O-Ya – Review
I’ll be honest: I thought I would hate O-Ya. It gave me anxiety right from the start. I mean, it’s not everyday that you have to put a credit card down for a mere two-top reservation. (Not to mention the $100 per person fee if you cancel within 24 hours.) In fact, the cheapest ticket to entry at O-Ya is $185 for an 18-piece “sushi” omakase. And if you’re really hungry or a glutton, you can splurge on a 23-course meal for a whopping $245… per person. Do keep in mind: This ain’t no Daniel or Masa, or any other restaurant with a legendary chef you’d immediately recognize by name, for that matter. O-Ya is a pricey Boston import rolling the dice on the mean streets of Manhattan, located in the Park South Hotel (with its own street level entrance thankfully). Still, you might think they’d keep their head down; “undersell and overdeliver,” that kind of thing. Nope.
Instead, husband-and-wife team, Tim and Nancy Cushman, made a big bet that New Yorkers will pay up big time for their very untraditional omakase experience. Why untraditional? Seared foie gras on vinegared rice isn’t exactly common in most tried-and-true Japanese joints. Especially when it’s anointed with a balsamic-chocolate kabayaki (a riff on a traditional sweet kabayaki sauce often used for eel) and a sake-spiked raisin/cocoa pulp. How is it you’re probably wondering? Pretty damn good, though it’s not exactly rocket science combining unctuous foie gras with something sweet to cut the richness (read fat). It’s the sushi rice beneath it that makes it so novel; a fun, new finger food with luxe ingredients. Speaking of luxury, will you see truffles for $185? Hell yes.
Black winter truffles crown a piece of Tuna Tataki nigiri, which is also enlivened by a dose of smoky pickled onions; a unique combination of flavors I’ve never had the pleasure of together before, though I hope I will again soon. Lest I forget the homemade Potato Chip finished with a Black Winter Truffle over sushi rice and the Seared Tuna with grated onion and black truffle. In short, this isn’t your run of the mill sushi spot with an omakase offering. The chef and his wife aren’t even Japanese. They’re two white Americans who fell for Japanese food and drink, earning a James Beard award for their creativity and embellished Japanese at Boston’s Japanese bent O-Ya back in 2012. (Frank Bruni even called it the best restaurant in the United States in 2008.) When O-Ya first opened back in 2008, this brand of avant-garde sushi was new and exciting. Now, it’s a fashionable and proven style that’s been embraced for some time at places, like Shuko, Sushi Dojo, and I could go on.
The big difference between the O-Ya Boston and the one in New York is that there is no a la carte menu in Manhattan. The only options are the $185 or $245 omakase menus; a take it or leave it philosophy that makes it pretty inaccessible to the masses, and makes me worry just how long it can stay in business. After all, not everyone has $185 to spend on dinner. This is a splurge, special occasion spot, not quite as expensive as the $450 omakase Masa (and that’s without alcohol or tip), but almost as expensive as Daniel or Le Bernardin, which may be a tough sell, considering Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert are much more familiar and famous. For those traditionalist sushi eaters, consider yourself warned that not everything is raw or nearly raw, thus the foie gras nigiri. Really, the only thing that makes almost every course served “sushi” is the vinegared rice beneath it. There’s grilled Chanterelles and Shitake Mushrooms over sushi rice, anointed with a fragrant drizzle of rosemary oil and sesame froth, as well as a nub of Wagyu seared to a medium rare, dabbed with nothing more than potato confit and sea salt. To be honest, I wasn’t wowed by the rosemary-scented melange of mushrooms, which seemed not only out of place at a sushi counter, but also something that might be served in winter not late spring. But I loved that toothsome, juicy Wagyu. You wouldn’t find anything this delicate on a steakhouse menu, but this little nibble is just as gratifying.
Let’s start at the very beginning of this 18-course meal with an utterly refreshing Kumamoto Oyster, dressed with ponzu-marinated watermelon curls and a diced cucumber mignonette, followed by a Hamachi Nigiri with a feisty Banana Pepper Mousse. As I got deeper into the meal, I stumbled upon a Fried Oyster, enlivened by to die for “squid ink bubbles” — code for frothed up squid ink) and a tangy yuzu kosho aioli; the best fried morsel I’ve had in awhile. There are plenty of blissfully complicated discoveries at O-Ya, like Seared Trout shrouding tomato confit with smoked sea salt, a wild spot Prawn with yuzu-splashed tobiko and ramp puree, and the Shima Aji (striped jack) & Hokkaido sea urchin, seasoned with aji amarillo chile vinaigrette and nigella (aromatic black seeds).
There are a few courses that are on the gimmicky side, like chive a blossom omelet with a turkey egg and “wagyu schmaltz,” which sounded more interesting than it tasted and that truffle-topped potato chip sushi. But for the most part, the Cushmans’ triumph in delivering an imaginative & unexpected tasting menu with the kind of first rate ingredients you’d expect to find for a big ticket dinner. And while we may have a slew of modern Japanese restaurants from non-Japanese chefs in New York already, O-Ya manages to deliver something original and exciting.
Did I mention the sake list? It’s excellent and so is the lone dessert, which says a lot coming from me because I flat out hate white chocolate and O-Ya’s White Chocolate Namelaka is the exception to my rule. It’s a ridiculously delicious layering of yuzu sherbert, white chocolate creme, strawberry, rhubarb and a crunchy matcha sable.
I realize I got so caught up in the food I forgot to mention the decor, which is cozy and serene. The walls are exposed brick and there’s a long L-shaped eating counter made of beautiful wood that’s been sanded to a soft suppleness; the kind you want to run your hand along all evening. The best seats at these kinds of sushi spots are always at the counter, where you can watch the chefs molding each and every nibble, but if there aren’t any spots left, there are plenty of tables scattered about the room, too. On the night I was there, the seats were populated with mostly food types (writers, expert eaters, & distributors I knew), scoping out the newest entree to the food scene. Let’s just hope there’s an appetite for the pricey omakase at O-Ya. I certainly hope so as I plan to return in the fall.