As Madonna and Martha Stewart know, reinvention is as American as a Big Mac. Forget Fitzgerald's famous dictum–there are second acts in American lives.
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.