At Whaling in Oklahoma, chef Tim Maslow finds new focus
Tim Maslow became known as a chef in Boston when, after years in New York cooking at the Momofuku restaurants, he returned to copilot his father’s longtime sandwich shop. His reshaping of Strip-T’s turned Watertown into a culinary destination. Then came Ribelle, the Italian-esque Brookline restaurant that earned Maslow accolades in town and beyond (including four stars in the Globe and several James Beard award semifinalist nods).
Japan was always a through-line in his cooking, which at its best was both inventive and precise. You’d find miso in your burger, or ramen unexpectedly on the menu, or Ribelle would turn into an izakaya for a night.
In August, after working behind the scenes at places like Mida and Tiger Mama, he opened Whaling in Oklahoma. The theme is focus: On the Japanese flavors that have always appeared on the sidelines. On the cooking itself, in tandem with chef de cuisine Matt Hummel (a Ribelle alum) and the rest of the team grilling over charcoal in the narrow open kitchen tucked to one side of the dining room. On keeping one’s head down and doing the work. Previous projects could sometimes feel like The Tim Maslow Show. This one doesn’t, because it isn’t. “I’ve grown up in the last few years. I’ve had a little forced maturity on me,” he told the Globe before the restaurant opened. “I’m super-excited to get a second chance at this.”
Whaling in Oklahoma is a Japanese restaurant sort of like “Mulholland Drive” is a mystery movie. It bends genre conventions, and the mark of the maker is upon it. In my experiences here, half the dishes don’t fully land, yet I still want to return and try everything on the ever-shifting menu.
The very best things are the vegetables. If you come to Whaling in Oklahoma and order nothing but the Brussels sprouts, you won’t be sorry. For my money, they’re currently the best version among the many, many in town, a preparation that makes an omnipresent ingredient fresh and delightful again. They’re treated with fermented chile paste, sprinkled with bits of mashed tofu, and crowned with seaweed shreds. They are funky and fiery and impossible to stop eating. They also point out that, whatever else it draws on, this is a seasonal New England restaurant.
Also gorgeous: a quivering six-minute egg in a nest of pea greens with yuzu-pepper crab butter. Murasaki (purple) sweet potatoes looked humble but tasted grand, charred on the edges, soft and sweet, draped in cultured butter and sprinkled with chives; I was sorry to see them gone on my next visit. Lacy root vegetable fritters come with a brothy caramelized onion sauce for dipping. The dish, in essence, is tempura.
Another thing Whaling in Oklahoma does well is re-create Japanese takes on Western dishes that have become their own unique thing. For instance, the must-order pork cutlet sandwich, on toasted white bread with shredded cabbage and sweet-tangy Worcestershire-flavored tonkatsu sauce. In Japan, sandwiches are often denuded of crusts, and so they’re cut off here; but they’re also served on the side, on a separate plate, drizzled in more of the sauce. It’s sort of like getting fries with your sandwich, only more frugal. Why waste perfectly good crusts? And Japanese curry — distinct from what you’d find in India or Southeast Asia — comes pooled, golden, on a plate beside pickles and properly cooked rice.
I’m less taken with some of the more-traditional dishes. Thick, slinky udon noodles come in a bowl of chicken broth with shio tare, a salt base, and tempura flakes. There are too many crisp bits, which soon get soggy in the broth, itself on the bland side. (It was off the menu the last time I went, the noodles now served with “sexy shrimp gravy” and charred cabbage.) Salt-grilled hamachi is a little overdone, the skin a crisp chip that comes off in one piece when we try to cut into it. I like how simply it’s served, though, with thin slices of green-edged radish in rhubarb ponzu (although I wish I could taste the rhubarb).
There’s a take on oyakodon, the chicken-and-egg rice bowl that is pure Japanese comfort food. The egg has a lovely texture, somewhere between omelet and souffle, surrounding the chicken, but the dish again is on the bland side. But okonomiyaki — an eggy pancake with pork belly, shrimp, cheese, and kimchi, squiggled in all manner of sauces — is its usual joy-of-excess satisfaction, albeit missing the traditional bonito flakes that dance as if alive when they hit the heat of the dish.
There is lightness on the menu, too. Hamachi crudo with blood orange and sansho pepper one night becomes a similar preparation with scallops another, both refreshing and bright. The raw fish dishes on the menu, along with a lobster hand roll, are the closest you’ll get to sushi.
A pickle plate features cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, eggplant, and mushrooms, each prepared in a different style. The food at Whaling in Oklahoma often seems simple but in fact is labor-intensive. Much of the work is quiet and behind the scenes: homemade miso and tamari, things pickled or cured with koji. Maslow also makes some of the pottery himself.
The dessert not to miss — vying with the Brussels sprouts for best dish in the house — is runny cheese on cheesecake. Our helpful and on-point server describes it as almost a cheese course: a square of Japanese cheesecake, fluffier and lighter than the US version, topped with Jasper Hill Creamery’s oozy Harbison cheese and a dollop of persimmon curd.
The bar program, from Colin Mason (who was also at Ribelle), features a good selection of sake, with helpful descriptions to help you choose, plus short, thoughtful beer and wine lists that work well with this food. (I don’t know if the matcha Sapporo option is going to catch on, though.) The cocktail program also takes inspiration from Japan and runs with it. There are several riffs on the highball, along with drinks like the Shomatchu (shochu, matcha, lime, and demerara sugar) and the excellent Yushun Day (bourbon, honey, grapefruit, and miso).
The restaurant, formerly Tremont 647 and Sister Sorel, is split in two. One side is more serene, despite a soundtrack of ’90s power ballads — all wood and aqua, with lush murals and the open kitchen lined with blue fish-scale tiles. You can sit at the counter beside it and watch the cooks make your food. The other side is an urban hunting lodge, with deer heads (and the old Ribelle sign) mounted on the walls. There’s also a patio where you can do your warm-weather brunching.
Food with a strong point of view, a clever cocktail menu, a well-designed space: It should add up to a restaurant with plenty of personality. Yet it’s a little hard to get a bead on the place, which falls somewhere between destination restaurant and neighborhood hang. Perhaps it’s the bifurcated room, which shunts the open kitchen off to the back and side, rather than showcasing it at the center where it clearly wants to be. The heart and the energy are here.
The food is split down the middle, too. Some dishes are stunners, some fall short. It’s worth going for the former. The name Whaling in Oklahoma is a reference to a law that theoretically prohibits catching whales in the landlocked state: a mission impossible, and the willingness to try all the same.
WHALING IN OKLAHOMA
647 Tremont St., South End, Boston, 617-266-4600, www.whalinginoklahoma.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Smaller plates $7-$18. Larger plates $14-$21. Desserts $8-$10.
Hours Sun 4-10 p.m., Mon-Sat 5 p.m.-midnight. Brunch Sat-Sun 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Noise level Depends how loud your tablemates sing along to the ’90s power ballads.
What to order Brussels sprouts, pea greens, pork cutlet sandwich, Japanese curry, runny cheese on cheesecake.