Tucked between the gentrified tenements and curio shops along the most eastern point of ”Little Tokyo” is where you will find Cagen which is most arguably– the most exclusive sushi restaurant in New York City.
A stroll down East Ninth Street, a step or three past the Flower Power Herbs & Roots shop which looks straight out of a Harry Potter movie. And headed towards Thompkins Square Park is where fans of haute couture Japanese classic and contemporary cuisine have been flocking to this tiny temple for their sushi fix.
Chef Toshio Tomita is one of the most revered and respected Japanese sushi masters on the North American continent– and Cagen is where is the legendary artist in residence.
A Japanese emigre to Manhattan more than 26 years ago. Chef Tomita has long been recognized as integral to the formative years and to the development of probably the most iconic sushi restaurant in these parts Nobu. Chef Tomita was key asset to Chef Matsuhisa where he was, for decades, the cog to the wheel of that well oiled corporate culinary machine known as Nobu, For the last five years he has been on his own. Cagen is his tiny, secluded mecca to any truly devout fan of sushi. Cagen is the complete antithesis to Nobu. The word Cagen translates to mean– ”just right”– and that about sums it perfectly. It’s where a simple sliver of fish topping a finger-cupped cube of rice becomes an extraordinarily sensory experience the second it hits your palate.
The menu is Omakase– and the two-hour long meal at Cagen is mostly all about sushi that truly transports you. The Kuramtsu (Big Eye Blue Fish), the Shim Aji (Striped Jack), the Katsua seared and crispy with a swish of chili garlic and the Kumamoto oysters! The Toro Taku alone will have you ovulating.
I call it the most exclusive haute-temple to sushi in New York City. Cagen has a maximum capacity for thirty-two. And that is only when the private dining room, that A-listers like the Olsen Twins and Liam Neeson tend to favor, are in play. Other than that, an evening at Cagen seats only twelve at the Japanese cedar wood counter where Chef Tomita and his sous Chef Hiromi Suzuki wield their magic for an enthralled very lucky few.
There are only two sittings per night. The first sitting is at 6pm and the second at 8:30 pm. The experience is just unforgettable. It’s like watching Anna Netrebko at the Met Opera. But this master class barely utters a word, he just deftly masters his yanagi bocho like no other. Watching Chef Tomita carve with what looks like a quasi-samurai-sword as sushi-knife is like watching the conductor of The New York Philharmonic. He is that quintessential Shokunin!
The maestro decides the two-hour long tasting. And, naturally, the fish is delivereddaily via air and straight from the legendary Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. ”All the fish we use are exclusive and different. We stay away from the generic,” says Rei Tomita the manager of Cagen and son of the master chef.
Suffice it to say that a night at Cagen is a must for an lover of connoisseur sushi. And watching this master at work is beyond culinary alchemy. And do not forget to order carafe after carafe of the house signature frozen slush. That Hakkaisan sake is sublime.
Cagen is a microscopic restaurant in the very East Village that serves some of the best sushi in New York City. So now go Yelp! it!
And after the second visit– GW just had to chat with Chef Toshio Tomita & his son Rei Tomita for the record…
GEORGE WAYNE – What was Chef Toshio and his team thinking with the whole concept of Cagen. Was the goal to be one of the most uber-private, uber-unassuming, uber-undercover culinary temple devoted to Japanese cuisine aka truly couture sushi!
CAGEN – Chef Tomita’s concept of this restaurant was to create a space where guests can dine with us comfortably dine, and for guests that really understand great food. At first we were not a sushi Omakase restaurant. We were a kaiseki Omakase restaurant, where we served a 7 course kaiseki Omakase, which consisted of verity of dishes from raw to cooked dish. But due to more and more requests from customers, we transitioned in to just sushi Omakase. ONLY ONE. Chef thought that there were too many of the same sushi restaurant in NYC, which serves the same fish all the time and in the same order. That is why he started looking into different and unique fish from Japan. So the concept has changed from when we opened till now. Chef concept for the restaurant now, is to serve traditional style sushi, but with a contemporary twist (which are the flares that chef adds to the pieces), and to have our guests experience the unique and different types of fish that can be caught in japan. His goal of this concept is to be known as the only one sushi restaurant that serves these unique fish.
GW – Chef Toshio is a New York emigre for almost 27 years. That’s when you first moved to New York City. And by 1996 your were very much integral and very much an integral part of the team Nobu Matsuhisa and Robert Deniro to create the iconic NYC franchise known as Nobu. You don’t like to dwell on those days. But right now you need to reminisce for a while and re-collect those early days in the restaurant whirl of New York City. And working at Nobu – where you were a major asset!!
CAGEN – Chef- Nobu was a great experience for me, I traveled a lot, tried tons of different types of foods, and met a lot of different people and chefs around the world. The knowledge that I gained from working at nobu and working with Nobu-san is definitely apart of who/ chef I am today.
GW – And now you have truly your own little kingdom here at the very end of ”Little Tokyo” which now spans all Ninth Street to Avenue A which is where Cagen anchors the axis.
CAGEN – Chef Tomita choose this location because of the beautiful bar that was already there. The openness of the bar, and the fact that the counter did not have a neta-case (counter fish case). It just so happened to be in Little Tokyo of Manhattan.
GW – I tell everyone I meet now. After spending almost five hours being fed the best sushi in New York City and watching Chef Toshio Tomita at work. This experience is an exquisite New York moment. It’s like going to the opera or the ballet at Lincoln Center or Alvin Ailey. It’s like going to a major Broadway production and watching a superstar enthrall an audience. But in this instance it’s a sushi-chef-maestro quietly — mesmerizing with a long knife and raw fish.
CAGEN – Thank you very much, we are glad you enjoyed our dining experience here at Cagen. We thrive to make our dining experience comfortable, unique, and fun. We are often told by our guests- “Cagen is like a school, we learn and eat something new every time we eat here”.
GW – Chef Toshio is more reclusive than Greta Garbo. Cagen is so, so, so exclusive that it seats only fifteen people at the altar to your temple. Talk about the counter culture of Cagen. The sitings – there are only two….talk about all that
CAGEN – So, we do two rounds of seating’s, first seating is 6:00pm and the last seating is 8:30pm. We have 12 seats per round. Price is $160 per person, it comes with 18 pieces of sushi and handmade soba noodles, and dessert, it is about a 2 hour dinner. Counter seating is where the chefs prepare each pieces of sushi for the guests that are sitting in front of them. To give our guests a better idea of what they are eating, we have made fish flash cards to show what the fish looks like, and how big they are. A lot of the times most chefs have a hard time explaining what type of fish it is to the guests, so we made it easier by making these flash cards.
GW – Talk to me about this Omakase trend in the sushi temples of New York City. Does it have legs?
CAGEN – It is more of a sushi trend then an Omakase trend, in New York City. Does it have legs?? It does seem that the sushi trend is definitely spreading and more and more.
GW – Your press dossier says Cagen is the ”perfect balance of classic and contemporary cuisine. Please rapture on about what you really want to say……
CAGEN – It is a variation of Chef Tomita’s past experience is contemporary, but also protecting the serving style of a true classic Japanese craftsman. As Chef Tomita says “it’s not too much and it’s not too little, it’s just right”, it’s about balance.
GW – I walk by a sushi temple called Tomoe Sushi in the West Village all the time. And every time there is always a crowd – a crowd – lining up down the block to Houston Street waiting to get a table. Why isn’t Cagen like that?
CAGEN– The reasons why we don’t have a line out the door is because we like to keep it controlled and we also are a reservation based restaurant. We are about quality and not quantity.
GW – What separates a good sushi chef from a great one! Who did Chef Toshio look up as a 19 year old? And what are the aesthetics and the gravitas needed to be on toe greats. Because that is what you are. As humble as you may seem. Just give us some perspective on your craft and what it takes to be the best.
CAGEN – Attention to detail is one of the most important part to becoming a master. From the obvious things to the tiny, minuscule things. Most of the time the minuscule details are the most important part, that most chef/good chef over look because it is so minuscule. These are some of the things that makes or breaks from a chef/good chef to a great/ master chef.
GW – Another genius aspect of Cagen is the house signature sake served over crushed ice!! Brilliant!! You say you are the first to do this. Tell me more…..
CAGEN – Chef always thrives to do things differently than other. So right when we opened about 5 years ago, he was trying to find a unique drink that can be served to the guests. That’s when he experimented with freezing sake. That’s how our house Frozen Sake came about. We were the first restaurant in New York to start serving sake like this.
GW – You prepared and fed many a celebrity. From the Olsen Twins to Liam Neeson. But what did Bill Clinton like most about the fish you fed him?
CAGEN – Yes a lot of celebrity dined with us in Cagen, movie producers, movie stars, members of the New York Philharmonic, famous ballet dancers, musicians, and many more. Clinton was actually while chef was still working at Nobu.
GW – Where does Chef Toshio eat on his days off. Actually – day off – you never work on Monday. What do you like to do on that day off?
CAGEN – What does chef tomita eat on this days off? Well Chef Tomita does not take a day off, maybe 2 or 3 days out of the year. He is always at the restaurant, even on Mondays when the restaurant is closed. He likes to eat Domino’s Pizza. Extravaganza pie and meat lover’s pie, he likes to put them together and eat it like a pizza Panini.
GW – Did you ever feed Anthony Bourdain?
CAGEN – Unfortunately no, he has not served Anthony Bourdain
GW – Well– Chef Toshio is that one chef whom Padma would never, ever, have the gall to utter — ”Pack your knives and go…’ Have you ever fed Padma?’
CAGEN – No he has not served Padma either
GW – And you would never ever be part of any Master Chef TV show on some food network.
CAGEN – No chef wouldn’t go on any master chef shows
GW – There is this new, latest foodie trend in Japanese cuisine called Natto. What is that ? And what will Cagen do with Natto?
CAGEN – Nato is Fermented soy beans. For a lot of Japanese people it is a traditional breakfast item. It’s healthy and a great boost for the beginning of the day. We aren’t surprised that it is becoming a foodie trend, considering that New York has been more health conscious over the last few years. We wouldn’t be using nato at Cagen, because it has a strong flavor that wouldn’t pair well with our food that we serve here
GW – And you remember when Pete Wells of the New York Times came to review your food? Did you even know he was in the room?
CAGEN – Yes we knew as soon as he walked in to the restaurant. Everybody knows what Peter Wells looks like and also it wasn’t the first time Chef Tomita has seen him either.
GW – Thank you Rei and Chef Toshio!!
CAGEN – Thank you George for interviewing us! And we hope to see you soon!
414 EAST 9th STREET