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A Visit to Menya’s Omakase Speakeasy in Elizabeth

Kappo En serves on a tasting menu to remember

Back in time, gun violence, post pandemic social scene, Optimist Hall, Waffle House, ramen, food, restaurant
Aerin Spruill

“We’ve got a birthday tonight, is that right?”

I could feel the embarrassment rushing to my cheeks as I lifted my head and realized the question was directed at me. I’d forgotten that my girlfriend thought it would be funny to say we were celebrating my birthday when she secured our resy for an omakase experience. And of course, me and the boo were the first to arrive.

Having forgotten her prank in the most critical of moments, I short-circuited. Stumbling over my words, I finally mustered the courage to say, “Um yes, me, it’s my birthday.”

I flashed a glance over my shoulder to take mental note of the unimpressed look on my boyfriend’s face. The awkwardness was made all the more sweet by a stranger lifting their glass in a toast: “Happy birthday!”

I turned to my giggling bestie, only 16 courses and roughly two and a half more hours left to keep up this charade. Whoever said double dating wasn’t fun?!

Did you know that tucked inside Menya Daruma, a quaint ramen spot in Elizabeth, there’s another restaurant concept called Kappo En? Behind an unsuspecting back door past the noodle counter, a 10-seat speakeasy-style omakase experience delivers a sophisticated juxtaposition to the casual comfort and humility of ramen.

A happy birthday dish arrives. (Photo by Aerin Spruill)

Chefs Tsuyoshi Ono and Yasuhiro Tabita stand behind the counter at the ready with a quiet confidence that reinforces omakase’s English translation: “Chef’s choice.” Their silent poise and reverent nature give “Get ready to go to sushi church!” vibes.

The moody, minimalist, and modern ambiance provides the perfect backdrop for the bright pops of amuse-bouche color and flesh slices of fish to come.

I never thought I’d be the double-dating type. As an introverted only child, the thought of having to entertain not just one but three other people in an intimate setting always seemed like what nightmares were made of.

And yet, at that moment, I realized that double dates are really just an excuse for the ladies to get more face time while also hanging out with our boyfriends. Two birds, one stone? I kid, but strategically placing the guys on the outside, did create the perfect space for uninterrupted gabbing.

Shortly after everyone settled, the synchronized dance of slicing, garnishing and plating began. Wagyu tartare paired with yuzu and honey served on the smallest of taro chips — love at first bite. Nasu nibitashi; I don’t even like eggplant, surely this one won’t be for me? Wrong — love at second bite.

That’s the thing about omakase: Even the tiniest of bites have the power to change your mind. Each course is a progressive challenge in texture, simplicity and balance.

Grilled saltwater eel from Menya’s Kappo En. (Photo by Aerin Spruill)

Four courses in, I leaned over to whisper the question that many frown upon but everyone’s thinking into my bestie’s ear, “Is it bad that I’m already thinking about what I’m going to eat later?”

“Nope, we barely ate anything today.”

Her boyfriend leaned forward, “I’m already planning.”

See babe? That’s the kind of support I like to see.

By the time we reached course 13, anago, I realized my eyes were bigger than my stomach as I looked at a healthy chunk of grilled saltwater eel set over more perfectly cooked rice.

Every time boo and I go to dinner, he jokes about my inability to finish a good-sized meal, to which I stubbornly respond, “I’m super hungry today though.” My eyes caught his eyes, “Don’t force it,” he said with a smirk.

I may have relinquished a good portion of rice on that round, but force it I did, as I claimed the last bite of A5 Wagyu on course 15. I let out a sigh that would rival the physical act of undoing the button of your pants, instantly wishing I’d listened to boo when he suggested bringing a couple of Tums from home.

I’ve never been a fan of dessert, so waving my white flag, throwing the towel in and sticking a fork in me didn’t feel like giving up until the matcha monaka was placed in front of me. Matcha ice cream, red bean paste and strawberry sandwiched between two delicate wafers created the ultimate Japanese ice cream sammy.

Matcha monaka from Menya’s (Photo by Aerin Spruill)

Tasting menus rarely nail dessert for the sweet tooth averse. But this one, a rare work of art, was too tempting to forfeit a bite.

“Okay, now which is your favorite?” I probed our omakase-loving partners in crime one last time. For three, it was the intricately sliced simplicity of the hotate (scallop) nigiri topped with seaweed-infused salt (course four) while one remained firm on course 10: shima aji (striped jack) nigiri.

I think it goes without saying that it was one of the best fake-birthday double-date meals I’ve ever had from the roota to the toota.

*No freebies were gained under false birthday pretenses. But in our defense, my birthday is in a month!

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