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Another Dissent on O-Ya

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Before a recent meal at O-Ya, I had read divinemissmoe’s negative post on this board (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/796911). But I had also read Frank Bruni’s effusive review in the New York Times and the countless odes to the wonder of O-Ya on Chowhound and elsewhere. So, as a serious sushi lover who was visiting Boston from Seattle, and who developed his palate for and knowledge of sushi in Los Angeles, I thought it would be interesting to see what I thought. It’s clear that Tim Cushman has gone to extraordinary lengths to create very complex, labor-intensive dishes. In hindsight, I wish that I hadn’t limited myself to the sushi and sashimi items on the menu. Maybe I would have enjoyed some of the vegetable, meat, and chicken preparations better. The mushroom sashimi, Okinawan braised pork, and both chicken dishes on the menu sound very interesting. My main problem with O-Ya is that the flavor of the fish in the sushi and sashimi is overwhelmed by the marinades, sauces, and other ingredients that accompany them. It’s almost as if the fish merely provides a background textural note to the other ingredients and flavors. Speaking of texture, the menu is very lopsided in favor of oily fish – such as tuna (especially the endangered bluefin), salmon, hamachi, and aji – rather than non-oily fish like snapper, flounder, and sea bass, reflecting the preference of most American palates for oily fish. During the meal I thought, “If I close my eyes and try to guess what kind of fish I’m eating – say, hamachi vs. chutoro – how often would I get the right answer?” Sesame, a very strong flavor, was dominant in many of the preparations, and too often was out of balance with the other flavors, as in the case of the bluefin chutoro with spicy mentaiko mayo and sesame. The flavor of the mentaiko (which wasn’t the highest quality) was almost completely masked by the sesame. Sesame flavor also dominated the kanpachi baby hamachi with jalapeño sauce, sesame, apple, and myoga, with the jalapeño providing some substantial heat. In all, my wife and I shared around 10 items, only two of which I found noteworthy, especially given the steep price tags. One was the Maine sea urchin uni mousse with kuidashi gelee and tonka bean. In this dish the flavor of the uni was front and center and the dish exhibited finesse and subtlety. (I discovered in a book on Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant that kuidashi jelly is prepared with dashi, soy sauce, mirin, bonito flakes, and gelatin. I also discovered that tonka bean is illegal under federal law. Grant Achatz was busted for using tonka bean at Alinea. However, I also read that Chef Gabriel Bremer makes a tonka bean desert, “Le Gâeau,” at Salts in Cambridge. So FDA enforcement of this old federal law is apparently very uneven.) The other noteworthy item at O-Ya was the fois gras nigiri with balsamic chocolate kabayaki and Claudio Corolla raisin cocoa pulp. This was truly a spectacular bite, and more than lived up to all of the praise that has been heaped on it. It was clearly the highlight of the meal, and a highlight in my overall eating experience. I give O-Ya high marks for having shirako on its menu. I adore shirako, which is the sperm sacs of a cod fish, and there aren’t many places that offer it. But I didn’t order any, because they took this very delicate ingredient – delicate in both texture and flavor – and prepared it by frying it and combining it with lemon and, of all things, salty, bracing pecorino cheese. It didn’t sound at all like an appealing dish. For the nouvelle style of sushi and sashimi prepared at O-Ya, I think that Uchi, located in Austin, Texas, does a much better and more light-handed job of using non-traditional flavors and ingredients without overwhelming the flavor of the fish.

In sum, I agree with divinemissmoe in her previous Chowhound review that the recipes, sauces, and ingredients, not the seasonality and exceptional quality of the fish, drive the menu at O-Ya. That said, if I were Tim Cushman, I’d do absolutely nothing to change the menu or approach at O-Ya. As a commercial venture, it’s obviously enormously successful and has a substantial following willing to pay a huge price tag.

P.S. I owe all of you wonderful Boston Chowhounds who recently gave me such great advice on where I should eat in the Boston area a trip report on the places where I ate in addition to O-Ya. That trip report is in the works and will hopefully be forthcoming shortly.

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  1. tom, have been and still am looking forward to that trip report from you! thanks for this intro piece.

    1 Reply
    1. re: opinionatedchef

      It's done. I just posted it: "Long Trip Report from a Seattle Chowhound."

    2. Thanks for a very thoughtful and evenhanded review.
      Wondering if you could say a bit more about the tonka bean, flavorwise...

      6 Replies
      1. re: Bob Dobalina

        here's a quick review of the tonka bean, apparently used as a vanilla subsitute,

        http://blogs.wsj.com/informedreader/2...

        1. re: Wannabfoode

          Here’s a link to another article on the tonka bean, with a picture and a video of Grant Achatz talking about the tonka bean at Alinea: http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archi...

          Has anyone had the Le Gâteau at Salts in Cambridge?

          1. re: Tom Armitage

            Appreciate all that, but was wondering more what you personally thought of the taste.

            1. re: Bob Dobalina

              I couldn’t really single out the flavor of the tonka bean from the other flavors in the sea urchin mousse, and have to admit that I wasn’t focused on trying to tease out that particular flavor. As I said, the dominant flavor in the dish was the uni, and the other flavors were (appropriately, I think) background notes. Now that my curiosity is aroused, I’ll try to get my hands on some tonka beans and experiment with them. If I can pull this off, I’ll report back on my experience.

              1. re: Bob Dobalina

                bob, i know tom prob gave you part of what you were asking by describing his experience, but for more tonka discussion,you could find good info on to the CH homecooking or general topics boards. For me, Tonka flavor is more floral and not a preferred flavor over regular vanilla.

                1. re: opinionatedchef

                  Thanks folks - all much appreciated.

        2. Having visited both Uchi in Austin and O-Ya, I would agree with this assessment. Interestingly though, I think that I was expecting more of an O-Ya experience at Uchi, so I was a little underwhelmed. (And I had visited Uchi prior to O-Ya.)