Two restaurateurs from New York City are reimagining the Asian eatery in Keene that was Tokyo Express, with plans to turn it into a sushi-focused, fine-food business with fresh fish sourced direct from Japan and New Zealand.
Kevin Gao and Jeff Ren moved to Keene this summer with the goal of introducing a chef-centered style of Japanese dining to the Monadnock Region with their new restaurant Kurama Omakase, which will be located at 14 Cypress Court. They said they’re targeting an opening date of Aug. 18 after they complete interior renovations and meet with building and health inspectors next week.
This approach to dining is known as omakase, where chefs decide what to cook during patrons’ dining experience rather than customers ordering specific items off a menu. A sign in the incoming restaurant’s window states that “omakase” translates to “I leave it up to you.”
“Customers come in and decide how many courses they get,” Ren said. “Sometimes they don’t know how much they can eat, so they can start with 10 [courses] and if they’re still hungry after that they can upgrade.”
A 15-course meal, for example, would start with two appetizers followed by 10 pieces of seasonal nigiri sushi, two rolls of hand-rolled sushi and one dessert, Ren said.
“Most of these kinds of restaurants are in big cities like Manhattan or [cities] in California, places with a big population,” Ren said.
Unlike omakase outlets in New York City, though, which can charge upward of $120 for meals on the low end, according to Ren, Kurama Omakase intends to have more affordable offerings while still using fresh seafood.
The restaurant plans to charge $85 for a base 15-course meal if selecting the omakase option, but patrons can also purchase individual Kurama special rolls ranging in price from $14.50 to $21.95. Other food items include classic maki rolls from $5.25 to $18.49 in price and entrees, soups and salads, as well as sushi a la carte.
“Nothing will be frozen,” Ren said. “We’ll be receiving fish probably three times a week, and even though it’s fresh most of it you cannot serve right away. Some fish take one to two days to age, some take three to four.”
The restaurant will purchase shipments of bluefin tuna from Japan and king salmon from New Zealand, according to Ren.
He and Gao have additional plans to open a bar inside after the grand opening once they obtain a liquor license. Drinks will include sake cocktails, martinis and Japanese imported beer, Ren said. He said the bar will seat 11 customers, while the remaining dining space will seat 40 to 50 customers.
The two co-owners first noticed Tokyo Express’ space was up for lease in May and began preparing to launch Kurama Omakase there after signing the lease in July. Ren said it’s their first time owning a restaurant but that together they’ve worked more than 10 years in the industry in more than 15 sushi restaurants of different styles.
Gao and Ren will bring friends from New York City to fill omakase chef positions, but Ren said he sees a future where the restaurant could hire locals.
“We want people that have experience in some of the best sushi restaurants [in New York],” he said. “But if business goes well, we could have people from the local area and could train them.”
Kurama Omakase will offer take-out orders, Ren said, but the omakase meal options will be for dine-in orders only. The restaurant will retain the same phone number as the former Tokyo Express for take-out orders but will not yet have a delivery option.
The Sentinel reported in 2011 that Gao Mu Lian opened Tokyo Express in Keene late that year, in a space that had housed Revolve Vintage.