I’m at a red-brick bar in Boston. It used to be a fire station. Busta Rhymes is on the sound system. And as luck would have it I’m sitting next to Bernard Horn, an MIT alum whose Polaris Capital manages $4 billion. Smart guy.
He tells me to try the grilled mushrooms with sesame foam. Right on. They come as part of a tasting menu that, after wine, tax and tip, will end up costing me $462.
Welcome to O Ya. Yeah, it’s an expensive bar.
Good thing it serves darn good fungi. The chanterelles boast crispy edges and silky stems. The shiitakes are firmer, funkier. And the rosemary oil makes them all reek of sweet pine.
That financial whiz next to me is eating the ‘shrooms too. Except he’s eating them as part of a shorter set menu that’s cheaper than mine by $100. Leave it to an asset manager to spend his money more carefully.
Diners can also order the mushrooms alone for $24. Credit O Ya, this excellent Japanese spot in the city’s Leather District, for giving diners an abundance of options; there are more than 82 a la carte dishes across 14 categories that range from nigiri to sashimi to truffles and eggs to the stoner-like heading “something crunchy in it.”
Then there are the tasting menus.
That’s the ambition of owners Nancy and Tim Cushman; O Ya is a counterpoint to the no choice (or low choice) eateries taking over our fine dining world. I’m talking about those affordable, short set-menu venues (like Contra or Luksus) as well as those expensive, extended omakase venues (Blanca, Atera). It’s a benignly dictatorial model where diners cede control to the kitchen so it can better focus on serving the same delicious meal to all. One price, one experience. I dig it.
O Ya, on the other hand, feels like two restaurants mashed up into one, like a Masa and Bar Masa combined, equal parts accessible and extravagant, with every item served to anyone sitting anywhere, table or counter. I dig it less.
Smart guests will sit at the bar to witness all the action. Watch the chef torch a slice of hamachi right before he serves it. Pick it up with your hands and feel the warm fat dribble down your chin. The vinegared rice breaks apart with a gentle chew. Your tongue stings from a smart bomb of banana pepper mousse. It is perfect sushi. Cost: $14 for two pieces.
Play your a la carte cards prudently and you can have a fine meal for two at under $200.
Or for something more involved there’s a 17-course feast at $185. And finally there’s a 20-course omakase of sushi and small plates at $285 -- costlier than the standard offerings at Saison in San Francisco or Brooklyn Fare in New York, two of America’s best and most expensive restaurants.
Add on optional white truffles ($80), Kobe beef ($55) and sake pairings ($150), and your O Ya dinner date will run $1,448.
I emphasize these tasting prices because O Ya doesn’t publish them online. Not cool.
Also not cool: Lobster with uni toast on the $285 menu. It’s as forgettable as a canape at your cousin’s wedding. Same goes for the garlic shrimp with tamago, which tastes as if someone overcooked the flavor out of shellfish and accidentally paired it with a dessert custard.
That’s the rub. O Ya isn’t playing ball at the level of Saison or Brooklyn Fare. At least that’s my verdict based on a single visit last week, where the restaurant felt more like a newcomer getting the kinks out of its system.
Beverages were an issue. A seven-year-old joint like O Ya should be pouring its wines or sakes by the glass at the tables. It’s an exercise in transparency (are you sure you’re giving me the $1,000 Petrus?). It gives the sommelier a chance to tell you what to look for in an unfamiliar varietal. And it lets the diner try a taste before committing to a pricey pour.
But I wasn’t shown a single bottle at O Ya. Every glass came fully poured. I wasn’t once offered a pre-purchase taste, not even for the Dosnon & Lepage Recolte Noire, which, at $32, is a higher starting price for Champagne than at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. This was wine and sake without stories, without context. These were simply expensive beverages.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t eat and drink well. Quite the contrary. Chef Tim Cushman excels in old-school over-the-top bliss, showering patrons with black truffle shavings, butter-warmed lobster, spoons of frozen foie gras mousse with tempura flakes (tastes like cereal for the rich), and oodles of caviar.
The kitchen uses an Uruguay-bred roe that bursts with briny, nutty notes. Cushman dabs a generous heap of the caviar atop warm rice and uni; the roe sparkles with yuzu zest. And the Santa Barbara urchin sports the creaminess of mozzarella even though the mollusk is naturally dairy free.
Simple luxuries abound. O Ya anoints a slow-cooked egg with salty dashi and even more caviar. Even better: Cushman places tiny slices of raw wild snapper in a shallow broth of white soy, ginger and lemon oil. It’s as if a Japanese fisherman reimagined the ocean as a quiet backyard pond. Stunning.
Bluefin toro sashimi, wonderfully sinewy and savory, eats like a maritime steak. And Kagoshima Wagyu is what you wish every cut of non-dry aged meat tasted like: A concentrated punch of beefiness that never dulls with subsequent bites. It’s as if these cattle were fed nothing but fellow cattle during their pampered lives.
What’s great about a long tasting menu is that it encourages chefs to take risks. One or two bad bites are quickly forgotten when the next course comes. But I wonder whether Cushman isn’t taking enough risks (or the wrong ones). He removes a langoustine from its aromatic shell and spins the intoxicating head into a virtually undetectable sauce. He gives the flesh a tempura treatment, transforming the regal crustacean into an above-average fried shrimp.
Black truffle and potato chip “sushi” on rice (no fish), which tastes as good as it sounds (not very), can do without the white truffle oil (really). Though perhaps it all would’ve worked if the rice weren’t cold, a product of poor timing by the kitchen.
And that brings us to one of O Ya’s biggest problems: Pacing.
Ideally, you’re handed a piece of sushi immediately after it’s prepared, to preserve the delicate balance between the warm rice and barely cool fish. At O Ya, I waited 159 seconds for a waiter to pick up and deliver a ready-to-eat piece of chu-toro nigiri. I should’ve walked across the room and picked it up myself. Alas, my good manners resulted in mediocre sushi.
Any restaurant can have an off night. It’s just unfortunate that such oversights can happen at O Ya, with its destination status drawing diners in from out of town, and with one of America’s most expensive tasting menus. So for now, I’d say O Ya is superb for a quick bite, not for dropping mad coin.
O Ya is at 9 East Street Place, Boston. Information: +1-617-654-9900 or http://oyarestaurantboston.com.
(Ryan Sutton reviews restaurants for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)