With a less-than-auspicious debut last summer--people raved about the cocktails, not the food--the Caribbean-accented Oya cried out for a culinary redo. This winter it came: new menu, new cuisine, and new chefs--Jonathan Seningen from Le Paradou and James Stouffer from the Château Elan Winery & Resort in Georgia. The two met snowboarding in Argentina and were brought on as cochefs--presumably, if you can free-ride together, cooking in tandem is a cinch.
The duo's French-Asian idiom is more pared down than the too-many-ingredients approach of their predecessor. Royal Miyagi oysters--known for their light, clean taste, courtesy of the freshwater stream they're farmed near--are served unadorned but for a dusting of chives and a shot glass of sake; as you slurp down each tender mollusk, a sip of the cold sake washes the brine away. More complicated is blue-marlin tartare mated with kaffir-lime sorbet; the play of tastes and textures, tangy and briny, silky and cool, makes for a delicious whole. Similarly, a classic risotto is better for the bits of smoky-salty cured salmon at its center.
I love the depth the kitchen's coffee-and-cardamom sauce gives to the rack of lamb and the way a whipped brandade takes the delicately flavored yet rich turbot to new places. In some instances, sides heighten the savoriness of a dish. Crisp-skinned quail gets a marvelous pile of spaetzle crunchy with black walnuts and tart with pomegranate; a pungent Roquefort soufflé gives a plate of prime strip loin a welcome edge.
Sometimes ambition outstrips the kitchen's reach. A foie gras torchon, which should have some earthy oomph, is dismayingly mild, and veal cheeks, the current darling of chefs, are more mushy than tender. The new sushi menu--put together by former Signatures sushi chef ThuYa Soe--offers diners and loungers more affordable options, but it's not the reason to go.
Happily, pastry chef Jean-Rony Fougere's bread-and-butter pudding with caramelized bananas and rum-raisin ice cream survived the makeover, and there's at least one other spoon-licker sweet in the lineup: a frozen dome of chestnut ice cream with a drizzle of chocolate and poached pear.
More good news: Oya is still as stunning as ever with its floor-to-ceiling Capiz-shell installation, horizontal fireplace, and wall of water, a stylish buffer between kitchen and dining room. A lot of places that have popped up in DC's Penn Quarter possess a stark edginess; few feel as warm and romantic as Oya. Or as diverse: The crowd--black, white, Asian, Hispanic--mirrors the makeup of the city.
Style without substance is an empty gesture. Substance without style is an empty dining room. Oya is learning: You can be sexy and delicious, too. It's a promising start to a second act.