A work in progress, hopefully
Om falls short of expectation
In 2009, the South End restaurant Banq became Ginger Park. The reinvention was promising. Management brought in chef Patricia Yeo to turn the food around. Arriving from New York, where she garnered acclaim for her restaurant AZ, Yeo put together a roster of Asian-inspired small plates that shone. Each was tastier than the last — chewy silver pin noodles, duck meatballs with smoky eggplant and massaman curry, savory and spicy dan dan mien. Yeo arrived with a mixed reputation — her stints at other New York spots had been less well-received. But her dishes at Ginger Park were prepared with sureness and keen sense of balance.
It wasn’t enough to save the restaurant, however. It closed in December. Happy news followed from Yeo: She said she would open her own place. She had a spot nearly nailed down in the South End. She had a name picked out. The restaurant would feature food like Ginger Park’s but would be smaller, funkier. This, too, was promising.
Until suddenly she resurfaced in the kitchen of Harvard Square’s Om. This was not quite as promising. The establishment may be best known for its first-floor lounge, where DJs spin for Harvard Business School types. Dogged by rumors of financial woes, Om filed for bankruptcy in 2009. But the food was once wonderful, under opening chef Rachel Klein. Perhaps Yeo could turn it around here, too.
A first disastrous meal under her reign dashes that hope. It’s disappointing to see the chef’s dream of her own place postponed; it’s even more disappointing to find her not at the top of her game. Ginger Park’s duck meatballs with smoked eggplant and Thai curry are back, but their flavors aren’t as bright or as fresh. (The menu changes frequently.)
Venison sang choy pow features bland meat, although it tastes fine wrapped in lettuce leaves and dipped in hoisin. An appetizer features several kinds of dumpling, including a tasty fried shrimp version. But the meat filling in another is raw — as we discover after eating half of it.
Nearly raw are the slices of duck that top Om’s bi bim bap. We send the dish back, but when it returns with overcooked meat, it’s nearly tasteless. It includes rice, egg, and a bit of kimchi, but none of the vegetables usually found in the dish. It needs Korean chili paste to add kick.
There are a few good dishes. Trout is succulent, roasted in a banana leaf and served with citrus salad and pepper jam. And pork katsu is a crisp, tasty fried cutlet so vast it practically hangs over the edge of the plate. But by the time dry and gummy rice pudding fritters arrive at the table, everyone is ready to pay up and head to Pinkberry for post-dessert dessert.
Perhaps we should take the employees with us. Om’s upstairs dining room is both overstaffed and empty, and servers pace back and forth in the small space like caged animals. I suspect they’re just trying to stay awake.
A second meal is lackluster, but a bit better. The dumpling fillings are cooked. We have an excellent green papaya salad with caramelized lemongrass dressing. The duck in the bi bim bap is rare but not raw, though the rest of the dish remains dull. And Uighur-style stir-fried lamb features flavorful, if slightly tough, meat. It’s served over what Yeo calls rice gnocchi, which look and taste like undercooked ddeok, Korean rice cakes. An airy little Meyer lemon cake is pleasant enough.
A third meal shows further improvement. An appetizer of duck confit is wrapped in moo shu pancakes, a clever and tasty riff on an old favorite. A dish called crab, crab & crab is clever, too. It features crab fresh rolls, a fried soft-shell crab, and a baked crab casserole that’s like a Southeast Asian version of seafood Newburg. The soft-shell is a bit greasy, and an accompanying three-bean salad both seems out of place and features undercooked beans. There’s not a lot of food on the $30 plate, but it does look pretty.
Fluke is served in tom yum broth with tofu, Chinese greens, and skinned cherry tomatoes. Its skin is crisp and its flesh tender, tasting of butter, a rich foil for the sweet-sour soup. The dish is like a high-end version of the wonderful Vietnamese dish canh chua (with a $28 price tag to match).
At a place known for lounging, cocktails are important. A tamarind margarita could use more tamarind, but another tequila drink is a winner — the Beatrice Kiddo, which also includes Cynar and preserved lemon honey. And a lychee martini may be a cliche at a restaurant riffing on Asian food, but hey, it’s a good version of this particular cliche. For players looking to show off, there’s a wine list that features some pricey bubblies, Bordeaux, and more, alongside lower-priced bottles.
The two-story space still looks beautiful. At Om, Buddhism is a decoration scheme, not a religion; the restaurant is adorned with traditional statues and paintings. Perhaps the gradual improvements under Yeo will continue. At any rate, Om may be more of a way station for the chef than a focus. The owners are opening a new restaurant, Moksa, in Central Square. It’s slated to debut in September. Yeo will head that kitchen, as well. The prospect of a clean slate is promising.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org