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.
9 East Street, Boston, MA 02111