It’s a little unnerving, walking into a place you knew and loved and finding it different. There’s something in you that wants to hold on to what was, that wants to say defiantly, “That was better than This. This will never be as good as That.”
Good luck living in a city if you’re going to be that guy. The longer you stay, the less fun you’ll have.
But it’s not that easy to walk into a place you knew and loved and say, yeah, OK, I get it. This makes sense. I release the past. I’ll let myself entertain the notion of liking the present.
So here we have Blue Ribbon Sushi, the first Kenmore Square restaurant from New York-based Blue Ribbon Restaurants, which has taken over the spots that were formerly the Hawthorne, Island Creek Oyster Bar, and Eastern Standard. After a dispute over the lease between restaurateur Garrett Harker and landlord UrbanMeritage, those restaurants closed in 2021. They were favorites, and Boston collectively mourned their loss, as did I. Even Representative AOC of New York, a BU alum and a former bartender, tweeted, “No! Please don’t be so - Eastern Standard was such an incredible place and home to so many wonderful memories,” with a broken heart emoji.
Opened at the end of June, Blue Ribbon Sushi occupies the old Hawthorne space, which worked so well as a cocktail bar. I felt a pang as I approached. There was the Hawthorne patio, where I last sat with an old friend visiting from Moscow, before the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine, in case I forgot how quickly things can change. But the moment I walked through the door, I thought, yeah, OK, I get it.
This space makes a perfect sushi bar.
Diners can sit at a mezzanine-level dining room, lined with slatted wood that lets in the outside light, ceilings sporting rows of groovy, orange-striped light fixtures imported from the ‘70s. The vibe is somehow, pleasingly, shoji rec room. There needs to be a vinyl night up here, and soon.
A dining room with spacious booths features a mural of a wave that looks like something by Hokusai during his little-known pop-art phase (it’s actually by artist Katherine Meredith). And to the side on the main floor is a cocktail bar, with offerings that include a generous selection of Japanese whisky.
But, and perhaps this is obvious, the place to be is the sushi bar itself, a spot of gleaming white light amid all the warm wood. A team of sushi chefs also in gleaming bright whites and black aprons is hard at work, slicing rainbow-toned slabs of fish into delicate morsels, rolling them with seaweed and rice, assembling them into sashimi landscapes: thick, coral-colored slices striated with white; ruby rectangles; crosshatched black and silver skin gleaming beneath green dollops of citrus-chile paste (yuzu kosho). I am not a grace-saying sort, but that is the kind of food that makes me want to clasp my hands and bow my head a little before eating.
In the kitchen, chefs Dan Bazzinotti and Keith Pooler are running the show. The band is back together. Collaborators at Pooler’s now-closed Bergamot and BISq, they make a talented team. No surprise, then, that we had a very nice meal: tempura cauliflower nuggets with sweet miso dipping sauce; a wee skewer of wagyu meatballs; rectangles of super-crispy rice, like the good layer at the bottom of the pot, spread thick with spicy tuna and topped with slivers of avocado. Many dishes involve sweetish, thickish brown sauces — the sweet miso, a truffle teriyaki sauce, a truffle eel sauce — tasty but not subtle, perhaps a bit redundant. As counterpoint, we loved a plate of translucent, thin-sliced kanpachi (amberjack) with that aromatic, bracing yuzu kosho and half-moons of lemon.
Nigiri features well-made rice at just the right temperature; the fish selection is divided by Pacific and Atlantic, with luxurious Hokkaido uni, o-toro, king salmon, and lobster among the offerings. Our ho-hum “chef’s choice” platter was geared toward crowd-pleasing rather than interest, with some repeats among the seven pieces. A la carte is the answer. For dessert, one might have mochi ice cream or a Blue Ribbon standard called chocolate Bruno that involves mousse and ice cream.
Blue Ribbon Sushi isn’t trying to be O Ya. It’s an approachable neighborhood sushi bar, and for that it is clearly welcome: On a recent Wednesday, the place is bustling. You can come have fried chicken wings, dragon rolls, and a lychee martini or a house cocktail like the Sui, a Negroni-esque drink made with nori. You can have a fancy steak with a pricey bottle of cabernet sauvignon. You can sit at the sushi bar and eat deeper cuts — nodoguro, kohada, engawa — while sipping your way through the 20 or so kinds of sake, including some that are Blue Ribbon’s own label. The restaurant can be different things to different comers.
In a review of the original, New York Times critic Ruth Reichl wrote, “Blue Ribbon Sushi has good fish and an awesome list of sakes, but beyond that it has very little in common with a classic Japanese sushi bar. If you have ever felt like a clumsy foreigner and worried about doing the wrong thing in a sushi bar, this is the place for you.” That mostly still tracks, even as it now describes many of the sushi bars in America.
In 1992, three years before they debuted the sushi spot, brothers Bruce and Eric Bromberg opened their first Blue Ribbon, a SoHo brasserie. It was a late-night favorite with chefs, and a pioneer of the raw bar trend. What I’m saying is: These guys are a solid choice to take over these properties. They have been living the brasserie/seafood/cocktail life for a lot of years. In New York they also run Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken, and they could have thrown down a halfhearted version of that here and left us to it like other restaurateurs from the big city. Instead, we’ve got a nice sushi bar/hangout. The sign for Pescador, the “coastal grill” that will occupy the old Island Creek Oyster Bar spot, is already up; it will feature New England seafood and international influences. And the Brasserie Formerly Known As Eastern Standard will become, simply, Blue Ribbon — inspired by the original New York brasserie (and its Vegas counterpart), with its menu of oysters, bone marrow, French onion soup, steaks, and bread pudding. Maybe change doesn’t have to be all that changeful.
Maybe, just maybe, there’s even room for improvement. I loved Eastern Standard, but it wasn’t perfect. I had some great meals there over the years, and some so-so ones. The vibe, the service, and the never-fail bar kept me coming back. And the memories, like AOC said.
Let’s at least be open to the possibility of making some new ones.
500a Commonwealth Ave., Kenmore Square, Boston, 617-264-0410, www.blueribbonsushikenmore.com