Finding Ikigai at ŌKu Asian Eatery, Franschhoek

Words: Julie Velosa

When you arrive in the town of Franschhoek, with its Huguenot history, gabled architecture and obvious French influence, it is not Asian food that immediately comes to mind. However, Ōku Asian Eatery has firmly claimed its place as one of my favourites in the Winelands.

With the town’s enviable epicurean offering, it can be challenging to stand out, however, Ōku does just that. Blending principles of omotenashi – exceptional service, where you will be made to feel at home, with food that is presented like art. Each ingredient is carefully thought of, balanced and purposeful, making this an experience not to be missed.


Zen-like Surroundings

Ōku’s interior speaks to the minimalist nature of Japanese culture; light wood finishings are calming without feeling austere. Adornments in the form of bonsai and carefully curated vases with smooth lines and soft florals allow the space to feel quite zen-like.

Large, light-filled windows are hedged in by greenery giving a natural, cocooned feeling, very separate from the busy high street. It’s an understated and almost meditative environment that allows the food to really be the star.

It’s an understated and almost meditative environment that allows the food to really be the star.

The Menu

Chef Proprietor, Ryan Shell, is a well-known face in the Winelands; at Ōku he blends years of fine dining experience with his own love for Asian cuisine. Ōku’s offering includes a Kaiseki menu (Japanese-style degustation), as well as a newly launched (as of 1 Dec 2022) set menu of four or five courses, with options to select from for every course. We particularly loved this, as it gave us flexibility within the structure of a set menu and allowed for us to taste a variety of dishes between us.

We knew we were off to a good start with the first dishes of ‘snacks’ from the kitchen, as well as the bread course. Three bite-sized morsels to whet the appetite made up the snack board; each one providing a balance of flavours and textures that made everyone at the table murmur in excitement for what was to come.

A fragrant Japanese Milk Bread mini bun, with tomato chilli jam and nori mayo delivered another delicious bite, all this before we even got to the first course!

Balance is so integral in Japanese culture and this is reflected in the food at Ōku – savoury against sweet, rich against fresh – some with pared back subtlety and others with umami-rich complexity.

Some standouts included the beef tataki, a cannoli-like roll of crisp wonton pastry filled with delicate chopped raw beef, with wasabi mayo and pickled ginger mousse – a textural delight.

We also loved the crispy sweet potato wontons bathed in a fragrant coconut and lemongrass broth.

It can be difficult to select a dish within the course options when everything sounds delicious, however I simply cannot go past bao buns on a menu, so those were a given. These airy cloud-like buns hugged crispy Korean-inspired chicken and were a definite table favourite.

Pork belly also remains high on my list of go-to options and this dish of deliciously sticky pork belly with a hint of smoke was a winner. A medley of carrot textures accompanied by the sweetness of Kecap Manis, which brought it all together.

To end things Off

Dessert became increasingly difficult to contemplate as the courses kept coming (including pre dessert!) but there is simply always a pocket of tummy space reserved for that.

It was a toss up for us between the fluffy Japanese-style cheesecake and Shābetto (frozen sherbert-style dessert).

The cheesecake won the day just narrowly, with the inclusion of tart apple balls that we likened to the shivery delight of a sophisticated adult Fizzer. The plum Shābetto was also a stand out though.

While I have much love for French-style cuisine and copious amounts of butter, I absolutely loved dining at Ōku. The menu is decadent without being super rich and inventive without being mystifying.

‘Ikigai’ is a Japanese term that describes a state of well-being induced by devotion to enjoyable activities, your purpose let’s say, and for me that is the gratification of amazing food. Lunch at Ōku certainly topped up the ikigai reserves and I can’t wait to go back again for more.

Heritage Square 9 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek

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