There are very few restaurants that have mastered the combination of exquisite artistry, extreme attention to detail, and stunning flavor combinations. There are even fewer restaurants who are able to create dishes that are “transcendent” – dishes with flavors so interesting, complex, and mind-boggling, they delight and surprise you to no end. These are flavors that stick with you forever; flavors you still taste in your mind years later.
A few more recent memories come to my mind, such as the consomme at Le Bernardin, the cherry gazpacho at Joel Robuchon, or the black truffle xiao long baos at Din Tai Fung in China. By and large, however, those tastes are rarely encountered at home.
Welcome to one of Boston’s gems, O Ya. You could call O Ya a Japanese restaurant, but it’s really much more than that. Chef-owner Tim Cushman, who trained under Nobu Matsuhisa before moving to Boston, uses basic Japanese cuisine as a canvas on which to experiment with flavors from all over the world.
O Ya has won many, many awards and has been recognized by all sort of well-known figures. Chef-owner Tim Cushman won the James Beard Foundation Award in 2012 for Best Chef Northeast. New York Times food writer Frank Bruni named O Ya as the best new restaurant in 2008 when it first opened. O Ya has the highest Zagat rating of any restaurant in Boston (29), and was named as a “top highlight” by Andrew Zimmern when he visited Boston.
Tim’s wife, Nancy Cushman, is a sake sommelier, having completed multiple levels of Sake Professional Course in Japan under John Gauntner, one of the world’s foremost sake experts. O Ya has a dizzying array of sakes, and they offer sake pairings with their dishes.
Eating at O Ya most definitely comes at a pretty price. If you eat a la carte, small plates (which could contain a couple pieces of sashimi, nigiri, or other ingredients) range from $8 to $20 each. You most likely need to order several of them. Don’t be surprised if you end up spending close to $100/person.
There are also a couple different types of omakases (chef’s tastings). The normal omakase is a tasting of dishes off the regular menu and costs $175. The Grand Omakase, which also includes off-menu, “special” items, costs $275.
Kumamoto Oyster watermelon pearls, cucumber mignonette
Compressed watermelon spheres and tiny chopped cucumbers sit delicately on top of sweet Kumamoto oysters. The dish is beautiful, light, and refreshing, a perfect prelude to the meal.
Santa Barbara Sea Urchin & Black River Ossetra Caviar Yuzu zest
It’s hard to go wrong with creamy uni and strong, salty caviar over rice. It takes me awhile to get used to Tim Cushman’s rice, which is mushier, denser, and a bit wetter than traditional Japanese sushi rice. The flavors of the toppings, of course, are fantastic.
Hamachi Nigiri spicy banana pepper mousse
This is one of the most popular dishes at O Ya, and it’s easy to see why. The marriage of yellowtail (hamachi) with jalapeno is a classic combination, supposedly first “invented” by Nobu Matsuhisa, Cushman’s mentor. Cushman has taken that concept and put his own spin on it, using spicy banana peppers instead.
Langoustine Tempura ao nori, spicy langoustine sauce, lemon zest
House Smoked Wagyu Nigiri yuzu soy
My first time seeing beef on nigiri, it works here because Wagyu beef is so well marbled with fat and is melt-in-your-month soft.
Wild Salmon verte sauce, house pickled ramps, salmon roe Kindai Bluefin Chutoro Republic of George herb sauce
Kindai Bluefin is a type of farmed bluefin tuna that’s touted as being more sustainable than wild bluefin tuna (which is rapidly being depleted). Opinions are very mixed about whether this type of tuna is actually more sustainable or not. Nevertheless, several restaurants have embraced it as a way to provide environmentally-conscious diners with an alternative to bluefin tuna.
Chef Cushman did a great job of dressing this tuna up with this herbaceous pesto.
Fried Kumamoto Oyster Nigiri yuzu kosho aioli, squid ink bubbles
This is another classic signature dish that you’ll also see on the normal omakase. Though it seems hard, you must pop the entire piece in your mouth in one bite in order to enjoy the fascinating mix of flavors – the warm fried oyster, the bright yet spicy citrus notes from the yuzu kosho, and the salty umami from the squid ink bubbles. It’s an ingenious dish, and one of my favorites.
Uni “kabob” soy, shiso, olive oil snow
This artistic dish almost looks like a piece of art painted on the white plate. The olive oil “snow” uses molecular gastronomy techniques to achieve the unique powdery texture, which pairs well with the creamy uni and floral shiso leaf.
Foie Gras miso, preserved california yuzu
This creative, powdery version of foie gras, which is served with preserved yuzu, reminds me of David Chang’s well-known dish shaved foie gras course at Momofuku Ko. It’s a delightful little bite, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t really love foie gras!
Hokkaido Sea Scallop perigord truffle, sake sea urchin, jus, chervil
This is one of those dishes that I still remember to this day – it was so incredibly perfect. Raw scallops from Hokkaiddo (the northern part of Japan) are thinly sliced and served in a delicate sauce topped with shaved truffles.
Shiso Tempura grilled lobster, charred tomato, ponzu aioli
“Farberge” Onsen Egg black river osetra caviar, gold leaf, dashi sauce, green onion
The “onsen egg” on the regular menu is already incredible, consisting of a single egg cooked at low, low temperatures (I’m assuming sous vide by the texture) in a gorgeously flavorful dashi broth. The Grand Tasting elevates this dish several, several notches by topping this luxurious egg with osetra caviar and a gold leaf. The presentation and flavors are equally stunning.
Grilled Chanterelle & Shitake Mushrooms rosemary garlic oil, sesame froth, soy
I never knew how good mushrooms could taste until I tried Chef Cushman’s version of mushroom “sashimi.” Frank Bruni of the New York Times called this the “best dish of my entire journey”, praising its “magnificent taste” which “settles all debate over umami.” The flavors of this dish are absolutely gorgeous, capturing the strong earthiness of the mushrooms with just enough soy and sesame oil essence to enhance, but not overpower, the dish.
Seared Petit Strip Loin of Wagyu
Though it may seem surprising at first, it actually makes sense my favorite steak in Boston comes from a “Japanese” restaurant. Japan is where Kobe beef originated, and it’s a country that’s meticulously obsessed with the quality of its beef (not to mention everything else, really). These tiny little cuts of Wagyu are phenomenal, perfectly salted and seared on the outside and meltingly tender on the inside.
Simple citrus palate cleansers in preparation of dessert.
Foie Gras Nigiri balsamic chocolate kabayaki, raisin cocoa pulp
The Finale. It’s most definitely worth the wait for this final dish, a dessert that is yet another signature dish and truly one of their best. Seared foie gras “nigiri” is served with a balsamic chocolate sauce and raisin cocoa pulp. The warm, nicely browned, savory foie gras is perfectly balanced by the sweet, dark balsamic chocolate sauce and the fruity raisin cocoa pump. These pair gorgeously with the glass of dessert wine that comes included with this one course.
I savor my one bite, slowly, trying to make it last as long as possible.
What an incredible end to an incredible meal. Throughout the entire night, we’ve had the privilege of sitting right at the bar, watching the chefs prepare one course after another. I would most definitely recommend getting one of the counter seats. You get a much better view of all the action that’s happening in the kitchen.
What can I say? I don’t think there’s another tasting menu in this city that’s grander, more sophisticated, and more impressive than this one. Just the sheer number of different tastes, different presentations, and variety of ingredients is mind-boggling.
Yes, that’s Guchi from the famed Guchi’s Midnight Ramen at his “day job”
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