Prime Fish vs. O-Ku – Charlotte, NC
Charlotte is a budding food city, and a particularly good locale for many varieties of Asian cuisine. The notable exception is sushi––there are few truly glorious local sushi places around, and that's a real shame for the Maestro, who is a ravenous lover of sushi. There are some serviceable casual spots with decent fish that are good if you want to go for a cheap lunch special. The fish at O-Ku, my go-to, is usually good, but it's expensive, and a corporate multinational chain popular with banker bros and woo girls, the likes of which I generally try not to frequent. The drop off from there is pretty steep.
I had heard rumblings about Chef Robin Anthony's Prime Fish for a few months, first seeing it on Eater's "Hottest Restaurants in Charlotte" list back in the summer. While they peddle a standard menu of appetizers, nigiri/sashimi, and rolls, they also are the only sushi spot in Charlotte to offer a genuine Edomae-style omakase, albeit only once a month and for a head-spinning $250 before booze and gratuity, not far off from the prices at the very best sushi spots in New York, Los Angeles, or even Tokyo. The Ballantyne neighborhood, the restaurant's home, is rather a schlep for me, and a generally unappealing/corporate/mall-like place that I have no real reason to visit, so I had been slow to go try the fare. I finally bit the bullet and made my way down late one weekend night after a party to give Chef Robin's sushi a try, hoping to have finally found a local gem sushi spot in the Queen City.
While I originally was planning to give Prime Fish its own review, since the goal of this is to establish if Prime Fish would become my new sushi go-to, I decided to do a little head-to-head competition, and compare the two spots! Could newcomer Prime Fish unseat my old standby, O-Ku? Let's find out!
Location and space
Prime Fish is in Ballantyne, a generic suburb which resembles any other corporate/wealthy suburb in the south, and the restaurant's location, in a strip-mall style out-building of a Publix parking lot, leaves a lot to be desired. When I arrived, I immediately got nervous based (unfairly) just on the location, but I made my way in and took a seat at the sushi bar. The space is compact but nicely, if generically, decorated, with about ten seats at the sushi bar and some high tops around the corner.
Another little intangible to note about Prime Fish, and not a good one––I was perplexed when provided a plastic cup of water and soy sauce in a plastic, lidded ramekin. I noticed that the sake being enjoyed by the couple next to me was being poured into plastic cups as well, and finally had to ask why. Seems Prime Fish's space isn't big enough to have an industrial dishwasher, so they use disposable cups and utensils and palm bark plates. I suppose I understand, but yikes––I gotta say that not only does that seem quite wasteful, but it also really cheapened the experience, making it seem more like grocery store sushi than one of the best sushi places in the city. I'd think they'd be working to resolve that ASAP.
Meanwhile, O-Ku, housed in the Atherton Mill complex, so named because it occupies old brick textile mill buildings, a staple of the South End scene, is beautifully and atmospherically decorated, with exposed brick, low light, and artsy-fartsy black and white photos of fish. I am particularly fond of the up-lit branches they have on each side of every pillar. And, of course, O-Ku's location can't be beat in terms of my proximity––I can take a short walk up the Rail Trail and return to my apartment totally loaded on sake without endangering myself (unless of course I fall down).
This is almost unfair, since O-Ku is already established, has a robust corporate backing, and is so close to me, but easy point for O-Ku. However!... location and atmosphere have little bearing on the food and bev, so let's get into that!
Chef Robin is a sake specialist, and I was rather impressed by Prime Fish's extensive sake list given that Charlotte tends to be woefully under-saked. There are dozens of sakes on this list, and among them some interesting and rarer bottles. I particularly appreciated the large volume of 10 oz. bottles, perfect for a solo diner like me. I settled on a 10 oz. bottle of Masumi Junmai, which was dry, but balanced, with some nice melon and ripe fruit characteristics. A good food-friendly sake that would complement the sushi nicely. Prime fish also has a modest selection of beer and wine to choose from, but nothing too deep since the sake is the focus here, and also no cocktails.
O-Ku's list is understandably more established and balanced, and the availability of their excellent (and location-specific) cocktails makes the beverage program attractive. However, I will say that while O-Ku has some nice sake available, I do get sort of bored with it, as I end up rotating through the same three or four sakes every time. For that reason, I think this one is a bit of a tossup, if not leaning toward Prime Fish. If you want the broader wine list and cocktails, O-Ku is a better bet, but those who appreciate a deep sake list will love what Prime Fish has to offer.
Prime Fish focuses on sushi, with about a dozen non-sushi appetizers under their "tapas" list, but overall geared toward nigiri, sashimi, and rolls. O-Ku, meanwhile, has a broader menu where you could ostensibly have a whole meal without a single piece of raw fish, while still maintaining a robust selection of sashimi, nigiri, and rolls.
The first thing that stood out to me about Prime Fish's menu was that all of their nigiri is served in two-piece sets, and I really wanted to sample as much as I could without loading up my stomach, which was already full of party nosh, and without paying for two pieces. I asked the server if I could just order single pieces, and she went back to the kitchen to ask and returned with a "no." Seems rather silly to me that they require you to order two pieces of each type of fish. I was even more frustrated, then, when a regular plopped down at the sushi bar and got exactly what I asked for––an "omakase" with single pieces of nigiri. I suppose I'm not a regular, but I'd think if they can accommodate him, they could accommodate someone else. Shrug.
One thing I will say that is cool about Prime Fish––they are really good at curating fish specials every weekend, and it's often some very tricky-to-find stuff. The weekend I visited, they had buri ("adult" yellowtail), barracuda, and Japanese squid, so I asked for one order (two pieces) of each of those in addition to some of my old standbys, for a total of six types of fish. The first plate of sushi had three varieties, and to my mind the three varieties that most certainly should have been served as the second set of three. These were buri, chutoro (medium fatty bluefin tuna belly), and salmon belly.
The buri was indistinct and "fine" like Liz Lemon's hair, the chutoro was very good, but not as fatty as I'm used to for that cut, but the salmon belly from the Faroe Islands, torched and served with a few drops of truffle oil and truffle salt, was excellent. I of course query whether the truffle essence was, in fact, truffle or just aromatic truffle flavoring more suitable for "truffle fries" at a shopping center gastropub, but still incredible.
The next set of three, to my mind the set that should have started the progression, included Japanese squid (tentacles on one piece and body on the second), scallop, and barracuda. The squid was toothsome and fresh while the scallops tasted a bit like they had been languishing in the refrigerated cases a bit too long. The barracuda, meanwhile, served with the skin on and torched, was outstanding, and the charred skin gave way to melty flesh garnished with a glorious condiment. A hit for sure.
Once Chef Robin was now out serving the omakase I asked for to the regular sitting a few seats down, I asked him what he would recommend, and he prepared for me a Japanese snapper with yuzu kosho. Love me some yuzu kosho, and it complemented the bright, firm snapper beautifully, though, like many cuts I had this evening, I found the fish to be pretty darn cold for a nigiri piece––it should be gently cool, and not nearly icy.
O-Ku, meanwhile, has pretty much the same offerings of sushi every day, with a few things billed as "specials" just meaning they try to get them, but don't always have them. This is one place where Prime Fish gets major points––they actively try to curate specials every week and have something new to offer their regulars. I have been to O-Ku enough, in fact, that my meal here is sometimes too predictable largely because they don't have true "specials."
I tend to chow down on their salmon belly sashimi at O-Ku. They have Scottish salmon and also Ora king, my favorite type, so at my most recent visit I decided to try them side-by-side. The Scottish belly was nice, but nothing can beat the buttery magnificence of Ora king belly.
As a contrast with Prime Fish, O-Ku sells their nigiri in single pieces, which I really appreciate as a solo diner. I tend to go for their scallop and squid nigiri as a start to the nigiri courses, and I add a little bit of yuzu kosho to the scallop, something they surprised me with once and I have always wanted since. I also ordered one of their shima aji, a regularly excellent piece at O-Ku, and a nigiri piece of their Ora king salmon.
The bluefin at O-Ku is also top notch, and when I'm feeling particularly peckish I tend to spring for the gamut––maguro (yellowfin), akami (lean bluefin), chutoro (medium fatty belly), otoro (fatty belly), and kamatoro (tuna cheek/collar). Kamatoro isn't always available, but it's a fun option to round out the bluefin when it is!
When O-Ku has uni, it is excellent quality. The first time they brought me uni, however, they let it sit in the seaweed wrap for far too long when it was served. Any nigiri or hand roll wrapped in nori will become sticky and soggy after more than 30 or so seconds after contacting rice, and so swift service and consumption is vital to crunchy and flavorful nori. I was very explicit in my instructions to bring the uni right away the second time, and they have since only once done me wrong. I'm so obnoxious.
Usually they get uni from Santa Barbara, which is fantastic, but sometimes they also get it from Hokkaido, my favorite uni geography. Last time I was there, they had both, so I did a side-by-side sampling. The larger lobes of Santa Barbara urchin were richer and more robust in flavor, while the smaller Japanese lobes were delicately flavored and slightly sweet. Amazing shit.
I've been to O-Ku enough to have sampled most of their nigiri and know what to avoid, and as I might expect from a corporate chain, there are things to avoid. The snow crab with truffle oil and chive has the texture of an overcooked garbanzo bean and reeks of fake truffle chemical. The amaebi is either poorly sourced or preserved, so that what could be a magnificently toothsome, sweet morsel of prawn-y goodness instead manifests as a piece of grocery store shrimp cocktail in that little plastic ring tray with the cocktail sauce. The point is, you still get corporate chain errors and oversights in a place like this––they overall do a great job, but there are some things that are disproportionately uninspired. It would be hard to imagine anything so flaccid at a local place proud of their sourcing like Prime Fish.
Rolls, AppetiZers, and Other Food options
At Prime Fish, since I'd been diving into nigiri exclusively, I opted for something from their "Tapas" menu, selected for me by the staff––torched salmon crudo served with shoyu, black volcanic salt, microgreens, and legit shaved black truffle over the top. I couldn't help but notice the resemblance to O-Ku's salmon appetizer, which I love, and also includes black volcanic salt and a truffle ponzu, but Chef Robin does it way better. Here he takes magnificent Faroe Islands salmon, lets the fat render a bit under the torch, and instead of adding truffle flavoring, actually shaves truffles over the top. And the kicker is it's $2 cheaper than O-Ku's. The course of the meal by far, and one that may single-handedly get me back in the door. They have other prepared, crudo-style dishes that I'll have to try next time, and I'd also like to sample some of their rolls.
O-Ku has a wonderful sampler of three of their crudo courses with which I tend to start my meals. The salmon, as mentioned above, has truffle ponzu, the akami is garnished with mustard, plum, and togarashi, and the yellowtail (or shima aji, if you're lucky) is graced by mango, Serrano pepper, and holy basil.
They also have some great options in the cooked appetizer department, including their absolutely ridiculous truffle oil edamame and their butter poached lobster hand rolls with asparagus. Deeeelish. Among the rolls, which I don't much get into since my belly gets full of nigiri, I love their salmon and lemon roll, their mermaid roll, which has scallop and is tempura-fried, and their take on tempura veggies cleverly rolled up maki style. Other things I've not yet sampled here include their A5 wagyu hot stone course and their prepared dishes like a very expensive chicken teriyaki or an udon stir fry. I do routinely get graced with a fried yellowtail collar as a gift from the bar staff, which is often amazing.
At Prime Fish, like any of my sushi meals, I could have eaten more, but settled up once my sake bottle was dry. Because of the two-piece rule, the bill was pretty steep relative to my perception of the value of overall experience––had I been able to sample twice as many types of fish instead of two of each piece, the bill would have felt like paying for a more worthwhile, holistic journey through their offerings. Instead, I found myself remembering that O-Ku, which will happily serve me single pieces, has a loyalty card that gets me ten percent back each time I eat there.
So, did Prime Fish live up to the Maestro's rather exacting sushi standards?
While I have a healthy amount of criticism for Prime Fish, I want to be clear that it does have the potential to be something special. A restaurant that's only been open half a year will certainly have some growing pains, and there are some easily fixable elements that could aid this place in effectively presenting their top-notch fish. And kids, the fish here is, indeed, prime. If they could offer a single-piece or omakase option for solo diners, get the coursing right, fix some of the finesse issues, and (for fuck's sake) get a dishwasher, Chef Robin and the team at Prime Fish could have a real gem on their hands.
Will it replace O-Ku? Given the distance alone, probably not, though I am curious to come back and try some more things here. I just wish they'd give me single pieces of sushi! That barrier alone would solve many of my qualms.
Robin Anthony had the huevos to open a restaurant during the pandemic, and I say good for him. He's certainly doing many great things at Prime Fish and I'm excited to see how the restaurant develops!