At the new Kamakura on the edge of the Financial District, chef/owner Youji Iwakura shoehorns a bevy of concepts into three snug, modern rooms. The first-floor dining room, Kamakura proper, seats 16 at tables, with eight seats at a formal dining bar fronting a finishing kitchen. Reserve seats here for one of two nightly seatings of the Kamakura kaiseki, a lavish set menu ($156, 10 courses). The second-floor Washoku Bistro has a slightly greater capacity with a bartender behind its bar, plus a more casual a la carte menu. There’s also a “cha kaiseki” ($122, eight courses). Kumo, a rooftop lounge with spectacular city views through a retractable glass roof, awaits warmer weather to serve drinks and snacks. The lunchtime crowd is offered a short menu of deluxe-looking bento boxes ($22-$25), and there’s an afternoon matcha tea and sweets service in the works, too. Got all that?
Feeling post-New-Year’s frugality, we started with a la carte ordering. Tofu and sea urchin ($18) fills a ceramic cup with warm tofu—the texture of light custard—then drizzles it with airy mirin sabayon and tops it with a few tiny pieces of uni and a ruby clutch of trout caviar pearls. Pickled seasonal vegetables ($14) including hot peppers, fennel and cauliflower are bright, crisp and slightly sweet, just about perfect. Eggplant ($12) arrays just-underdone slices of Japanese eggplant sauced in a vibrant spicy miso with a bit of broccolini and walnuts for bitter and crunchy contrast. Persimmon tempura ($16) finds exquisitely ripe specimens to skillfully batter-fry, presented against tempura sweet potato in a sesame-based sauce. Dashi miso shiru ($12) floats three pristine littlenecks in a dark, glossy, slightly overly salty broth with flecks of slightly gelatinous mekabu seaweed. Kenchin shojin soup ($8) couches winter vegetables (carrot, Brussels sprouts, burdock root) with fried tofu in a kombu shiitake dashi: simple, reductive, elegant (and vegan). A real robata (charcoal) grill adds excellent carbon and smoke to proteins like apple-marinated lamb chops ($36), which almost evokes nouvelle cuisine with a swish swirl of parsnip puree, pomegranate tare and sake-plumped raisins. Unagi chawanmushi ($16) tops a fluffy steamed egg custard with sweetly sauced grilled eel. Ikura onigiri rice ball ($15) is picture-pretty—an oblong of caramelized rice topped with salmon roe and nori floats in wasabi dashi broth— but feels and tastes underbrowned.
Chef Iwakura’s lengthy experience in local Japanese restaurants (Snappy Ramen, Basho, Uni) sets high expectations for his sushi and sashimi. Ordering the craft sashimi freestyle in the smaller “ruby” portion ($32) yields a respectable array of five species (scallop, amberjack, Spanish sea bass, ora king salmon, big-eye tuna) with fine knifework and two usefully contrasting dips (pale, delicate plum shoyu and rich, double-fermented, shortly aged shoyu), but the portion feels meager. Nigiri, beautifully cut and seasoned atop great sushi rice, is impeccable, especially versions with octopus, scallop, sea urchin and salmon roe (each $12 for two pieces). No soy sauce provided, none needed. There’s the coup we’ve been waiting for!
We selflessly torpedoed our January resolutions to tackle the Kamakura kaiseki, a 10-course extravaganza of smallish, elegantly plated dishes, with the added spectacle of finish prep in front of us. There are some repeats from the bistro menu (sashimi, eel chawanmushi, a better-browned rice cake), plus new highlights like sweetly sauced mushrooms scattered with chili threads, more outstanding nigiri (horse mackerel, sea urchin), delicate, fatty slices of robata-grilled hybrid wagyu beef sirloin (delicious, but so remote in texture from real Japanese wagyu that it’s a travesty on the name), cod from two coasts (British Columbia and Maine) done two ways (sashimi and robata) and an exquisite surimi fish cake streaked with lobster and topped with Jonah crab salad. This two-hour parade of luxury is capped by a few sublime wagashi (tiny desserts) from pastry chef Keiko Iwakura: a chewy, petit-four-like confection made with lima bean paste, three futuristic-looking, jewel-like agar candies (firm-shelled, tender within), a swipe of kinako soybean powder and a cup of bitter matcha tea.
Unsurprisingly, with that glamorous rooftop bar, attention has been paid to drinks, notably sake, with about 30 offerings in a broad variety of prices, styles and temperatures, including welcome novelties like Dewatsuru Sakura Emaki ($52, 360-milliliter bottle), which derives its rose-like tint from purple rice, and Dassai Sparkling Junmai Nigori 50 ($50), a fascinating, unfiltered sparkler. There’s a tight list of 18 wines ($12-$19, glass; $45-$148, bottle), a handful of beers ($7-$16) and a modest selection of shochus ($8-$20) and Japanese whiskies ($10-$80). Service cannot help but be perfectly attentive at the kaiseki bar, but we hit some snags in the bistro setting. Courses were oddly sequenced (a “welcome” dish served last) and not effectively paced (piling up more plates than the table could comfortably accommodate).
In all, on the strength of its cunning setting, sushi and other bistro dishes, Kamakura deserves a spot in the firmament of Boston’s better mid-high Japanese restaurants. In the depths of a dark Boston winter, the promise of summertime sushi and sake on its rooftop bar seems especially sweet. We don’t know how many more $156 kaisekis we have in us, though. In 2019, that much indulgence can feel like a slog. ◆
– Tofu and sea urchin
– Pickled seasonal vegetables
– Persimmon tempura
– Kenchin shojin soup
– Apple-marinated lamp chops
– Sushi, notably hotate, mushi tako, uni and ikura
– Jonah crab shinjo
Kamakura, 150 State St., Boston (617-377-4588) kamakuraboston.com; Hours: Lunch, Mon., 11:30 am-1 pm, Tue.-Fri., 11:30 am- 2 pm; Dinner, Mon.-Thu., 5:30-9 pm, Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10 pm; Liquor: Full; Reservations: Yes; Parking: Nearby private lots and garages