You don’t need to travel to Manhattan to experience some of the best food New York has to offer
New York City is known to have some of the best restaurants and food experiences in the world. It is not a far stretch to say that sushi is one of the categories that New York City excels in too. And, when someone thinks of the best places to eat, they often envision one of the many restaurants situated on the island of Manhattan. However, there is a hidden gem that lies in the heart of the neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, and that place is called Koyo. The location was originally opened as Gaijin, a popular eatery that every Astorian knew about when they wanted the best Kaiseki around. But, in the summer of 2018, Gaijin decided to rebrand and offer a modern take on kaiseki that highlighted seasonal offerings that are at the peak of freshness. Koyo offers an intimate dining experience where guests can see the food being prepared through the Chef’s Bar, ask any questions about the ingredients and preparations to the chefs or the host, and embark on a multi-sensory dining experience that showcases a modern take and interpretation on Japanese flavors.
From the moment we arrived, we were welcomed warmly by the host who showed us to our seats at the Chef’s Bar. The food menu was simple, showing only the seasonal kaiseki and some additional accompaniments. The beverage menu was the exact opposite, sprawling a large variety of soft drinks, tea, beer, and most of all sake. In fact, Koyo had one of the most extensive sake menus which featured different varieties and even included seasonal sake by the bottle. Not knowing much about sake, we asked our host to recommend a sake that would pair with the meal ahead of us. It was then that he poured us a glass of Dewazakura Green Ridge sake that paired extremely well with the first three courses. This sake had a floral aroma to it and boasted notes of green apple and ended with a smooth finish. These flavors married perfectly with the upcoming seafood dishes we had that night.
The first course was the Sakizuke, an amuse bouche that featured seared ayu, Norwegian king crab, pickled watermelon rind, and a watermelon yuzu dashi. As soon as the dish meets your eyes, you can’t help but appreciate such a simple looking but beautifully constructed dish. The first thing we picked up from the dish was the pickled watermelon rind, only because in our minds pickled anything would always be delicious. The watermelon rind itself was tangy and tart, but not overt in the acidity which allowed the rind to maintain some of its beautiful freshness. The Norwegian king crab was incredibly plump and offered an incredible sweetness that you would hope to get from crab. The seared ayu was incredibly fresh and melted in your mouth as soon as it touched your tongue. The highlight of the dish was the dashi which featured this mellow sweetness that perfectly complemented the crab and the pickled watermelon. When taking a portion of all the ingredients in one bite, there is a burst of sweetness that comes from the plump crab and dashi, followed by the mellow umami flavor from the seared ayu, all to be finished off with the bright and vibrant flavors from the pickled watermelon rind (which also added a great contrast in texture with how firm and crunchy it was).
Next on the menu was the Hassun course which is a form of eating where the chef offers a variety of small bites which are meant to be eaten clockwise from the left. The reasoning is that the first bite that you eat will compliment the next bite afterwards until you get to the end of the offering. For this Hassun, we were given botan ebi tartar with kaluga caviar, followed by uni milk custard topped with hokkaido uni and yuba, which then led to a kisu tempura with matcha salt, and ended with fresh Wakame with tosazu glee and crispy sawagani. To start with the botan ebi tartar dish, the tartar itself had a nice freshness and brightness and was complemented by the creaminess from the caviar on top. Below the tartar was a crisp rice cracker which was a great vessel to eat the tartar with and provided a beautiful contrast in texture. Next up was the uni milk custard topped with fresh uni. The custard itself has a mellow sweetness to it and had a texture that resembled a gelatin. As you put the custard in your mouth the texture went from a sponginess to a smooth and creamy feel as it melted in your mouth. And when paired with the uni, it amplified the natural richness and butteriness from the uni. Third up was the kisu tempura. The tempura was fried to perfection, having a nice thin crispiness on the outside of the fish all while preserving the freshness and natural flavor of the fish. It was an incredible shift in texture from the fried tempura batter on the outside to the silky smooth texture from the fish on the inside. And the matcha salt was applied so delicately that the faint saltiness from it further accentuated the amazing flavor coming from the fish. Lastly was the fresh Wakame with the crispy sawagani. If you are unfamiliar with sawagani, it is a small freshwater crab that when lightly fried has similar flavors and textures to a potato chip. For this dish, you are meant to eat the entirety of the crab and then pair it with the wakame and tosazu glee. The crab was incredibly crispy but also light and had nice umami flavor to it. After taking a bite, having a sample of the wakame and with tosazu glee balanced it out with a burst of sweetness that worked well together.
The third course was the Yakimono which was a seared tachiuo with Sakiyo miso marinade, paired with a grilled baby corn atop sweet corn miso. If you are unfamiliar with tachiuo, it is a beautiful white fish found in Japan and is a seasonal fish served primarily during the summertime. With the dish came a lime wedge in which we were instructed that we should squirt the lime juice all over the dish to allow for all the flavors to marry. The grilled baby corn had this amazing zest added to it that made the corn tangy while also playing with this smokiness that the grill added. And paired with the lime juice added a burst of acidic flavor that took this simple baby corn and allowed for a myriad of complex flavors to come out. The tachiuo was perfectly flaky and had an amazing sear to it giving it a bit of texture too. Paired with the sweet corn miso added a nice sweetness to it as well.
The fourth course of the evening was the Owan which is the soup portion of the meal. This dish was made with a shiitake dashi, hamo (eel), and kohlrabi. As soon as the lid was taken off of the soup bowl, a burst of steam came out and the entire room was filled with a beautiful aroma from the soup, inviting us to dig into the dish. We tried the dashi by itself first and we were met with this amazing earthy and hearty taste which was due to the shiitake mushroom. The dashi also warmed our bodies with every spoonful and was so delicious that we could not turn ourselves away from it. The eel was immersed in the broth, keeping the flakiness to it but absorbing the earthy flavors from the mushroom. The kohlrabi further added to the earthiness of the dish but went having that, provided a nice crunch that allowed each bite of the soup to not feel one note with texture.
The fifth course was the Nigirzushi which is 8 pieces of sushi hand-selected by the chef. Koyo does an amazing job of only selecting the finest and freshest ingredients and with that in mind, each Nigiri course changes weekly. From this course, we sampled some of the finest fish which included striped jack mackerel, tuna with pickled wasabi and soy, red snapper, hay smoked hamachi, salmon with chili truffle, and lightly seared fatty tuna with chili and soy. You could taste the freshness of each selection of fish and the accompaniments paired with it further accentuated the freshness and natural flavors from the fish.
Up next was the Temaki which is the chef selection handroll. For us, we were given and offering of uni from Hokkaido paired with crispy seaweed. The seaweed itself gave a nice brininess that melded well with the richness of the uni. This handroll was fairly long but each bite felt fresh and kept inviting you to come back and have more. And Koyo prides itself with getting only the best selection of uni around and that quality is apparent with each bite of it. The butteriness of the uni comes out immediately, and paired with the subtle saltiness from the seaweed gives a perfect balance of flavor.
And what meal is complete without dessert. For dessert we were served a milk pudding with black tapioca pearl. The first thing we noticed was how beautiful the presentation was for this. The black tapioca pearls engulfed the entirety of the milk pudding, almost resembling little fish eggs. This sea of black pearls was contrasted with beautiful gold flaked places perfectly at the center of the dessert. As you dip your spoon in, you can feel the sponginess of the pearls first and then as you go deeper you meet the smooth milk pudding (almost resembling a pannacotta if you are a fan of the classic Italian dessert). The milk pudding was incredibly. It had a wonderful richness and sweetness to it that wasn’t overwhelming. When having the pudding itself, you immediately notice how smooth it is and how it spread across your entire palette as it melts slowly in your mouth. And when paired with the tapioca, you get the vibrant springiness from the pearls, similar to if you are having bubble tea.
Needless to say, this dinner was an amazing treat provided by Koyo. The thought put behind the menu was apparent as each dish complimented the next one. The presentation of each dish was beautiful and could easily belong in a museum or art gallery. And what was the most impressive was how each dish could activate multiple senses, be it visually, aromatically, or through your taste buds. With top quality ingredients, masterful presentation, and beautiful flavors, Koyo is a Queens gem that everybody needs to try.