Normally, seeking company to visit a French or Italian restaurant isn’t too difficult. Simply ring up a friend, make a reservation, and you’re on your way to a meal and a conversation. While working through my perpetually growing “to-eat” list on my iPhone, I arrived at Kajitsu, then suffered a setback.
See, Kajitsu serves Shojin cuisine, a.k.a gourmet monk food. Imagine a Kaiseki like the one you’d find at Kyo-Ya, but without any meat. All of my Japanese food loving friends asked “where’s the fish”, and my carnivorous dining buddies either said “spending over $70 for a vegetarian meal is nuts” or “call me again when you’re going to a normal restaurant”.
I agree, Kajitsu isn’t a normal restaurant. It’s a great restaurant.
Since receiving a Michelin Star in 09, Kajitsu’s known among food enthusiasts as the critically acclaimed Japanese restaurant that’s different. For a cuisine that defines itself in the Western world with raw fish, this is a significant leap of faith. Then in 2011, Kajitsu added a 2nd Michelin Star, the world took serious notice. Not willing to wait anymore, I found an opportunity and coerced them into eating like wealthy New York monks.
The decor in this minimalist, subterranean room is amazingly simple. The main artwork showcased is the combination of the circle, triangle and square, a tribute to zen monk Sengai Osho, and also serves as the restaurant’s logo. Behind a long counter, you’ll find the chef Masato Nishihara, who completes final plating in plain site of diners. Chef Nishihara trained as a Kaiseki chef in Japan, but switched his style to Shojin cuisine only after coming to New York.
Diners get to chose from two seasonal tasting menus. There is a four-course “kaze” ($50) and eight-course “Hana” ($70). While the basic four courses are the same, Hana offers additional dishes including, house-made soba noodles, dessert, and matcha.
Where Chinese vegetarian cuisine attempts to emulate the texture and flavor of meats through creative use of soy proteins, Kajitsu’s Shojin cuisine emphasizes the flavor and texture of each ingredient itself. The meal opened with a salad of a spongy tofu, which had fantastic texture, and some fresh fern tips, which you certainly don’t find on many menus. The dressing tasted like a mixture of soy and ponzu. This dish was flavorful, complex, and eased my mind quite a bit of worry about vegetarian cuisine being too light.
The next course was a a ball of cabbage, lightly seared, sitting in a clear broth. The cabbage was held together with a slightly gelatinous paste, and the charring was a nice touch. However the soup’s a bit too light for my taste. Luckily, this was the only “miss” in the entire meal.
The 3rd course, which was 3 distinct items served on one plate, was both atheistically pleasing and delicious. From the top, you have a light chilled pea soup, 3 pieces of artichoke, and a piece of sushi wrapped in bamboo leaves. The seasoning is quite gentle, relying on the natural flavors of the pea, artichoke, and vinegared rice to make a statement.
Next up was soba. While I had littlle doubt this would be some exceptionally fine house-made soba, I wondered how cold soba with dipping sauce can justify its existence in a $70 tasting menu. The key to a unique and memorable soba dish, apparently, is the Zanthoxylum in the dipping sauce. For the non-botanists, that’d be the flower from the Japanese Prickly-Ash. The flower gave the sauce a floral note, while providing a slight peppery hint. A pleasant surprise.
While in Kaiseki you’d get a meat course, here you get a relatively heavier course in the form of grilled nama-fu and white asparagus tempura. The white asparagus was extremely tender, and the light tempura coating made it quite a treat. The star of the plate though was definitely the small pile of nama-fu, which are starchy, mochi like dough cubes. There were a few types, each had a subtle difference in flavor. A wonderful meat substitute.
Next up, the rice course, looks like a simple late night meal you’d find at a Japanese family. What you don’t see is the fennel puree that’s carefully blended into the rice, which gave it some added flavor. However, it wasn’t all too memorable compared to the other innovative plates.
While enjoying the rice dish, I saw the chef gently slicing white table grapes. What we usually pop into our mouths whole, he was carving meticulously into thin slices. This appetizer was absolutely fantastic, from the attention to detail in plating, to the perfectly balanced flavors and texture.
The meal finishes with matcha, where you can see the chef masterfully command the ladle, and gracefully fill each cup. For traditionalists like me, this was truly a sight to behold. I’m always in awe of chefs demonstrating such respect for the arts.
I walked out not craving meat, which says a lot about this restaurant given my dining history. With great service, an innovative chef that adheres to traditional methods, and a healthy menu, Kajitsu is highly recommended.
What does this rating mean?
Kajitsu (Make a Reservation)
(Bar seating by phone reservation only)
414 E 9th St
New York, NY 10009