Tuesday, May 06, 2008
It's tough to keep up with all the new restaurants constantly opening in New York and Boston, but close reading of various blogs and review sites helps. Sooner or later, the same names begin to show up across the board. And it becomes apparent that certain places are garnering special attention. Deserved or not, depends on which source one trusts or, even better, on personal experience.
When the New York Times restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, shocked me by naming his Number One restaurant outside of New York City as a little place called O Ya in Boston, I decided it was time to check in on it myself. I'd seen the name pop up here and there; up to that point I basically only knew that it was an expensive sushi place in downtown Boston with some good reviews from diners. But I hadn't had much of an urge to try it out because there were already a tier of good sushi restaurants that I regularly turned to. When it comes to sushi, I find that after a certain price point (where I know the fish is fresh and safe, and I've found it to be tasty) my palette cannot distinguish a large difference in the quality that makes me feel it is worth paying much more. I'm going to put it out there now that, hands down, the food at O Ya is worth the price.
Set in the unlikeliest of places, in a small alleyway just off of Boston's South Station, a discreet, nondescript corner with a small sign- there, O Ya politely offers itself. A few small windows with barely a hint of a restaurant inside and a heavy wooden door nearly blending in with the building, suggest to arriving diners they are entering a secret den.
On this night, we arrived just a few minutes late for our 7:30 reservation. We gave our name and the hostess walked back in to the open kitchen, which was in plain view to all in the narrow restaurant. We waited a short while, taking in the smell of toasted sesame that permeated the room, and wondered where we would fit along the sushi counter (where we were told we would be seated when we made the reservation). It turned out that the diners in our spot had not quite finished yet so we were offered a table until the counter freed up. We briefly conversed with our waiter, studied the menu, and put in our order: We would go for the omakase (chef's choice) capped at our chosen price of $100 per person, excluded any meat and included one dish we had read was a must-have: the fried Kumamoto oyster.
After about fifteen minutes we were able to move to the counter. Sitting at the counter is the way to go for the full experience - front row seats to watch the action! And of course, if it takes some time for the meal to get going, as it did for us, the flurry of activity will keep you entertained.
1. Kumamoto Oyster with watermelon pearls and cucumber migonette.
Neither of us had ever been fans of raw oysters - perhaps it was the slimy texture or the occasional grit when chewing into oysters that had put us off in the past. The minute O Ya's chilled bivalve slipped into our mouths, we became converts. The briny taste of the sea mixed with the light sweetness of the watermelon and cucumber lifted us; the flavors stirred anticipation for summmer- the ocean and summer fruits and vegetables. We knew then that we were in for a good ride - it would turn out to be a transcendent meal.
But we were momentarily left in suspense.
We'll pause here to make mention of the one, not entirely small, misgiving we had with the restaurant - its service. While the restaurant seemed accommodating when we could not be seated promptly for reservation, it had the chance to take it to the next level by, say, offering us a complimentary drink to make up for the slight inconvenience. That feeling that they should have done more was reinforced when after our first course we waited a long fifteen to twenty minutes for our meal to continue. Meanwhile we watched as the girls next to us were served and eavesdropped as the waiter chatted with them. Ironically he would tell them that he believed you could have a good meal, but service is the most important thing. Despite that, we later merely received a tepid apology from the waiter, who said the kitchen had gotten slammed.
Luckily we didn't stay hung up on that point for long as we became absorbed in the work of the three sushi chefs working fast and furiously before us, each with a different focus, responsible for certain dishes. We watched as the chef directly in front of us took a mini-blow torch to some onions and opened up small tupperware containers and carefully plucked out various herbs with the most gentle of touches. He seemed just as amused by our spectating as we were by his attention to the intricacies of his job.
The subsequent dishes engulfed us. We were awash with the deepest appreciation for chefs that could make food this wonderful. The food here managed to hit a range of notes - varying combinations of different flavors that piqued the tongue's every tastebud. Some key ingredients made repeat appearances but never to the effect of repetition. O Ya serves more than simple sushi, it elevates the idea to another level. Delightfully surprising, yet somehow simultaneously hewing to the basic freshness of food from the sea. They seemed to remember to allow the sea to shine through the flourishes of the dishes.
2. Homemade La Ratte potato chip with perigord black truffle
A potato chip balanced on a small ball of rice with shaved black truffle and some green herbs. Never had I realized before how deeply I enjoy the taste of black truffle - a round, earthy, mushroom flavor. A small amount goes a long way. This dish successfully marries textures to flavors - the crunchiness of the chip contrasting the softness of the rice. It left us wanting to imitate this dish at home!
3. Seared hamachi with spicy banana pepper mousse
While searing a piece of fish seems antithetical to the idea of sushi, it did not harm the beauty of the dish. Hamachi makes a wonderful backdrop; it has a delicate, soft taste that lends itself to layering with other flavors. And here, it provided a nice canvas for the banana pepper mousse.
4. Salmon with O Ya mayonette, wasabi tobiko and shiso
A lovely dish, whose only fault was perhaps in not being distinct enough among so many dishes with outstanding highlights. The perils of comparative evaluation. The mayonette was creamy and rich but with just a dollop, not overwhelming. I loved the texture of the tobiko with a detectable wasabi flavor. And the salmon itself was beautifully seared.
5. Warm Eel with thai basil, kabayaki and fresh Kyoto sansho
Though we kept the menus in front of us so as to remember what ingredients were in each dish, there were many ingredients and words there that we both were unfamiliar with. Kabayaki being one of them. For the record, it is a term for seafood filleted and dipped in a sweet, soy-sauce based sauce which is then broiled on a grill. The Thai basil was the crown jewel here. A fresh, airy contrast against the eel. And like many of the dishes we were served, had a slight kick from the sansho, a pepper. The one very minor quibble - the eel was not warm and eel is so much better that way. It reinforces the idea that this was made just for you.
6. Fried Kumamoto Oyster with yuzu kosho aioli and squid ink bubbles
With high expectations, it wasn't surprising that this dish would fall ever so slightly short. It was delicious- each ingredient like a building block in this mini tower of a dish- but more in the vein of fried food rarely failing to be delicious. It wasn't greasy and the oyster was plump, but had too subtle a flavor here. The squid ink bubbles on top - a dark grayish fizz - enter the mouth first. So often foams are visually appealing and conceptually interesting, but add little to a dish; here the unexpectedly robust flavor in the bubbles gave the dish extra points.
7. Wild Bluefin Chutoro with Republic of Georgia herb sauce
Our least favorite course. I have never had chutoro so I do not know if this cut of fish tends to be chewy, but the chewiness was offputting as the fish lingered in my mouth beyond the point when I wanted it to. I did enjoy the earthy-tasting herb sauce, though we disagreed on this point.
8. Scottish salmon belly with cilantro, ginger and hot sesame oil drizzle
By the time we got the salmon belly we had seen "our" sushi chef prepare several of these. Each time he poured the hot sesame oil over the fish, it generated a beautiful sheen. Finally it was our turn to partake in this treat. The common Asian combination of cilantro and ginger was reminiscent of a Chinese-style steamed fish - a comforting, homey sensation.
9. Hamachi with Viet migonette, Thai basil, and fried shallot
So eager were we to eat this that we didn't get but the last bite in a picture!
Again we are greeted by Thai basil. And though previously acquainted, it was dressed in a different outfit here. It took the backseat to the fried shallots, the real standout.
10. Wild Bluefin Tuna tataki with smoky pickled onion and truffle oil
The smoky onions were a soft, gray color and were a great complement to the luscious pieces of tuna. Just a bit of truffle oil to tease the tongue and invite it to enjoy the pleasures of this dish.
11. Suzuki Sea Bass with cucumber migonette, avocado and cilantro
This dish was delicately constructed, perhaps coincidentally, forming the shape of a fish. The sea bass is another mildly flavored fish; it paired well with the crunchy cucumber and the cilantro's more powerful presence.
12. Stunning Finale: Grilled sashimi of chanterelle and shitake mushrooms with rosemary garlic oil, sesame froth, homemade soy and sesame brittle
This was one of the dishes Bruni had raved about, but of which we were dubious given that its focus was mushrooms. But it was a perfect, delicious ending containing a sweetness that capped off the meal as best as a dish that is not a true dessert could.
I urge you to make it a priority to go here on your next trip to Boston for an opportunity for virtual death by delicious dining.
Posted by kitchenette at 11:03 PM