- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Fire and ice. To enter Oya in Washington’s Penn Quarter is to step into a stunning ice palace with open fires.

As you enter the front door, a wall of heavy, silvery interlocking chains confronts you; a long narrow fire flickers through the chains from behind the bar. Another larger fireplace is recessed in the middle of the dining area wall, warming tables placed nearby.

White walls with tilted mirrors reflect chairs, tables and couches (in the lounge area next to the bar), all covered in sleek white leather. White marble abounds. In the middle of the room, an otherwise stark supporting pillar, all graceless plaster, is beautifully disguised with tiny white lights behind curtains of silvery round shells, tinkling to the touch.

Thin metallic ropes separate the dining and bar areas. Water flows down a window in the back of the dining room, allowing diners only glimpses of the kitchen; it flows as well over a black marble wall at the entrance to the dining room.

Oya is not warm, despite the fire, but it’s gorgeous and utterly romantic. The cuisine is equally beautiful and stylish — sometimes, but not always, with success. Oya started life as a Caribbean restaurant last year to mixed reviews. Now, however, new chefs James Stouffer and Jonathan Seningen have created a menu which often merits the praise their French-Asian cooking receives.

The menu is not a long one, and almost every dish shines with a combination of the traditional European mixed with the exotic Asian. For example, three small crepes — just a touch thicker than the Breton original — are filled with duck confit, folded and served with a splash of hoisin-based sauce. The flavors are perfect together. A simple green salad is decorated with a few tiny rounds of fresh quince and paper-thin slices of Asian pear.

In lieu of bread, a small bowl of bite-sized gougeres comes to the table. The mini choux pastry puffs flavored with cheese are addictively delicious and disappear in a flash.

Even the most traditional dishes, such as a risotto, are accented with an Asian touch. A yellow tomato soup, with the smoky flavor of oven-grilled or roasted tomatoes, is adorned with hamachi (yellowtail) at dinner and shrimp at lunch; blue marlin tartare is mixed with ginger and cilantro and enhanced with kaffir lime sorbet.

Parsley dashi soup, on the other hand, is a combination of elements that doesn’t work. Despite its pretty deep-green color, the soup is virtually flavorless. The small squares of soft tofu, mushy glass noodles and pieces of shiitake mushroom add nothing of flavor or texture.

The dozen main dinner courses present an equally complex picture. Unfortunately, quail served with walnut-studded spaetzle is no longer available, though no one has bothered to take it off the menu. Instead, an excellent rolled chicken breast on a rich, dark sauce accompanied by sauteed parsley has been substituted. (Pork dumplings are also no longer available, although they, too, continue on the menu.)

Scallops with pad Thai glass noodles are tender and delicious, bathed in a creamy sauce infused with truffle oil, a complement to both the noodles and the scallops. The Japanese hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, resembling brownish gray seaweed, accompanied the scallops but add nothing. A crunchy vegetable would add needed texture, balance and perhaps color to the dish.

Main courses tempt with such entrees as rack of lamb with fennel puree and a coffee cardamom sauce; duck with cherry apple charlotte; turbot on a bed of cod brandade with leeks and oysters; and strip loin steak with a Roquefort souffle.

Lunch does not fare as well as dinner. The gougeres are replaced by thin, small slices of rather ordinary cranberry bread. A crab salad, which our waitress described as greens with baked fingerling potatoes topped with crabmeat, turned out to be a sliced potato salad with a few chunks of avocado, three or four endive leaves on the side and a smattering of crab mixed into an oily gribiche dressing. Disappointing and certainly not worth the $16 tab.

Sandwiches served at lunch come with a small salad dressed with an excellent creamy vinaigrette and either thin french fries or taro chips. The potatoes come to the table hot and well drained. Sandwiches include cured salmon, turkey (on a croissant) with avocado and tomato, grilled vegetables, and lamb with eggplant puree on pita bread.

We tried a shredded pork sandwich mixed with quince jam, cabbage and shiitake mushrooms. The cabbage and mushrooms were so finely chopped as to become indistinguishable. The combination of the different elements of the sandwich were quite good, if not outstanding, and the whole was served on very good toasted and buttered focaccia.

Desserts include a delicious apple tart and an interesting banana bread and butter pudding. The tart is a thin square of pastry covered with apples tasting almost like a buttery tarte Tatin. Barely more than a quarter-inch thick, the tart is sprinkled with pecan bits and served with a smooth, creamy green apple sorbet. The pastry is soft rather than crisp, but the tart is a wonderful dessert.

The bread and butter pudding is a small round studded with pieces of banana and sprinkled with coconut. Rum raisin ice cream completes the dish.

A culinary highlight at Oya is the sushi, served both at the bar and in the dining room. The fish is supremely fresh; the rice not overly sticky and the maki roll combinations are very good. Sushi and sashimi make fine first courses, either at lunch or dinner and they are available at the bar until 1 a.m., perfect for a late snack.

Service is pleasant and cordial, but not overly attentive. Oya has so many good things going for it that we hope its culinary weaknesses can quickly be overcome.

RESTAURANT: Oya, 777 Ninth St. NW, 202/393-1400

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily, sushi available until 1 a.m.

PRICES: Starters, $7 to $11 (lunch), $8 to $19 (dinner); main courses, $13 to $15 (lunch), $24 to $35 (dinner); lunch salads and sandwiches, $9 to $16; desserts, $8 to $12; sushi $8 to $25

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Metered street parking; dinner valet parking $12

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Gallery Place

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