3 August 2015
Eight months after O Ya opened near Boston’s South Bay train station, a few blocks from the banks of the Charles River, in 2007, the sushi house was a modest success. Within 12 months, it was an outright hit; The New York Times had crowned it America’s best new restaurant in America (outside of New York). Under the direction of husband-and-wife co-owners Tim and Nancy Cushman—he, the chef; she, the sake sommelier—it grew into a wait-list-clogged megahit as Tim picked up a James Beard Award as best chef in the northeast. O Ya had become a beacon, if not for Boston’s more traditional clam-chowder crowd, then the expense-account executives who can afford one of America’s most expensive tasting menus. At nearly $700 for 20 courses and drinks, it rivals Per Se.
What the Cushmans lacked, it seemed, was an expansive mindset. That is changing. They opened their second restaurant, an O Ya in New York, in June, and plan to debut two more before the end of the year: one in Boston and another in New York. Both will be new concepts, each going a long way to disprove the label once applicable to the Cushmans, who had seemed content as big fish in a small pond.
In New York, they’ve chosen a place teeming with competition, for the sky-high priced sushi restaurant is as quintessentially New York today as the hot dog cart. Tim Cushman is intimately familiar with several of these whale-sized rivals. For one, Nobu Matsuhisa, for whom he apprenticed in the 1980s in Japan. And it was a protégé of Masa Takayama who furthered Cushman’s education of fishy bliss. The way Cushman now measures up in Manhattan—relative minnow, huge pond—is not lost on him. “I’m aware of the many chefs who come to New York, and it hasn’t worked out.”
O Ya, in midtown Manhattan, inhabits the ground floor of the Park South Hotel. O Ya (the words a Japanese expression of discovery like, ah, ha!) is a hidden cove, barely a sign to mark its place, fully embracing the Japanese love of creating tough-to-find restaurants. Once spotted, a step inside reveals a 60-seat interior, carefully appointed in cedar paneling and a number of wood friezes depicting nature scenes; the Cushmans, who estimate the decorations’ age at roughly 100 years old, found them in a Japanese antique store under the Brooklyn Bridge, near Grimaldi’s Pizzeria.
Tim Cushman runs the kitchen along with head chef Somath Om, brought to New York from the Boston restaurant. For now, they offer only omakase-style tasting menus, a 17-course one for $185 and a 24-course one for $245. (With wine pairings, it actually works out to be less than in Boston; Cushman attributes it to the lower cost of fine ingredients in New York.) Both menus begin with a Kumamoto oyster, sweet and fruity, arriving in a small bamboo pot. (“A palate waker-upper,” Cushman says.) The mollusk comes complemented by ponzu-soaked pearls of watermelon and a cucumber mignonette. Cushman then lets loose, starting with sushi, progressing to sashimi, a careful waltz that regularly puts more than a dozen types of fish on a diner’s dance card. Among them, a piece of yellowtail nigiri, the yellowtail torched lightly to impart a rich smokiness balanced by the fish’s natural creaminess and adorned by a small mound of banana peppers—ones with a provenance so specific, Cushman spent years flying them overnight from Chicago before discovering a closer source—gives off a tongue-tickling spice.