*** Stars (Out of Four)
Address: 94 East 7th St., nr First Avenue
Cuisine: Eclectic Japanese with Kaiseki Tasting
Vibe: Serene , Subterranean Oasis
Occasion: Intimate date, tranquil escape, or craving Japan
Drink: Seasonal Sakes
Don’t Miss: Grilled magret duck, chawan mushi, braised daikon in broth, & green tea creme brulee.
Don’t Bother: Seasonal Tsukemono (Seasonal Pickles)
We spend so much time chasing after new restaurants we often forget about the ones that have managed to stick around long enough to no longer be considered new. And as you know, in New York, that’s no easy feat. For my birthday, a friend was determined to take me for dinner somewhere I’d never been. While I doubted the likelihood, I played along and headed down to 94 East 7th Street in the East Village to discover where I’d be dining. Aside from a sign that reads “Open”, there is no name out front at all, just a staircase leading down to an unmarked entrance. he building itself looked like a typical, East Village walk-up with a hair salon on the street level and apartments above it. But descend down the stairs, open the door, and you’ll feel like you’ve left the island Manhattan and stepped foot into a serene, Japanese hideaway. The restaurant is called Kyo-ya, and no, I had never been. The front hallway is paved with smooth pebbles and the sound of trickling water plays the part of the soundtrack. Inside, there’s a quaint, upfront dining room with glossy wood floors and only six tables, a sushi bar, private dining rooms and another sushi bar tucked into the rear of the restaurant. Considering my infatuation with Japanese cooking, I couldn’t help but wonder how this tiny oasis had stayed off my radar for so long. The clientele at Kyo-ya is mostly Japanese and the menu is what I’d call eclectic Japanese — a combination pub (izakaya), sushi bar and traditional restaurant with a special focus on kaiseki, which must be ordered two days in advance. Kaiseki is the Japanese version of a tasting menu, originally created to complement the traditional tea ceremony, but these days tea isn’t obligatory. What you can except is a multi-course meal with something uncooked (like sashimi or seasonal pickles), something simmered (perhaps noodles), grilled (duck), fried (tempura) and then, of course, dessert. The kaiseki at Kyo-ya is an elegant procession of plates and a just as elegant, but thankfully informal spot to experience it in.
If you forget to pre-order the kaiseki or make a last-minute reservation, there’s plenty of terrific a la carte dishes. I actually recommend ordering a la carte on your first visit, so you can build your own tasting menu of small plates. Kyo-ya only serves sake, but the list is extensive and interesting with several seasonal offerings, all served in elegant, one-of-a-kind glassware. But what makes a meal here so special is the profound attention to ingredients, detail and presentation. Order a simple Kyoto salad and you’ll receive a delicate arrangement of julienned radish, carrots and sprouts with a creamy garlic dressing that looks more like art than dinner. I have never paid such close attention to daikon, which can admittedly taste bland, and is often used as a garnish to prop up pieces of sashimi. At Kyo-ya, the chef steeps the daikon in a simple, yet tremendously flavorful dashi broth with nappa greens. As crazy as it sounds, it’s one of the simplest pleasures I’ve had in years. (True story.) It’s dishes like these that make you slow down in adoration of ingredients, especially seasonal ones. There’s a wonderful palm tree heart and fiddlehead fern tempura that reminds you why transient produce, like ferns, are hyped in the first place. A steamy cup of chawanmushi (egg custard) comes laced with scallops, scallions, chicken and sweet strands of crab meat. I also loved the seafood shutoan, which must be Japanese for bits of shrimp, scallops and crab, coated in a thick and briny bonito sauce. Really, the only appetizers I didn’t fall for are the tile fish mousse,which is pretty to look at, but faint of flavor, and a paltry portion of seasonal pickles with green beans and daikon. Apart from those, there’s plenty of great dishes, like thinly sliced, grilled duck, tender and sweet, sprinkled with Mongolian salt for crunch as well as a unique composition of sea urchin over an ethereal mixture of tofu skin and clear sauce.
Don’t neglect the sushi offerings either, many of which are caught in very local waters. In fact, the sea bass sashimi is from New Brunswick, New Jersey and I swear on my life it’s excellent — delicate, fresh and subtly sweet. The sashimi and pressed sushi offerings change according to the seasons, but right now they’re serving yellow fin tuna from Boston, a buttery Tasmanian sea trout, marinated mackerel and hokai octopus. For dessert, I suggest the green tea creme brulee, exceedingly creamy and balanced alongside a cup of roasted green tea.
For me, Kyo-ya is as close as you’ll get to Japan and as far as you’ll get out of the city without leaving the island of Manhattan.