Music so loud you can't hear yourself text. Walls painted with an erotic-horror mural painted by an 85-year-old Japanese artist whose work is banned in several countries on the grounds of obscenity. A drinks list comprising eye-wateringly obscure wines and unpasteurised sakes. Nothing about Okra screams "path of least resistance".
But then Max Levy likes doing things the hard way. Born and raised in New Orleans, he chose not to hone his craft with any of the legends of his hometown's Creole or Cajun cooking, but opted instead to become an apprentice at Sushi Yasuda in New York under Naomichi Yasuda himself, a sushi maestro known to be the sort of pitiless taskmaster who made Jiro "Dreams of Sushi" Ono look like Alice Waters taking a nap. Upon earning his sushi stripes Levy then opted to then ply his craft in Ginza, or at least Manhattan, right? Wrong. His next move was to Beijing, where he gained a reputation as a ruthlessly exacting sushi chef who cared less for tradition than for flavour, and could crack wise about it in Mandarin, Japanese and English.
Fast forward to today, and Levy's base of operations is Okra, a two-storey restaurant in Hong Kong's Sai Ying Pun neighbourhood. Downstairs is Okra Kitchen, an izakaya where the chefs' deep love and understanding of Japanese ingredients and culinary tradition doesn't deter them from doing things their own way, working in references from their time in China and the US as the moment requires. Hamachi, aka yellowtail, comes chicken-fried with Crystal, the hot sauce New Orleanians hold dearer than Tabasco, while the house XO enlivens crunchy Brussels sprouts. Roasted oysters and bamboo on crisp sake rice have become something of a signature, meanwhile, as have the baby back ribs with smoked yuzu jam. Flavour is seldom in short supply.
Upstairs at Bar Okra things are more rarefied. It's a luxe eight-seat omakase-only sushi bar where Levy plies his customers with fish sourced from Fukuoka, Taiwan and Hong Kong, along with vegetables grown on the roof. Levy is as particular about his rice as he is its toppings, and uses a house blend of aged koshihikari and gohyakumangoku sake rice that's milled to order every week.
When he's not making his own sake, tending the roof garden, blending rice or dry-ageing his fish, Levy also edits a mean playlist. Upstairs it's a mix of old funk, blues and jazz with a sprinkling of Velvets and Modern Lovers, while the higher-decibel offering in the izakaya leans more to the likes of Beijing punk/rock acts like Hang on the Box and Second Hand Rose alongside Chicks on Speed, Le Tigre, Descendants and The Slits.
Expect elements of all of these aspects of Okra and its owner when Levy makes his first Australian appearance later this month at the new Haymarket branch of celebrated Scando-Japanese Sydney café Edition: rocking tunes, feisty chat and a virtuosic menu that pulls together life experience from New Orleans, New York, China and Japan. He and Edition chef Shinichi Hasegawa will present seven kaiseki-style courses, matched with drinks picked by Alex Smith, a Noma alumnus and beverage curator of Barr in Copenhagen. It's going to be an interesting ride.
Levy is aware of his reputation for never taking the easy route, and says it's not merely a matter of being contrary. He realised at a young age, he says, that he might only get one chance to do things and have certain experiences, so he wants to understand every part of any process to make better decisions and take better risks. "As far as why I don't do things the way other chefs do, there's no need or point to. They've already done it, so I should always do my own thing."
Okra at Edition Coffee Roasters, Tuesday 16 October, Edition Haymarket, 60 Darling Dr, Haymarket, NSW. $165 (including drinks), bookings via Eventbrite.