water, and intriguing cocktails that play up modern Japan. O-Ku succeeds in the pampering department. Just remember, what’s hot is what’s cool on the menu.

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1274 Fifth St. NE.

Open: Dinner daily.

Prices: Small plates $7 to $18, signature nigiri and main courses $8 to $26.

Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.