Cover The tile-clad upstairs omakase counter at Okra (Photo: Handout)

Opened by Max Levy in 2016, the restaurant served Japanese-inspired food with a devil-may-care ethos

After five years on the Hong Kong restaurant scene, Okra is closing. The restaurant's final service will be on July 3, 2021, while the upstairs omakase space will operate until July 31. The announcement was made on Tuesday morning, with chef-patron Max Levy and wife Izaskun Levy citing the pressures of the pandemic, and a desire to take a post-wedding sabbatical as motivating factors for the closure.

"I started working on this project back in 2011, and it's just been non-stop since then," Levy tells Tatler Dining. "With everything that compounded over the last year and a half, it's time to take a break—and unfortunately, [Okra] is not the type of restaurant that we can just take off for a couple of months."

From now until July 3, the ground-floor izakaya will operate as normal; following its closure, Levy will focus his energies on the omakase offering upstairs from July 5 to 31, with bookings opening on June 10 on a first come, first served basis.

Okra opened in 2016 in the neighbourhood of Sai Ying Pun, in a four-storey building owned by the Sam Shui Natives Association. It was a continuation of Levy's Beijing restaurant, Okra 1949, which served modern Japanese cooking influenced by the foodscape of the Chinese capital. The New Orleans native sought to continue that ethos at Okra's Hong Kong outpost, while immersing himself in the intricacies of local Cantonese cuisine.

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"I originally came here with a kind of purpose or goal, and coming down here [from Beijing] I just noticed that there seemed to be this very hungry market for food and beverage in general, and there was room to try and do something unique. When I opened the original Okra in Beijing, the goal was not to just open a Japanese restaurant but to open something that told not only my story, but a story about Japanese food in Beijing and how that evolves."

At Okra Hong Kong, Levy quickly established a reputation for inventive, genre-crossing interpretations of traditional Japanese gastronomy, and as a first-mover in techniques such as dry-aged sashimi and in-house curing and fermentation. Straying far from the well-trodden route of Edomae-style sushi, Levy's omakase courses demonstrated the chef's deep knowledge of Japan's culinary traditions in creations like chawanmushi with carabinero prawn and the titular okra, and roasted shirako with magnolia leaf and yuzu kosho.

Meanwhile, his elevated izakaya fare took numerous liberties, often with tongue-in-cheek humour, mixing and matching his New Orleans roots with Hong Kong's produce as evidenced by dishes like Hokkaido sea urchin with shiitake mushroom and fish maw aspic, and the El Pollo Loco giant fried chicken sando.

Levy also distinguished himself as one of Hong Kong's foremost advocates of sake, marking each year with a trip to Japan to oversee the brewing of Okra's own house sake at a small-batch brewery, based on that year's character of the Chinese zodiac. More recently, the sake list became the purview of wife and sake sommelier Izaskun Levy, whose unique selection of natural, unpasteurised sake often centred around obscure bottles exclusive to the restaurant.

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Aside from its unapologetically authentic brand of hospitality, the restaurant's playlist—ranging from 1970s New Orleans and Ethiopian funk, to bands like The Misfits and Dead Kennedies—was a high point of any meal at Okra. Aligning himself with the music of artists who "were hated and misunderstood at the beginning, but never faltered in their vision," Levy somewhat portentously writes on Okra's website that this "sometimes [led] to their own demise".

As for the immediate future, the Levys will be returning to the US for several months to celebrate their honeymoon, and to introduce Izaskun to Max's family. "We were originally supposed to open a restaurant in Ibiza last year, but those plans were put on hold indefinitely because of the pandemic," says Max. "We've promised ourselves that we're not going to make any decisions until we've actually had a break, because when we're in the middle of working, it's hard to really have a clear mind. Our focus right now is to actually just get some oxygen, so to speak."

While Levy fashioned Okra as innovative yet irreverent, the restaurant was first and foremost "a community space for outsiders". He recalls the New Orleans-style crawfish boil that would take place yearly to celebrate Okra's opening anniversary, featuring live jazz music and "about 500 kilos of prawns and crawfish and crabs". "It's not at all what we do on a regular basis," says Max. "But at Okra, the only thing that you can always expect are surprises."

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