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Boston: At O Ya, a “Secret” Foodie Hideout; Fried Kumamoto Oyster, Spicy Aioli, Squid Ink Bubbles

It’s not that O Ya is a secret. Not even remotely.

It’s been on every Boston foodie’s short list almost since it opened in 2007. This spring, when New York Times food critic Frank Bruni named it the #1 “most promising new restaurant” in America, the stampede began.

Still it’s not that easy to find, even with the discreet sign hanging over the door. It’s tucked away on a dimly lit block in Boston’s historic Leather District. And the door itself, a solid slab of roughhewn wood, is slightly forbidding.

Just the sort of door that should have an iron grille, allowing a pair of suspicious eyes to investigate before opening, just a crack, to let you slip through.

Actually, the door opened quite easily. Once inside, Serendipity and I felt as if we’d stumbled into a secret club concealed in a 19th-century warehouse somewhere on a Kyoto backstreet. The lighting is mysteriously dim in the anteroom, perhaps even darker in the rectangular dining room. With shoji panels, heavy wood beams, and a worn concrete floor, the place has the rustic simplicity of a weathered Japanese hideout.

But here’s the surprise. It may take months to snag a reservation, but once you’re in—no secret handshake required—O Ya is casual and fun. On a warm summer night, regulars were coming and going in topsiders and cargo shorts. Everyone was laughing, maybe because of the 25 potent sakes that make up half the drinks menu. Sake sommelier Nancy Cushman generously broke open two bottles for us to sample while we were waiting for our table. Tim Cushman, the chef and co-owner, emerged often from his post in the glaring white kitchen at the far end of the dining room—the only real light in the place pours through the open doors—to greet regulars.

Yes, it’s a party and you’re one of the lucky (paying) guests. Still the menu presents certain strategic challenges: 83 small complicated plates, divided into categories like “Sashimi,” “Truffles and Eggs,” and “Something Crunchy in It,” in a style you might describe as haute global Japanese fusion. (Cushman, who cooked with Roy Yamaguchi and Nobu Matsuhisa in L.A., was also a chef-consultant who opened restaurants around Europe and Asia.)

What to do? I looked around. Armed with a list of reviewers’ top picks, the male half of the foodie pair to my right confidently rattled off an order of a dozen or so dishes within moments of sitting down. To my left, a young Asian couple agonized over their choices. Ticking off (and erasing) their selections with a pencil, they frowned and sighed over the order in which the plates should arrive. Tension was high, very high.

But after puzzling over the menu, we decided to wing it. “Just have a drink and order one plate. “ suggested our patient server, Anna-Li. “ Taste it. See how you like it. Then try something else.”

That was great advice, actually, and it made for a long but playful evening, which I suspect is exactly the experience the Cushmans would like you to have. We passed on the sweet, fruity sakes we’d sampled in favor of a drier Prosecco, then lollygagged our way through the Nigiri and Sashimi sections of the menu, ending with choices from the more limited Vegetarian, Kurabuta Pork and Wagyu Beef offerings. Some of the selections were sublime, others intriguing, if not altogether successful. But each was a wonderful surprise.

Here’s what we ate:

Wild Bluefin Toro, republic of georgia sauce: “This has been on the menu for a while, before the invasion” said Anna-Li, forestalling my first question. An intense, vibrant puree of tarragon, walnuts and lemon overwhelmed the flavor of the tuna—but who cares? I would eat that sauce anytime, anywhere, on anything. Beautiful sushi rice, warm, tender grains, very fresh.

Fried Kumamoto Oyster, yuzu kosho aioli, squid ink bubbles: Like biting through layers of flavor—first, a briny froth of squid ink, then a tiny succulent oyster, its luscious fried exterior set off by citrusy aioli spiked with hot pepper sauce, finally the mildness of the rice. My personal favorite.

Scarlet Sea Scallop, white soy yuzu sauce, yuzu tobiko:
Pale, pearly scallop slices, edges marinated in crimson beet juice, had an earthy, salty flavor; then came the crunch of tiny fish roe.

Suzuki Sea Bass, cucumber vinaigrette, avocado, cilantro: A mouthful of summer. Pristine slices of sea bass wrapped around a bouquet of tangy, slivered cucumber and avocado, with shreds of jalapeno; a culantro leaf was hidden inside. Serendipity’s favorite, maybe the best of the evening.

Diver Scallop, sage tempura, olive oil bubbles, meyer lemon: A trio of creamy scallop slices, as soft as magnolia petals, topped with crunchy fried sage leaves. Droplets of light, lemony olive oil somehow brought the two together.

Grilled Sashimi of Chantarelle & Shiitake Mushrooms, rosemary garlic oil, sesame froth, homemade soy: A platter of pale, fleshy chanterelles paired with dark, earthy shiitakes, napped with nutty sesame foam, tasted as if it had been prepared over a woodland fire. Bits of sweet sesame brittle turned the mushrooms into a savory dessert. Odd, but intriguing.

Okinawan Style Braised Pork, boston baked heirloom rice beans, homemade kimchee, soy maple sauce, kinome:
A bowl of richly flavored, shredded Kurobuta pork, studded with firm white beans, bits of spicy pickled cabbage and chives. We spooned up every drop of the salty sweet maple soy sauce. Food & Wine picked this as one of the best restaurant dishes of 2007.

Seared Petit Strip Loin of Beef, tiny smoked potato, grilled onion, fresh wasabi: A tiny 2-ounce piece of unctuous Wagyu beef set off by the sweet onion, searing wasabi and an intensely smoky potato the size of my thumbnail. Can’t imagine eating the 8-ounce portion.

We had to stop before before we could try the chicken yakitori with celeriac puree and Perigord black truffle, the foie gras gyoza with Kyoto sansho and pink peppercorns, or any of the other 75 dishes on the menu.

If I lived in Boston (and had a trust fund) this is what I would do—set up a monthly reservation, early or late, for a drink at the sushi bar. I would try two or three small plates on each visit. I figure you could work your way through the menu, even with seasonal changes, in a year or two.

By then, of course, you’d be a regular member of the club.
O Ya, 9 East Street, Boston, MA 02111. Telephone: 617/654-9100. Web: www.oyarestaurantboston.com

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