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Dining Out

When the fireworks die down, Oishii Boston shines

Chef’s choice sushi and sashimi at Oishii Boston.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

In taking stock of Oishii Boston, open a decade this year and one of the city’s deluxe Japanese restaurants, it’s easiest — and also deceptive — to start at the beginning. In particular with the shot glass of green foam that’s first planted before you.

Of course, a diner at this moment is most hungry and hopeful, but this edamame mousse tastes so round and deep, vegetal and also meaty, that one will have a hard time believing there’s no stealth ingredient (bone marrow? dashi? some satanic tincture of sea urchin?). No, it’s just soybean pumped with air.

Like all amuse-bouches, this small act of majestic restraint costs nothing. Yet what follows at Oishii hardly costs nothing and rarely resembles restraint. To escape this low-profile, high-cost South End sushi emporium for less than $150 a head probably means you’re leaving semi-starved, en route to a pizza date with your freezer.

The cocktails menu gives fair warning. At $13 a pop, the Tokyo Mule (crowned with a wonderfully mouth-numbing Sichuan button) and Ting’s Sushi Companion (a muddle of mojito and margarita, named for sushi maestro Ting San) come in glasses packed with ice and disappear in three even gulps. A small cruet of shareable sake or a $6 Sapporo takes you further.

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In retrospect, it seems unsurprising that on the first night I ate at Oishii, I overheard conversations — on my left and right and within minutes — of men describing to their dates how they’d fired employees that day.

In fact, the restaurant often appears to be thronged exclusively by couples on dates, possibly explaining the swift and striking counterpoint that arrives after that initial edamame delight. Like a series of attention-hungry parade floats, the appetizers flow into the dining room looking keyed to dazzle. The restaurant’s atmosphere projects much the opposite: low-lit, invigoratingly austere, with a teasing lounge playlist.

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You get fire, you get smoke trapped under glass, you get blocks of ice the size of fish tanks. Somehow that ice is lit within, as if a small blue star has been captured live. One drink comes in a bombastic copper pineapple that would fit naturally in the hand of Caligula.

This parade is hard to resist. The staff makes these dishes hard to resist, which at roughly $30 apiece lights a lurking anxiety as your check balloons. (Both nights our lead server was affably present for the ordering, though rarely glimpsed after that.) Still, these dishes are good — even if more fun-good than good-good.

Salmon on fire at Oishii Boston.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The salmon on fire hits the table like an unexpected birthday cake. You’re given the pleasure of blowing out the flames, though extended gawking means your sashimi is getting cooked. When swabbed in an astringent raspberry gastrique, the strips of seared fatty flesh meet their perfect foil.

And yes, the smoked hamachi could be laid flat on a white plate and made pretty with some delicate adornment, but then you wouldn’t get the high theater of witnessing four thick pieces of fish assume flavor in a fog of smoldering cherry wood. Again, you decide when to break the spell.

The toro tartare sits daintily inside that impressive cube of ice. Even if there’s more helpless gawking, a basic thought will cross the mind of the more jaded, less seduction-bent. Couldn’t this small hockey puck of fish sit just as coolly in a small bowl? Translation: Are we being totally played?

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One of my dining companions said no. He’d eaten recently at El Celler de Can Roca in Barcelona, ranked the best restaurant in the world, and found that the chefs put heavy stress on the vessels in which the food was served. “It makes the experience interactive,” my friend explained. “Less about the chef presenting, more about the diner engaging.”

Point taken. Yet spectacular ice cube or not, the toro, or belly cut of bluefin tuna, comes so heavily dressed with ponzu that the fish — so precious, so scarce — feels disrespected. To not really taste this luscious, fat-marbled delicacy makes you feel bad. Bad for the fish. And bad that you’re eating something endangered that you can’t much taste. The decorative dab of osetra caviar only adds to the internal squabble.

The overdressing — or blurring, or piling on — of these dear commodities surfaces most resolutely in Oishii’s specialty maki, where all sorts of bright and earthy ingredients are further razzle-dazzled into existence. Or, as a friend who eats here regularly calls them: “fish layered with glam.”

Sex appeal is torqued. Appearance is prized. (Make no mistake, most of Oishii’s food has a pinpoint, bejeweled beauty to it.) But the highly subtle flavors and textures of each ingredient — the very raison d’etre of sushi — can get lost.

Take one of the most popular rolls, the toro truffle. The torch-seared fish comes rolled around shrimp tempura, spicy mayo, and cucumber, topped with black truffle and caviar. I know — sounds amazing. It’s also the closest edible approximation you may ever taste to careering your Rolls Royce Silver Shadow headlong into a seven-car pileup.

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If only some laboratory genius could invent a semi-palatable substance that approximated the tensile give-and-take of fish. Glam it with wasabi, soy, and spicy mayo, and the tragic emptying of our oceans might reverse.

Yet prizes sit hidden and modest throughout Oishii’s lengthy menu, largely because they’re unaccompanied by flame, smoke, or ice. For example, the enoki mushroom soup, a mere $7, seems to be a throwaway, yet surprises with its deeply satisfying play between bonito broth, miniature mushrooms, and humble scallions.

Crispy pork belly.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The crispy pork belly, for $35, is presented like a tekka maki, but instead of seaweed on the outside, it’s crisped skin. The meat packs a densely pork-y punch. The weighty garnish of pickled shallots remains a garnish, with no chance of drowning the protein.

The uni pasta features sea urchin suffused into spaghetti. The poached egg, with its swirled yolk, plus shaved truffles, only raises and complicates the delicious, high-funk quotient. The pasta (or ramen) is mushy, but as my friend put it: “I’d eat uni tossed with hay.” At $30 for this small portion, I’m looking to source hay.

As we ate an outlandish dessert — a softball-size coconut sphere filled improbably with coffee mousse — we got into conversation with a couple next to us. It was a Saturday night. To our relief, we’d encountered no conversations from anyone about the daytime dispatching of employees.

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Both were eating the $75 chef’s choice combination of sushi and sashimi, which earns a single, unassuming line on the menu. But what a gorgeous sight. I asked how they’d come to order this amid so many temptations. He said, “I did my research” — wading through online descriptions of Oishii’s pyrotechnic offerings and locating the precious flecks of gold, the simple fish as selected by a seasoned sushi chef.

I returned for lunch to test this quieter version of Oishii. Instead of the nine-course kaiseki — there are $20 or $30 versions, which look terrific — I ordered the $75 chef’s choice. I asked the waiter if I could try the miso soup, the start of both kaiseki. The soups had been superb. But he said no and walked off.

The rice came clumped and cold. Covertly, I double-checked it against my cheek. Yup, too cold. And the fish itself? No smoke, no ice, no flash, yet here was Oishii’s finest firework.

OISHII BOSTON

1166 Washington St., South End, Boston, 617-482-8868, www.oishiiboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $6-$75. Entrees $18-$130. Specialty maki $12-$30. Chef’s choice sushi and sashimi $30-$95. Omakase $150-$225.

Hours Tue-Sat lunch noon-3 p.m., dinner 5:30-11:30 p.m. (bar until 1 a.m.); Sun 1-10 p.m.

Noise level Eclectic lounge early, thumpy dance late

What to order Sakura smoked hamachi, salmon on fire, enoki mushroom soup, black cod with sweet miso, crispy pork belly, uni pasta, toro truffle maki, crispy mango maki, chef’s choice sashimi


Ted Weesner can be reached at tedweesner@gmail.com.