Dining Out: Fishing Expedition

Sushi hasn’t been a fine-dining experience in Boston—odd, considering what a cult people make of it, and how stratospherically pricey it is. For eight years, the local standard has been Oishii, a standard both difficult and expensive to appreciate.

Sushi hasn’t been a fine-dining experience in Boston—odd, considering what a cult people make of it, and how stratospherically pricey it is. For eight years, the local standard has been Oishii, a standard both difficult and expensive to appreciate. For one, it was in Chestnut Hill. And with just 12 seats (later 14), it was designed to discourage diners from lingering and enjoying their meal.

The Boston Oishii could hardly be more different, with 80 seats on two floors and a 16-seat sushi bar (there’s room for another 23 in the bar and lounge). Walls of battleship-gray concrete and stippled fieldstone aren’t exactly cheery, but the place has a certain stark chic. Ting San, the chef-owner, wants to heat up this end of Washington Street the way Ken Oringer has the Mass. Ave. end with Toro. Given the crowds that filled both floors of Oishii all three nights I dined here, San seems already to have raised property values.

Based on what I experienced during my visits, though, you’ll have to order pretty carefully to avoid sticker shock—and to get sushi with memorable flavor. Across all three dinners the taste of the sushi I tried varied surprisingly, though the prices did not. Even after learning of the chef’s diligent and rigorous fish sourcing, and watching the evident skill of the staff he has trained (with San himself presiding behind the sushi bar), I had trouble tallying my expectations with the food we were served.

This was most disappointing at my first dinner, when sushi-fanatic friends drove up from coastal Connecticut. We left numerous pieces of sushi untouched, and not out of politesse. The ones that the waitress finally cleared away—sockeye and wild king salmon ($4 for one piece) and hamachi ($4)—looked limp and on the dry side; the ones we ate were listless and almost devoid of flavor.

The sushi-making technique was beyond reproach: Wasabi was spread with the lightest of hands, the rice sticky and pleasantly but not noticeably sweet. The service each night—enthusiastic, well informed, and quick—couldn’t be faulted, either. We did raise eyebrows at the automatic pouring of soy sauce into big round bowls as we placed our order (proud sushi chefs consider themselves to have judged the proper seasoning).

That first night the star ingredients of our favorite rolls were not seafood at all. We went instead for ume, a tart plum paste, and the peppery herb shiso ($5 for eight pieces), and Japanese yam tempura maki ($10 for eight pieces). The yam made an attractive and filling, if somewhat stodgy, roll, and the portion was generous. (In the numerous other tempura dishes I tried, the technique was distressingly off: dull batter, soft rather than crunchy coating, and very greasy aftertaste.) Even shiitake mushroom and yuba, thin and milky-tasting tofu skin, (each $4) seemed better bets than the fish.

We fought over what might seem a prosaic dish: nabeyaki udon ($20), noodles in broth with vegetables. Anyone who saw the film Tampopo and hunted for noodle shops for weeks afterward will remember that noodles can be the most aphrodisiac of Japanese foods, and these fresh, wide wheat ribbons were chewy, moist, spongy. The mushrooms and dashi-based broth (made with kelp and dried fish flakes) yielded a bowl full of umami, the so-called fifth flavor that brings feelings of well-being.

The sushi improved dramatically at both subsequent meals, and I have no explanation. The obvious one—that the fish had come in more recently—was vitiated when San told us about his buying trips to New York City every Monday, where he inspects the condition of the fish he will receive by refrigerated truck on Friday. So much for that theory: Our first dinner was on a Friday.

Whatever San can buy locally, he does, which during the weeks I went meant bluefin tuna and wild salmon, which was nearing the end of its season (the deep-red sockeye, that is; wild king salmon is available in small quantities throughout the winter). At the second dinner, on a Wednesday, the bluefin toro was lush and meaty, both kinds of salmon plump and bright, with subtle but rich flavor. (Go midweek?) At the third dinner, on a Sunday, the bluefin was just as tasty, the salmon still fresh but a good deal duller in flavor. (Split the difference?)

The specialty maki rolls struck me mostly as silly gimmicks. Either they’re made with luxury ingredients that play little part in Japanese tradition and bespeak pure extravagance (lobster, avocado, and mayo, $17; Kobe beef with shallots and arugula, $30; and even foie gras and truffle, $15), or they emulate fast-food attempts to persuade people to eat potentially unappealing items by breading and frying (or “torching”) them and serving the results with sweet and/or spicy sauce, or slathered with mayonnaise. The specialty sushi bana uni ($6) took a lovely delicacy, plush sea urchin roe, and, with torching and mayo, made it genuinely yucky. There are also novelty presentations of appetizers, latter-day Aku-Aku style, like Kobe beef or toro served on a stone-top fire pot ($50) and hamachi and tuna in an ice block ($25).

How to order sushi, then? Play it safe with vegetables, or adventure slightly with plum paste and shiso. Start with the bluefin toro or cold smoked salmon ($5); ask what’s freshest. I found the roe category to be the most consistent, with fresh wild king salmon ikura ($7) the most impressive. These are the big round orange eggs, slightly sticky, that give many other kinds of caviar a run for the (lesser amounts of) money. San buys the roe sacs whole and salts the eggs, an exacting process. Another sort of comparison, and one I loved, was the black ($5) versus golden ($4) tobiko, the eggs the size of the best kind of champagne bubbles, with a burst of pops in every bite.

Or don’t order sushi at all, and comfort yourself with udon. Go to the reliable entrée list, characteristically pricey but cooked with a sure hand. The pan-seared halibut ($32), smeared with a soy reduction sauce and served with grilled asparagus, was a piece so full flavored that I wondered how some of that other sushi-grade fish might taste if prepared by the same cook. The steamed sea bass in yuba ($25), with cilantro and thin shreds of Japanese scallion in a “crystal-clear” sesame sauce, was of such focused, delicate flavor and gossamer texture that I thought I was in Hong Kong—it seemed like refined Cantonese cuisine. San confirmed my suspicions when I asked about the dim sum–like shumai ($8) at the next table: “The cook is Chinese.”

It isn’t every day you find both Japanese and Chinese cuisine cooked at a very high level under the same roof. But you’ll still need to order strategically to get your money’s worth.