September 20, 2016
Chef Toshio Tomita opened Cagen in the summer of 2013, in the site that had just been vacated by Kajitsu. Cagen received a star in the 2016 Michelin Guide. Its website says:
“Cagen [加減] means ‘just right’: it speaks to an unwavering commitment to striking the perfect balance between classic and contemporary, between bowing to one’s roots while bending and shaping one’s own path…”
Kent, Linda and I went for dinner on August 14, 2016.
Cagen is down a short flight of stairs deep in the East Village.
Chef Tomita did not divert any money to redecorating; the zen site looks just the same as it did under Kajitsu. We were first seated at a table under the front window, from which this photo was taken, but moved to the table you can see in the back right to avoid the direct hit from the air-conditioning.
You can see the kitchen and the sake cooler in the back.
From the new table the view was
Chef Tomita spent the entire evening at the counter preparing sushi because that is the choice of most of his clientèle. His son Rei prepares cooked dishes in the kitchen in back. We opted for the mixed omakase menu with a variety of Japanese specialties including sashimi and sushi.
We ordered a bottle of Ryusei Junmai Daiginjo Gold Label sake.
This was interesting with a slightly sweet start and a dry finish. We followed it with a bottle of the Silver Label of the same sake, which was a little less assertive.
The first course was a chawanmushi with edamame and corn kernels.
The warm custard with its ordinary garnishes seemed like the ultimate Japanese comfort food.
Next came the zensai, or mixed appetizer plate.
On top was ham deep-fried in a panko crust: unusual and good. The little paper parcel secured with a twist-tie contained a speck of goat cheese, white chocolate and wasabi. There was a single mouthful of miso-marinated black cod. The rectangle is botarga between two slices of daikon. The red skinned piece was a Japanese potato. The yellow tomato wedge is decorated with tofu purée. The circle in the middle was crunchy. It was all fun.
Next came the sashimi course. It was served with a partially grated wasabi root and two dipping sauces.
The first was soy and mirin. The second was chimichurri made with shiso, Japanese wild ginger, yuzu juice and jalapeño. Well, that combination is far from the normal in Argentina, the home of chimichurri.
The fish was thinly sliced herring, tai or sea bream, bincho fish with sesame, grouper and a kumatomo oyster from Washington with a dab of caviar. This was an interesting and good assortment. (That little green mound in the middle front is not more wasabi; it is mashed jalapeño and very hot, not a good addition to fairly subtle fish.)
Then came the soba course.
The chef stone grinds his own buckwheat flour to make these noodles, which are boiled and then served cold. The first loop was served plain, the second was dusted with yuzu powder and topped with a yuzu zest. The third had a dab of garlic-chili sauce. All three were to be dunked in the dashi, soy and mirin dipping sauce before enjoying.
We were then served a cup of the soba’s cooking water and a little dish with chopped scallions, soba seeds and a dab of wasabi. These were to be dumped into what was left of the dipping sauce and then drunk as a soup. Very good.
A crispy skinned piece of beltfish was served with various diced vegetables topped with a piece of myoga, or Japanese ginger.
Next came the grilled course.
There was a wagyu meatball, a chunk of kabocha squash with chopped ginger and scallion, a piece of peach and slices of duck.
The sushi course came where one would expect a rice course in an omakase menu.
There was fatty otoro tuna, a roll with chopped tuna and daikon, Hokkaido uni (sea urchin) and blue fin tuna marinated in a sweet sauce.
Tea was served.
Dessert was red beans with mochi cubes on top of green tea shaved ice.
The chef and his son were certainly seeking the “balance between classic and contemporary, between bowing to one’s roots while bending and shaping one’s own path…” It did not always work for me, but the Tomita “balance” certainly was interesting and enjoyable. The service from our charming waitress was just right. The ambiance was somewhat zen, with few other customers on this very hot August Sunday evening.