Tuesday, January 14, 2014

O Ya Restaurant, Boston

I recently visited Boston for a business trip.  I was traveling alone, but still wanted great food.  Normally when I'm dining alone, I choose casual places, but this time, I was inspired to try something else.  So on my first night there, I opted to visit a sushi bar.  I've been craving sushi for a while, and sitting at a sushi bar solo seemed like it wouldn't be awkward.

After extensive research, I narrowed my selection down to a handful of sushi restaurants, and finally settled on O Ya, after I read that they took reservations for the sushi bar.

The location seemed a bit sketchy, but perhaps it was just because I was alone, it was dark and raining, and I had stepped off a plane literally moments before, stopping only long enough to throw my bags at the hotel and run a brush through my hair.  It wasn't far off a main street, but the entrance was located a little bit down what seemed like a deserted alley.

Once I stepped inside though, the vibe all changed.  I was greeted cheerfully, my coat was whisked away by a woman who complimented me on it, and I was quickly led to my seat at the sushi bar.
My view.  So many squirt bottles!
I was seated right at the sushi counter, directly in front of one of three sushi chefs.  Each chef had his own workstation, with fish and a huge assortment of squirt bottles.  Seriously, check out the squirt bottles!  All different colors and sizes.  It was clear that I was going to get to see some serious artistry.

I enjoyed my seat at the bar, particularly as I was a solo diner, it gave me something to watch and pay attention to.  There were 18 seats at the bar, each with stool seating, not the most comfortable, but at least they had purse hooks at each slot.  There were also 18 seats at regular tables, mostly tables for two or four.

In addition to the 3 sushi chefs working the counter, there was a back kitchen where cooking was done.  It was partially open, but I didn't spend much time peeking in there.

Unlike most sushi bars I've been to, there was absolutely no interaction with the sushi chefs.  It didn't matter that I was dining at the bar, they never looked my way.  They rarely looked up, didn't once look at me.  This was a bit unfortunate, I always thought that the interaction with a sushi chef is part of the experience.

My interactions were all done through my waiter instead.  I couldn't quite figure him out.  He seemed a bit snooty, but was nice to me.   The woman next to me had some serious drama with him that I never quite figured out, but they were very upset.  Right when I sat, one of them asked him if duck was considered red meat or not.  He said he didn't know.  They couldn't believe that he didn't know, and wrote in huge letters on their menu, "DUCK IS RED MEAT".  But the real drama came later on.  They spent the last 45 minutes of their meal arguing about tipping him.  One of them adamantly did not want to leave him any tip at all, and the other agreed that he should not be tipped well, but really loves O Ya and wanted to be able to return sometime.  They talked to the manager several times.  I still wasn't ever able to grasp what happened, but I think it involved something where the waiter made a comment about one of them trying to steal the little cat shaped chopstick rest.  I felt sad for them, as they honestly sat there for at least 45 minutes after they finished eating, just arguing about how much to tip.

Back to the service.  It was all very polite, efficient.  Plates were delivered to diners as soon as they were ready.  Cleaned up as soon as they were empty.  Everyone seemed nice enough on the surface, with polite but reserved smiles.  But there was an air of pretentiousness that made it not feel quite comfortable.  Again, everyone was nice enough, but, it didn't feel quite right.  I never felt like I connected with my server in any way, but at the same time, I'm not really sure if the "mistakes" that were made in my favor later on were truly mistakes, or if he was just hooking me up.

Speaking of hooking me up.  I knew from looking at the menu online beforehand that O Ya was a pricey place.  I also knew that nigiri all come in pairs, sashimi usually in 3-5 pieces.  Since I was dining alone, this meant that I'd only be able to select maybe 3 dishes total, in order to limit not only price, but also portions.  When I double checked with my server about the sizes of the dishes, he let me know that they could do anything in a single portion instead, and they'd price it accordingly.  This was great news!  What I really wanted was an assortment of dishes, and just one piece of each.  So, I ordered everything as singles, but as you'll see below, I sometimes got more than that.

The server could also tell that I was the type who was going to want to take notes, and told me I could feel free to write all over my menu, and even brought me a pen to mark it up.  Very much appreciated.  I guess they do this for most people, as the women next to me had their menu and pen as well, hence the whole DUCK IS RED MEAT message.

The vibe of the restaurant was good.  Everything looked amazing, and given my vantage point at the bar, I got to see a lot of sushi go by.  Patrons, with the exception of the women next to me, were very happy.  The music was lively, almost a bit strange to have at a fairly upscale sushi bar, but I enjoyed it.  I didn't really notice it until Macklemore's Thrift Shop came on, and I started bobbing my head in my seat.

As for the food, it was some of the best sushi I've had in the past few years, and I'd certainly return.  Quality fish, thought-out pairings, interesting flavors.  However, I did have even better sushi the next night (stay tuned!), so I'd return there before I'd return to O Ya.

The nigiri was all a good size.  You would not feel that they were skimpy with the portion, yet the pieces weren't too large to easily eat as a single bite.  Really, just perfectly sized.  I particularly liked that there wasn't too much rice, just enough to accent the fish, and not overwhelm it.  The sushi was all modern style, where every piece was carefully constructed with sauces built-in, you weren't ever to add soy sauce.
Hamachi Nigiri: Spicy banana pepper mousse. $14 (pair).
I like hamachi, but I don't love it.  In my list of sushi picks, it certainly falls after salmon, char, tuna, uni, butterfish, and probably others.  But when I asked my server if he had any top picks, this was his number one.  So, I tried it.

The first thing that struck me was the serving plate.  My OCD was a bit driven crazy by the fact that the hamachi had visible grain to it, and it wasn't lined up with the visible lines in the plate.  Ahh!  But the plate was a unique shape and pattern, and did add to the dining experience.

This was one of the better pieces of hamachi sushi I've had.  The fish was slightly torched, which gave it a smoked flavor, which I loved.  On top was the banana pepper "mousse", which was more of a chunky puree, with some kick to it.  I also tasted truffle, although it wasn't listed on the menu.  When I asked the server, he told me it did indeed have truffle oil.

Overall, this had a lot of flavor, and the spicy banana pepper mousse was a flavor that lingered, in an enjoyable way.  My third pick of the night, mostly just because I don't ever love hamachi.  I probably wouldn't get again.

Price for a pair was $14, which is obviously on the higher end, but right for this calibre of sushi restaurant.
Salmon Tataki Nigiri: Torched tomato, smoked salt, onion aioli. $12.
Salmon on the other hand, is usually a favorite of mine.  This was no exception.  As with the hamachi, I ordered a single piece, but the server forgot to order it that way, so I got the full pair.  It turns out that I was quite happy with this mistake!

This came plated on a totally different style of plate.  As I would quickly discover, each dish would come on a unique plate, each beautiful, but not even really in the same style as the last.  This helped mirror the feel of the restaurant, each dish was elegant and upscale, but the mismatched serving ware created a more relaxed atmosphere.

Like the hamachi, the salmon was a quality piece of fish, a good size, and was also slightly torched.  It would have been good as classic nigiri I'm sure, but the pairings it was presented with took it over the top.

On top of the salmon was a torched tomato slice.  This thing was amazing.  It was incredibly juicy, flavorful, and very smoky.  Smoked salt sprinkled over it all amped up that smoky flavor further.  On top of the tomato was a dollop of onion aioli, which added creaminess, and went perfectly with the tomato.  And then crisp chive sprouts for even more intense onion-y, almost garlic-like flavor.  Even apart from the sushi, the torched tomato and onion aioli would have been a magnificent bite! Along with the salmon, it was even better.

I don't know how to make this sound like a compliment, but I mean it to be one: it reminded me of a BLT.  The tomato was obviously the tomato, the chive sprouts the lettuce, and the salmon and smokey components replaced the bacon.  I know that doesn't sound quite right, but, a BLT is a classic for a reason, and those elements work together very well.

Like the hamachi, this piece also had a flavor that lingered, in this case, it was the strong onion flavor.  Not quite as enjoyable as the banana pepper mousse, but I did like how you didn't just eat a piece and forget it.

My favorite of the night, and I was very glad to accidentally receive two of these.  I could have eaten even more.  I'd get this again.  $12 for the pair seemed reasonable, given the type of restaurant O Ya is.
Bluefin Maguro Nigiri: Caramelized onion, foie gras ponzu, crunchy gobo. $16 (pair).
Next up came the one I was most excited for, the bluefin.  I do like tuna, but that isn't why I was excited.  You see, I had just flown in from California, and this was going to be my first taste of foie gras in quite some time.

As for the maguro, I honestly can't evaluate it.  There were too many other things going on in this bite to taste it or understand it at all.

The fish was covered in foie gras ponzu.  As part of the bite, I couldn't really taste that either, but when I tasted the little bit of ponzu alone that had dripped onto the plate, I was able to taste the foie, and it did have good flavor.  Unfortunately, it was just lost as part of the composed piece.

Whatever was on top was crispy, I guess that was caramelized onion, but I really didn't taste that much onion flavor.  Perhaps my taste buds were just unable of tasting onion after the more intense onion in the previous piece.

I never found the gobo, I am not sure where it was supposed to be.  Maybe that was the crispy bits, and I was just missing the caramelized onion?  I'm not sure.

What I did taste, very distinctively, was pink peppercorn.  Not listed on the menu, but obviously there.  The peppercorn balls added a fun crunch, and being pink peppercorn were more mild, and thus possible to eat like this.

Overall, things didn't work very well here.  The flavors did not compliment each other, but instead cancelled each out other.  I wasn't able to enjoy the maguro or the foie gras.  And like the others, there was a dominant flavor that lingered, the pink peppercorn.

The highest priced nigiri I got, which is sad, because it was also the weakest.  My fourth favorite of the night, and I wouldn't get it again.
Arctic Char Sashimi: Yuzu cured, smoked sesame brittle, cumin aioli, cilantro. $21.
Next I moved on to the sashimi portion of the menu.  I was told that these dishes generally come in 3-5 pieces, and that they are smaller individually, so for this one, the waiter said he'd order me two pieces.

I took this photo after the smoked cleared, literally. What was delivered to me was a bamboo steam basket, filled with hickory smoke.  The lid was removed to let all of the smoke escape.  The aroma was incredible.  Major presentation points here.

The overall dish took on some of that smoky flavor as well.  Smoke seems to be a major theme here, or at least it was in most of the dishes I ordered.  The char was again quality fish, expertly sliced.  I did not taste the yuzu cure.  The smoked sesame brittle wasn't what I expected.  At first, I didn't see it at all, but it was there, tiny little pieces, providing a bit of a crunch.  I wouldn't have known what it was, but I appreciated the crunch, and the slight sweetness it brought to the dish.

The cumin aioli was very different.  I'm pretty certain that I've never had cumin with my sushi before.  A very unique pairing.  It was subtle, but cumin is pretty unmistakable.  I didn't exactly like it, but I really appreciated the idea behind it.  My second pick of the night, but I probably wouldn't get it again.
Santa Barbara Sea Urchin: Uni mousse, kuidashi gelee, tonka bean. $23.
And finally, the uni, something I always order when it is on a menu.  I was tempted to not order it this evening actually, since it was Santa Barbara uni, and it seemed silly to order that when in Boston.  And there were so many other great sounding dishes on the menu.  But ... they had me at "uni mousse".  I'm a sucker for any sort of savory uni like custard/pudding/etc.

Presentation-wise, this was ugly yet stunning at the same time.  I loved how the shredded nori resembled the spikes on a real urchin.  Not sure if that was intentional, but it really worked for me.

I'm not sure what size portion of this one I wound up with.  I was expecting a single lobe of uni, perhaps topped with a dollop of uni mousse.  Or maybe no full piece at all, just a mousse with toppings.  Instead, I got a large bowl of mousse, topped with tons of uni. I think this was the full serving, I can't imagine that it wasn't, given how much uni there was.  My guess is that they didn't really have a way to create a single serve of it.

So, let me describe.  Underneath the shredded nori was an insane amount of uni.  There were at least 4 full lobes, I think actually 6.  It was decent uni, but not particularly remarkable.  So, good in that it didn't taste off, which uni often can, but it also wasn't striking.  Since I was eating this all myself, it actually turned out to be too much uni.  I know that sounds a bit crazy, but near the end, I was sorta just wishing it was gone.  Or maybe that I had something else to pair it with.  Just eating that much pure uni turned out to be too much.  Who knew?

Anyway, alongside the lobes of uni was = kuidashi gelee.  I didn't love it, the consistency was a bit strange.  A little slimy, a flavor I couldn't quite decide if I liked.  I think I didn't like it, but I wanted something with the uni, so I kept going back for more.  I never found any tonka bean.

But, under all of that, was the amazing part.  The uni mousse!  It was creamy.  It had an uni flavor that wasn't too strong, but also was pronounced enough that it was clear you weren't just eating a plain pudding.  It was, in short, everything I ever want any uni mousse/custard/etc to be.  One of the best I've had.

And it was nice to have a spoonful of the super creamy mousse, and top it with some of the additional uni, really accenting the flavor.  But, I would have exchanged more mousse for less uni.  Silly girl I am.

At $24, this was really a good value given how very much uni there was.  It wound up being my last pick of the night, only because I just got sick of it.  If it was smaller, or just the mousse, I would have rated it higher.
Housemade Chocolates: Yuzu Hazelnut, Salted Caramel with Hojicha. 
Before my check was presented to me, I was brought two final tasty treats, housemade chocolates, made fresh daily.  Since I can't have caffeine in the evenings, I put them in my purse, to enjoy the next morning with my coffee.

When I pulled them out the next day, I had already forgotten what flavors they were supposed to be, and I decided it would be more fun to taste test them without consulting my notes.

I started with the one that turned out to be the yuzu hazelnut.  I detected the hint of citrus, but thought it might be orange?  Apparently that was yuzu.  There also seemed to be a tiny bit of heat to it.  I did not taste hazelnut.  The filling was creamy, the outer shell a smooth decent chocolate.  Overall, enjoyable.

Then I moved on to the salted caramel.  This filling was more runny that the first one, but not entirely liquid.  It had an amazing flavor, classic salted caramel, perfect salt level.  There was a hint of something else that I couldn't place at all, which I'm guessing was the hojicha.  Again, decent chocolate shell.  I liked this even more.

These were good chocolates, better than most chocolates I purchase even at specialty chocolate stores, and would be the perfect end to a meal (or, in my case, the perfect start to the next day!)
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