Walk around Curry Hill for the better part of an evening and you'll encounter casual shops hawking fragrant cinnamon bark, orange flower water, rose syrup, mustard-colored turmeric, goat kebabs from Lahore, lamb kidneys, brain masala, Hyderabadi biryanis, miscellaneous proteins covered in warm oil in steel buffets, $5 eyebrow threadings, and, for those in need of an auspicious augur, bona fide psychic services. But at the southern end of these frugal environs in the Park South Hotel, on a slice of 28th Street that still smells richly of garlic and cumin, you'll find something different: the Big Apple outpost of the Boston-born O Ya, where Cypress Hill plays while patrons consume Japanese Wagyu, where everyone demolishes chocolate-covered foie gras sushi for dessert, and where a sake-paired tasting can cost just shy of $1,000.
Beverage guru Nancy Cushman and chef Tim Cushman have given New York one of its most expensive new restaurants since Per Se and Masa opened in the Time Warner Center over a decade ago, and they've tucked it into one of the city's most affordable culinary districts. Naysayers will mourn this as yet another example of how unfettered extravagance is spreading through the four corners of our five boroughs, and indeed it would be sad if Hermes outlets started replacing Indian sweet shops in the East 20s. But until that happens, I'll argue that an excellent fine-dining institution (which this mostly is) in an unexpected location can serve as a boon to the community.
Thing is, it's not quite clear whether O Ya, with its set-menus and stratospheric prices, is actually making itself accessible enough to welcome (or warrant) a steady stream of regulars (or special occasional diners) from anywhere. So with that in mind, here are five things you need to know before you drop a dime on dinner here.
1. Specifically Ask for a Seat a Near the Sushi Chef
O Ya, like the Boston original, is a sedate rectangle of a room, boasting exposed brick walls, a wonderfully eclectic playlist (Gorrilaz, Butthole Surfers, Chicano Batman, Taj Mahal), and a 16-seat walnut bar that's nearly as smooth as those 500-year-old Hinoki wood slabs that certain critics rave about like they're Lamborghinis. Smart diners will ask for seats at that counter and avoid the tables. Sushi, after all, is a performance art, and because each morsel is so small and ephemeral, much of the enjoyment comes from the build-up, from watching a chef slice the cool fish, anneal it, in an almost magical slight of hand, to a mound of warm vinegared rice, and place it in front of the guest. Good raw fish joints are compact enough to allow such spectating and interaction, while at larger ones, the chef will often reposition himself in front of the intended recipients.
That visual luxury, alas, isn't guaranteed at O Ya. Those sitting at the north side of the counter often won't see anything until a slice of hamachi with banana pepper mousse appears on a plate delivered by the server. It will still be delicious, with the pepper cutting through the fattiness of the rich fish. But it's sushi that's missing half its narrative, an admittedly nitpicky issue that nonetheless feels amplified at these prices. So the key is to request a seat at the south side of the bar, closer to where the action takes place.
2. Dinner for Two Probably Won't Cost Less Than $500
New restaurants typically price themselves a few dollars less than their more experienced peers, as an enticement to hesitant diners and as a general act of deference as they work any kinks of their system. Then there's O Ya, which, when it opened in June, instantly become New York's third most expensive sushi spot after Masa and Kurumazushi. It also happens to be pricier than Le Bernardin, New York's most heralded seafood restaurant. That's bold, baby.
O Ya instantly become New York's third most expensive sushi spot after Masa and Kurumazushi.
O Ya offers two options, an 18-course menu of sushi, sashimi, and small plates for $185, and a longer 24-courser for $245. That means dinner for two, after tax and tip will run anywhere from $477-$722. Add on pairings and you're at just under $1,000. And while that's less than what you'll spend in Boston, where the longer menu is $285, O Ya is still markedly spendier than in vogue sushi spots like Nakazawa ($150) or Shuko ($135-$175). So the million dollar question is whether O Ya is worth it. The answer is: It depends. While the restaurant isn't necessarily more accomplished than its cheaper competitors, it does enough things differently enough, and with enough skill, to merit the attention of any die hard Japanese restaurant aficionado.
3. Expect a Brilliantly Non-Traditional Sushi Experience
Chose one of two menus, and after a kumamoto oyster amuse is consumed, nigiri start appearing, most of them flawless. Offerings might include ocean trout with tomato confit (heady and unctuous), squash blossom tempura with scallion oil (firm and onion-y), kohada with oven roasted tomato (tart and oily), or wild spot prawns with yuzu tobiko (with the citrusy roe mimicking the crunch of a shrimp shell). Such creative, seasonal preparations, finished with a tweezer application of thai basil or shiso, and flanked by rice whose marked softness never veers into mushiness, all evoke the more creative approach to sushi long espoused by Gari, Seki, and Nobu, as opposed to the more traditional and minimally-adorned fish purveyed by Ichimura or Masa.
O Ya's finest nigiri might be its garlic chive blossom omelet, which boasts an unusual whisper of beefiness. That's because the plate is covered in wagyu dust, a white substance that looks like powdered sugar and tastes like dry-aged ribeye. There's your futuristic steak and and eggs. The chef jokes that he'd like to put the "schmaltz" as he calls in, on his morning pancakes, a move the Cushmans should consider if O Ya ever starts selling okonomiyaki.
4. The Standard Japanese Tasting Menu Format Is Somewhat Inverted
Sushi comprises the first third or so of your dinner at O Ya. Then something wonderfully odd happens. The meal switches to composed raw fish dishes, from silky bluefin tuna tataki with smoked pickled onions, to firm kampachi in an incendiary Vietnamese mignonette. The traditional formatis usually the opposite; chefs like to whet the palate with sashimi before sating you with sushi and its stomach-filling rice. "The meal comes in waves here," a waitress tells me, with bites of marshmallow-like kinmadai acting as a post-sushi palate refresher before the heartier tofu and meat courses. Very clever.
5. The More Expensive Menu Is The More Complete Menu
The nice thing about dining at Shuko, just south of Union Square, is that both of its menus are compelling in their own right, a kaiseki experience that follows a series of small plates and hot dishes with an array of sushi, and a more affordable tasting for those who want an even longer parade of sashimi and nigiri and nothing else. They are two distinctly craveworthy experiences.
If you swing by O Ya, do it right with the 24-course meal
At O Ya, by contrast, both menus are similar in structure, offering up the requisite luxury items, from bluefin tuna belly, to jiggly foie gras sushi, to seared Japanese Wagyu over potato confit, where the soft steak is essentially your "butter" and the heftier potato is your "meat." Where things go wrong is that $185 variant, the one that more entry-level eaters might opt for, is too quick, too abbreviated, with just nine or so pieces of sushi and a flurry of sashimi served so rapidly I could see the chef waiting to serve me the next one as I finished the previous course. There were no shaved foie gras spoons or shots of tomato shiso kombu water, two of the longer menu's more whimsical intermezzos, nor was there a proper mignardises service, a highlight of the $245 offering. The cheaper menu felt like a concession, an incomplete dinner, a budget tasting menu that still manages to be quite expensive. Ninety minutes after the meal began I was looking at a check. Cost: $300 after tax and tip for one.
So if you swing by O Ya, do it right with the 24-course meal, with its more leisurely pace and deeper offerings. And let's all keep our fingers crossed that the Cushmans might rebrand the $185 option as a sushi-only experience (or introduce a la carte options like in Boston). While New York's most expensive restaurants, by their very nature, aren't for everyone, this fine Boston import could do a bit more to curry favor with its adoptive city.
Cost: Eighteen-course menu at $185, twenty four-course menu at $245.
Sample dishes: Kumamoto oyster with ponzu watermelon pearls and cucumber mignonette, hamachi belly with hokkaido sea urchin, garlic chive blossom omelette with wagyu schmaltz, sea scallop with coconut dressing and kaffir, tapioca pudding with blueberry and yuzu sherbet.
What to drink: Beverage pairings run $95 for the shorter menu or $115 for the longer omakase. Some will roll their eyes at such prices – the full dinner tastings at Contra and Semilla are cheaper than matching beverages at O Ya – but these prices are below market for one of New York's most expensive restaurants, where wine pairings commonly fetch anywhere from two-thirds to the full price of the corresponding "food" menu.
Bonus tip: Whiskey orders come with a neat little metal arm that lets you grab ice cubes without getting your fingers cold.