photo credit: Donna Irene
Kojin calls itself a “washoku experience”, a Japanese term that can be complicated to define but is generally used to identify foods that are purely Japanese without any foreign influences. And yet, the dishes you’ll meet at this Little River speakeasy consist of things like beurre blanc, duxelles, and a seared duck breast that would feel at home in a brasserie. It can be jarring if you booked this reservation expecting oshitashi, nimono, soba, and the flavors of nature in whatever season it is right now.
But if you go in with the understanding that Kojin isn’t trying to recreate traditional Japanese dining, you’ll avoid feeling duped and enjoy this restaurant for what it is: a unique experience. And we’re emphasizing experience here because Kojin isn’t a normal restaurant and eating here is about more than just food. For starters, it’s hidden inside Hachidori Ramen. There are no signs. You just go up to the counter, say you’re there for Kojin, and somebody will escort you to the back, past a heavy curtain, and into a dark space that seats about 12.
Once dinner starts, you’ll definitely sense Japanese-style hospitality and attention to detail, but the chef also interacts with diners as if they went to high school together. Before the first course is finished, you’ll feel like you’re at La Carreta talking shit with your friends. And it’s the combination of this private supper club vibe with the chefs’ sencillo personalities that is the biggest draw to Kojin.
And perhaps that’s where the washoku bit comes in. Kojin isn’t trying to take washoku as it exists in Japan and plop it into a strip mall on NE 2nd Ave. Rather, they’re recreating the feeling of washoku. But unfortunately, the essence of washoku doesn’t come across in the food as much. While executed with great precision, there’s nothing terribly exciting about most of the dishes you’ll encounter here. It just doesn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with every other aspect of the meal, which is so unique. And—other than the phenomenal (and surprisingly affordable) sake pairing—the things you eat here won’t linger around in your head for weeks after your reservation.
Kojin might not be the dinner to book when you want a lacquered bowl cradling something you’ll remember for the rest of your life, but it has its value. It’s a perfect place for those situations where the company needs to be the star of your meal, and you’re content with the food being a supporting character. It’s a great place for group dinners, and if your group is large enough, you can have an entire restaurant to yourself without going through the hassle of renting out a private event space. It may not be a textbook washoku restaurant, but Kojin certainly understands the essence of Japanese dining: making sure everyone leaves feeling all warm and fuzzy like they just watched an ASMR video.
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photo credit: Donna Irene
Kojin offers two omakase menus: six courses for $75 and 10 courses for $120—but stick to the six course option. The menu changes with the seasons. A meal may start with a variety of beautifully arranged snacks, progress to a local tomato salad, and then continue on to some heavier courses that can be hit-or-miss. Some of the dishes are slightly overwhelming. A truffle topping on the chawanmushi, for instance, is too intense and salty for the steamed egg custard. A miso broth for littleneck clams is also too strong and salty to eat on its own. The most Japanese thing on the menu—a miniature onigiri—might feature slightly undercooked rice and the chocolate ganache for dessert could be unpleasantly firm.