By Jeff Dufour - 06/16/05 12:00 AM EDT
In a situation that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, downtown D.C. restaurants are struggling to differentiate themselves among so many worthy competitors, first by segmenting their cuisine into increasingly innovative and specialized concepts and second by playing a high-stakes game of “can you top this?” with design and d飯r. In the case of Oya, the owners have done both.
Half a block from the ever-popular Zaytinya and only two blocks from the equally trendy IndeBleu, Oya is a stunningly original space. Owner Errol Lawrence, a D.C. native who opened several successful restaurants in Los Angeles, sought to bring some Left Coast sensibility to the Washington dining scene.
This reviewer has little firsthand knowledge, but judging by Lawrence’s take on L.A. design, chains, fire, water and white leather are big there right now — all are featured prominently in the interior.
A wall of water cascades down between the kitchen and dining room. A long, narrow faux fireplace burns behind the bar, and again in the dining room. A column of seashells, stained walnut floors and faux leather banquettes, chairs and tables complete a very swank picture.
A fashion designer was enlisted for the staff uniforms — red halter dresses for the cocktail waitresses, understated orange T-shirts for the backwaiters and brown shirts and pants for the members of the wait staff, which, oddly, make them look like UPS couriers. Nevertheless, service is unfailingly friendly and helpful here, if occasionally slow-paced.
Twelve-foot-long chains form a curtain in the 60-seat lounge area, which is where you’ll likely sample your first cocktail, especially if you arrive without a reservation.
The cocktail list is impressive in its creativity and execution, replete with infused rums and vodkas and fruit pur饳. A convenient time of year for them, it is. But be warned: They’re not for the weak of constitution — squat martini glasses filled with not much besides booze — nor the weak of wallet — $15 is the rule here, not the exception.
To oversee the kitchen, Lawrence tapped Chef Kingsley John, a 30-year-old native of St. Lucia, who has worked in Lyon, France, Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and Aquavit in New York City. Although the kitchen dubs itself “world cuisine,” Caribbean influences such as plantain, jicama and jerk spices shine through among the Asian, South American, Indian and of course French elements.
That breadth of influences here should keep you interested on many visits. For first courses, you could try a tuna noodle salad with jicama, carrots and sweet chili sauce or chilled corn soup with tandoori smoked salmon. Depending on whether it’s lunch or dinner, tiny, flavorful Kumamoto oysters are served with a sake-lime mignonette or mango sorbet. Both are delicious and a big step up from red cocktail sauce.
The braised short ribs with apple pur饠and a plantain chip curiously have no rib present. The meat comes out as a cube, perhaps all the better to get the peppers and spices in there.
Mushroom caps are stuffed with pork, rolled in tempura, fried and served with a mango-soy sauce.
On one visit, my server told me that the crab cakes are one of the chef’s specialties. What he didn’t tell me is that one is hot and one is cold. Which was important information, because the whole dish left me lukewarm. The corn blini just added to the dry, chalky texture, and the vinegary rum-raisin slaw wasn’t much help either.
At lunch, grilled prawn dumplings in an Asian fish broth set the pace for entrees. Glazed salmon with grits and bacon has a soul-food flare.
The unidentified fish in the fish and chips are uniquely rolled and skewered. They didn’t betray much flavor, although the letter-perfect shoestring fries were another matter entirely. A paper cone of those to go, please.
At dinner, you’ll find smoked lamb chops with black-eyed peas, green mashed bananas and a port wine sauce — an interesting blend of influences.
Pimento-crusted duck is seared crisp and served with wild mushrooms, taro root and a decadent foie gras-black pepper sauce.
For theatrics, go with the crispy whole fish with pickled baby vegetables and dill broth. But for the truly sublime, order up the soy poached halibut or the tamarind-glazed tuna.
The former is as moist and flavorful as you’ll find, served with sunchoke pur饠and a scallop-stuffed squash blossom — a nice, unexpected touch. The latter is sliced thin medium rare and served with mushroom ragout, lentils and a mango-balsamic sauce.
Both were gone quickly. Too quickly. And while that’s normally a good thing, it can be a problem at Oya. Presentations are quite innovative, but often minimalist as well. And at this price point ($27 for the halibut; $31 for the tuna) for ࠬa carte entrees, I expect more than tasting-menu portions.
This is a restaurant that makes it impossible not to sit up and take notice of all that’s going on, from the d飯r to the cocktails to the plates. But even in such a gorgeous space, there may be a breaking point of what people will pay for drinks and dinner. We’ll know soon enough whether Oya has hit it.