Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Kajitsu: Hope Springs Eternal

Despite some recent traction, vegetarian cuisine, let alone vegan, has always been a tough sell to the vast majority of Americans. However, a few select restaurants thrive by embracing this cuisine, capturing a loyal following along the way.

One such restaurant is Kajitsu. Specializing in shojin cuisine, a traditional style of cooking originally eaten by Japanese Buddhist monks, they're producing some of the freshest most delicious food in all of New York. This honor is due large in part to the restaurant's talented Executive Chef, Masato Nishihara. With an extensive background in both kaiseki and soba, Chef Nishihara trained at several prominent restaurants in Japan before finding himself in Manhattan's East Village. Constantly innovating, Chef Nishihara creates an original kaiseki-inspired menu each month, never repeating a single dish. This creativity is but one detail that has helped earn Kajitsu two Michelin stars in 2011 and brought shojin cuisine out of relative obscurity and onto the culinary map.

Although having eaten some extraordinary kaiseki meals in Kyoto, even MW initially seemed skeptical of an entirely vegetarian meal. But, with an open mind, she soon warmed to the idea and reservations at the bar were made. Running late for our reservation, we initially passed by Kajitsu on 9th Street and eventually doubled back. Upon entering the restaurant we were immediately greeted by a hostess who led us to the our seats at the "L-shaped" bar.

Like many Japanese restaurants, Kajitsu has a minimalistic aesthetic, helping focus one's attention solely on the food. While not exactly empty, the restaurant was quite tranquil, exuding a zen-like ambiance as we observed Chef Nishihara prepare each dish from behind the counter. Having a choice between a 4-course Kaze or 8-course Hana menu, we both selected the Hana with accompanying sake pairings for MW. Still abstaining from alcohol for Lent, I settled for a pot of Sencha Tea that paired well enough with my food.

Our meal began with a warming dish of Steamed Tofu and English Peas with a Kuzu Aonori Sauce, Ginkgo Nut and Ginger. Resembling a panna cotta in both its appearance and texture, the silky tofu was exceedingly fresh, and definitely first rate. The ginkgo nut and ginger were wonderful accents to the pure flavor of the tofu, but we found the peas not quite sweet enough to warrant exceptional praise. This was good, but not great.

MW was served a Hihaku Junmai Dai Ginjo, (Akita) sake that was full bodied yet dry. Her favorite sake of the entire evening, MW said it paired exceptionally well with the food.

Next, we were presented with a trio of tasty treats: a Sushi Ball with Salted Cherry Blossom, Mitsuba, Boston Lettuce and Wasabi, a Salad of Wakegi, Shungiku and White Wood Ear Mushrooms with a Mustard Miso and a Grilled Kabu Turnip with Yomogi Sauce. The sushi ball was truly a sight to behold. Enveloped by Boston lettuce and garnished with the pink cherry blossom, the ball mimicked the appearance of a flower. In addition to its gorgeous appearance, the sushi ball had exceptional rice, well seasoned and containing the perfect amount of moisture. The white wood ear mushroom lent the salad a pleasant chewy texture and matched perfectly with the mustard miso. Last but not least, the kabu turnip was sweet and ever so smokey from the grilling process. All around, Chef Nishihara succeeded in creating three diverse, but delectable bites.

This course was paired with a Denshin Yuki Junmai Ginjo, (Fukui). Much drier than the previous pairing, MW enjoyed the dry sake with the sweetness of the multiple components.

Arriving in an ornate laquerware bowl was a Potage of Nappa Cabbage with Tiny Beet, Shallot, Wonton Skin, Nama-Fu and was finished with White Sake. The cabbage potage was thick and savory, with the wonton skin being similar to a noodle and the nama-fu (wheat gluten) having the texture of meat. Rounded out by the sweetness of the beet and earthiness of the shallot, the soup was subtle but intriguing.

The potage was served with a Born Junmai Dai Ginjo, (Fukui) that was more assertive than the Denshin Yuki.

A specialty of Chef Nishihara, we were especially looking forward to the House-Made Soba with Watercress, Watermelon Radish, Horseradish and Scallions. So simple, but oh so good! These soba noodles were among the best we've ever had. The noodles had a springy chew and coarse texture, resulting in one exquisite bite after another, especially when seasoned with the peppery watercress and spicy horseradish. There was no sake pairing with this course.

Our main course was the Grilled Bamboo Shoots with Arugula Tempura seasoned with a Yuzu Pepper Oil with Steamed White Asparagus, Nama-Fu and a Fermented Tofu Sauce. Rekindling fond memories of an incredible kaiseki meal we enjoyed at a ryokan outside Nara, the grilled bamboo shoots were nothing short of amazing. Crunchy and sweet, the bamboo shoot's nutty flavor was enhanced by the yuzu pepper oil. Another springtime favorite, the steamed white asparagus was tender and similarly elevated by the pungent fermented tofu sauce and sea salt. Not quite as successful, though plenty enjoyable was the arugula tempura which had a nice peppery flavor but was a bit too delicate. The nama-fu, on the other hand, was met with mixed reactions. While I rather enjoyed the sweetness of the pumpkin nama-fu, MW downright detested its flavor.

Accompanying this course was a smooth Sasaichi Junmai, (Yamanashi) that was said to have contained water from Mt. Fuji.

Signaling the end of the savory courses, our meal concluded appropriately with rice and pickles. We each received a bowl of Steamed Rice with Diced Abalone Mushrooms, a garnish of Spring Cabbage, Capers and Italian Parsley, as well as an assortment of House-Made Pickles (Green Turnip, Kelp with Sansho and Pink Radish). Chef Nishihara instructed us to first taste the rice without the cabbage-caper-parsley condiment to appreciate the natural flavor of the rice and mushrooms before mixing the two components together. Truth be told, I rather enjoyed the rice without any additional seasoning and felt it was geared toward appeasing the Western palate. However, the pickles were just divine. With each different taste and texture, we were perfectly content eating our rice with only the pickles.

MW was given a Daishichi Kimoto Honjozo, (Fukushima) with this course.

Our dessert began with a Mochi Ball with White Bean Paste and Basil prepared before our eyes by Chef Nishihara. Still warm from his hands, this was definitively the best mochi we've ever eaten. Chewy but not gummy, delicate but not bland, the sweetness of the white bean paired with the herbaceous basil was an unexpected but welcome combination.

Next, Chef Nishihara prepared each of us a fresh cup of Matcha. Trained in the art of formal Japanese tea ceremony, Chef Nishihara first rinsed out each cup, then measured the proper amount of matcha powder and added boiling water before finished by mixing the tea with a traditional bamboo whisk to create a proper froth. The bitterness of the matcha was a nice counterpoint to the provided Sugar Candies by Kyoto Suetomi (Sugar Glazed Azuki and Sugar Candies).

Service was efficient and helpful. Our server did a fine job of answering our questions and provided great detail surrounding the preparation of each dish. On the other hand, Chef Nishihara was a man of few words, always working diligently preparing the next course, but was extremely pleasant and found time to converse with all of the patrons seated at the bar. As if to emphasize this point, Chef Nishihara surprised us with a complimentary bowl of Sweet Potato Ice Cream with a Tofu-Sesame Sauce and Cocao Nibs. The ice cream was made without any diary and was extremely dense. The nutty flavor from the sesame and bitterness of the cocoa nibs were a stellar compliment to the luscious sweet potato ice cream.

Overall, our meal at Kajitsu managed to meet, and in MW's case, exceeded all expectations. Serving pristine ingredients deeply rooted in tradition but presented in novel and exiting manners, Chef Nishihara's unique take on shojin cuisine is fully capable of turning the heads of even the staunchest of carnivores. Like the many springtime ingredients featured prominently in our meal, I can only hope that restaurants such as Kajitsu will rid vegetarian restaurants of their unfortunate "boring" stigma and continue to flourish.


On a more important note, my thoughts and prayers are with Japan and all its people in this time of need. Given the time I spent living/working in Tokyo and all of the wonderful people I had the opportunity to meet, this disaster is especially personal to me and I wish them a speedy recovery.

414 East 9th Street
New York, NY 10003
(212) 228-4873


To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.

Kajitsu on Urbanspoon

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