Food & Drinks

Kimika Cofounder On New York City’s Return To Indoor Dining And Japanese-Italian Cuisine

New York City restaurants are opening their doors for indoor dining today for the first time since March. This move will be reassessed if the Covid-19 infection rate in the city averages 3% for seven days (it recently spiked to a daily average of 3.25%), but for now, New Yorkers can begin to dine inside again.

Restaurants will have to comply with a 25% capacity limit and meet strict guidelines, but the return of dine-in is a small step in the right direction, Erika Chou says.

Chou and Doron Wong are founding partners of Rivers and Hills Hospitality Group in New York City. Together, they have launched Wayla, a Thai restaurant, and more recently, Kimika.

Regarding the new Japanese-Italian eatery, Chou says 25% in the dining room won’t look like a lot. “For us, it’ll be like 11 people, but hopefully that gets everyone more accustomed to indoor dining and adhering to the safety protocols so we can really get started on recovering and get to 50% quickly,” she says.

She and Wong have been discussing the concept for Kimika since last year. The original plan was for the restaurant to debut around March or April; however, due to the onset of the Covid-19 outbreaks, the restaurateurs opted to hold off on its launch.

Chou says that after a few months of waiting to see what might happen, at a certain point, they had to move forward with opening. Kimika eventually debuted on August 18.

Opening a restaurant and operating during a pandemic has been very challenging, Chou admits. She hasn’t been able to communicate in person like she normally would. Her decisions regarding things such as construction, design and plateware for the new concept have all been made remotely.

Another difficulty that she and others in the hospitality industry have faced is adjusting quickly to guidelines. “Regulations keep changing, or come out with very little time to prepare,” Chou says.

The recent decision to return to indoor dining is a prime example. She and her team have only had at most two weeks to adjust to the shift and a new set of guidelines.

Additionally, the need for social distancing has created a slight barrier for Kimika’s staff and their bonding. Chou says that in an industry where chemistry and communication among team members are key and going out for drinks after a long shift is customary, getting to know each other and learning how to work together while maintaining safety has been harder, especially for the front of house.

“That kind of dynamic has been really strange and challenging,” she says.

But Chou feels optimistic about Kimika and the future of the New York City dining scene in general, citing adaptability as the number one reason why restaurateurs have been able to make it through challenging times. “I think that people in this industry are very tenacious, so I feel pretty hopeful,” she says.

As for the new restaurant, the customer response has been overwhelmingly positive, Chou shares. New Yorkers have been excited to come out and try something new.

Though Japanese-Italian fusion cuisine is not a novel concept (it’s very popular in Asian countries such as Japan and Hong Kong), it’s “something we haven’t seen too much in the U.S.,” Chou says.

At Kimika, executive chef Christine Lau takes certain techniques and flavors from Japanese-Italian cuisine and combines them with seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. “Thinking classically but also being creative and having a lot of fun with it is our approach,” Chou says. 

Since opening in August, some of the standout dishes that customers have loved are the tuna tartare with ikura roe, scallions, cucumbers, crispy rice, spicy mayo and nori; heirloom tomatoes on housemade silken tofu with cucumbers, shiso, ume (also known as Japanese plum) and nigella seeds; and crispy rice cake lasagna with sweet Italian sausage, spicy cabbage, scallions and provolone cheese.

Chou says Kimika’s desserts, created by Clarice Lam, have gotten a notably favorable reaction as well. The menu includes a Yakult-based soft serve with roasted strawberries and crispy chicken skin streusel, flavored kakigoris (a type of Japanese shaved ice) and mochi bombolini.

The restaurant’s fusion flavors also come out through its beverage menu from head bartender Greg Kong. The Shishitorita, a shishito-inspired riff on a margarita, is made with the pepper, Thai chile-infused tequila, lime, mint and agave, and then topped with salted yuzu foam. The Kaga Milk Punch is crafted with rum, a type of hojicha tea, oleo saccharum and smoked spices such as cardamom and star anise.

Kimika recently launched a weekend brunch menu on September 26. A few highlights are the pastry bento box; vegan black sesame frozen yogurt with housemade granola, acai syrup and citrus; and tsukemen carbonara, served with a broth of pecorino cheese, pink peppercorns and mentaiko roe.

With the rollout of brunch service underway, Chou is looking forward to showcasing Kimika’s interior design now that indoor dining is back and making delivery available at the restaurant soon—among other projects coming from Rivers and Hills.

“Hospitality is what we’ve dedicated ourselves to, so we definitely have some things in the works,” she says.

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