KAMAKURA ★ ★½
New restaurants often impress, sometimes depress. But they don’t always make us feel excited to eat there. And then excited to eat there again.
I feel excited to eat at Kamakura. This doesn’t mean it’s perfect. But it grabs me in that deep place where I love food, which exists at the bottom of a pool of jadedness, the runoff of too many beet salads and roast half-chickens. The downtown Japanese restaurant isn’t like anything else in the city. Kamakura’s specialty is the artful multicourse meals known as kaiseki, but there are several different ways to eat here, and even after multiple visits I don’t feel I have exhausted them.
Chef Youji Iwakura first came to Boston to study singing at Berklee College of Music. Naturally, he wound up working at restaurants — Ginza, Uni, Basho, and Oishii Boston among them. He is perhaps best known for his time at Snappy Ramen, where the bowls of noodles made customers sit up and take notice. The food was so much better than it needed to be to please ramen-starved Davis Square.
In November, he opened his own place, named for his hometown in Japan. Now we really get to know a chef we’ve caught glimpses of for years. Kamakura is sincere, ambitious, and expensive — the sort of restaurant that opens often in larger cities but is harder for Boston to support.
I hope Boston will support it. It is a bit of a gamble, with multiple levels and multiple menus, potentially confusing, none of it slotted easily into the expectations of the average diner. There are kaiseki tasting menus, an a la carte “washoku bistro” menu, lunchtime bento boxes. There is a first-floor area with a chef’s counter/sushi bar, a second-story dining room with another bar and a beautiful city view, and up top the Kumo Sky Bar & Lounge — all pretty and also pretty cramped. The building’s copper exterior gleams warmly. It’s not a temple to tradition, not full-scale fusion. It’s something in between, a reflection of Iwakura’s interests and his wish to share them.
Washoku is traditional Japanese food, emphasizing seasonality and dating back centuries — “wa” means Japan, “shoku” means eat. “Washoku bistro” nudges it toward contemporary tastes, a little more elaborate, a little less pure. So in addition to a list of pristine fish — lusciously fatty salmon, Portuguese sea bream, Hokkaido scallops — available as sashimi or sushi, we get dishes like the excellent hamachi pastrami. Thick slices of fish are arrayed like dominoes on the plate, topped with fronds of dill and dots of vegan mayonnaise, and served with pickled vegetables: the makings of a pastrami sandwich, except very much not.
A clay cup is filled with warm tofu the texture of soft scrambled eggs, dotted with bright orange salmon roe that pops in your mouth. It is flavored with lime zest and sabayon, the eggy, wine-based sauce, here made with Japanese mirin. (In season, it was also a base for Maine sea urchin, not currently available.) Tender eggplant is swathed in spicy miso, draped in springy pea tendrils, and sprinkled with bits of walnut for crunch and contrast.
Not everything is as well executed. The generous chirashi bowl is a feast for the eyes, brimming with raw fish and pickled vegetables arranged over well-cooked sushi rice. But it’s underseasoned, and there's not enough textural variety among the fish. Vegetable tempura is a newer addition to the menu. It includes okra, asparagus, and more, over creamy sesame sauce, sprinkled with flower petals and adorned with goji berry foam. Again it’s very pretty, but the batter is too dense, and there’s no accompanying dipping sauce to soften it.
Dishes from the robata grill are infused with charcoal flavor. A plate of thin-sliced duck breast is all primal smoke and chew, served with charred scallions and thin-sliced rhubarb. Any steakhouse-favoring diner brought to this State Street location for a business meal would be happy with the Strube Ranch wagyu from Texas, perfectly rosy with grilled edges, served with fat stalks of asparagus and truffle vinaigrette. Desserts — tofu ganache, a dense chocolate square topped with kumquats; deep-green matcha tiramisu with a dish of tiny lemon meringues — tend to fall shy of their promise.
Some of the a la carte dishes also appear on the kaiseki menu ($156), a 10-course tone poem with a semi-traditional progression and ever-changing ingredients. To begin one evening, there is a sip of bright reddish-coral tomato dashi with olive oil and microgreens, like a Japanese gazpacho. Then it’s on to the first course, titled “from the ocean”: a cured oyster served in its shell with roe and dashi gelee, black-cod sashimi draped over fried okra, and the round red fruit called yamamomo, or Japanese bayberry. “From the garden” is a jewel-like vegetable appetizer of a chicken-stuffed morel and other mushrooms over bright-green ramp puree, topped with purple microgreens.
Next is sushi-hassun, a platter of nigiri: shima aji (striped jack) with the tiniest dab of the citrus-chile paste yuzu kosho, madai (sea bream), and torched salmon. There is a “warmth” course that smells like breakfast at an inn in Japan, fish cake in lightly sweet dashi with a bit of crab salad, topped with a shishito pepper and a slice of crunchy lotus root. After that, sashimi, a highlight of the meal: an arrangement of big-eye tuna, salmon, scallop with truffles, and more.
Robata-grilled wagyu with daikon, miso, and dashi butter takes us into the more-substantial part of the meal. The menu offers American steak, but for $25 you can upgrade to high-grade Japanese Miyazaki A5 wagyu. It’s common practice, yet I reflexively dislike upcharges for luxury ingredients on already-expensive tasting menus. That said, a friend and I try the two variants side by side one night. Both are wonderful, but if you’re splurging, the buttery, deeply flavorful Japanese wagyu is worth it.
“Steam” is the silky, savory egg custard called chawanmushi, topped with eel and blood-orange zest. It’s excellent, and also available a la carte. “Encouragement” features pork belly with a chocolate-balsamic glaze, bamboo, and orange gooseberries. (It encourages me to keep eating, eight courses in.) The final savory course, crispy rice, is another must-order from the washoku bistro menu: a rice cake, crunchy on the outside, topped with seaweed and salmon roe, in a pool of wasabi dashi poured tableside. The meal ends with wagashi, the Japanese sweets often served with tea. One is shaped like a pink flower, made from rice and filled with lima-bean paste; there are also jelly candies with crunchy outer shells, and a stripe of kinako, roasted soy-bean flour. A cup of frothy, vegetal matcha is a fine complement.
We eat at the sushi counter beside several young, well-dressed couples speaking Japanese, dishes brought to us by knowledgeable but occasionally awkward servers. (One accidentally touches my sashimi as she sets it down, says “Oh, sorry,” and leaves.) There is an interesting cocktail program here, which incorporates Japanese ingredients and spirits. The Shoyu What I Got, for instance, is a balanced mixture of tequila, mezcal, plum liqueur, aged soy sauce, sea fennel, and orange bitters. There’s local Lamplighter beer on tap, plus Japanese selections in bottles and cans. And the wine list features a Japanese white; there’s shochu here, too.
But one of Kamakura’s greatest strengths is its sake program, with a glass list that is more than two dozen deep, encompassing many styles and regions. A section is devoted to warm sake, with educational notes about the temperatures at which it is served. Iwakura once worked as a sake sommelier, and that experience shows.
If one is looking for an impeccably pure and polished kaiseki experience, this is not that. Kamakura is more eccentric, imperfect yet filled with personality. As a first restaurant, it’s an impressive go, and it brings something special to State Street.
KAMAKURA ★ ★ ½
150 State St., Boston, 617-377-4588, www.kamakuraboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Washoku bistro menu $7-$55. Kaiseki dinner $156. Bento lunch $18-$25.
Hours Dinner Mon-Thu 5:30-9:30 p.m. (kaiseki seating at 7 p.m.), Fri-Sat 5:30-10:30 p.m. (kaiseki seatings at 5:30 and 8 p.m.). Lunch Tue-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Noise level A good place for conversation.
What to order Kaiseki tasting, hamachi pastrami, eggplant, sushi palette, chawanmushi, crispy rice ball.
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