“When I started my business back in 2008, there was no understanding about what real Japanese food is,” says Youko Yamamoto, proprietor of the Gomen Kudasai Noodle Shop in New Paltz. “And still, for most people, Japanese food means sushi and hibachi. But for us, sushi is like a treat; it’s not really food.” The dishes served at her restaurant are what the Japanese would consider “home cooking,” she adds: everyday meals featuring noodles and rice.
“That has so much to do with our dashi flavor,” says Yamamoto, explaining that “dashi” is broth. “Japanese broth is the main factor that defines the flavors of Japan. And what makes dashi flavor is lots of umami; that’s the backbone of Japanese flavor.” Umami is a savory taste: one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter. It occurs naturally in a range of foods, from meat and fish to vegetables and dairy products.
Yamamoto emphasizes that she does not use any MSG in the preparation of her dishes, and that everything is house-made with fresh and primarily organic ingredients and a great deal of care. “Everything is chopped by hand very carefully to a specific size and proportion, with specific seasoning. We are very particular here.” It’s still an uphill battle to educate people about what real Japanese food is, she says, but her hope is that people will keep coming back and trying new dishes. “They will learn about our food. And it’s not just healthy; we have healing food.”
Gomen Kudasai is also a destination for a variety of special events hosted in the space, from calligraphy workshops and weekly screenings of Japanese movies to complimentary reiki sessions once a month. But it’s the live music every Saturday night year-round that draws the most people. The first of two sets begins at 7 p.m. during the winter months and 7:30 p.m. the rest of the year. The tables in the restaurant are rearranged to make room for musicians performing everything from jazz and swing to bluegrass or country, and the comfortable environment sometimes inspires people to get up to dance. There’s no cover charge, but a $5 donation for the musicians is requested.
“I like to encourage people to tip the musicians,” says Yamamoto. “And $5 is really not much for the kind of music you’re getting. The musicians that come here are performing at a really high level; they’re not just starting out. I hope people understand how difficult it is to make a living by playing music. And there’s not too many places for them to play anymore.”
Many of the musicians who play at the Saturday-night events are Hudson Valley-based and return every few months. The next performance will be on Saturday, January 31 at 7 p.m. by the Maiko Hata Jazz Trio, playing jazz standards and traditional. Maiko Hata will do vocals, with Lew Scott on bass and Charlie Schikowitz on guitar and violin.
The February lineup features bluegrass music on Saturday, February 7, with Jason Borisoff on guitar and Steve Lutky on banjo – both provide the vocals – and Valentine’s Day, Saturday, February 14, will highlight classic jazz and bossa standards with the Lady and the Tramps, featuring Izzy Friedman on vocals, Elliot Steele on piano, Jeremy Hellman on drums and Cole McCormic on bass. The month will finish out on Saturday, February 28 with Big Joe Fitz and the Lo-Fis performing “soulful swinging blues,” with Big Joe Fitz on guitar and harmonica, Robert Bard on bass, Mark Dziuba on guitar and Chris Bowman on percussion.
A special Friday-night performance is also coming up on Friday, February 27 at 7 p.m. Pirates Canoe, a group of Japanese women inspired by American roots music, will play original songs that reflect bluegrass traditions. “They’re getting very popular in Japan,” says Yamamoto, noting that the group’s music is not just an imitation of American culture but drawn from real life in the same way that American roots music is.
The women took their name from the Pirate Canoe Club in Poughkeepsie, where Yamamoto took them on a previous visit that they made to New York. They’ll play the Falcon in Marlboro the night before they appear at Gomen Kudasai, and follow that up in New York City at the Bitter End on Saturday, February 28. Pirates Canoe is comprised of Sara Kono on mandolin and vocals, Elizabeth Etta on guitar and vocals, Kazuhiko Iwaki on Dobro and Takashi Yoshioka on drums.
Yamamoto’s own connection to bluegrass music began back when she was in school in Japan, where every college in the late ’70s and ’80s had a bluegrass club or American folksong club, she says. Youko grew up studying classical piano and played the guitar and flute – as well as the shamisen when she was little, playing together with her mother on the three-stringed, banjolike Japanese instrument – and eventually she played rock, Big Band jazz and bluegrass with various groups in college.
She met some influential bluegrass musicians while still living in Japan, but that isn’t what brought her to New York. Originally intending to become a veterinarian, Youko instead came to New York to study graphic design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. After establishing a graphic arts business, she moved to the Hudson Valley in 2000 with her husband – a metal artist seeking a place to hammer metal without disturbing neighbors – and two young children, ages 5 and 10 at the time, with an alternative education in mind for them such as the one offered through the Mountain Laurel Waldorf School in New Paltz.
After the events of 9/11 in 2001 took away her biggest graphic design client and the very nature of the graphic design business changed with time, Yamamoto began to feel that she had worked in that field for long enough (25 years) and turned to her second love: cooking. She had already done some teaching of Japanese cooking when she lived in the City, and began putting on volunteer events at schools, churches and libraries in the Hudson Valley, teaching kids about Japanese food and how to make rice bowls. When a friend told her about a location opening up in New Paltz that would be perfect for a small noodle shop that she could handle with one helper, she set about making that happen. And while that place didn’t work out, seven locations later she settled on the current spot at 232 Main Street, where the concept of the noodle shop became a full-fledged restaurant co-owned with her husband, Kazuma Oshita. The couple also put on the annual Bon Odori Dance Festival in New Paltz every August.
Gomen Kudasai serves an abbreviated menu during music nights, because many of its dishes are labor-intensive, and simplifying the menu keeps things running smoothly during the music. There are still many options to choose from on it, says Yamamoto, from gluten-free to vegan dishes. That menu is on the website; check there for event information and the schedule of upcoming performers.
Live music, Saturdays, 7-9 p.m., $5 suggested, Gomen-Kudasai Noodle Shop, 232 Main Street, New Paltz; (845) 255-8811, www.gomenkudasainy.com.