Gomen Kudasai: A Home-Style Japanese Restaurant in New Paltz, NY
232 Main St | New Paltz, NY
There is no shortage of recreation in New Paltz, a laid-back college town that has long attracted those eager to climb the Gunks, cycle the trails, and sample the bounty from so many prized farms, orchards, and wineries. An area teeming with so much activity and natural beauty draws an especially diverse set of adventurers, their appetites most often brought to lively Main Street, the town’s two-lane thoroughfare, where a wide selection of dining options are all within walking distance, including perhaps one of the best Japanese restaurants in the Hudson Valley, Gomen Kudasai.
From hot and cold soba and udon noodles to dumplings, rice bowls, tofu and tempura, Youko Yamamoto and her staff mash traditional Japanese recipes with local, organic ingredients, resulting in healthy dishes she dubs “healing food.” “I wanted to have a tiny, tiny noodle shop — one that I could handle all by myself—-but I never found that perfect location,” says Youko, a Japanese native and New York City transplant who moved to the Hudson Valley sixteen years ago with her husband and co-owner Kazuma Oshita, and their two children. In 2008, after four years of scouting potential locations, the couple decided to put her tiny noodle shop on hold and, instead, signed the lease for a 52-seat restaurant in a shopping plaza on Main Street.
With a community-focused mindset, Gomen Kudasai has evolved naturally into a stopping place for fantastic events, hosting close to two hundred of them every year. On top of a rousing lineup of live music every weekend, the calendar fills up fast with flower arrangement workshops, calligraphy classes, tango brunches, and weekly screenings of Japanese movies. However, the biggest event by far is the Bon-Odori Dance Festival, an annual summertime event that celebrates peace and inclusiveness, featuring world class dance and musical performances, Japanese cultural demonstrations, and tasty food from a variety of local vendors. “There are a lot of people here who are interested in learning about our way of food and healthy lifestyle,” says Youko.
Youko, a graphic designer who came to America to attend Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, spent many years organizing culinary events in the city and teaching Japanese cooking classes at the Park Slope Food Coop. “I always considered cooking to be my second career,” she says.
It’s Youko’s belief that fruits, vegetables, and broth-based soups — a daily part of the Japanese diet — are the best medicine, and if you’re eating your good medicine every day, she says, then you will be healthy. “Right now I’m serving local broccoli rabe from my friend’s small farm in Gardiner and fiddlehead ferns from the Shawangunk Mountains,” she says. “When the farms have tomato, I serve tomato; when they have zucchini, I serve zucchini.”
There is an old Japanese saying “E-Shoku-Doh-Gen,” which translates to “the food and the medicine is from the same origin.” The four symbols are displayed on a wall hanging.
“Gomen-Kudasai” is a customary greeting in Japan, the first thing a visitor might say when arriving at someone’s home or shop. The original meaning was “May I have your permission to come into your house/shop?” but today it is translated as “May I come in?” However, the restaurant’s name translates as “May I come in for some noodles?” because the symbol for “permission” was replaced with the symbol for “noodles.” Since both symbols are pronounced the same, it is a funny play on words.
Sushi and hibachi have their place in the world, but Youko is far more interested in dashi, the essential soup stock she makes from scratch — high in minerals, vitamins, and proteins — which forms the umami flavor base used in almost all Japanese cooking. Her “mother sauce,” which ferments for six months, is a key ingredient in her dashi broth, as are dried kelp, dried shitake, and dried bonito flakes. “There’s a reason why they say Japanese people look healthier,” she says.
My restaurant is experimental in a way,” says Youko, “and I needed a market where people were brave enough to try something completely new.”
There are no Japanese hired chefs at Gomen Kudasai, which means extensive instruction goes into training Youko’s cooks. “They’re really getting educated here,” she says. “They like to call it a dojo.”
Served on tap is a local, organic kombucha crafted in small batches by a band member who performs regularly at the restaurant. “I’m helping him promote his brand, Calmbucha, as I’m sure it’s going to be on the market soon,” says Youko, who has always appreciated the probiotic health benefits associated with the fermented tea drink.
A chilled silken tofu appetizer called Madofu sees Youko get creative with toppings. Diners choose from scallion and ginger, dried shrimp, or roasted walnuts (for vegans), all finished with a roasted sesame oil and organic soy sauce.
Youko and Kazuma have not given up on her tiny noodle shop. In fact, this summer, they have plans to open Go Ramen, a ramen noodle spot no bigger than a bar with five stools. “We are happy to have found a loyal group of friends and customers who appreciate this lifestyle and continue to support us,” says Youko. “We’re going to make the best ramen in the Hudson Valley, carrying the same philosophy as Gomen Kudasai: no MSG, no GMO, as natural and organic as possible, and lots and lots of vegetables.”