As a former resident of and frequent traveler to Japan, I tend to be skeptical of Japanese food in Hong Kong. It is often too glam, too expensive and of average quality. There are, of course, exceptions and I have found a new one in Okra.
It is the creation of Chef Max Levy who hails from New Orleans and cut his teeth under the tutelage of Japanese chefs in New York and Tokyo before starting Okra 1949 in Beijing. Okra Kitchen, opened last year, represents his first foray into Hong Kong. Located on a pedestrian-only slope on Queen’s Road West, Okra is split over two levels: the ground floor, Okra Kitchen, and the first floor, Okra Bar. The upper level is a reservation-only omakase sushi bar with very limited seating, while the kitchen is styled as an izakaya.
While izakayas were traditionally casual, noisy establishments for Japanese salarymen to consume small plates of flavorful fare alongside alcoholic drinks, they have in recent years become more akin to gastropubs with emphasis on quality and creative food to accompany a diversifying array of beverages. Okra Kitchen is in keeping with this newer breed of izakaya.
The place definitely has a hipster vibe. Chef Levy’s musical taste, heavy on late twentieth-century alternative, punk, and post-punk tunes, creates an upbeat energy that permeates the otherwise spare space with limited counter seating and tight tables. Dining at Okra Kitchen was certainly the first time I heard both the Violent Femmes and Blondie at a restaurant in Hong Kong, favorites from my own more youthful days.
Over the course of three recent visits, I started as a skeptic and was won over by the consistently creative and tasty Japanese-inspired cuisine. The menu is divided between smaller A-sides, larger B-sides, a few desserts and a unique selection of carefully curated unpasteurized sakes. Weekly specials are handwritten on tiles that hang above the counter.
Highlights of the A-sides included the Wild Sicilian Seaweed Salad (HKD78), the Yazu Yellowtail and House Made Yuba (HKD154) and the Crispy Brussels Sprouts with O.K. Sauce (HKD68). The seaweed salad consists of a mix of kelp known as kombu in Japanese with a texture that ranges from soft and smooth to quite firm and almost crunchy. The seaweed is flavored with sesame, vinegar and a cooling jelly. On the first few bites, I felt that the firm pieces were undercooked compared to kombu I am used to eating in Japan but after trying the dish twice I realized that the mix of textures worked well together and was an innovative take on what could otherwise be a rather straightforward salad.
If you want raw fish with your meal at Okra Kitchen, the yazu yellowtail is a good choice. Large chunks of yellowtail sashimi are drizzled with garlic oil and ponzu vinegar and served alongside shredded homemade yuba (tofu skin), for a pleasant combination of traditional Japanese flavors. The seasoning is just enough to accentuate the natural taste of the yellowtail without overwhelming the fish.
For a vegetable dish, the brussels sprouts are excellent. Stir fried to a hot and just barely crisp finish, these “o.k.” sprouts are enhanced with Chef Levy’s very own homemade x.o. sauce, plus raisins from Xinjiang for a bit of Chinese-Japanese fusion befitting the region. Despite the name of the restaurant, somewhat surprisingly, okra itself does not feature that prominently on the menu. However, for okra aficionados, the Charred Baby Vegetables (HKD98) include a good helping of the ladies’ fingers along with corn and yam, topped with shredded yuzu and miso salt.
Turning to the larger B-sides, the Oyster and Bamboo Rice (HKD188) and El Pollo Loco Fried Chicken Samich (HKD138) were particularly memorable. The oyster dish, served in a claypot, contains plump, medium sized roasted oysters and bamboo stacked atop sake-steamed rice, some of it crisp from the pot. The oysters were steamed just to the point of completion and the rice was delicious, reminiscent of that served with unagi don (“eel rice”) dishes in Japan. Speaking of which, Okra Kitchen also serves a good rendition of this dish, but with only small pieces of eel served on top of the rice, it is hard to compare to the more traditional and delicious eel rice that is a classic of Japanese cuisine.
The fried chicken samich is among the heavier dishes at Okra Kitchen. The “samich” consists of a whole fried marinated chicken thigh on an Okinawan purple sweet potato bun with fresh cabbage and “crystal sauce”. It is basically excellent fried chicken on a thick tasty bun with a slightly Japanese twist in the cabbage and sauce, reminiscent of the accompaniments to tonkatsu or other cutlet dishes in Japan. The burger is helpfully cut into segments for easy sharing. Okra Kitchen also serves a McBelly Roasted Pork Samich (HKD138) and, aside from the potential trademark issues raised by Chef Levy’s naming conventions, this sandwich was also hearty and filling with Japanese flavors including yuzu and daikon, but not quite as good as the chicken.
Okra Kitchen serves two desserts under the heading “rarities” and these are not to be missed. One is a deceptively simple Roast Custard Banana (HKD56). The banana is roasted whole in its peel to soft, starchy perfection and topped with dehydrated soy salt for a sweet and salty combination that is neither too much of both. Truly memorable; however, is the Uji Matcha Cookie Boy (HKD76). This rarity is not really a cookie but rather gooey, buttery cookie dough served in a claypot with just a hint of green tea flavor. The dough has the added benefit of being studded with delightful candied red beans and smothered with smoked cream. It is delicious.
If for no other reason, come to Okra Kitchen for this cookie boy dessert and, of course, for the playlist.