In Japan as in the US, Mothers’ Day falls on May 14 this year. But in the little piece of Japan in New Paltz known as Gomen-Kudasai, that date will also mark the celebration of the beloved restaurant’s nine years of operation. Though the actual anniversary of its founding was May 5, the special event has been scheduled to coincide with Mothers’ Day in order to spotlight the panoply of traditional Japanese sweets known as wagashi. A pastry chef who has newly joined the Gomen staff, Yoshiko Nishimura, will be introduced to the public at the event.
According to Gomen founder/owner Youko Yamamoto, Nishimura first turned up at her restaurant bearing samples of her baking, including an apple tart and a gluten-free chocolate cake. She had been trained to make French pastries, and even ran an Italian restaurant in Orange County for a number of years. But Nishimura’s rare and special area of expertise was her knowledge of how to make authentic Japanese-style wagashi: an area of the Gomen dessert menu that Yamamoto wishes to expand.
“There are so many different Japanese sweets,” Yamamoto enthuses. “Many are seasonal desserts, which differ by region.” But the secret ingredient underlying many of them is kanten or agar-agar, a vegan gelatin made from seaweed. “It’s a totally amazing material,” says the restaurateur. “It’s 78 percent fiber, high in iodine; it feeds your thyroid and gets rid of heavy metals from the body.”
Kanten is used to make yokan, or jelly cakes, which are flavored with a variety of different ingredients depending on what plants are in season. At the Mothers’ Day event, dessert samplers will be available that feature green-tea-flavored matcha yokan. Also on the wagashi menu will be sakura mochi, traditionally served on Girls’ Day in Japan, which coincides with the beginning of cherry blossom season. The sweet, chewy pounded rice cakes known as mochi, tinted pink with pomegranate juice and filled with red bean paste, are wrapped in edible cherry-tree leaves that have been pickled in salt. “The whole balance is really nice,” says Yamamoto.
Wagashi are also wheat-free, vegan and contain no dairy ingredients, reinforcing Gomen’s commitment to “super-authentic food” that nearly anyone can eat, regardless of dietary restrictions. “We use no MSG, no GMOs… I eat here every day, so it has to be good material!” Yamamoto says with a laugh.
A few other changes are coming to Gomen-Kudasai as well. The restaurant no longer serves lunch on weekdays. Except for Wednesdays, when the restaurant is closed, it will now be open daily from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, it will be open for brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
What else is new? A change in name. Calling the place Gomen-Kudasai Noodle Shop created confusion among some customers, Yamamoto says, who didn’t realize that in Japan, a noodle shop means a restaurant: “People thought it was retail.” So henceforward, with the help of a new Japanese-American marketing consultant, the eatery will be reconceptualized through a new branding campaign as Gomen-Kudasai Noodle Escape.
“It will be like an instantaneous getaway to Japan,” Yamamoto explains, incorporating Japanese “pop culture, traditional tastes and healthy food.” The restaurant will continue to feature regular live music performances, screenings of Japanese movies and a variety of traditional cultural activities marking Japanese holidays, such as mochi rice-pounding, calligraphy, ikebana, the New Year’s Day tea ceremony and the Bon Odori dance festival. “When you don’t have the money to go to Japan, come over here!”