Before we even taste the food at OKO, the showstopping new Westport restaurant from chef Brian Lewis, we are impressed. A plate of sushi on its way to another table has as much color as an artist’s palette. Purple-pink hues pop from a piece of tuna resting on bright white rice. A piece of orange salmon glistens. When served to a diner at the table next to us, the okonomiyaki — the restaurant’s namesake dish, a savory scallion and yam pancake topped with a thick chunk of pork belly — has us staring at it so intently it is almost rude.
Normally the way food is “plated” is an afterthought for me. Many of my favorite meals are decidedly not the food equivalent of masterpieces, and I often dislike when chefs take their food-beautification efforts too far. A recent meal at another Connecticut restaurant was not enhanced by being on a platter alongside a decorative evergreen branch. Too many dishes arrive with beautiful swirls of sauce and ingredients that, though sculpted into Instagram-ready poses, seem to have been chosen for their appearance rather than their flavor. But the food’s appearance at OKO is different: simple and minimally adorned, the fresh vibrancy of the ingredients themselves is what shines through. And, of course, OKO provides more than just a feast for the eyes.
The sushi lives up to its appearance, with flavorful, delicate cuts of fish sourced from local and international waters. The okonomiyaki is a thick, hearty pancake reminiscent of, but richer than, a latke, and topped by braised, ramen-style pork belly that is succulent and salty. Equally as impressive are the ramen eggs (an appetizer powered by that same pork belly and topped with mayu mayo), the hand rolls (incredible seaweed-wrapped pieces of fish), and the sticky ribs. The vegetable tempura, served in a thin, almost golden layer of breading, are as crisp and light as they look — we ordered the chef’s selection of five, and were wowed by an assortment of vegetables that included Japanese eggplant and fiddlehead ferns.
Finding excellence at this restaurant is no surprise. Lewis’ résumé includes celebrated stints at Richard Gere’s Bedford Post Inn in New York and Elm restaurant in New Canaan before he opened his own restaurant, The Cottage, in late 2015 to rave reviews from myself and others.
OKO grew out of the Japanese-inspired specials that Lewis and his team began experimenting with at The Cottage shortly after it opened.
“For 15 years my other love has been all things Japanese and it’s really hard to express that within the confines of even a broad-reaching, quote-unquote American restaurant,” Lewis says. Even still, Lewis gave it a shot. “I started doing a very off-brand style of cooking at The Cottage, offering the omakase, ‘chef’s choice.’ ”
Diners at the restaurant loved this “off-brand” tasting menu, and Lewis loved preparing it. “It was the ability to play another instrument,” he says. He decided to open a second restaurant in Westport focusing on this style of fare. To prepare he traveled to Japan and spent several weeks immersed in the country’s culture and cuisine. He visited several famous Japanese fish markets including Tsukiji in Tokyo andNishiki in Kyoto, and worked in the kitchens of acclaimed restaurants Suginoi Honami in Kanazawa and Tsukiji Tamura in Tokyo.
OKO is housed in a historic firehouse that dates to 1931 and was more recently home to NEAT, the cocktail bar and coffeehouse. The small but open space, which seats about 40, has been redesigned to highlight the classic elements of the building, including the exposed red brick and large windows. These historic features are accented by black steel design elements, slender wood LED light fixtures and an ash wood and fiber cement bar in front of an open kitchen.
For the restaurant, Lewis and his team decided to forgo overtly Japanese-inspired decorations. “I didn’t want it to have this feeling of an American chef trying to make it look like a Japanese space,” he says.
The same can be said of the food. Although very clearly and openly Japanese influenced, it does not claim to be fully traditional Japanese cuisine. For instance, Lewis says that while in Japan most of the “oko” pancakes he tried featured a sweet plum sauce he is not a fan of, and doesn’t feature at his restaurant. “Sometimes for me, just cooking what makes sense intuitively is a really nice way to go,” he says.
The restaurant’s beverages live up to the standard set by the food, with well-crafted cocktails and small but smartly curated beer and wine lists. There is also a nice selection of sake, including The Ten to Chi “Heaven and Earth” sake which I could not resist ordering despite its $16-per-glass price tag.
The dessert options consist of house-made soft serve ice cream with a variety of toppings that mirror ingredients used in early courses, including candied ginger, matcha, black sesame togarashi and sesame popcorn. An order of chocolate and vanilla ice cream provided a memorable cap to the meal.
As part of this job, I’m constantly visiting restaurants I’ve never been to before. Consequently, I don’t get back to favorite restaurants as often as I’d like. I will make sure to return to OKO soon.