He was a 25-year-old Japanese Olympic wrestling hopeful sponsored by the New York Athletic Club. She was a typist for the Toyota Company who was offered a trip to New York to write a report on baby nurseries for a mothering magazine back home.
And somehow, in the hubbub of 1970s New York City, these two Japanese adventurers met up and sparks flew … at least they did for him.
“For him it was love at first sight,” says Kyoko Mitsumori. “For me, well…” she pauses and laughs again and pats her hair. “I had a visa to be here for six months and then I went back. But he contacted me, and I decided to come here.”
Almost 40 years later, Kikumatsu and Kyoko Mitsumori have created a life in New York that embraces their Japanese culture, and also opens its arms to their chosen home. Their restaurant, Koiso in Carle Place, perfectly captures the balance they have struck.
From the street, Koiso is a modest storefront. Inside, along one wall, are the chairs and tables you will see in any American eatery. But along the other are the tatami rooms: raised platforms and low tables for sitting without chairs. The traditional grass mats are layered under carpeting and provide freshness.
At the back end of the dining room is the sushi bar with tightly wrapped packets of fresh fish. Some is imported from Japan, but the rest is from Long Island. Kikumatsu is behind the counter in a traditional dark blue happi and closely cropped gray hair, looking every inch a Japanese sushi master. But in the kitchen behind him preparing cooked items is Emilio Solano from Honduras, who has been with them for 17 years, so long that he also speaks Japanese.
“We used to have a Japanese chef, but Emilio is much better,” says Kyoko. “We didn’t have to teach him anything; he has a sense for how to make everything.”
This balance between two cultures was honed over many years. Before Koiso, Kikumatsu worked as a travel agent while wrestling. “But when we had our kid [Shingo Mitsumori, a baseball player who now coaches pitching at Torque Athletic Performance in Deer Park], I had to think about the future,” says Kyoko.
Fortunately Kikumatsu had a hidden talent and hidden dream.
“When I was in junior high school I loved cooking,” he says as he expertly slices local porgy with razor sharp knives. “I thought to myself, ‘Maybe one day I am going to be a professional chef,’ so I worked with a high-ranking chef and learned.”
He began working in Japanese restaurants in Manhattan and then opened Koiso in Port Washington in 1985. Seventeen years ago he moved to Carle Place, Kyoko joined him, and they have been well-balanced ever since. She is the social one whose warmth and conversation make everyone comfortable. He is the quiet one who with an economy of words and movement keeps the traditions pure. For the most part.
After the terrorist attacks of 2001, many in the Japanese community on Long Island—Koiso’s most important customer base—returned to Japan. The Mitsumoris had to build a clientele in a market where sushi rolls had evolved to please American tastes and Japanese restaurants included Chinese dishes. “My husband is very stubborn,” says Kyoko. “It was difficult because we keep traditional way. So for example five people came to the restaurant and everyone ate except one lady who wanted something different. My husband didn’t want to make it. He hated to use mayonnaise. He didn’t want to make those type of rolls.”
But Kyoko and Kikumatsu found a balance.
“He said OK to mayonnaise, but only with his taste,” says Kyoko. “He makes rolls he likes, with a higher quality. Salmon and mayonnaise—that makes a good combination. Good combinations are OK.”
Kikumatsu makes his own rice wine vinegar. Dashi stock is made fresh from expensive bonito flakes; most other restaurants use pre-made stock. He goes to Two Cousins in Freeport every two days for fresh fish. “They know me for 30 years,” he says. “They know my quality. They keep the good fish for me.”
And Kikumatsu’s uncompromising commitment to tradition has become an educational mission, as I learned from John Heller Jr. of Carle Place, who eats weekly at Koiso. He was with his parents, sister and niece at the sushi bar when I visited.
“I didn’t know anything about Japanese food before,” says Heller. “Mits is always trying to get you to try something new. He teaches you like, for example, everything on the plate has a purpose; it’s not just decoration. So you have to sit at the bar, because you’ve got to let him do his thing. He says I started as an American eater but that now I eat like a Japanese.”
“Mits” does “his thing” on Heller’s niece, Skylar Silvera, who is getting it from all sides for not eating fish. In good-humored fashion Kikumatsu makes her some non-fish rolls that she loves, but tells her with a grin, “You are very boring to me you know.” And he convinces her to try a slice of—of all things—octopus, which she actually likes.
It is these kinds of personal experiences and guidance through exquisitely selected and prepared foods that make Koiso so speacial to its loyal customers. As I leave, Kyoko presses me with the origami gifts and crafts that she makes for her customers.
“If the customers are happy I am so happy,” she says. “If they eat everything on the dish, I am so happy. Even when we are very busy, I want them to stay. I want everyone to be happy.”