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O Ya… Consistency whittled down to the dull art of repetition; or One and Done

Last weekend we went to O Ya for the second (and last) time. The first time we had been was three years ago shortly after O Ya opened.

We went back this past weekend. This time we elected to get the “Grand Tasting Menu,” weighing in at a whopping $275 dollars and 21 courses. It was our 10th anniversary, so it seemed reasonable to get what we liked. This was a mistake.

One of the first things we noticed when we were there, were the number of dishes that were the same as the last time we were there three years ago. The entirety of the meal proved that O Ya had indeed managed the difficult to attain goal of “consistency,” but had whittled it down to the dull art of repetition. This was a shock, because when you’re paying that kind of money, you are paying largely for inventiveness. It appears that the chefs at O Ya had a burst of inventiveness a few years ago, and since then have resorted primarily to repetition. Even the last time I was there, I do remember being surprised that the menu we were offered was identical to the one a friend had gotten several months earlier. This is surprising because O Ya is a sushi restaurant; sushi restaurants typically rely on whatever is freshest to drive the menu. This is not the case with O Ya, at O Ya, the recipes dictate the menu, not the fish. This is one of the gripes that sushi purists (which I am not) have about this type of sushi restaurant—that the additional preparation dilutes one’s ability to appreciate the fish, and at worse masks low quality fish. I would not say that the quality of the fish was bad, but it is not the best, and at a sushi restaurant that dares to charge $275/person, it should be the best—regardless of the fanciness of the dressings.

There were two dishes where the fish really was outstanding (2 of 21), the wild ivory king salmon with spicy lemongrass curry sauce, toasted garlic and sesame, and the shima aji (amber jack) with Santa Barbara sea urchin, ceviche vinaigrette, and cilantro. However, to appreciate the amber jack, you had to remove the sea urchin, which totally overwhelmed the amber jack.

That brings us to another point. There were two dishes with sea urchin (uni). The uni was clearly not live uni, which just doesn’t seem right at an ultra-high end sushi restaurant. I realize that there are times when uni is not in season, but it seems like a restaurant like O Ya shouldn’t serve it when it’s out of season and not fresh—particularly when it is not additive and masks the taste of fresher fish.

The second issue, is again with quality of ingredients, and a bit of near-misrepresentation. Two of the “courses” said they had Ossetra caviar—from the black river. You might reasonably think, and particularly at $275/person, that this would be real osetra caviar, from the Caspian or the black sea. But in fact it is not. That was immediately proved out upon tasting it; it had none of the rich nuttiness of real osetra caviar. Instead it had a briny, sea taste, even a little fishy. Not at all what I had hoped for. Further research shows that the Black river has nothing to do with the Black sea (very clever marketing though, as people might assume such a relationship). In fact, this Black river—or rather Rio Negro—appears to be in Uruguay, the caviar harvested from Russian born sturgeon farmed in Uruguay. I am a caviar purist, and I love really good caviar. I do enjoy the lesser varieties too, and have served them in my home. But when I serve them, I feel duty-bound to refer to the origin of the caviar, both location and type of fish, since it does help people to set their expectations. Clearly no such compunction governs O Ya. The caviar was served in one instance with sea urchin, in which case the bite was a mushy mess of fishiness. In the other instance, it was served on top of an “onsen” egg, which looked to be a slow-cooked egg with a partially set yolk. In the latter instance, it was so sad to have the lesser quality caviar, because the egg was very good and would have been perfectly augmented with real osetra. But the much harsher, fishier taste of the black river caviar only detracted.

I was impressed with one piece of sourcing that O Ya did. There was a lovely dish of a sea scallop served with sake sea urchin jus, chervil and Australian winter perigord truffle. The dish itself was wonderful, and the slice of the Australian truffle was wonderful, a wonderful option for when black truffles are not in season in the Northern hemisphere. We had just returned from Italy, where we got our fill of the Tuscan “bianchetto” truffles, which are much milder in flavor, and this black truffle was a real treat.

Before I close, I have to talk a little about price, because this is honestly one of the biggest issues I have with this meal. Our meal at O Ya rang in at $830 with tip (we were not overly generous as we didn’t think the meal or service merited it, giving only %15). $830 included two $275/person Grand Tasting Menus, one $12 glass of bad, cheap champagne, on $12 bottle of sparkling water (we would have gotten more, but were offended that we were being soaked on water, on a meal that would weigh in near $1000), and $120 sake pairing. I’d like to put this cost into perspective. 275/person is more than it costs to eat at Alinea in Chicago, which rings in at $250/person for 24 courses. Alinea is a 3-star Michelin restaurant and deserves every point of each star, and perhaps more, for every facet of the meal. Alinea is the best meal I have ever had—by leaps and bounds. I would love to go on about Alinea, and how truly wonderful it is, but this is a review about O Ya. The point about Alinea is, if we had both gotten the sake tasting (as we both got the wine pairings at Alinea), this meal would have cost us the same as Alinea, with far inferior food, alcohol and service. Perhaps you are saying that this is not a fair comparison, Alinea is not a sushi restaurant. OK, so let’s compare O Ya to some sushi restaurants. Sushi Yasuda, in NYC cost us less than $200 for two omakase, and 3 carafes of sake. Sushi Yasuda is the best sushi I have ever eaten, where the fish is literally orders of magnitude better than any other fish, and where even the rice is a wonder. Uni, the sashimi bar at Clio in Boston, typically sets us back about $350. At Uni, the fish drives the menu, making the omakase different and interesting, and the wines exceptionally well-chosen. Uni is always a pleasant experience that I savor; at O Ya, rather than anticipating the remaining courses, I felt held hostage by them. Oishii too, in Boston, is a much better value for the Omakase, and is much more inventive.

The final insult at O Ya came at the end of the meal, and came as a one-two punch. First, they asked us if we would like to see the dessert menu. Really? A $275 Grand tasting menu doesn’t include dessert? I had just assumed that they didn’t do desserts, and that the foie gras and chocolate nigiri was our dessert. But nope, you can have dessert, you just have to pay a little more. And then the final insult. We were presented our bill, without anything acknowledgement of our 10-year anniversary—this despite the facts that the person who showed us to our table confirmed the reason for our visit, and that O Ya does engage in such “pedestrian” traditions, as we saw by the people next to us were brought a surprise birthday dessert.

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O Ya
9 East Street, Boston, MA 02111

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  1. Excellent post. You sum up many of the points why I enjoyed my first visit to O Ya more than subsequent visits where I felt value and quality were somewhat lacking.

    In another recent thread a poster suggested that a certain word class sushi restaurant was more traditional and less creative than O-Ya. I think your point about O Ya being menu driven, rather than quality fish driven is an excellent one. At other top establishments the freshest ingredients are sourced daily and the menu naturally follows. While O Ya may seem more creative on the first visit, that just doesn't stand up over multiple visits as they don't continue to innovate.

    It is too bad they didn't recognize your anniversary as you would have liked. I will say that I sent my wife there before our wedding as a surprise with her maid of honor and they did an excellent job making them feel special.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Gabatta

      there is definitely something to be said about just having superfresh fish, which needs no embellishment. even the most traditional (fish + rice, nothing more) and humble sushi bar in japan, if the fish is fresh enough, can be just as satisfying as a place like O Ya, although in a very different way.

    2. This review made me think; I've also noticed the impressive/torporific consistency and have given it some thought.

      I also see that you've only posted a few times on CH - two of them detailed, thought-provoking and negative reviews. To welcome you and to give perspective, I'd be fascinated seeing you post in other threads about Boston restaurants you enjoyed.

      7 Replies
      1. re: enhF94

        To give O Ya it's due: The presentations they've created are fantastic, and the reason they keep serving many of them (hamachi with banana peppers, the foie gras and chocolate, mushroom sashimi) is that people love them and expect them, and are disappointed when they're not there. Also, I think it's wrong to say there are no seasonal changes, or tweaks on the familiar themes, although it's true that things seem awfully familiar on repeat visits. For me, it would take a lot of repeats, in a short amount of time, to get sick of it. That's not something that is likely to happen at O Ya for most of us.
        That said, at the price point, the comparison to Alinea is probably justified. Though I'd guess not many restaurants would hold up to that standard.
        As far as the freshness/quality of the ingredients; perhaps you've a more divine palate than me, but I've never been anything but wowed by the ingredients, the fish, the beef, the fungi, wow!!

        When you refer to "live" uni, what are you suggesting? Should the urchins arrive live and be shucked there? I've never seen that, particularly on the east coast when serving Santa Barbara uni, which comes to O Ya in those beautiful little wooden cases. And personally, I prefer the delicate flavor of the west coast (or Japanese, I'd guess) urchins paired with the O Ya creations to the coarser east coast uni.
        I defer to your caviar knowledge, however. Sounds like you might be right, though a bait and switch such as you seem to suggest does not jive with everything else about the O Ya experiences I've had.
        Thanks for the thought provoking post.

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        O Ya
        9 East Street, Boston, MA 02111

        1. re: justbeingpolite

          I would also vote for non-live Santa Barbara uni over live Maine uni, any day. As far as Oiishi Boston goes, the fish i've been served there has been sadly below average in freshness, which no amount of embellishment can salvage, but that's just my experience.

          1. re: barleywino

            Actually, yes, they do serve it basically live, right out the shell (many times they remove the shell for presentation though), but the difference is staggering. I liked uni before I had it live, unfortunately, after I've really had a hard time liking it any other way. I think the season for uni starts in September. I've actually had it at Uni (which I guess shouldn't be a surprise) at Clio, and it was just to die for. As for the flying in, most of these guys fly even their freshest stuff in, I know for example that Sushi Yasuda in NYC does (they invested in a geiger counter after the earthquake to pacify customer concerns about radiation). Watch for the live stuff, it will change your gastronomic life :)

            And to the beginning of JustBeingPolite's post, I would not have been prompted to post this were it not for the stratospheric price. That price simply forces one to think about the relative value. I think Uni's presentations, and Oishii's just as good, and more varied, and at typically 1/3 to 1/2 the price.

            I would love nothing more than for O Ya to step up its game and be BETTER than it was the first time I went, and justify a $1000 meal. I would do cartwheels. It was actually with that expectation--that 3 years of evolution would be wonderful to experience--that I told my husband we should order the big tasting menu; I wanted to give the chef full reign to thoroughly impress me. Currently, I don't think it merits that cost, and when compared to Alinea, which is the same price point, it has a LONG way to go.

            Of course there are some other restaurants in Boston that are now approaching the Alinea price point and don't come close--but I won't mention any more names :)

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            O Ya
            9 East Street, Boston, MA 02111

            1. re: divinemissmoe

              I would find it hard to characterize Uni's presentations as more varied than O Ya and certainly not 1/3 to 1/2 the price, I tend to walk out of Uni much hungrier and having spent more than I would have at O ya. Uni does sometimes have more seasonal or imported fish than O ya fwiw. However I tend to run out of interesting things to order at Uni much faster than at O ya. As far as Alinea goes, I think of them more as a laboratory with a few spectacular successes interspersed with items I was happy to try once perhaps, or appreciated conceptually, but would not go out of my way to order again, given a choice.

        2. re: enhF94

          I will work on posting more positive. I tend only be motivated to post when my experience is markedly different from existing reviews, so raving about say, Alinea doesn't seem necessary. But I will do more, lest it seem like I'm just a curmudgeon. I was embarrassed that after three years I hadn't posted any thing positive, and that the next review would be negative--and very much in the same vein.

          1. re: divinemissmoe

            hey, you posted a very helpful review. go easy on yourself....if science and medicine journals posted more "negative" articles, as in "we tried this and it didn't work" humankind would be better off.

            You seem to me to be a person who cares, your review was very thoughtful. I think it is precisely because you are so thoughtful that we'd love to hear what you do like.

            I personally could not pay $250 pp plus and I'll just reveal right now how un chowish I might seem...I spent years around SF and maxed on sushi, and I will not eat foie gras. Otherwise, I'm an adventorous home cook who loves real, complex ethnic (thank you Watertown markets and Paula Woflert) who would not want to go to O Ya even if I could afford it (and getting away from my special needs older adopted child).

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            O Ya
            9 East Street, Boston, MA 02111

            1. re: divinemissmoe

              I actually don't have a problem with that. Sometimes people do lurk a bit but it takes a really good or bad experience for them to post. As long as it's not a one line slam of "this restaurant sucks" but a detailed explanation of why, it's fine.

              Thanks for the review and I'd agree w/ you if I had the same experience. They should probably take some items off the menu and rotate through them seasonally instead.
              Alinea's been on my list of restaurants I really want to hit when visiting Chicago too, so it's good to know that it deserves the Michelin stars :-)

          2. Thank you for the detailed and balanced review. After reading all the effusive praise of O Ya on this board (and winning a charity auction gift certificate), I ate there about 5 months ago and was very disappointed by both the food and the experience. I'm shocked that they seem to get away with charging what they do for an okay but certainly not phenomenal meal. There are many fine dining restaurants in the area that deliver way more for about 1/3 the price. Beyond the issues with the food and service, the space is weirdly undecorated and uncomfortable for the expense. I wish someone had told me what to expect before I went as it would have saved me the let-down and the feeling of having thrown away money that I would have been much happier spending elsewhere.

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            O Ya
            9 East Street, Boston, MA 02111

            1. That price sure is eye-popping, and I'd have rolled my eyes at "desserts extra", too. In my handful of experiences at O Ya, I've set a much lower price cap (usually about $100) and felt like I got good value for the money, with a few moments of sublimity each time that are rare in local dining.

              http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

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              O Ya
              9 East Street, Boston, MA 02111

              1. Thanks for the negative review done right.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Luther

                  Hear, hear. This is exactly the kind of detailed, thoughtful criticism we all need more of.

                  Encouraging someone to write puff pieces does nothing to *improve* the dining experience. If we wish to move (ourselves, or a restaurant) from bad to mediocre and eventually to good, we need to be told what we're doing badly and how we can do better.

                  Thanks, divinemissmoe.