Save for the newly appointed Restaurant at Meadowood the only stateside Michelin 3-Star I’ve not yet been is MASA and considering how frequently I visit New York this is admittedly no accident. Call me crazy or call me unrefined but when you grow up in the Midwest the difference between fish here and the fish at almost any costal location is so profound that I just can not fathom spending nearly $500 (and not being allowed to take pictures) on “amazing” sushi when I could be nearly (or just as) impressed by a meal one quarter the price at a “good-to-great” costal sushi spot. With all that said, however, my interest was peaked when review after review and friend after friend told me Boston had something different–that there was a place doing “sushi” in a way that not only featured the freshest fish and designer ingredients but also found a way to make the food and experience something totally different and entirely unlike anything else out there; that place was O Ya.
A frequent reader of Food and Wine plus many blogs and newspaper articles I’d obviously heard of O Ya – it was hard to miss given the fact that the small location in Boston’s leather district had once been named The Best New Restaurant in America by Bruni and owner/chef Tim Cushman had nabbed Food & Wine’s Best New Chef award the same year. With the restaurant seating a mere three-dozen my reservations were made far in advance and even despite my late hour of arrival the place was packed throughout my visit –some folks drinking a bit of sake and eating a couple plates while others opted to indulge in the $250 long-style tasting menu and any combination in between. Having requested a seat at the sixteen stool bar I arrived slightly early for my reservation and greeted by Nancy Cushman and a pair of hostesses my bag was taken and I was led quickly to the seat I would inhabit for the next 160 blissful minutes.
With my seat directly before one of the three sushi chefs and my water filled by an astute young man who would keep me filled to the brim throughout the meal the next person to greet me would be my captain of the evening, Jessica, who presented the luxury tasting menu along with the a la carte menu and a sake/wine list. Explaining to me also that there was the option for a chef’s omakase that could be constructed for $160 and tailored to the diner’s likes while focusing on the restaurants signatures and whatever was most fresh I spent a few minutes deciding and eventually opted for the omakase as opposed to the luxury menu largely because the luxury contained two beef courses, but also because I decided putting myself in the chefs’ hands with the notes of “no beef, but as many foie gras courses as they would like to serve” seemed like a grand idea.
With Jessica returning to the kitchen after a smile and a “good choice,” the meal would start slow as the overhead stereo delighted with Radiohead and Led Zeppelin bouncing about the high ceiling of the former firehouse and as I waited for my first course I would be pleasantly entertained not only by the sushi chefs and action in the largely visible kitchen, but also by the smiles, oohs, and aahs of nearly everyone around me. With dish after dish presenting something new and unique – certainly not your standard salmon on some sticky rice – I watched with great interest as items were torched, sous-vided, grilled, foamed, sliced, seared, and assembled. While not as interactive as many of the sushi bars I have seen, the level of skill was undeniable and during the rare moments when the sushi chefs were not working on a specific plate they were smiling, conversant, and clearly enjoying their clients reactions to the complex flavors of each and every dish.
Seated for perhaps twenty minutes hoping that each impressive creation that passed before my eyes would be included in my menu, my first bite of O Ya was a single Kumamoto Oyster with watermelon pearls and cucumber mignonette. Served on ice and bracing in its sweet/salty balance punctuated by a creamy gush on biting into the oyster this was the sort of raw oyster that even I, a man generally unimpressed by uncooked mollusks, could learn to like.
With the pacing tending towards a new plate every 7-10 minutes my second of the twenty courses would be Hamachi with spicy banana pepper mousse – an intriguing preparation with the lightly torched fish characteristically clean and a bit smoky, but with extra “oomph” added by the acidic sweetness of the pepper that brought out some of the more flavorful notes of the otherwise mild fish.
Noting in advance my overall blasé feeling for both salmon and overpowering citrus flavor, course three would be my least favorite of the night and – to be fair – the only dish out of twenty that didn’t work for me. Titled Salmon with unfiltered wheat soy moromi and yuzu the salmon was reportedly wild caught and actually quite good in texture and flavor; what didn’t work for me however was the bracing fermented wheat and yuzu combination which smelled something akin to waterless hand sanitizer – not a good thing and even with the characteristic heft of salmon totally overwhelming.
With that single disagreeable bite behind me the next sixteen savories would literally serve as a perception altering foray into the world of Chef Cushman and teams’ brilliance – the first eye opener entitled “Warm eel with thai basil, kabayaki, fresh Kyoto sansho.” Served over slightly sweetened rice and indeed warm I was explained that this slice of eel was originally dipped in soy and then broiled prior to a quick pan searing of the skin to create a dramatic effect with the fish crispy on one side and creamy on the other. Not settling for a simple great piece of eel the addition of sansho and thai basil gave the bite an earthy flavor with top notes resembling anise that melded well with the unctuous flavor of the fish.
Next up – a slice of chutoro as thin, fatty, and as perfect as one would expect. Described as “Peruvian style kindai bluefin chutoro tataki with aji panca sauce and cilantro pesto” this was one of my favorite courses of the night and having never heard of aju panca in the past I was told it was a form of sweet Peruvian pepper the chef fancied for pairing with more subtle fishes, particularly tuna, and all-in-all I must say it was an inspired choice acting to not only accent the buttery fish but to also serve counterpoint to the bold flavor of the pesto.
Arriving sixth would be a dish I couldn’t help but hear my neighbors gushing over and although it really did not seem like much at first the moment I tasted “Homemade Russian fingerling potato chip with summer truffle” I immediately understood why. Featuring a single razor thin chip, crisp and buttery as possible and topped with nothing but a bit of chive, crème fraiche, and a slice of truffle this was simplicity done well – chips and dip perfected – all perched peculiarly atop hand formed sushi rice.
Following the chip, Wild Santa Barbara spot prawn with garlic butter, white soy, and preserved yuzu was a relatively straight forward presentation and with the jellied yuzu intensely sweet to offset the punchy garlic this snappy torched shrimp was delicate and flavorful yet nicely balanced with a saline top note from a quick paint-brushing of white soy prior to service.
Reverting back to the first course and amongst my favorite bites of the menu, dish eight would present Fried Kumamoto Oyster with yuzu kosho aioli and squid ink bubbles. An extremely dynamic presentation both to the eyes and to the mouth this morsel featured a single oyster – tempura crisp and buttery outside but liquid, briny, and slightly sweet within topped with a frothy amalgam of tart citrus, a bit of spice, and a lot of brine that permeated the nostrils the moment it entered the mouth and clung to the palate well after the bite was gone. I could have (and should have) ordered an a la carte round of these simply to experience it again.
Nearing the midway point of the menu, Kyoto style morel mushrooms with garlic and soy was a great followup to the oyster in its earthy simplicity – no tricks, no gimmicks, just an excellent morel with some traditional seasoning and rice – if you like morels you would like this dish and from my standpoint I like morels as much as I like truffles and this meaty specimen wad excellent.
For my next course I was granted a gift – the only dish of the evening not on the menu and described by Jessica as “something the chef has been working with – he wanted to send this out since you said you like foie gras; he calls it Foie Gras spoon with miso and yuzu.” Served as stated on a wooden spoon I’d actually seen something similar to this before at Alinea and on inquiring how it was done the technique was confirmed as the foie was first house cured, then blanched and frozen before being pushed through a sieve and then dehydrated to form the creamy microspheres that melted on the tongue into a creamy pool lightly accented with savory miso and candied yuzu.
Course eleven would arrive on hand-blown glass plate and was titled Shima Aji and Hokkaido Sea Urchin ceviche vinaigrette with cilantro – it would be the heftiest flavor of the evening save for the final savory and also amongst the most refined services of a jack fish or mackerel that I have experienced. With rosy flesh and silver scale plus a ribbon of fat betraying its cold water sourcing the fish itself was slightly sweet and firm yet supple – a truly perfect specimen – but what truly put the plate over the top was the urchin vinegar pairing with the two distinct flavors literally melting into one indescribable taste that only punctuated the complexity of the fish.
With the restaurant now starting to empty as the hour neared 10:30 the soundtrack slowly shifted to some heavier more modern tunes including the Silversun Pickups and Pearl Jam and with that my next course would arrive in a steaming basket. Annotated as “Arctic Char – yuzu cured with smoked sesame brittle, cumin aioli, cilantro” this warmed preparation was uncovered at presentation and with a puff of steam the air immediately filled with a smoky grilled aroma yet the dish itself would be merely warm as the scent lied beneath. Meaty and flavorful, slightly sweet but more so a mélange of spices and a lovely balance of textures from the smooth fish, crunchy brittle, and creamy aioli – another resounding success.
For lucky number thirteen another sashimi course would arrive – this time Kindai Bluefin Tuna Tataki with smoky pickled onion and truffle oil. Another return to more traditional flavors and topped with strings of daikon the tuna itself was as good as one would expect at a restaurant such as O Ya while the savory onion and aromatic truffle oil served to accentuate the more “meaty” tones of the fish.
With the tastes and textures now clearly progressing towards the heavier end of the spectrum my request for a foie gras heavy menu would be realized with three of the last six savories – the first of which was “Seared diver scallop and Foie gras, Shiso grapes, Vin Cotto,” an intriguing “surf n’ turf” served on a nearly eighteen inch long plate. Starting first with the scallop and foie gras my favorite aspect of this dish was the manner in which Cushman chose to prepare them nearly identically – cool at the base and crispy caramelized atop (though the foie was notably sous vided prior to meeting the pan) – a unique flavor contrast to be sure. With the proteins at the centered and minimally adorned the next step in this plate’s success was the ‘choose your own adventure’ aspect of it; an open invitation to explore the nuances of the scallop and liver with toppings including tangy vinegar, tiny grapes dotted with bits of shiso paste, and a thick puree of what I believe was chestnut and spices – this would be the first time in the meal I utilized my fork and knife, largely because I didn’t want it to go to fast.
Next up, “Shiso tempura with grilled lobster, charred tomato and ponzu aioli,” a dish that seemingly took notes from Chef Thomas Keller’s playful manner of undermining the ‘wow-factor’ of lobster by naming other ingredients first, yet in this case appropriate given the impact of the crispy leaf of savory shiso on the dish – an impact that when combined with the creamy ponzu and smoky tomato lent this dish a nearly “BLT” tone with a lot more pizzazz.
Course sixteen would be one of the most talked about on O Ya’s continuous rotation partially because of Bruni’s glowing review of it but also because it really is quite good. Titled Grilled Chanterelle and Shitake mushroom sashimi with rosemary garlic oil, sesame froth, soy and featuring lightly sautéed strips of sliced mushroom tinged with notes of both soy and rosemary for myself the highlight of this dish was actually the “froth” – the very essence of woodsy mushrooms and earth with crunchy bits of sesame punctuating the otherwise creamy and smooth experience.
Originally Chinese but now adopted by Japanese culture as well, gyoza seemed a logical choice for the O Ya menu and if one is going to make dumplings why not fill it with something delicious – and top it with something equally excellent? Entitled Foie Gras gyoza with Kyoto sansho and pink peppercorns, course seventeen would prove to be the most substantial of the meal and also the most spicy. With the dumplings nearly translucent and the creamy filling also used as garnish the sapor of liver was notable throughout, yet by utilizing the peppercorn/sansho/crisp bacon garnish there was nothing simple or one-dimensional about this plate and as a matter of fact despite not generally enjoying a lot of heat this may have been my favorite uses of whole peppercorns ever.
For my “final savory” of the evening I was served Tea Brined Fried Pork Ribs with hot sesame oil, honey, and scallions, a relatively straight forward dish with a pleasant balance of sweet and spice overlying crisp skin, succulent meat, and melting cartilage.
Having noted that the prior dish was my final savory, dessert was next – and it too contained Foie Gras. With a slender glass arriving first and filled with a shot of 13 year old sake the final course of my omakase was titled “Foie gras with balsamic chocolate kabayaki, raisin cocoa pulp, sip of aged sake” and like the rest of O Ya’s signatures it did not disappoint. Perfectly seared and served still sizzling the foie itself was lovely while the combination of raisin, cocoa, and balsamic lent a sweet and aromatic top note that only became more pronounced with a sip of the semi-sweet sake.
With the clock reaching 11:15 my server would arrive to ask if I’d like to try dessert and never one to pass on at least looking at the menu I knew the moment I saw it that the Tres Leches soaked Boston Crème Pie with cocoa crumble and sesame was a must. Priced at $12 and served as a sort of angel food cake with cream filling absolutely drenched in sweet milk and resting atop crumbled chocolate cake laced with notes of soy and cinnamon everything about this plate simply worked. Complex – for sure. The best Boston Crème Pie I had in Boston? Without a doubt – and in a trip that contained a number of stellar desserts it was certainly the most unique.
With the bill paid (well less than half the cost of MASA or Urasawa for those keeping tally) and a menu collected I made my way to the hostess stand after a bow from the sushi chefs and a “thank you for coming” from Nancy and within moments I was tucked into a cab en route for my hotel with not only some great food in my belly and some great memories in my mind, but also a new found appreciation for sushi and a new member of the Top-10 meals I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy in the United States.