May 16, 2016
The Insatiable Critic By Gael Greene
May 16, 2016 | BITE: My Journal
O Ya, No Regrets. Pretend You Can Afford It
Photographs by Lauren Bloomberg
There’s something special for me about being two at dinner, since as a restaurant critic, I usually try to be four. Tonight, two seats at a sushi bar let me catch up with my friend Lauren whose days are consumed with being a fulltime mother.
The first hot sushi spot we call can only seat us at 6 pm. But O Ya offers side-by-side posts at 7:45, Lauren reports. “I read that you can easily spend $1000 for two there,” I warn her and remind myself. “But we don’t have to order the most expensive omakase,” I add. “Grab the rez.”
O Ya, offshoot of a Boston headliner, is opposite Covina, a place I recently discovered in the ParkSouth Hotel. And it’s by the same chef husband-and-wife carpetbaggers. I wasn’t rushing because it sounded outrageously pricey. And now I’m here, early as I almost always am. The hostess is willing to seat me. There are tables and red brick in a blur. I sense we’re headed toward the end of the counter. I can see a drowsy chef from afar. Suddenly, a friend jumps up from her seat near the front. Bonnie from Nick & Toni’s in Easthampton. We embrace. She’s a guest of an O Ya habitué, she says.
I glance at the chef in front of their perch, lively, smiling, scraping bright red tuna from a carcass. Clearly, he is number one. “How about these two seats?” I ask the hostess, indicating prime territory next to Bonnie. The hostess, arrested in her march toward Siberia, hesitates. I imagine her internal soliloquy: Could she be somebody if she obviously knows the guest of somebody? Finally, she nods.
I settle in on the padded stool with its very low back, quite pleased with myself. I start with water. The server brings my requested ice and a clever metal tong that opens like a claw to grab a cube – a wonderful toy. (Sorry, I forgot to shoot it.) When Lauren arrives, she orders shochu. We study the à la carte menu. How to choose?
“Maybe we should just have the $185 omakase, 18 courses.” I say. “Of course, there’s also the “Okii Ringo,” whatever that means, 24 courses for $245.”
“Let’s do it,” she says, and instantly, we’re not just the odd couple, a fulltime mother with postponed career ambitions and an elderly leftover restaurant critic who can’t stop eating. We’ve tumbled into an alternate universe of people who blithely command ridiculously expensive tidbits. I order a glass of Syrah and play with my ice tongs. It’s a bit of a wait till the opening gambit finally arrives: a pair of tiny kumamoto oysters with ponzu watermelon pearls and a cucumber mignonette.
Hamachi sushi with a banana pepper mousse is followed by a sliver of King salmon slicked with Vietnamese rau rum salsa and caramel dashi. I can’t suppress an ummmm — not a yummmm, but close. Not exactly traditional. The lead sushi chef, Don Pham, is Vietnamese. Perhaps that explains it.
He smiles. “What is your favorite fish?” he asks.
I’m taken by surprise. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that. “Wild salmon,” I say. “Otoro of course. Eel.” He next delivers sea urchin. “Hokkaido from Japan with black river Ossetra caviar,” he annotates. A wakeup. “Of course, uni is my favorite,” I amend.
Suddenly, with a goofy grin, he pulls out a collection of sea urchin boxes for a proud show-and-tell. From Maine, Santa Barbara, Japan. He piles two of each on a plate and sets it between us. “See which you like best.” But aren’t the voluptuous critters from Santa Barbara always the best? No. Not when it’s uni season in Japan.
The warm freshwater Japanese eel with a frizzle of Thai basil that follows has been painted with a sweet glaze and sansho pepper, then grilled — an astonishment. Its sweetness and the heat fill my mouth. After that, the small saddle of rice, wearing nothing but a fingerling potato chip and Italian black truffle, seems daringly clever. Here’s bliss! Seasonal wild spot prawns in garlic butter with yuzu tabiko and preserved Meyer lemon.
In fact, several of these little morsels exhibit global ambition: chutoro with Georgian herb sauce, wild spot prawns with tomato, flying fish eggs and preserved yuzu skin, Japanese needle fish with red shiso micro greens. Not every morsel makes the earth move. At times, I’m unsettled by a seeming lack of order. Some oceanic slivers strike me as not cold enough.
And it seems it was not Jiro that dreamed of O Ya’s exquisite little omelette or even tonight’s tempter, Don Pham. I have eaten the tomago pride of many master chefs, but nothing like this stunning satin noodle of turkey egg that makesmy toes curl. It’s cooked to order in wagyu schmaltz (that’s what it says on the menu, emailed the next day).
No, it’s not Don Pham or the kitchen chef de cuisine Nami Song (she’s Korean) who dreamed up that tomago. Just as Covina’s Boston chef Tim Cushman spent many hours and days obsessing about his unique pizza, O Ya – its classics, its detours, its audacities — is all his and wife Nancy’s. He spins the tale of their march from sushi bar eating to O Ya.
The name? “Shall we have this?” they would ask each other in a sushi bar. “Oh yeah,” was the answer.
They tried different spellings. They liked the look of O Ya. “We checked, and it was neither lewd nor offensive in Japanese. It was like Gee Whiz.” They designed the 16-seat walnut bar and tried it out using string – how wide, how high, how much knee room. “Women needed to be able to cross their legs. We spent long hours sitting in many different seats.”
Of course, the house would do its own ponzu, soy, everything homemade, the exhilarating omelette created minutes before serving. It’s Cushman’s idea to reverse the usual sushi bar order of dishes: snacks, then sashimi, then sushi. “The customer is hungry,” he says. “You should start with something substantial.” Thus tonight, a refreshing little oyster, the filling wild salmon and warm eel.
Our extravagant Okii Ringo (“Big Apple” in Japanese, I learn) moves along quickly with a staccato of highs. For me: The prawn. A fried kumamoto oyster on a sushi tuffet with a citric aioli and a nimbus of squid ink bubbles. Bluefin otoro with fresh wasabi, green onion and nasturtium.
I recall Pham pouring two tiny tumblers of what looks like tea. Distilled essence of ocean. Very heady. Can’t recall when that came. But I know the clam dashi consommé was specifically timed to “get you ready for the hot dishes.” Such simple thrills.
I’m not particularly excited by frozen foie gras grated onto a spoon. But the fatty jackfish covered with Maine sea urchin in a vinaigrette of Peruvian yellow peppers has me swooning. That white dish full of holes is the first in a series from a collector’s cupboard. I covet the blue and white soup plate of kanpachi and fried shallots in a Vietnamese mignonette with its image of an arched blue fish.
At the base of a heavy ceramic bowl is scallop in sea urchin jus with a veil of Italian black truffle, followed by tuna tataki with smoky pickled onions, caviar and more truffle in another handmade treasure. After grilled maitake and shiitake mushrooms with rosemary garlic oil hidden in a sesame froth, and a largish stew of warm Maine lobster with ponzu beurre fondue and bonito, I’m feeling full-ish. But I’m not ready to say stop.
Behind us, someone pours some 8-year-old sake as a gift to go with the next course. Contemplating seared slices of Wagyu strip loin on layered potato crust, I’m challenged. I put one small square of the beef in my mouth. It melts like the gossamer fat that it is. No way I can manage a second. Somehow the potato confit, both salty and greasy, is more manageable.
I sip the booze and, indeed, sense its calming. Even so, I find myself unable to tangle with the seriously sticky foie gras and its raisin cocoa pulp drizzled with balsamic chocolate. Lauren devours hers. I want to tell her about the time we had foie gras, six ways in a dinner orchestrated by chef André Daguin at his hotel in Gascony. What am I, after all, but the sum total of a thousand gras foies over the years? I fear I may be losing cred in her book.
The chef, energized by our surprising capacity, looks regretful, too. “Do you still want uni for dessert?” he asks. I shake my head.
“Whatever you do, that’s the end,” I note, embracing the tart green apple and wasabi sorbet, ignoring a slop of white chocolate. I imagine I know what it is to reach the crest of Mt. Everest as you run low on oxygen.
“That’s just the first dessert,” Lauren corrects me as a craggy midnight black plate lands — on it, sweet white chocolate shards surrounding chestnut pound cake and poached pear doused with Japanese whiskey. I spoon up a bit of pear and some of the liquor. I’m glad I downed that sake. I’m still high enough to sign my chit. For each of us, $338. No regrets.
Park South Hotel. 120 East 28th Street, between Park Avenue South and Lexington Avenues. 212 204 0200. Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 pm. Closed Sunday.