Hojoko, the new rock 'n' roll sushi joint at the Verb Hotel is knocking it out of the park.
Tsukune (a Japanese chicken meatball dish), with an egg yolk and a king crab leg.
The elegant and revered O Ya, crowned “the best restaurant in America” by The New York Times in 2008, reassures us that Boston is a sophisticated city, a place where high-caliber culinary artists can thrive. The newly opened Hojoko Japanese Tavern reminds us that we can also have a wicked good time. As much as O Ya offers a refined interpretation of Japanese cuisine (with a steep price tag), Hojoko is “young, wild, and free” (in the words of a Yelp review), and while not inexpensive, the bill doesn’t sting. Both restaurants are owned and operated by Tim and Nancy Cushman (who run two more in New York).
Even the name reflects Hojoko’s sense of fun: “Hojo” refers to the location’s former occupant, a Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, while “ko” means “child” in Japanese. Nancy calls Hojoko their “love child.” Yet the name also shows respect for tradition. “The H?j? clan of Japan was deeply Buddhist and influential in spreading religion,” she says, adding cheekily, “They were also known for their decadence.”
Hojoko opened in August as part of the Verb Hotel, and it feels more like LA circa 1980 than the backside of Fenway, with a courtyard pool and a dusk-to-dawn party groove. Graffiti by the art collective Six Twelve adorns the walls, ceilings, and floors; tabletop Pac-Man video games are in the bar; and Godzilla memorabilia and Hello Kitty clocks are just some of the kitschy pieces that Nancy has spent years gathering. The music mix—created by Tim, who began his culinary journey after graduating from the Berklee College of Music—borders on cacophonous. “If it’s too loud, you’re too old,” he says with a chuckle.
The grilled Maine lobster roll.
Every good party needs good food, and the kitchen, led by chef Hart Lowry (a five-year O Ya team member), keeps the beat to the rhythm in the dining room. There are no traditional main courses, just many options that can be shared or eaten as a course in a curated meal. More than a dozen rolls lead the roster, some of them recognizable, like the California roll (made with the usual suspects: crab, avocado, and cucumber). But Lowry’s combines sweet and nutty Jonah crabmeat from Maine (no faux crab stick), unctuous and perfectly ripe avocado, a crunch of cucumber, and rich-in-umami Kewpie mayonnaise (a sweetened Japanese brand with a cult following) that gets an additional umami turbo-charge from tobiko (flying fish roe). The whole shebang is wrapped in dried nori from a small producer in Maine.
About that difficult-to-define taste, umami—loosely defined as “savory”—which is elemental to Asian cuisine: It rules the room at Hojoko, like sweet in a pastry shop. The grilled Maine lobster roll is a cuckoo-delicious example. The robata-grilled tail is a skillful layering of flavors, each a unique expression of umami, with sushi rice laced with lobster tomalley (that green bit that functions as a liver) and a reduction sauce of sake, sea urchin, miso—and then, Tim adds, “a little touch of truffle.”
The rest of the menu reveals gems like deep-fried kare-pan, a thin yeast dough filled with curried chicken; hot and cold randos (a riff on the word “random”), which include the Hawaiian favorite of spicy tuna poke with a crunch of rich macadamia nuts; a traditional Japanese omelet with the heady addition of Robiola cheese; and a clever twist on the Italian stalwart pasta alla carbonara, which comes to the table as a bowl of udon noodles and crispy pork belly in a rich dashi-based broth that cannot be resisted. In a fitting tribute to the former tenant, the menu also includes a house cheeseburger, made from a mix of chuck and short rib topped with American cheese and Asian pickles.
“Our mission, at all our properties, is to surprise and delight,” says Nancy. “At O Ya, we do it one way. Here it’s different and accessible for everyone. We’re giving ourselves permission to have fun.” 1271 Boylston St., 617-670-0507