Okra Izakaya is a delight for the eye everywhere you look. Upon entering, you are passing the 3sqm open kitchen where three chefs are flipping around big knives. They seem busy and focused, and deep in thought, however, they do raise their eyes for a quick welcoming nod of the head. One of them is Wolfgang Krivanec, the owner and Head Chef at this neat little restaurant that stays true to the traditional Japanese cooking techniques in sushi (we ain’t talking the take away stuff – the sushi is a flavour bomb), ramen and other Yakiniku (grilled meat) dishes.
Wolfgang recommends we pick a few dishes to share, as is typical in such places in Japan. The menu offers many ways to enjoy this exotic food journey: from pre-set shared menus of either three, four or six courses, to a personalised mix-and-match tapas type deal. Even though the menu is compact, the selection can be daunting. Not to worry – the waiting staff won’t only recommend what food options to go for, but they’ll also be pairing it with sake. This Japanese rice wine comes in a large variety at Okra.
Wolfgang learned the samurai-like arts (we’re serious – being a Japanese chef takes some serious discipline) of the Japanese kitchen abroad and worked in several restaurants in Asia before opening Okra’s doors. He also married a Japanese woman whose family recipes inspired a large part of the menu he speaks passionately about.
The food starts filling our table, one plate at a time, and each one feeds our eyes with a feast before we reluctantly mess with it, and eat it. There is a reverence to the making and presentation of each dish here, even the minor ones.
The appetizers begin with fluffy, grilled aubergines covered in a creamy miso paste and sesame seeds. The show continues with soft baked glazed pumpkin slices with dollops of tofu, sushi with eel and another topped with spicy tuna tartar – all of it is arranged so beautifully you feel bad for eating it. Every detail on the plate adds flavour to it, so don’t mistake the prettiness for pretentiousness. No way. Each drop of sauce, each herb adds layers of flavours.
Sharing two to four appetizers offers a good showcase of what’s going on in that quiet kitchen over at the entrance. With our hopes high, we move on to the main, which in our case, is the ramen.
There are a total of 5 ramen to choose from that you can also pair with a flight of 3 sake. The crowd favourite here we are told is the Tonkotsu Ramen (an intense pork broth with stewed pork). But we go for the AKA Ramen, with braised and then glazed pork, and a black bean paste added to the broth.
On top of the curly noodles rests half an egg that has been marinating in soy sauce for over 4 hours. The broth is spiced with a Japanese seasoning called taro and is finished off with soy sauce and the natural glaze from the pork. It is a family recipe, Woflgang explains, that he’s learned from his mother-in-law. Upon the first slurp, we want to ask Wolfgang where his mother-in-law is so we can hug her. So. Much. Flavour.
A good ramen is as comforting as it is tasty and the ramen at Okra Izakaya delivered, nay… surpassed, these expectations.
As for the setting: it’s refined, but plain and looks the part with its neat Japanese minimalism, the ceramic Japanese tableware and the sake-lined shelves. The minimal surroundings means all the attention is on what’s laid out on the plates.
While the atmosphere is casual and comfortable here, Okra Izakaya is the kind of place you visit when you want a foodie experience, in which there’s creativity at work in the kitchen. The little dishes carry the Japanese culinary poise and delicacy. And while the Izakaya scene grows more and more lively globally, the Japanese-trained chef, Wolfgang reinteprating, Austrian version of the tradition is an original addition to Vienna’s increasingly multiculrual dining scene.