There's been a veritable explosion of sushi in this town recently. Open a copy of the City Paper and you'll see an all-out war being waged in the ads. There's the older establishments like Wasabi and Tsunami, which are busy expanding to the suburbs, and then there are the new places like Tropical Sushi, Tokyo Bistro, Bambu, Infuzions, Fuji, and others I'm surely forgetting.
So who in their right mind would decide to open a sushi restaurant in the midst of all this competition? Brett McKee, that's who. The chef and owner of Oak Steakhouse has secured a space on Upper King Street, and he vows to bring Charleston high-end sushi.
"Rolls are not the concept I'm going for," he says, referring to the glut of $12.95 specialty rolls you'll find on many sushi menus. Instead, McKee is aiming for a clean and fresh focus on the sashimi (sans cream cheese and spicy mayo). Think Nobu or Koi, internationally-acclaimed sushi houses that are well known for exquisite product. "High-end sashimi, lighter rolls, and not the big dense stuff," says McKee, who adds that as a married guy with three kids, he doesn't like going to a college bar/party den to find sushi. His place will be more suited to the higher-end clientele in the 35 to 60 age range.
The restaurant will be called Oku (Oak in Japanese) and will be located at the corner of King and Radcliffe in the old Waterworks building. McKee says the Upper King Street merchants association has been very welcoming, and why wouldn't they be? The Design District has suffered some serious setbacks during the recession, losing a lot of momentum as empty storefronts have piled up. News of a high-end sushi restaurant from one of the city's most recognized chefs has got to be exciting.
McKee is currently on a worldwide hunt for a top sushi chef. He's using his Facebook contacts and friends like John Mariani (food writer, Esquire) to track down talent. He's even considering recruiting a chef from Japan.
In the meantime, while the search for a sushi chef continues, McKee will be overseeing the renovation of the building. He's going for a warm, historic vibe similar to Jean Georges' Mercer Kitchen in NYC and expects to be open in February, or at least before the Charleston Wine + Food Festival in March. He's also preparing to open another new restaurant, 17 North, in Mt. Pleasant next week after throwing a big fund-raising shindig there on Sunday night.
And then there's the reality show pilot. That's right. Reality show.
McKee has one of those ready-for-primetime personalities, and instead of trying out for Iron Chef or Top Chef, which would require him to leave his family and his businesses, he's had a crew following him around. "I've got some partners out in California," he says. "They have this idea for a reality show. I was miced-up for 80 hours. They taped me at my house, dog park, pool, beach. They've cut it into a seven-minute trailer. I gotta do a couple more voiceovers, but they want to go straight to network with it." In his characteristic Brooklyn accent, he admits that he doesn't know where it will go but says, "Shit, I might as well do what I'm gonna do."
And why not? His personality — combined with his ability to cook great food and show his guests a great time — has won him a legion of loyal fans in Charleston. And if Charlestonians can fall in love with a native New Yorker, so can the rest of America.