Upmarket Asian cuisine is enjoying a boomlet in Boston. Banyan is already drawing South End crowds with its beautiful room and glamorous East/West fusion. Top Chef star Tiffani Faison is about to debut Tiger Mama in the Fenway, while David Punch is set to open Little Big Diner in Newton Centre. The latest addition to this umami-rich stew is Hojoko, from Tim and Nancy Cushman, owners of O Ya, the modern Japanese eatery that is the city’s most expensive restaurant. If you’ve been hoping to sample the Cushmans’ nationally acclaimed work but balked at O Ya’s tariff, Hojoko is your relatively budget-priced ticket.
Set in Fenway’s rock ’n’ roll-themed Verb Hotel (once a Howard Johnson’s, get it?), Hojoko has none of O Ya’s temple-like serenity: It’s a rollicking, capacious tavern set to a deafening rock soundtrack, hallucinogenically overstuffed with rock and surf bric-a-brac and Japanese pop-culture kitsch. A long bar is the room’s centerpiece, drink-slinging a clear priority. Colorful tropical punches and hoary dating-bar drinks flow from big tanks ($7 shot, $12 drink, $48 bowl), like the Blue Hawaiian of rum, pineapple, sochu, lemon and blue Curaçao, and the Japanese Caucasian ($12), a frozen White Russian variant. Old-time Tiki lovers will appreciate the Jungle Bird ($12) of rum, coconut-infused Campari, pineapple and lime, served in a ceramic parrot mug. There’s a sake for every taste: 19 in cups ($6-$18), six in 1.8-liter bottles ($100-$188). Fourteen beers on tap and in bottles ($5-$8) and five large-formats ($12-$24) favor light, food-friendly Asian brews like Okinawan rice lager Orion ($6), plus some craftier Americans. Wines are few and modest ($9-$12 glass, most bottles $35-$45). Belying the overarching fun-fun-fun aesthetic, bartenders are precise and well-versed in more serious craft cocktails. Not many Boston bars are so versatile, executing equally well on cocktails both sublime and ridiculous.
Executive chef Hart Lowry’s menu embodies a like-minded combination of wit and seriousness, creativity and tradition. Nigiri and sashimi for one ($26; on one visit, tuna, mackerel and salmon sashimi and chutoro, salmon and yellowtail nigiri) offers delicately cut, pristine fish and well-seasoned sushi rice. Fancier rolls let their central ingredients shine via admirable restraint with sauces, as in fried wild black miso cod roll ($8/$16) with dashi-pickle tartar sauce, a spam-like prep of foie gras ($8/$16) with robata (charcoal-grilled) pineapple and yuzu kosho, and especially robata Maine lobster tail ($12/$24) with tomalley rice, sake/sea-urchin jus and citrus zest. These offer a glimmer of O Ya’s invention, subtlety and impeccable ingredients at far gentler prices.
Robata skewers, a standby of Japanese after-work drinking joints, offer a delectable few bites. Standouts include fat whole prawns ($12) with spicy ponzu butter, crispy chicken tails ($7) with black-truffle salt (yes, chicken butt is a delicacy), and tender buttermilk-brined chicken livers ($7) with ponzu-garlic butter. A rare misfire is tsukune ($8), a long chicken meatball with raw egg-yolk dip, thanks to harsh oversalting. More beautiful and balanced is the outstanding hamachi kama ($15), fatty collar of yellowtail showered with spicy daikon, shiso, seaweed and scallion, plus ponzu for dipping. Salmon fins ($7) offers two chunks of crisp-fried salmon belly nestled in translucent garlic-chive sauce with the barest whiff of truffle salt.
Ramen lovers are treated with appetizer-sized bowls of alkaline noodles in luscious broths. Funky chicken ramen ($9) wows with a deep-flavored chicken broth and toppings of soy egg, fermented bamboo shoots and charcoal-grilled chicken. Hot dog ramen ($12) impresses with a rich pork-bone broth, scallions, nori and a crown of salty grilled frankfurter artfully sliced into a squiggly tangle. Curry somen jiru ($8) builds winsomely on skinny, pale wheat noodles and tender slices of braised chicken with a light curry/dashi broth dotted with shiitakes, scallions and daikon.
Cold dishes include a fabulous tuna poke ($11), the Hawaiian salad of raw tuna cubes, nicely balancing chili fire with creamy roasted-macadamia dressing and avocado. Potato edamame salad ($5) with dashi pickles, scallions and bonito flakes is a bowl of mild comfort. Tsukemono ($5) prettily presents three bracing seasonal pickles like kimchi, daikon and charred ramps. No self-styled tavern can do without a burger; here, the spicy tuna burger ($17) delivers a complex wallop of flavors, layering greens, pickled ginger, tomato, scallions and spicy mustard, punctuated by the surprising smack of sweet-glazed broiled eel.
Service is appropriately brash and informal, showing impressive command of the long menu and admirable accuracy in capturing orders amid the din. Note that a typical procession of drinks and plates can quickly add up. While not reaching mortgage-payment heights, the tab may surprise diners used to less-refined Asian restaurants: Budget for a higher-end sushi place, not a cheerful Chinatown joint. Still, I’m hopeful that Hojoko and its swank new competitors will goose Bostonians to an overdue resetting of price expectations for modern Asian cuisine. Food and drink this carefully wrought in a kicky setting ain’t cheap, but Hojoko demonstrates that it can be a real value.
-Nigiri and sashimi
-Robata-grilled Maine lobster tail roll
-Crispy chicken tails
-Funky chicken ramen
Hours: Daily, 5 pm-2 am
Parking: Metered spaces, nearby private lots, valet
Liquor: Full bar
Hojoko 1271 Boylston St., Boston (617-670-0507) hojokoboston.com