We’re in a Japanese moment. In roughtly two years as New York Times restaurant critic, Sam Sifton could find just three Japanese restaurants to review, and one of these was a wholly unwarranted demotion of Masa from four stars to three.
In two and a half years, Pete Wells has already reviewed nine Japanese restaurants, and there are probably a few he has missed. Some of this is preference—Wells clearly likes sushi better than Sifton does—but that doesn’t fully account for it. If you love sushi, there’s never been a better time than the last couple of years.
No discussion could be complete without mentioning the newest four-star restaurant, Sushi Nakazawa. Each reservation date opens at midnight, exactly 30 days in advance. Counter seats are gobbled up in about 3 seconds: I’ve never seen one available. Table seats are a bit easier to get—only a bit—but for that kind of money I’m not settling for the second-class version.
The chef here is Toshio Tomita, who spent 17 years at the Nobu restaurants, most recently as corporate chef. You might worry that after nearly two decades working at mass-produced scale, his art would no longer be suited to a 10-person counter, but there is no sign of the big-box factory cynicism that has taken over Nobu in recent years. One can only wonder: what took him so long?
There are a few tables (plus a whole back dining room that was unused the night we visited). Sit at one of these, and you have a choice of several smaller fixed menus ($30–45), plus sushi, sashimi, and prepared plates from the kitchen à la carte. At the counter, where we sat, only the seven-course omakase is served ($120 per person).
Cagen is not one of those Japanese restaurants where there is a continuous dialogue with the chef, who customizes the meal based on your reactions and preferences. Everyone receives the same set cooked entrées, sashimi, and sushi that Mr. Tomita has planned for that evening. (At the end of the sushi course, which is the last before dessert, he’ll ask if you want more; that is the only point where a choice is offered.)
This is not a complaint, just a clarification of the sort of restaurant Cagen is. Mr. Tomita’s fixed menu is excellent. Put yourself in his hands, and you will be happy.
The beverage menu does not live up to the quality of the food. There are just nine sakes (three by the bottle), three beers, and four white wines on offer. A restaurant as good as Cagen needs to do better.
Mr. Tomita runs the counter himself, and he also periodically exits into the kitchen, where his son prepares the hot dishes. He does not have much time for chit-chat, although he will certainly explain everything he serves, and he answers questions cheerfully.
When the counter is full, he could be preparing up to half-a-dozen plates simulataneously, and sometimes a few minutes go by between plating and serving—which is not ideal. The dreary amuse bouche of green and white asparagus, yuzu and corn (above right) surely wasn’t helped by resting in the bowl for at least ten minutes before it was served. Fortunately, there wasn’t another dud in the meal.
The first course (above left) came out of the kitchen, with five canapés. The explanations came faster than I could write down, but panko-crusted ham stood out, along with a bundle of goat cheese, white chocolate and wasabi, wrapped in a tiny, twist-tied paper sack.
An ample portion of sashimi (above right) can be dipped in your choice of hand-ground wasabi or a house-made chimichurri.
For soba noodles, Mr. Tomita hand-grinds buckwheat flour from whole grains imported from Japan. He serves three varieties, folded neatly and presented in a row, with soy dipping sauce. After that, a server presents a cup of the hot broth they were cooked in, which you pour into the soy sauce and drink like soup. My phone battery died at this point, but the photo in Pete Wells’s two-star review give a pretty good idea of what the soba course looks like.
Next came a couple of hot fish preparations (above): We loved the Japanese trout with the skin on, broiled on skewers; but the more remarkable of the two was a dessicated fish carcass shaped like a dragon, so thin and salty that it tasted like bacon.
Then came soft-shell crab as good as any you’ll find in this crab-happy town (left).
At this point our second phone died, so I’ll have to describe the sushi course without photos. I distinctly recall four pieces, all delightful: yellowfin tuna, bluefin tuna, fatty tuna, and sea urchin.
Dessert was sorbet and mango with a dab of wasabi, a combination I’ve not seen before.
The staff are polite, attentive, and never far away. On a Wednesday evening, the counter was fully booked, but there are only ten seats for them to worry about. I saw just one table occupied, and it appeared they ordered the same as we did, the full omakase.
Cagen is a small restaurant, and it does not have the encyclopedic selection of some other Japanese restaurants. It could also use a better wine and sake list. But intimacy has its benefits: dinner at Cagen feels like a private party, at least until you get the check ($410 for two, including tax and tip), which is a lot more than an average evening out, at least for us, but well worth it.
Cagen (412–414 E. 9th Street between First Ave. and Ave. A, East Village)
Food: Sushi, sashimi, and cooked Japanese specialties
Service: Polite, attentive, and never far away
Ambiance: A quiet, 10-seat counter and just a few tables