Ōku: Zen and the art of refined, contemporary Asian cuisine

Ōku: Zen and the art of refined, contemporary Asian cuisine
Beef tataki, left, and bao bun, right. (Photos: Supplied)

Franschhoek’s Ōku has switched things up by shifting focus to lighter and tapas-style lunches, leaving the kaiseki menu — a 15-course set menu tasting experience, with an emphasis on small portions, elegant plating and seafood, for later.

The most peculiar thing seems to happen once you’ve reached the top of the Helshoogte Pass, driven past Tokara, and begun the windy descent past Kylemore, Pniel and then Boschendal, before turning right on the R45 towards Franschhoek: surnames that are commonly associated with Afrikaans elsewhere else, are instantly Frenchified, hence the profusion of Afrikaans-speaking La-boo-shanes, De-vil-jés and Zhour-dans (that’s Jordaan to the rest of us).

Perhaps that’s where Charlize got her idea from for Thé-ron(d).

Certainly, the French influence is ubiquitous, both natural and affected, as Franschhoek (“French corner”) stubbornly lays claim to its long-lost heritage, with a profusion of memorials and other nods to the past, from festivals to art galleries, restaurants to wine farms.

I’d recently been given a test car — a stunning Volvo XC60 Recharge Plug-in Hybrid, which was calling out for a road trip. Unlike the Volvo C40 fully electric hybrid, which only had a range of only about 330km to a full charge, the XC60 was mostly petrol, with about 60km on charge for city driving.

On a searingly hot day, we took the Volvo hybrid for a spin and the last thing we wanted was a heavy, rich meal. The two of us are crazy about Asian cuisine and while I knew of Ōku (Japanese for “oak tree”), we hadn’t tried it before. It’s a fitting name for the restaurant, which was launched during the height of the pandemic craziness, symbolising strength and growth in the face of challenges.

Owner Ryan Shell has previously worked at Haute Cabrière, Le Quartier Français’s The Tasting Room, and Michelin Star restaurant Longueville Manor on the British Island of Jersey. He’s also lectured at the Prue Leith Academy and worked with Mike Bassett, Rudi Liebenberg and Chris Erasmus.

Shell opened Ōku with then-business partner and equally acclaimed chef Darren Badenhorst in October 2020 — inspired by a trip to Indonesia years previously. Badenhorst is no longer involved in business with Shell, who now has chef Blaine Coetzer manning the kitchen while manager Peter Nyathi handles the front-of-house.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Chefs shake things up in the Franschhoek food valley

Ōku’s the first, located in the spot where Epice, part of the La Colombe group, used to be. Its sibling, Yama (a premier sushi and Asian-inspired eatery) opened two months later in the pandemic year, while Eleven, Shell’s most recent project, opened late last year.

What sets Ōku apart from its siblings is its focus on refined, contemporary Asian fusion — a term Shell dislikes but concedes it’s possibly the most appropriate description.

It’s a beautiful, zen space, with plenty of light, air and greenery; pale parquet floors, large stacking windows and contemporary furniture created by local artisans.

Ōku’s not “new” to the Franschhoek valley, although it certainly brings something unique to town, offering both a light four-course Asian lunch as well as a kaiseki menu — a 15-course set menu tasting experience, with an emphasis on small portions, elegant plating and seafood — which is now only served in the evenings. 

That’s a good move because it’s in any case far too much food and too rich for lunch. We opted to share plates from the four-course selection, although the menu begins with zensai nibbles and relishes, described as Japanese “tapas”.

The lunch offering has since been pared back, with the kaiseki now only available in the evenings, while they place even more of an emphasis on local and seasonal. My guess is that not too many locals were in the mood for a monster feast over lunch.

To start, we had airy Japanese milk bread rolls with miso, sesame and a Laotian dipping sauce, followed by golden crispy prawn toast squares, served with a daikon pickle and a chilli dashi table sauce.

The crispy soft-shell crab, served in a yellowtail, prawn, squid and zucchini tom yum hot and sour broth was exceptional: intensely flavoursome and spicy but not with tastebud-deadening heat, and a well-balanced broth, with just enough sweetness to counter the acid. Another winner was the tender yet rich lamb belly bao, served with white cabbage kimchi and a Korean gochujang mayonnaise, in a soft white bun.

While my 13-year-old inhaled her Norwegian salmon with udon noodles, charred corn and broccoli (served with a light kombu dashi sauce), I tucked into the chicken gyoza (dumplings), also served with charred corn, in a satisfying chicken broth.

Japanese cheesecake, souffle-style and delicately textured, is always a treat: at Ōku, it’s served with seasonal berries, white chocolate and a light sweep of cinnamon.

The menu is updated twice a month. The kaiseki option, Shell admits, turned out to be a tad extravagant for lunch, but it’s perfect for savouring unhurriedly at dinnertime.

Despite the focus on the cuisine of Southeast Asia, Shell and his team are committed to sourcing most of their ingredients locally and seasonally, supporting local producers and the community. It makes sense — why import fish when South Africa has fresh and sustainably caught yellowtail swimming in our own waters?

Read more in Daily Maverick: By Order: My Big Fat Asian Ingredients Bender

The interior of Ōku. (Photo: Supplied)

It’s a balancing act: diners still expect to see salmon on the menu of an Asian restaurant, and soft-shell crab is always a “wow” dish, no matter how great the quality of your own local seafood is.

Shell says their focus now is on getting better at being local and being seasonal. “I think we’re getting more and more so every year. We’re quite in touch with the season, so this week we have a yellowtail tataki that we did with a crying tiger sauce — a tomato-based hot sauce. It’s like a ceviche, but its base is gooseberries. When gooseberries come out of season, we’ll switch to using pineapple.”

Another popular local ingredient in their kitchen right now is the humble tomato: Shell says they have an abundance of tomatoes in a range of colour — including pink — which they’re using in many of their dishes. Tomato seeds are dried and pulverised into a natural MSG, to add a potent pop of flavour to dishes. “Tomato seeds are massively high in natural MSG. We’re continuously drying tomato seeds and blending them, which is pretty cool.”

The wine list is stupendous, focussing on local wineries from around the valley as well as a selection of cocktails and sakes, and an in-house brand of beer-styled sakes.

Shell’s a huge fan of Capensis (located at the top of Banghoek), where the focus is solely on chardonnay. “We serve their table brand, ‘entry-level’ one, and their Sylene, which is by far one of my favourite wines.”

Other favourites are all from Capensis’ neighbours — Oldenburg and Rainbow’s End. “Those wines are just insane. Wade Bales has also released a Franschhoek semillon, which is such a great expression of Franschhoek.”

A clear favourite cocktail is wasabi lemonade. “Whenever I eat here, I order the Japanese mule: it’s basically a wasabi lemonade and what I really love about it is that it has such a beautiful flavour and it’s super refreshing,” he tells me.

Wasabi isn’t just about the heat, it’s all about the flavour. In a few years, Shell hopes to have fresh wasabi available, once it’s finally ready for harvest. It’s frightfully expensive to import but there’s no substitution for the real thing.

“The wasabi we get in South Africa is of inferior quality, horseradish. When we moved into Ōku, we asked our landlord (the Leeu Collection), who has a small organic farm to plant wasabi. It takes seven years before it is harvestable. At the moment, we use proper wasabi, but it’s a preserved version.” DM

Ōku is situated at Heritage Square, 9 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek.




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