The early word on OM from a Phoenix staffer was, “Pretty food. Prettier than I tend to like my food, actually.” (This was not the same person I quoted recently about judging a Greek restaurant by its octopus.) The food is in fact incredibly pretty, and it probably has to be in a restaurant space that rivals the Asian wing of the MFA. You walk in — usually on Winthrop Street, opposite the entrance to UpStairs on the Square — through carved doors to face a waterfall and a standing Buddha. Since the Buddha is above such things, a human greeter sends you upstairs to an art-filled dining room. As you might guess from the restaurant’s name, the art on display is almost entirely representations of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, but the food is neither vegetarian nor all that Asian. I started to think of it as fusion, but is it really fusion when everything is deconstructed? Anyway, chef Rachel Klein has a lot of technique and some lively flavors, and even when her palate flags, her visual sense is unparalleled. Pastry chef Cristina Valente is of the same school.
One starts not with a breadbasket but with popcorn: curried popcorn at the bar, Parmesan popcorn with white truffle oil at the dinner tables. It’s wonderful. With dinner there is also a complimentary appetizer: a shot glass of cold cucumber-ginger-pepper soup (more like something out of the juicer, I’d guess by the fresh flavors) and a tiny pickled salad, like Japanese tsukemono reduced to one bite of slaw-like shreds.
Appetizers are expensive for small bites, and the difficulty with deconstruction and listing every ingredient is that the results are often not what you expect. In fact, you may kill your fun by hunting for the menu-listed ingredients. For example, on an appetizer of duck confit ($12), the confit leg is in a mild and simple cure, and you can see the shavings of Spanish cheese and taste the bitter grilled escarole. But if you have a good memory, you’ll start searching for that promised peanut brittle and pear moustarda. I found the former, but by then the dish was almost finished, and I felt as though I’d wasted my time.
You avoid this danger with a salad of peppery greens ($11), which is just that, and nicely underdressed, with a few thin slices of Asian pear for exquisite contrast. Okinawan sweet raviolis ($15) are visually amazing: a translucent pasta filled with sweet potato, served in a small heap on a vast plate of a salty soup of black olives. Eventually one finds two long asparagus beans underneath. The flavor is sweet as red-bean paste and salty, and sometimes a tiny wedge of lemon adds a tart note.
Although Buddhas sit night after night in their niches impassively watching people drink martinis and eat pork, beef, and poultry, there is always a fine vegetarian platter, currently “Asian Market” ($22). The centerpiece — although of course it is set artfully to one side of the plate — is a square of tofu fried with enough garlic to render it as savory as any meat, mounted on a perfect and elegant square of black rice. Although that element is geometric, slices of grilled Japanese eggplant are scattered artlessly nearby. (I’m sure someone works over every plate to get that artless scatter.) The rest is a paste of sweet potato and bell pepper that works like a sauce with the tofu, a perfect dribble of basil oil like a thin pesto, and blood-orange slices. Perfectly skinned ones, of course.
If you aren’t a vegetarian, consider the black-pearl salmon ($21). It’s also a square but with a wonderful char on the surface, contrasting with brilliantly undercooked flesh, soft and rich as custard. The sides are fingerling potatoes (perhaps a little underdone our night); broccoli rabe (still a little too bitter; come back in a month or two); and a small salad of micro greens. Muscovy duck ($28) is all meaty breast — an old breed with the leanness of wild ducks — set off with mustard greens, a sauce of medjool dates that evokes Morocco without actual spices, and an adorable little bisteeya (Moroccan pie) of confit duck meat and wonderful pastry served in a cute little cast-iron skillet.
The wine list is expensive and interesting. We tried the 2001 “Glorioso” Rioja riserva ($35) from Bodegas Palacio. Although this wine is usually in the old dry style of red Spanish clarets, our bottle began with the light, strawberry fruit of the more modern style, and after only a few minutes it began to show the longer fruit flavors, and never much tannin. It’s excellent food wine if they keep to this style. Tea ($3) is made loose-leaf in a Chinese iron pot — another beautiful object. Espresso ($3) and even decaf coffee ($3) were superior.