Restaurant Review: O Ya Is Still the Most Reliably Sublime Dining Splurge in Town
It’s precious. It’s punishingly expensive. It gets booked out months in advance. Why 15 years into its remarkable run plying luxed-up Japanese bites, O Ya may be the most reliably sublime dining splurge in town.
There’s a scene in Pretty Woman where Richard Gere whisks Julia Roberts to her first opera and, as the lights dim, ratchets up the stakes. “[First-timers] either love it, or they hate it,” he mansplains grimly. “If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it. But it will never become part of their soul.” Roberts’s quivering lips, leaky eyelids, and gasps of niece-like joy, choreographed to strains of a La Traviata highlights reel, give us all the answer we need.
Which is pretty much how it’s gone down every time I’ve brought someone in for their first meal at O Ya, Tim and Nancy Cushman’s sliver of a Japanese-luxe tavern that opened in the Leather District in 2007. I can’t think of a restaurant in town with more individual dishes possessed of the power to elicit visceral reactions in the eater that border on sensual: involuntary gasps, conspicuous goosebumps, sotto voce holy-shits. My friend Susan, a genteel southerner, once became so…taken by a bite of tuna-belly nigiri that she draped a cloth napkin over her head, ortolan-style, to ride the waves of deliciousness in civilized solitude. I’ll have, as they say, what she’s having.
The 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke called this temporary unsettled feeling aroused by a work of art the Sublime. And I think there’s something to that at O Ya, where the best dishes have always touched the pleasure center with the immediacy of a Rothko.
In case you’re wondering why I’m reviewing a 15-year-old place, let me assure you that it definitely wasn’t some self-serving ploy to dine at Boston’s priciest restaurant on the magazine’s dime. That was simply a collateral perk. But the vertiginous cost of a meal—the 20-course omakase will set you back a cool quarter-grand before you’ve even cracked open the beverage list—did figure in. You see, I can’t go a week without getting hit up for advice on where to go in town for not just a meal but a celebration. With the bulk of my standard five-deep shortlist either closed or on the injured list, limping from pandemic-related woes, it finally dawned on me: Maybe I should be sure about the one still standing? So I went. Now I’m sure.
Starting with Tim Cushman’s signature hamachi nigiri with banana-pepper mousse, an item that has been on the menu since day one. A velvety swath of raw yellowtail gets marinated in housemade soy to bump up the umami quotient, then draped over a quenelle of rice. A dollop of neon-yellow-green purée made from banana peppers, butter, and good old-fashioned truffle oil is placed in the center seconds before the whole mess gets hit with the business end of a blowtorch that sizzles every surface in its path, conjuring a heady Maillard-related alchemy of smoke and charry capsaicin and savory, toasted marshmallow notes without compromising the classical raw-meets-rice interplay of the interior layers. File under: still magical.
Even polished masterpieces can benefit from a jolt of new energy, which in O Ya’s case was the hiring of Nathan Gould, a chef de cuisine brought on in 2015 to oversee the day-to-day at the flagship, as the Cushmans turned their attention to spinoffs in New York and eventually Mexico City. During my first few meals under Gould’s watch, his creative impact seemed…subtle. O Ya had always been about the core dishes, many of which hadn’t changed since the beginning. Gradually, however, Gould became more collaborator than delegate, bringing more vegetable-driven dishes to the menu, more local ingredients, more seasonal spins. Gould tells me adding something to the lineup is sometimes a multiweek affair that requires tire-kicking by the entire team (Tim and Nancy included), and by the time you’ve cleared the hurdles, bluefish could be up and gone. The dishes that do make it through that gauntlet aren’t just a testament to persistence in the face of curatorial rigor—they are also usually the best bites on any given night.
In May, a kombu-cured spring mackerel nigiri made an appearance, dressed with broken bright-green-oniony ramp oil and a citrusy splat of fiery Meyer lemon kosho made with fresh green chilies and more ramps. Wild ika, meanwhile—fished in the Atlantic, not flown in from Japan—was scored in a crisscross pattern not just for tenderness but also for the way the lacerated edges become charry-crisp grooves when hit with a torch. Brushed with a sticky-sweet soy-mirin-dashi glaze, torched to create beguiling burnt-sugar notes, then brightened with lime juice and salted cherry blossoms, it danced an elegant textural pas de deux with the delicate boule of sushi rice beneath it, and anyway…it’s the teriyaki calamari of your dreams, so keep an eye out.
If I seem to be focusing a lot on the nigiri, it’s because, as a category, it made more of an impact than the sashimi dishes I tried. My guess is the difference has more to do with the dawn of the Great Crudo Era of the mid-2010s—which saw a flurry of new creative energy on the riceless raw-fish front—than with relative technical merits. All were excellent. But also, the bold flavors Gould and Cushman like to play with tend to benefit from a modicum of neutral-ish white space. Meanwhile, the cooked side of the menu was as tight as it’s ever been, featuring char-crusted slabs of A5 Wagyu beef and the silkiest chawanmushi egg custard—studded with pillowy blobs of uni, briny caviar, and thick, salty rivulets of dashi ankake—ever served in Boston.
A few minor quibbles: The restaurant has suspended à la carte for COVID reasons; for repeat diners, the choose-your-own-exorbitant-adventure option offered appealing flexibility. I feel a few tried-and-trues might be nearing retirement age: (Kumamoto oyster with watermelon pearls, I’m looking at you.) And there was a hirame usuzukuri with ponzu one night that tasted disjointed and harsh, the one outright dud. But I’ve parted with four stars for joints with far more serious flaws.
Of course, the Cushmans’ brilliance isn’t only in the edible-Rothko making. It’s also in their prescience. The year 2007 was only 15 years ago but also ages ago. The city’s dining-scape was going through tectonic shifts. Small plates hadn’t broken the hegemony of the starter-entrée dinner structure. That exceptional food could be had in a cool, casual setting, not a hushed formal dining room, was still a radical idea—as was the notion of eating raw fish without your own personal trough of soy and wasabi paste. Then O Ya came along, with its B-side rock soundtrack, exposed brick, and disruptor-style audacity. The audacity of charging $17 for two bites of sushi. The audacity of excellence.
The audacity, too, of prioritizing a supportive and nurturing work environment in an era when, especially for restaurants, that was a fairly novel idea. The first time I met the Cushmans was in O Ya’s narrow dining room a couple of weeks before opening night. I was interviewing them for a tiny blip of a magazine write-up…or, rather, trying to. They kept cutting me off mid-sentence to greet every newly arrived employee individually. “Konnichiwa, Hiro-san!” they’d say in chipper unison, bowing their heads. I remember thinking it was goofy, even a little performative, coming from white owners of a Japanese joint. Not to mention I was sitting there in my official capacity as a part-time blurb writer for the Improper. Didn’t they know who I was?
Fast-forward 15 years, and there’s Hiro Konishi, the head sushi chef, still behind the counter cutting fish. Tim (no relation), a server who dropped off my first hamachi-banana-pepper back in 2007, dropped off the one I just devoured in May. Meanwhile, five O Ya alums made our 2022 Best of Boston roster for projects they’ve since moved on to—the type of pursue-your-dreams magic the Cushmans have a reputation for championing. In retrospect, I can see that, back then, I may have been a little quick to judge.
For this round, on the other hand, I took all the time I needed.
9 East St., Boston, 617-654-9900, o-ya.restaurant.
Hamachi nigiri with banana pepper, mackerel nigiri with ramp kosho, chawanmushi with sea urchin (all components of the $250 omakase tasting menu)
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor