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Omaha Magazine

Delicious, Approachable, Hospitable: Izakaya Koji Cuts Everything But Corners for a Taste of Perfection

May 23, 2023 03:29PM ● By Sara Wiebold
dining review izakaya koji Omaha Magazine June 2023

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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Izakaya Koji consistently fulfilled my expectations during my visits; a traditional Japanese bar ambiance with a lively vibe, serving a variety of seafood and meat along with vegetarian/vegan small dishes, bites, and snacks. Koji represents Chef David Utterback’s third concept in Omaha, setting itself apart from its sister restaurants with its Asian street food variations, creative takes on familiar dishes, and a contemporary aesthetic.

Koji utilizes high-end culinary precision to blend recognizable ingredients into novel, unexpected dishes that both challenge and delight the palette. Guests have many options, whether feeling spendy—ordering several courses of beautifully plated Crudo, Aburi Wagyu, and Santa Barbara Uni—or on a budget during Koji’s generous happy hour, which offers drink specials and discounted restaurant favorites. No matter the price, the experience is tantalizing and unforgettable.

On my first visit I stopped in for happy hour, which is not always something a restaurant can—or necessarily, will—execute effectively. When done properly it is a delicious trap, one for which I’m always willing to fall headlong for. I immediately noticed the volume of prep cooks working hard behind the sleek sushi bar that stretches into a petite open kitchen, and assured my guests we were in for something special. We were promptly seated, with a fan of menus to pour over. Happy hour consists of a short list of house staples—starters, buns, and warm plates. When considering the individual quality of each dish, I found it’s arguably among the best deals in the city. While my thoughts drifted to Benson and the perfection that is the handcrafted sushi and nigiri menus at Yoshitomo and Ota, fear not…you will find them here as well. 

he selection of beverages will satisfy the seasoned imbiber who enjoys dabbling in different styles of sake, shochu, and aged Japanese whiskies, while also appealing to the less experienced with a mix of local, Asian beers and seasonal cocktails. We stuck with the sake list, ordering a bottle of Junmai Nigori, Tozai ‘Snow Maiden.’ Creamy on the palate and with notes of melon, cucumber, and a hint of citrus, it paired best with the Crudo (Striped Bass, Kiwi, Dill, and Leche de Tigre). Fresh, light, and a testament to the knife skills of the kitchen, dishes hit the table like art on a blank canvas, and the Crudo proved a masterpiece. Kani Miso (snow crab, crab fat, ikura, fried rice) was a a must-order for the table. The amount of flavor packed in each grain of rice is something we’ll be reminiscing about for weeks. At Koji it is presented as a hand roll, wrapped in seaweed. I’m not positive this description does it justice—in my opinion, it should be savored, shared, and fought over family style with chopsticks, but I digress…

My second visit was a more intimate affair—we arrived later in the evening and the ambiance was noticeably softer on the eyes. The lighting from the large front windows was subdued, though the hum of the kitchen unchanged. I felt like I was in a bustling Japanese metro instead of Pacific Street adjacent, my daydream escorted to the only open table. 

Luckily for the lifelong Midwesterner who is seafood-abhorrent, Koji’s menu offers a sense of familiarity with steam buns inspired by Omaha’s infamous and abundant fast-food staples. The ‘Ranza’ and ‘KFC’ buns are delicious spins on their namesake drive-thru counterparts. The former is an elevated version of a beloved local classic; the latter smothered in Gochujang sauce and topped with cabbage slaw for a perfect balance of spice.

Yakitori is served bite-sized, grilled on a bamboo skewer. Featured are octopus, pork belly, broccolini, and several different cuts of chicken with altering preparations to enhance each in turn. I ordered the Mune (chicken breast, yuzu kosho) twice and found it to have different levels of spice each time, yet maintaining its distinct, delicious flavor. The ‘Buta’ (pork belly, tare) yakitori was a personal favorite. The marinade was tangy, cut with a perfect amount of fat, seared to perfection with a crispy crust, and it melted in my mouth.  

The most exciting dish was the Carbonara. The newest addition to the menu, it takes the familiar cues, including the traditional name, then adds a spin. Chinese pulled noodles, pancetta, egg yolk, with chive kimchi are reminiscent of its namesake, however, completely different in texture via a combination of creamy and snappy freshness that courts the kimchi in an indulgent way. 

The service complements the food, providing diners with a skilled rundown of the menu. Each server described new or popular dishes with a cadence that allowed for a better understanding and genuine, palpable excitement among the tables. Leading us on how to compartmentalize the large menu, they told us what to expect within each category and accurately answered any spitfire questions I had. Overall, I would say my experiences at Koji exceeded my expectations—a more casual option from one of the most talented chefs and culinary teams in Omaha, a different outlet to exercise creativity while goading a rare crowd of diners (selling seafood in the Midwest is not for the faint of heart), while also providing exciting pairings, innovative techniques like dry-aging fish, and carefully sourcing high-quality ingredients. In my opinion, Omaha is lucky to have Koji in the metro’s culinary scene. 

P.S. Make a reservation. Cheers! 

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This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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