Editor's note: Alison Arnett recently retired from the Globe. Dining Out will feature a rotation of guest reviewers until the paper names a new restaurant critic.
Boston may be one of the few remaining cities that doesn't have an outpost of Nobu, the restaurant that seems to want to do for haute Japanese fusion what
Now there's a new addition to that list. O Ya, which opened in March on a little side street near South Station, feels like a speakeasy, looks like a spread in a design magazine, and serves as a temple to perfect, pricey sashimi and sushi. (It also happens to have a chef and co-owner, Tim Cushman, who apprenticed with the eponymous Nobu Matsuhisa.)
Marked only by a simple hanging shingle, the restaurant occupies an unobtrusive brick building. Its front window is almost entirely obscured by a Japanese shoji screen, and the entrance is a tall, narrow door of solid wood hidden around a corner. It feels as if a secret knock or password might grant you access to a stash of illegal hooch inside.
But there's no hooch here. (There is a sake sommelier, though.) And the door swings open unhindered; beyond it, a gravel-lined path leads to a room with brick walls, old wood beams, and round, shoji-covered windows. It conveys serenity and modernity, Japanese inn and New England warehouse. If it weren't a restaurant, it would make a fantastic loft.
Along one wall are 10 tables, which face the L-shaped wood sushi bar that is the domain of a team of chefs from Japan. At maximum capacity, O Ya seats 40, and eating here feels like being one of the chosen few (alas, sometimes because there are so many empty seats). The offerings of sea urchin and spot prawn, wagyu beef and kurobuta pork are so precisely composed they seem as much like art as they do food. A sweet Kumamoto oyster adorned with pearls of watermelon is served in a mini bamboo steamer filled with ice; the edge of a tender scallop is stained gorgeously scarlet with beet juice; three slices of the buttery, coral-skinned fish called kinmedai are set on a plate, their edges curled under just so, by a sashimi chef who wields thin metal chopsticks with the precision of a watchmaker. He then conducts a painstaking search through a container of shiso sprigs, looking for the perfect garnish.
And so begins a slow roll of courses. Most dishes at O Ya are about four bites big, and with a few changes from night to night, the menu encompasses roughly 70 of them, plus five desserts and nearly 20 kinds of sake. ("O Ya," according to sommelier, co-owner, and wife of the chef Nancy Cushman, is the equivalent of "gee whiz" in Japanese -- an exclamation of discovery.) This is impressionistic eating. After 10 or so small plates, you begin to just let the tastes wash over you.
Here comes a serving of wild bluefin toro tartare. It melts on the tongue with satisfying richness, followed by a kick from the ginger kimchee jus it's flavored with. Now a bowl of clam chowder, a tour-de-force version enlivened by crunchy tempura bits and made decadent by a drizzle of pork fat. It's a study in two different kinds of salinity, brine and swine. Next, maybe a raw-food take on dumplings: They're made from daikon and stuffed with miso-cashew puree; a spicy, pine nut-based mayonnaise gives them zing. One dish holds braised pork served with toothsome "Boston baked" rice beans and soy-maple sauce, a sweet-salty wink at local tradition. On another is maguro nigiri, the dark crimson fish draped languidly over the rice, accompanied by fresh wasabi. Then a plate of yakitori, some of the best we've had, charred on the outside, moist inside, and set on swirls of celeriac puree.
It might be followed by a tangle of cold noodles topped with barely charred lobster in a well-balanced, wasabi-tinged dressing. Then, in a pottery bowl, an onsen egg -- named after Japan's famed hot springs -- poached low and slow, floating in dashi and treated liberally with truffle salt and garlic; its yolk is a custard, its white a pillow. For dessert, soy milk blancmange, a pot de creme-like concoction, its creaminess set off by the woody flavors of Thai tea and crunchy, tapioca-esque basil seeds; or warm chocolate pudding cake, divested of hoariness by the presence of cherries in shiso simple syrup. And the list goes on. . . .
This is refined food, focused on the purity of scrupulously sourced ingredients. But it isn't pretentious, nor is the restaurant itself. The sommelier converses with customers, recommending books on sake and walking them to the door when they depart. The chef comes out of the kitchen to greet people when he has a moment. Even the sushi chefs -- sometimes a reserved group -- are pleasantly chatty. (Sit at the bar and they'll teach you all kinds of interesting things about the fish you're eating.) And our waitress can answer every obscure question about ingredients and preparation we throw at her. O Ya's mix of high professionalism and genuine warmth is rare.
So why isn't the place packed to its perfectly sliced, elegantly plated gills? Even on a Friday, things slow after an early evening rush. (Note to the hordes waiting for seats at the Chestnut Hill Oishii: O Ya is worth the hunt for a parking spot.) The sushi chefs look bored. The commuters have headed home; the foot traffic has dissipated -- the feeling of seclusion that helps make O Ya special can also work against it. And then there's the matter of pricing. At $21, for example, the intriguingly named lobster cone (which, boringly, turns out to be lobster salad in a tiny spring roll skin funnel) goes for the dear sum of about $5 a bite. It's not alone.
Still, most of those bites warrant the price tag. On a recent night, a father and son sit at the bar. In front of them is their second plate of foie gras nigiri, served with a bit of cocoa pulp on top and a chaser of aged sake alongside.
"We've been rating everything," the father says cheerily in a British accent. "9.5, 9.7, but this is the first 10." (We try it later and confirm their score. It is one flawless bite of creamy, crisp-edged richness, set in bold face by the port-like sake.) They're in town from London, he tells us. It's their second visit to O Ya; the chef on their yacht, a Boston native, recommended it.
The father takes a bite of the foie gras and swoons. "It's worth it to come to Boston just for this," he says.
Who needs Nobu ?