Restaurant Review: Cagen – New York’s Best Sushi as Takeout Amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic

Chef Toshio Tomita

By Jonathan Spira on 31 May 2020
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Four and a half years ago, I ventured to the East Village to try what I understood to be the one of the best Japanese restaurants in the city, Cagen.  In it, I found chef and owner Toshio Tomita, who spent 16 years working for Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu restaurant fame.

Perhaps I had been misinformed as I left believing Chef Tomita had built an establishment that vied with the best sushi restaurants I’ve been to virtually anywhere, Tokyo included.

Fast forward to the start of spring in 2020, which brought with it not only warmer weather but a pandemic accompanied by a lockdown that closed the city’s restaurants, except for takeout.

The author’s sushi platter

Cagen is a kappo ryori-style restaurant.  This means you can watch the chef preparing the meal right in front of you so there’s no better place to sit than at the sushi bar, a name that does not do this temple to sashimi justice.

For me, part of the experience of visiting Cagen was watching Chef Tomita in action and seeing the miniscule changes in his expression as the dish develops. When he serves a course to a diner, it is clear that he is rightly proud of it.  But how does one convey this in takeout?

If I couldn’t dine at Cagen, I would dine immediately outside of Cagen, so my dinner companion and I drove to East 9th Street and were fortunate enough to find a parking spot right in front.   We had ordered two entrees for a 7 p.m. pick-up from the menu conveniently posted on the restaurant’s Instagram account.  For the sake of variety, we ordered a sushi platter and U.S. Ribeye over Rice.

Upon entering, Chef Tomita was sitting at the sushi bar, deep in thought.  These are not easy times for restaurateurs.  My order was ready, I paid, adding a gratuity I thought would help the restaurant keep going, and retreated to my dining room, a 2020 Mercedes A-Klasse sedan.  I yearned for the carhop trays I had experienced at the Brownstone Pancake Factory the week before (note to self: order carhop trays from Amazon), but we made do. 

As I unpacked the wasabi, I thought of how I had seen Chef Tomita grind it in front of me using a sandstone.  I thought of my discussions with his son, Rei, also a chef at the restaurant, about their attempts to grow their own wasabi, a must difficult plant to grow. 

Of course, the sushi was magnificent.  The platter included a selection of salmon, tuna, and a seasonal white fish along with a tuna roll. Flavor sprang from each bite.

The steak dish, while it didn’t quite resemble the photo on the menu, was rich and flavorful.

BOTTOM LINE

While I greatly missed the opportunity of the immersive theater that is dinner at Cagen, I know it will reopen soon, with more unusual interpretations and twists that kept me coming back.  In the meantime, I’m ordering carhop trays and planning a return visit.

THE DETAILS

Cagen
414 East Ninth Street
New York, N.Y. 10009
Tel. +1 212 358-8800
www.cagenrestaurant.com

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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