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Oishii, great expectations but service falls short

Masterfully crafted sushi reigns at Oishii but service is inconsistent.
Masterfully crafted sushi reigns but service is inconsistent.

Oishii has risen, quickly, to the highest heights of the Boston culinary scene over the last few years. Such a rise will certainly generate press and get the foodies talking. Until a recent Saturday night my exposure to Oishii was vicarious.

My wife and I took the plunge into Oishii’s ocean of raw seafood with expectations of being swept away – to a culinary island so luxurious and inviting that we would never willingly return to the shores of our local sushi haunts. Unfortunately, our expectations were not met. We were stranded. Surrounded by a flotilla of waiters unaware of our presence and unwilling to throw us a lifeline.

But I should back up.  What were our expectations? In a nutshell…outstanding food, beautiful presentations and superlative service. Oh, and we knew it would be expensive.

Score those expectations A, A+, D and E (as in egad!), respectively.

We went to the South End location on Washington St. because we read about the oh-so-small Chestnut Hill version.  I called five minutes before our 8 pm reservation to let them know we would be a late. As it turned out, we arrived just 5 minutes late. I bring this small fact up to demonstrate that I want to play fair with the restaurant. I want to show them a little respect, with the understanding that I get the same in return. I know they are running a business but I want them to deliver on the money I’m spending.

We were warmly greeted at the maitre’d stand and promptly seated. Then, the first sign appeared that something was going to go poorly. We sat unattended for over five minutes. No water, no offer for a cocktail…nothing. Do I expect this kind of service at my neighborhood pub? No. But at one of the highest rated (Zagats) and most expensive restaurants in Boston? Youbetcha!

The waitress finally arrived and was warm and informal. I usually prefer this – a waiter without starch in their underwear – but this one was a bit too casual. In addition to the printed menu she told us about the tasting menu option. It could be tailored to our budget. She mentioned four dollar figures starting at $125 (per person). We took the highest one she mentioned.

In truth, she said they could accommodate any dollar figure and admitted to seeing some staggering amounts.  Let’s just say that the amount we picked was setting me up for the single most expensive dinner for which I’ve ever paid. No expense account here.

We made sure the waitress knew we were adventurous eaters and that we didn’t want the chef to hold back.

An amuse-bouche arrived – always an appreciated touch. It was a single slice of blood orange in an orange gelatin or aspic. Light, refreshing…lovely. The meal would proceed with beautiful presentions, aromas and tastes. I wish I could tell you about everything I ate but that was part of the problem. More on that later.

First some highlights on the food. The first real course was hamachi sashimi (a.k.a. yellowtail or amberjack). Four slices the size of a Now-and-Later candy served inside of a small glass ramekin which was placed inside of a glass goblet. The ramekin was placed on top of something inside the goblet that was not immediately identifiable. That is, until they removed the lid from the goblet. Suddenly, the air was filled with wafting smoke from alder wood. It was a clever trick, fill the nose with smoke while eating the sushi to give the illusion of smoked fish. Delightful, but I wish they’d left the lid behind so I could have contained the smoke once I was done. I got a couple of too-big wafts right up the schnozz.

Another course was a light broth served in a cup with several thin slices of white fish that were lightly poached. Probably cooked only for the length of time they sat in the broth on their way to our table. The cup was placed inside of a larger bowl. Upon arrival our server poured hot water into the larger bowl which contained several aromatic leaves. Again, lovely aromas filled the senses while sipping on the light broth. I wish I could tell you which fish was in the broth, but I can’t. A pattern is developing.

Next was a serving of paper thin abalone fanned with equally thin lime slices. By their size I would surmise they were key limes. They were served beautifully in a faux oyster shell atop a large dome of shaved ice. Beneath and inside the ice was placed a small yellow LED light that gave the mountain of ice a golden glow.

I’ve never had abalone before and I was eager to try something new. I’m glad I tried it but my summation of the experience is this…neutral taste and the consistency of a finger nail. Was I disappointed? No. I’m glad I can check the box on abalone, but besides the presentation, I was under whelmed.

Another course arrived and what I saw truly excited me. Four delicate swirls of thinly sliced white fish atop four full slices of black truffle the size of a fifty cent piece. I’ve experienced truffle before but only in the shredded sprinkled form atop pasta where one only gets the essence of this pricey porcine-hunted fungi. I could not wait to get a dedicated mouthful. It was earthy and sublime. I wish I knew what the fish was.

The pattern is set.

Throughout our meal we sipped a bottle of chardonnay. It may be declasse but my wife and I prefer big oaky and buttery chardonnays and we took the waitress’ suggestion on one that was just south of three-figures. At the prices we were paying I should have never needed to fill my own glass. A key service treatment of any fine dining experience is to have the wait staff take care of such manual chores – evidently not at Oishii.

Next course. A long platter of beautifully presented sashimi. Each piece a different fish. I wish I could tell you what kind. The only one I can share for certain was a lovely piece of toro (a fatty loin slice of the blue fin tuna). All other items on the plate remain unidentifiable. Why? This was the big disappointment of the evening…because the guy who ran the food to our table was a ‘low-talker’ and had a thick accent.

The restaurant is a beautiful space but fairly contemporary and austere (read: lots of hard surfaces and a concrete floor). This made for a very ‘live room.’ We repeatedly asked the food runner to repeat his descriptions of the food and each effort was another mumble lost in the din. It seems like a small matter perhaps, but we wanted to know everything about this meal. We were trying to learn as much as we were trying to enjoy our experience.

Several additional courses followed of beautiful, albeit mysterious, sea creatures; served with a soft hush amongst the dull roar. All a sight to behold and very delicious. If I could only tell you what they were.

A small but final insult was that as we left we didn’t even receive a "thank you for coming."
If you plan to try Oishii, set your expectations appropriately. I hope my experience will make yours more enjoyable.

For more: Oishii, 1166 Washington St., Boston, 617.482.8868

Also: Check out more Boston restaurant info from the Boston Restaurant Examiner