“Plenty of New York restaurants aim to manufacture a sense of homeyness, but Soy feels like an actual offshoot of someone’s apartment,” wrote Jeff Gordinier in The New York Times in 2015. He was enthusiastically reviewing a tiny restaurant that built a loyal following for 15 years in its original location: at 102 Suffolk Street, just off Delancey, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Chef/owner Etsuko Kizawa lived in an apartment upstairs from Soy and decorated its walls with her young son Taiyo’s imaginative drawings.
When she first set up shop there in 2002, Kizawa says, the Lower East Side was still “a neighborhood where everybody lived together happily.” Artists and recent immigrants could still find an affordable apartment there. But by 2017, she relates, Delancey Street had been “developed too much — every little patch of land within five city blocks.” Old buildings that gave the neighborhood its character were being torn down and replaced with highrises. “I knew I was going to be priced out.”
A regular visitor to New Paltz, Kizawa began looking around the mid-Hudson for someplace to replicate her success with Soy. She found it, right down to the small upstairs apartment, in downtown Rosendale: the bar/restaurant that had previously housed the Bywater Bistro, at 419 Main Street. The new version of Soy has already been open for nearly a year, keeping such a low profile that word-of-mouth is just beginning to get around. And the interior much resembles photos of the original Soy, homey and cozy and still wallpapered with Taiyo’s artworks.
But the seemingly small number of tables in the main part of the restaurant belies Soy of Rosendale’s capacity. In the back is a large enclosed deck with a subtropical ambience, and behind that is a lovely garden with additional tables, a fountain, a koi pond and what Kizawa terms a “Japanese feel.” A path leads down to the berm overlooking the Rondout Creek. “Outdoor deck and garden seating with beautiful scenery were the main reason Etsko decided to take this spot. With fresh local produce and amazing backdrop, Soy is truly a place to feel complete and well-nourished,” says the restaurant’s website. (Kizawa began calling herself “Etsko” in writing to counter the tendency of Americans to mispronounce Japanese names by putting the stress on the next-to-last syllable, saying Et-SU-ko instead of the correct ET-suko.)
Besides being a lovely place to sit and have a meal, Soy is distinctive in its emphasis on “Japanese home cooking.” It’s not a sushi place (although the most sushilike item on the menu, the Spicy Tuna and Avocado Bowl, happens to be the most popular). “Sushi is actually not a typical Japanese cuisine in Japan, especially in home cooking,” the website informs us. Nor do Soy’s offerings fall under the trendy rubric of Asian Fusion. Kizawa — who grew up in the city of Fujisawa, near Tokyo, and was taught to cook from the age of six by her mother — says of Soy’s offerings, “Some are traditional, some are my Mom’s recipes and many are my own creations.”
Some of the menu items have ingredients that will challenge American notions of what constitutes “homestyle” Japanese food. The delicious Niku Jaga, for instance, is essentially a comforting stew including thinly sliced beef, carrots, onions and potatoes. Yes, potatoes: native to the New World. But for Kizawa, Niku Jaga represents the “ultimate Japanese Mama’s dish.” You can order fries as well, served with a curry dipping sauce. And the mixed green salads on the menu are reasonable facsimiles of American mixed green salads, not the quartered heads of iceberg lettuce often found alongside sushi entrées elsewhere.
Some menu items are more recognizable as Stateside Japanese food: a Bento Box whose ingredients vary daily, an edamame appetizer, gyoza dumplings, mochi ice cream. The Soup of the Day is always miso-based; zucchini, yellow squash and kale were the featured ingredients the evening the New Paltz Times paid a visit. And while Soy is not a vegetarian restaurant, veggies and vegans can always be accommodated, with pan-fried Tofu Steak in a tangy mushroom sauce a popular choice. A meat-free Japanese Breakfast is served all day long. “In Japan, we cook soy products just like another vegetable. Soy as a meat substitute for vegetarians is an American concept,” states the website. “Soy is wonderful food for everyone. We would like to bring soy to everyone’s table, because it’s healthy and delicious.”
Another delicacy that this new eatery is bringing to downtown Rosendale is Japanese cinema. Kizawa originally came to New York City to study film at the School of Visual Arts, and, although running a restaurant consumes her energies pretty much full-time these days, she keeps current with the film talents of her native culture. Soy has a huge flat-screen TV mounted on the wall in the rear of its main room, and screening a movie – usually a Japanese movie, with an eclectic series of lesser-known anime just now coming to an end — has become a regular draw on Saturday nights.
Soy offers a full bar and an impressive selection of sake and shochu. “We’re probably the only place with a nice sake list in the county,” Kizawa says. Service is friendly and attentive, and you’ll likely meet a certain ebullient nine-year-old artist patrolling the premises. Soy is open from 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday and from noon to 9 p.m. on Sunday.
The regular menu changes weekly, and daily specials are offered. Prices, which are inclusive of all tips, range from $4 for an assortment of homemade probiotic Japanese pickles to $25 for the Bento Box extravaganza. To check what’s being offered this week (including occasional Japanese home-cooking classes taught by Kizawa herself), visit http://soyrosendale.com or www.facebook.com/soyrosendale, For reservations, call (845) 658-2539.