Popular Astoria sushi restaurant Gaijin has turned over a new leaf, formally reopening tomorrow as the more upscale Kōyō after a few weeks serving customers during limited hours.
Owner Jay Zheng, who closed Gaijin after three years this summer, is behind the new business, installing a new chef named Darry Liu who comes with experience from restaurants like Eleven Madison Park, Shuko, and Ichimura at Uchu. Gaijin chef Mark Garcia is now planning his own East Village restaurant.
In keeping with these omakase-crazed times, Liu’s focus here is on set menus. The first of two options is a sushi omakase ($135) that starts with a few prepared courses, like Dungeness crab atop seaweed and tofu cut like a flower and served in dashi broth. Twelve courses of nigiri, a maki (roll) course, and dessert follow.
All the fish at Kōyō, like a bite of squid with Hokkaido uni or tuna belly prepared with wasabi, come from Japan’s major Fukuoka and Toyosu markets. “As a chef, to go to [these] fish markets, it’s like to go to Disneyland,” says Liu, who has visited both. From afar, he gets three weekly updates via email on the latest catch, and is currently eyeing and order of needle fish and kamasu, or Japanese barracuda.
Kōyō’s other menu is a kaiseki omakase ($175) with five prepared dishes and nine pieces of sushi, plus maki and dessert. Chef Liu is careful to call the menu “kaiseki-inspired” rather than the genuine article: The dining format, a progression of small seasonal dishes, has origins as an ancient Buddhist cuisine, but has become a more generalized concept. At Kōyō’, “We learned from the kaiseki flavor progression,” says Zheng. ”Light to heavy, from soft to crunchy, warm to cold.”
The kaiseki begins with small bites like monkfish liver, moving on to plates like bluefin tuna tartare with uni, then Chinese caviar on milk toast with Burgundy truffles shaved on top. A grilled fish course near the end is currently smoked Tasmanian ocean trout.
Both Kōyō’s menus end on the same sweet note, with homemade, persimmon-filled mochi, hazelnut gelato, and a glass of homemade soy milk with tapioca pearls. Either option takes about two hours, and is offered at one of two seatings (5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.). Sake, beer, and wine, are available, too.
The atmosphere is intimate — just eight seats at the bar and ten in the dining room – and more elegant than at Gaijin. Zheng had the space redone in local maple, a nod to the new restaurant’s name: Kōyō refers to the changing autumn colors of Japanese maple trees.