On a nondescript street in Queens, NYC, sandwiched between a Mexican bodega and an apartment unit, there’s a restaurant cooking traditional Japanese cuisine that’s very rare outside of Japan. Kōyō, the brainchild of chef Jay Zheng, is an elegant restaurant serving kaiseki, a traditional style of Japanese fine dining. In New York, Japanese fine dining is usually the realm of Manhattan, not an outer borough like Queens. But for Zheng, he’s here to change that assumption while also showcasing his Chinese American heritage in the distinctly Japanese dining art of kaiseki.
The origins of kaiseki can be traced to the cuisine of Buddhist monks in Japan. Originally, this form was called cha-kaiseki and consisted of humble vegetarian dishes served with tea. Eventually, this cooking style evolved into a multi-course meal with an intense focus on seasonality and cooking methods. A proper kaiseki meal is a highlight of a chef’s skill and creativity. Because of this, various cooking techniques such as steaming, braising, frying, and grilling are featured prominently throughout the different courses, each showcasing the chef’s ability.
Kaiseki meals are a structured progression. A good way to envision this is to think of kaiseki as an orchestra, with each item having a role to play. Dishes are served from light to heavier flavors with hot tea and a sweet course served at the end. One of the most important elements of kaiseki is seasonality. Kaiseki will often be structured with a focus on a season, with each dish and ingredient sourced and cooked to highlight that season.
“We also curate our ingredients and flavors to follow the season and how the human palate changes with the season,” said Zheng. “During the summer, our dishes will be lighter and more refreshing to accommodate the more sensitive palate. During the winter, dishes will be slightly heavier, such as grilled or braised dishes and incorporated to fit that heavier palate.”
A Unique Style and Location
Much of the presentation and ingredients at Kōyō are resoundingly classic representations of kaiseki. Everything from the intricate knife work to the selection of seafood, many flown straight from Japan, demonstrates Zheng’s foundation in Japanese cuisine. But a closer inspection of the dishes reveals several subtle and interesting elements. At Kōyō, the traditional Gohan (rice) dish takes the form of an omakase (“I leave it up to you” or chef’s choice) nigirizushi course, an interesting choice because traditional kaiseki does not feature sushi. For Zheng, this inclusion of a multi-piece sushi course was designed to not only fulfill the rice element but also to showcase seasonal fish.
The location for Kōyō is also unique. Initially, Zheng intended to open a restaurant in Manhattan. It was only by coincidence that he instead opened in Astoria, Queens. “I spent a few weeks exploring the area and found the diversity, a short distance to Manhattan, intriguing. Most importantly, that special neighborhood vibe that you just don’t get elsewhere,” said Zheng. “We feel like Queens has a lot of hidden gems and deserves more upper scale dining to bring something special to the neighborhood.”
But opening in Queens was not easy. Most omakase, fine-dining Japanese restaurants in New York City are located in Manhattan, with diners expecting quality that rivals Japan itself. Six years ago, Zheng initially opened another restaurant in Kōyō’s location called Gaijin. Although Gaijin served sushi and other higher-end Japanese dishes, it wasn’t kaiseki. Zheng was mostly concerned about the higher price point of a restaurant like Kōyō combined with the fact that there was no comparable restaurant of the kind in Queens. However, the situation eventually changed. “After over three years in operation, Queens accepted us with open arms, and demand for omakase increased more and more,” said Zheng. In the summer of 2019, Zheng opened Kōyō, dedicating the restaurant to his style of kaiseki.
A distinctive element of Kōyō is the inclusion of Zheng’s heritage as a Chinese American. As an immigrant who came to America at eight years old, Zheng grew up in his father’s restaurant business. Zheng’s father was a successful restauranteur with an empire that included a total of eight restaurants. And these establishments weren’t only Chinese, Japanese restaurants were also a part of Zheng’s upbringing. “It was at his (father’s) restaurant where I learned about Japanese cuisine while working with the elder chefs,” said Zheng. “When I curate my menu, I always incorporate an element from my past such as a memory or a flavor I enjoyed as a young child.”
These memories of childhood show up throughout the menu at Kōyō. For the fall yakimono (grilled) course, Zheng marinates seasonal sanma (Pacific saury) in koji miso and grills it over a magnolia leaf, which is served brilliantly with the finished fish. “It brings me back to a memory when I was a little child visiting my grandparent’s home in southern China,” said Zheng. “My grandma would bring me a simple grilled Sanma with soy sauce over rice. I’d eat it sitting on her lap under their 60-year-old magnolia tree in front of their home.” The dish finished with a bed of sautéed mushrooms is a revelation and nothing short of autumn itself. For Zheng, these inspirations should be organic and the story of these flavors, seamless with his own memories. “Inspirations can come from anywhere,” said Zheng.
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