Chef Tim Maslow’s twisting tale is familiar to a legion of adoring Boston food nerds, from his rapid rise through Manhattan’s Momofuku empire to a nearly riot-inducing, sensational makeover of Watertown’s Strip-T’s and the brilliant three-year meteor that was Brookline’s Ribelle. After two years out of the spotlight, he’s back helming a place of his own alongside chef Matthew Hummel (ex-Tiger Mama) in Tremont 647’s old South End digs. The cranky former wunderkind and his team now work inventive Japanese flavors from New England ingredients, though the sailing isn’t always placid.
Maslow’s storied strengths appear immediately on his pickle plate ($7), which ricochets tightly among different curing techniques for cabbage, green beans, daikon and peppers such as salt-curing and longer, deliciously stinky fermentation. They’re gorgeous, vibrant, never the same twice and worth ordering every visit. Other pickles like his sweeter “seven lucky gods” brighten several larger plates. Non-soybean misos dress vegetables; shio koji (based on the fungus that ferments many crucial Japanese foodstuffs) serves as a meat marinade. David Chang’s shadow looms over these umami-packed bites, as in a brace of pork-belly steamed buns ($13) that evokes Momofuku Ssäm Bar circa 2008.
A roll-your-own temaki of marinated lobster ($12) is the nearest thing here to sushi: generous chunks of richly marinated, roe-dolloped lobster for wrapping with a pad of rice in nori. It’s delectable. Raw fatty beef ($18) reads more French-brasserie tartare than sashimi bar, delivering textural joy from barely coarse hand-cutting and medium-poached, thickened egg yolk. Kabocha squash croquettes ($8) exemplify the kitchen’s adept frying technique: Gooily cheese-laced fritters are elevated to fiery awesomeness by serrano-chili miso.
More bright spots lurk among vegetable dishes like charred baby romaine ($16) with sunshine-yellow husk cherries (a tart novelty), a goodly sprinkling of king crab and “Benihana sauce” snappy with fresh ginger. Brussels sprout tops ($9) are another kicky, little-seen ingredient—like a more bitter chard—though they’re overdressed with creamy tofu and Japanese mustard. Shiitake rice ($18) is built on the beautiful subtlety of carefully seasoned and cooked grains, crowned with meaty mushroom tops, miso-flavored onions and cunning little curls of omelet. It’s a trifle bland but very satisfying. Japanese curry ($16), an ocher gravy flecked with carrots and potatoes, has a homey simplicity but comes with more excellent rice and pickles. An optional side of fine, crunchy pork katsu ($10) makes it a meal. Simmered littleneck clams ($20) with cabbage are similarly mild but impeccably clean and fresh, grilled rice bringing welcome carbon accents from the charcoal grill.
Grilled Spanish mackerel ($22) cooks three skin-edged fillets with aged tamari that is sadly rendered to an ordinary crusty glaze, skillfully charred but again a bit flat given the species and the chefs’ gifts for insistent flavors; a side of Sichuan-pepper-laced pickles adds needed zing. But then comes charcoal-grilled, soy-basted chicken ($21) from a Raynham farm. It’s stunningly rich, quietly salty/smoky, fascinatingly tender and succulent from shio koji marinade, with ravishingly crisp, lightly charred skin. Add the chili-and-bonito smack of “funky pepper condiment,” more superb rice and pickles and a cup of outstanding chicken broth ($3), and you have Whaling’s winningest virtues in a single course. The short dessert list includes a lovely, judiciously salted crème caramel ($7) and runny cheese on cheesecake ($10), pairing slightly stinky, softish Vermont cow cheese with tiny-crumbed, barely sweet, only faintly cheesy cheesecake. It’s two finishers in one.
Beverage director Colin Mason has erected a smashing bar program that ably serves diners and just-drinkers alike. Clever original cocktails include a super-fizzy Suntory Toki draft highball ($12) of smooth Japanese whisky spiked with grapefruit oil; the Cos for Concern ($13), a Cosmo necessarily updated with charred shishito vodka; and the psychedelic Neon Forest ($13) of Midori, Calpico (think vanilla Japanese Yoo-hoo) and two kinds of citrus, which miraculously iron out the melon liqueur’s cloying candy notes. Four draft beers ($7-$8) and eight packaged options ($8-$13) favor lean, dry, food-friendly Japanese lagers. The dozen thoughtfully curated sakes are the optimal but costly food-pairing choice: $32-$56 for a quickie-disappearing 300 milliliter bottle, $14-$16 for more modest 180-200 milliliter packaged options and $11-$13 for a 2.5-ounce cup. Seven wines by-the-glass ($11-$15) and 23 bottles ($40-$88, most under $60) again complement the cuisine, notably with crisp, quaffable sparklers, whites and rosés.
Service two months in is mostly smooth, but still shows some rough spots such as rapid-fire kitchen pacing that sometimes piles up too many plates for the table space or our bottle of sake forlornly waiting at the far end of the bar for 10 minutes. The two groovy, bearably noisy dining rooms offer a neat contrast: The open-kitchen side is bright, pastel-hued and bedecked with surreal pastoral murals, the old Sister Sorel side is more rustic and romantic, evoking a dimly-lit hunting lodge. That dichotomy echoes Maslow and Hummel’s culinary approach, alternating between sleepily muted and fiercely lively flavors. Food and drink this exquisitely sourced and exactingly prepared is impossible to do on the cheap, yielding checks that might punish some patrons’ expectations of a casual, hip neighborhood spot. As the name suggests, Whaling in Oklahoma is an ironically contradictory, occasionally exhilarating experience that clearly reflects the boss’ tortured creative genius. ◆
Pork-belly steamed buns
Marinated lobster hand roll
Kabocha squash croquettes
Simmered littleneck clams
Grilled local chicken
Whaling in Oklahoma, 647 Tremont St., Boston (617-266-4600) whalinginoklahoma.com; Hours: Mon.-Thu., 5 pm-midnight (dinner till 10 pm), Fri.-Sat., 5 pm-1 am, Sun., 5-10 pm (dinner till 9 pm); Brunch, Sat.-Sun., 11 am-2 pm; Reservations: Yes; Liquor: Full; Parking: Metered spaces and scant street guest parking