OKO Rye, which opens Dec. 18 on Purchase Street in Rye, is not your average Japanese restaurant. Nor is Brian Lewis, the visionary behind it, your average Japanese chef. The James Beard nominated chef and Somers native, reveres Japanese cuisine so much that he traveled to Japan to work and has studied the cuisine for more than seven years.
He spent three weeks working in two-Michelin star Kaiseki-style restaurants, in Kanazawa and Tokyo. With OKO, Lewis said he has tried to replicate the techniques and ingredients he found there while adding his own personality and sense of fun (think soft serve ice cream desserts along with an “ooey gooey chocolate-Matcha birthday cake”).
After finding success with OKO in Westport, which he opened a year and a half ago, Lewis decided to bring the concept to Westchester. Then the space that had been Rosemary & Vine became available, which he said he found serendipitous since he and his dad have a standing lunch date at Poppy’s Cafe next door.
Lewis also owns The Cottage in Westport, but food lovers in Westchester may recognize him as the chef who opened the Bedford Post Inn kitchen for owner Richard Gere; he was there from 2007 to 2011.
Opening in Rye, he said, “is a really nice way to come home and do something special and unique with the food and even up our game in terms of creativity and product.”
“Having grown up in Westchester and kicked off my culinary career in local restaurants, I’m ecstatic to be back for the first time in years with OKO,” said Lewis. “This is a true passion project for me, combining my love for classic Japanese cooking techniques with sourcing the freshest, highest quality ingredients, all in a lively, fun and welcoming atmosphere.”
For his menus, he sources some sushi and fish from Japan and works closely with local farms to ensure the freshest ingredients. Diners have a choice of Nigiri such as Ora King Salmon, Red King Crab, and marinated Bluefin Tuna (which is labeled “Near and Far” on the menu) along with items flown in from Japan, such as Suzuki sea bass, Shime Saba wild mackerel, hamachi yellowtail and Botan Ebi sweet shrimp.
Order the Chef’s Selection, either five or 10 pieces, and you can really see Lewis in action: On a given night, either Lewis or his sushi chef Tan Tandy (who worked at Manhattan’s Nobu and Morimoto) works in front of the open kitchen, steps away from diners, creating and perfecting your sushi selection (all I’ll say is that there is a blowtorch involved).
There’s also an Omakase meal at a special table for four near the open kitchen which includes a spontaneous, multi-course menu of the chef’s choosing.
Wanting to be known as more than just a Japanese restaurant, Lewis has made sure his offerings are wide ranging. That means Bento boxes featuring Wagyu hanger steak or teriyaki chicken thighs, tempura (such as broccoli, Japanese eggplant and Okinawan sweet potato) and entrees such as sticky ribs with smoked maple, gochujang, sesame and scallion and Jonah Crab dumpling with spicy sesame ginger ponzu.
The beverage program is equally extensive with a nod towards the Japanese culture. There’s a robust sake menu (offered by the bottle and on tap), Japanese, European and American beer, hot and cold iced tea, matcha and wine is offered along with custom cocktails which integrate traditional Japanese ingredients.
For dessert, there are waffle cones and sundaes with a host of toppings such as brown butter almonds, chocolate sauce, sesame praline, Yuzu Marshmallow and a matcha kit-kat. There’s also a special kid’s menu.
The 58-seat space, much like its OKO Westport sibling, features a post-industrial scheme of natural ash, concrete greys and black steel, combined with large windows, exposed brick walls and a restored tin ceiling with a decorative pattern. Most fun: The custom-designed steel structure, inspired by traditional Japanese scaffolding, which is suspended over the pass to the kitchen, offering an exciting, behind-the-scenes view of the team at work.
If you go
Address: 29 Purchase St., Rye, 914-481-8660, okokitchen.com
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday with Sundays, lunch service and OKO to-go to launch in 2020
Fun fact: OKO is short for “Okonomiyaki,” a savory, Japanese pancake filled with seasonally-inspired ingredients that was the first true Japanese-inspired item on the menu at The Cottage, Lewis’ celebrated and award-winning restaurant in Westport, Connecticut.
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