Welcome Departure

‘Un-D.C.’ Oya Has Style and Substance

Posted June 29, 2005 at 4:19pm

Just past a curtain of steel chains, a hostess clad in a red halter dress smiles warmly from behind a plush white leather stand. Behind her, the view opens into an airy dining room where flames flicker inside a vast white marble wall and white leather covers tables and chairs. In the back of the room, beyond a glittering column of white seashells, the moving shapes of busy cooks are obscured by a thin wall of water. At the bar, red crocodile-print leather climbs up the walls where there’s more fire. And then more water — this time in an intimate alcove where a well-dressed crowd sips cocktails.

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

When Oya quietly opened in March, somewhat in the shadow of its spotlight-stealing neighbor IndeBleu, there were few details about what was in store. But what lies beyond the nondescript entryway on a somewhat lonely block of Ninth Street Northwest is nothing short of stunning. “Very un-D.C.,” a friend nodded with approval at dinner one night.

And that’s just the idea. Owner Errol Lawrence, a D.C. native who spent 20 years opening restaurants in Los Angeles, wanted his new restaurant to exude the sophisticated and contemporary feel of L.A. hot spots. And exude, it does.

But Oya’s not just a pretty face. This new spot backs up its style with substance. Oya’s bar, for example, is turning out some of the tastiest cocktails in town. Liquors are infused with intensely flavored ingredients like ginger, lemongrass and cardamom, and fruit juices are freshly made.

The summery cilantro daiquiri serves as a refreshing twist on the ubiquitous mojito, with cilantro taking over for mint. The “grilled” piña colada, which combines grilled pineapple-coconut infused rum with pineapple juice, is topped with a toasted coconut foam so good, you’ll be licking the sides of your martini glass to get every last bit.

Be aware, however, that this quality comes at a price. The specialty rum drinks will set you back a whopping $15, the martinis, $13.

The tropical accent of the cocktail list echoes Chef Kingsley John’s cooking. John, a native of St. Lucia who trained under renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit in New York City, has created an eclectic menu that draws inspiration from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. Though the menu defies simple classification, John’s command of flavor is a unifying theme.

Pork and mushroom are happily married in one appetizer offering. Shiitake mushrooms are surrounded by ground pork, fried lightly in tempura batter and punched up by a mango soy dipping sauce.

When my braised short rib appetizer arrived, I was sure the waiter had accidentally delivered someone else’s dessert. But what appeared to be a brownie was actually short ribs, pulled off the bone, mixed with foie gras and baked into a tidy square. The inventive preparation creates a nice contrast between the crisp exterior and the velvety meat inside, and a subtle companion, vanilla pear purée, provides just enough sweetness to cut through the rich ribs.

A pair of fraternal crab cakes makes another playful, and delicious, start to a meal. One traditional crab cake, packed with seasoned crab meat and fried golden brown, is joined by a chilled crab salad “cake.” The supporting rum raisin slaw adds a nice crunch to the dish.

Of the main course offerings, the crispy whole fish is a standout. Plump red snapper fillets are removed from the bone, lightly fried and cradled in the crisp, curled shell of the fish. A flavorful dill broth tickled with ginger and tender baby bok choy and carrots complete the dish.

Other fish offerings include nicely seared tuna on an earthy bed of lentils and mushrooms, and halibut with creamy sunchoke purée and julienned squash and zucchini.

Smoked lamb chops are supported by a pleasing combination of black eyed peas and green banana mash, and pimento crusted duck is made fabulously luxurious by a foie gras black pepper sauce.

It’s clear that desserts are not an afterthought at Oya. Pastry Chef Jean-Rony Fougère, formerly of the Soho House in New York City, complements the menu with sweets that exhibit a distinct tropical lilt. Baby pineapple baked Alaska looks like a pineapple gone Rasta, its peaks of toasted meringue sprouting like dreadlocks from the top of a hollowed-out miniature pineapple. Beneath that crown hide layers of cool pineapple compote, ice cream and moist cake.

And don’t miss the warm banana bread pudding. Made with caramelized sweet baby bananas and buttery croissants, the rich pudding pairs brilliantly with the strong rum raisin ice cream alongside it.

Other sweet finishes include a delightfully sour key lime tart and a rich flourless chocolate cake with berry compote.

The prices at Oya — entrées average about $30 — place it in a category of fine dining not accessible to everyone. But Oya’s new “Meet Me on Monday” promotion offers steep discounts on some of the chef’s newest dishes. An a la carte menu brings together a handful of first courses, entrées and desserts, all priced at about half of those on the regular menu. That means you’ll pay less than $20 for most entrée choices. Additionally, a fixed price menu offering three courses and a glass of wine is a steal at $32. (If only those rum drinks were discounted, too.)

As an added bonus, the chef often makes rounds in the dining room to discuss what’s on the menu.

If you’re not interested in a full meal, Oya also offers a late-night sushi menu from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. nightly. Choices include Hawaiian spiced tuna rolls, smoked salmon avocado rolls and Spanish mackerel nigiri.

Oya’s early success signifies the growing foothold of a refreshing trend: upscale restaurants that buck the staid tradition of D.C.’s moneyed institutions with daring, sexy interiors and innovative cuisine. With its stunning décor and talented chef, Oya is both a beautiful and delicious addition to the city’s dining scene.