When I lived in Boston in the early 90s, the food was dull. Upscale restaurants served "Continental" food, old-school Italian, and unseasoned seafood.
The city seemed afraid of flavors, paralyzed by its Puritan antipathy to pleasure.
But over the last 15 years, I had heard Boston's food was getting better. Several farmer's markets opened. And some innovative chefs set up shop.
Last week, I tried some of Boston's top-rated restaurants. The food was better. But it wasn't New York or Chicago. Heck, it wasn't even as good as the best in Houston and Dallas.
One restaurant was an exception. This little Japanese shop was serving food much more exciting than any Japanese food in Houston, or even Texas's best Japanese restaurant - Uchi in Austin. In fact, it may have been the best meal I have had in the past year.
Boston's amazing little Japanese restaurant is called O Ya.
O Ya isn't glitzy. Its 37 seats are tucked in an old firehouse in a dead part of town. Many customers wear jeans and shorts, even though it is hard to eat for less than $150 a person.
Tim Cushman's dishes succeed with top-notch ingredients and brilliant flavor combinations.
Take for instance the scarlet scallop above. The impossibly large scallop is marinated in beet juice and sliced thinly to curve around sushi rice. It is topped with yuzu and tobiko. Scallop has such a delicate flavor that you don't want to tinker with it much. These light accents of citrus and earthy sweetness bring the scallop to life.
Sometimes, though, Cushman's accents get most of the attention. His best-known dish is hamachi served with a banana pepper mousse. The dab of green pepper is surprisingly spicy, and at the same time garden-fresh and delicate.
Cushman realizes that food's visual appeal is almost as important as flavor. These fried Kumamoto oysters had a perfectly thin, crispy shell - probably a tempura batter. They became a work of art when topped with squid ink bubbles (foam).
The same Kumamoto oysters show up in a completely different sashimi presentation -- in the shell with watermelon pearls and minced cucumber. This version was even more mind blowing than the first.
Cushman's flavors are surprisingly international, unbound by tradition. For instance, shima aji (amberjack) was served with Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin), ceviche vinaigrette, and cilantro.
In the hands of a lesser chef, this mixing of cultures can be vulgar, sensationalist, inauthentic. But this food was the product of a world-class chef, unconstrained by a particular tradition.
O Ya is part of Boston's thriving community of contemporary sushi fusion restaurants. Others include Ken Oringer's Uni, Oishii, and Oga's in Natick, MA. This is one food genre -- perhaps the only food genre -- in which Houston's scene just doesn't compete at the same level as Boston.
Other Boston restaurants
Boston's best-known chef is Barbara Lynch. We tried three of her restaurants -- No. 9 Park, B&G Oysters, and the new Sportello.
At No. 9 Park, I appreciated the intellectual combinations and artistic plating. Sometimes, the combinations were almost too brainy, such as lobster paired with monkfish -- a fish with a lobster-like texture once known as "poor man's lobster." These were served with chorizo and fennel. I liked the artsy combination, but the flavors were too restrained.
Perhaps the best dish was salade de courgettes, a playful assembly of different summer squash.
Park's much cheaper B&G Oysters was a fairly ordinary, but good quality seafood bar.
I was much more impressed with Lynch's newest casual restaurant -- Sportello. Instead of tables, the restaurant uses a lunch counter concept. You sit on a stool, watching all the cooking happen just feet away.
Dishes were simply prepared, market-based Italian food. The best dish was a remarkably simple salad of raw shavings of fennel and celery dressed with only olive oil and lemon. I also enjoyed a crispy-skin salmon dressed with summer beans and bacon. It is rare to find a restaurant that makes minimalism so appealing.
Finally, Kenneth Oringer's Clio was an interesting fusion of French and Asian cuisine, much like Jean Georges Vongerichten's restaurants. Oringer's dishes had a lot going on -- perhaps too much going on. The dishes do away with Boston's suppression of flavors, but they go in so many directions it is hard to keep track.
I'm not complaining. Given Boston's sad culinary past, creative restaurants like Clio and O Ya are what the city needs.