Back in May, when writing about the pho from the H&L Market in North Charleston, I predicted that the traditional Vietnamese noodle dish — once virtually unknown to South Carolinians — would soon be no more exotic to local tastebuds than tacos or pizza. Octobachi, a new neighborhood restaurant in a modest Spring Street storefront, is evidence that the assimilation of Vietnam's favorite soup is well underway.
Octobachi's streamlined menu, which fits on a single yellow-green sheet, has four sections: appetizers, pho, hibachi, and sushi. The idea, manager and chef Adam Jones says, was to "mix a lot of the cuisines that people are eating now." The result is a rather unusual Asian fusion that takes the sushi and hibachi of Japan and the pho of Vietnam and adapts them to local tastes and sensibilities, including a little dose of the farm-to-table aesthetic. The beef is Certified Angus and wagyu, the chicken is free range and hails from Murrells Inlet, and the vegetables are fresh and local, too.
The appetizers consist of spring rolls, tempura, and skewers. Two big egg rolls ($5) come golden brown and hot from the fryer, sliced diagonally to expose rice noodles, carrots, onions, and cabbage inside. They're arranged around a stainless steel ramekin of sweet and sour sauce, with little squiggles of bright orange sriracha decorating each corner of the white triangular plate. (Sriracha, on a side note, seems well on its way to becoming the new salsa, which itself used to be exotic and strange but now outsells ketchup in American grocery stores.)
For sushi, a magura (tuna) nigiri ($4 for two pieces) is about as basic as it gets, and Octobachi's is both reasonably priced and very tasty. One thing that's always struck me as a little bothersome about sushi is that, in the quest for ultra-fresh fish, one might sit here in Charleston and, despite the rich Atlantic fishery just offshore, eat fish that was caught thousands of miles away and shipped in on ice.
Not so with Octobachi. Their tuna is fresh yellowfin from North Carolina waters, and it has a wonderfully cool texture and sweet flavor. The rice beneath it is thick and flavorful with a gentle vinegar tang, and a dramatic squiggle of wasabi mayo decorates the rectangular plate. Alongside the sushi is a little three-part tray with soy sauce, a marble of hot but tasty wasabi, and — my favorite — slices of housemade pickled ginger that have a pleasantly sharp, woody flavor.
The regular sushi selection is small and straightforward, just seven rolls and seven nigiri. But the kitchen experiments with a wide range of specials, too. Especially popular are the ones that bring a few Southern influences to the Eastern dish, like the tempura-fried okra roll and the barbecue sweet potato roll. Jones says they regularly throw in some fusion elements to make sushi a little more appealing to a younger demographic that isn't always interested in raw fish, like steak and mushrooms with fried onions on top.
The pho is quite good. In addition to the traditional beef ($10), there are shrimp ($10), tofu ($10), and octopus ($12), and, in an unusual fusion twist, you can opt for udon noodles in your bowl rather than the standard rice kind. I stuck with the classic beef and rice noodle variety and found the broth by itself to be rich and savory. Octobachi takes a few liberties with their formula. The rice noodles seem thinner and firmer than the kind you typically get in pho, and instead of the usual wide, thin slices of beef, you get smaller, thicker chunks, but it works. Everything on the accompanying plate of garnishes — bean sprouts, red and yellow peppers, cilantro, lime, and hot pepper rings — is fresh and flavorful, and the fragrant Thai basil leaves really bring the bowl alive.
The weak spot on the menu is the hibachi. There are various parings of chicken, steak, shrimp, scallops, and vegetables. The chicken and steak plate ($11) starts with good quality meats — free range chicken and Certified Angus Beef — but that's not quite enough. The plain chunks of grilled chicken and steak get some added char flavor from the flattop but little else, and the two big mounds of brownish rice served along side are mushy and sort of plain, too. There's nothing really bad about the dish, but compared to the bright flavors of the pho and the fresh quality of the sushi, it's a bit of a let down.
This evolving American cuisine is served in a setting that's both modest and stylish at the same time. It's a rather small space dominated by a long bar counter with seven rectangular stools with white and black vinyl covers, while four small four-top tables are off to one side. Painted on the white tile wall behind the bar is the restaurant's cartoon logo — a bright green octopus wielding a cleaver, three tentacles forming the T in Octo.
The furnishings are cool and funky in that do-it-yourself sort of way that one decorates his first apartment after college. The tables have a homemade feel, including staining that's one coat shy of being complete with streaks of wood showing through the black finish. The benches are plain pieces of lumber nailed together and stained the same almost-black as the tables, and since you share your bench with your neighbor, it can take a little community coordination to pull it closer or move it back.
More problematic are the tables themselves, which are suspended from steel cables that run from the open ceiling rafters down through the flat plywood tabletop, converging in a metal anchor screwed into the floor. This suspension system brings both an element of cool and an added degree of difficulty, as the table swings and shakes with even the slightest touch to the cables, creating a dining experience that might leave you a little seasick.
Octobachi's contemporary fusion of once-exotic fare may not sit well with the more passionate connoisseurs, who use authenticity as their yardsticks and move onto the next new obscure delicacy as soon as the current one gets too popular.
And the notion of a cleaver-wielding octopus may strike some as a little odd if not downright disturbing, and when you link it to the website's "Story of Octo" — the tale of a wandering celopod chef from Japan's secret Higher Octo Culinary Institute spreading his order's philospophy of "fast fresh and affordable Japanese food for everyone" — it's a goofy concept for a restaurant. (I suspect the story, strictly speaking, isn't exactly true, either.) But I can live with it. For me, it's encouraging to find an ever more interesting variety of food arriving in neighborhood restaurants and winning new converts.
It's also a continued boost for this little section of Elliotborough, which is emerging as its own distinctive culinary district. Hominy Grill, Lana, Fuel, and Mia Pomodori are clustered at the corner of Rutledge and Cannon. One block further north on Spring Street, Black Bean Company and Remedy Market recently entered the mix. This close-knit community of restaurateurs shares a passion for high-quality but reasonably priced food, and it has a more modest, neighborhood restaurant style that's quite distinct from the flash of East Bay and the trendiness of King Street. Octobachi, with its Japanese and Vietnamese flavors adapted to the ready market of MUSC staffers, College of Charleston students, and small-business workers right there in the neighborhood, adds a welcome new option.