Exceptional Shojin-ryori at Kajitsu in the East Village
414 East 9th Street, New York, NY 10003 (between 1st and Avenue A; map); kajitsunyc.com/
Service: Excellent. Very knowledgable wait staff who are not afraid to talk to the chef if you have questions.
Setting: Minimal and remarkably spacious, exquisite tableware.
Must-Haves: Only two fixed menus are available and change monthly, though a few additional side dishes can be ordered for the table.
Cost: $50 for 4-courses or $70 for 8. Sake pairings $29 and $36, respectively.
Japanese eateries in the East Village are known for meaty bowls of ramen, narrow spaces packed shoulder-to-shoulder, and servers (and restaurant owners) who'd just as soon kick you out the door as feed you (after you pay the bill, of course), so it's refreshing to step into Kajitsu, a quiet, well-lit, minimally decorated space where not only do you have room to spread (the whole restaurant has 26 seats in a space that could easily squeeze in 50), but the night progresses at a relaxed pace that you're almost tempted to describe as meditative.
Like the atmosphere, the completely vegan cuisine comes from the opposite end of the Japanese spectrum, one with a history and tradition that far predates the hot bowls of noodles being slurped up around the corner.
Fresh from a trip to Kyoto—the heart of kaiseki cuisine—I returned to New York slightly dejected, knowing that it'd likely be years before I got to once again experience what is generally accepted to be the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine. Modern kaiseki is often described as the Japanese equivalent of the tasting menu and indeed, kaiseki meals generally consist of at least a half dozen courses, sometimes with over one hundred separate preparations making up the composed dishes, yet its meaning goes far beyond that.
At the heart of kaiseki cuisine is the celebration of time and place. Seasonality, a reverence for tradition and history, and visual flair all play a part.
Shojin-ryori, the predecessor to kaiseki cuisine devised centuries ago by Buddhist monks (and the basis for the food served at Kajitsu) has been a purely vegan cuisine from its outset. There are no wizard-like attempts to transform vegetables into meat-like products, no culinary mimicry, rather It's a cuisine that celebrates vegetables in all of their diverse glory.
Chef Masato Nishihara took the long route to New York, honing his craft at Kitcho, a $500-per-head kaiseki restaurant first founded in Kyoto (it currently has a half dozen locations throughout Japan) before moving on to study the craft of soba-kaiseki—cuisine based on buckwheat noodles—at Tohma in Nagano. With that pedigree, it's remarkable that multi-course meals at the double Michelin-starred Kajitsu start at $50 and max out at $70.
Even before food arrives, there's an indication that the meal you are about to receive is something out of the ordinary—modern, yet thoroughly respectful of a nuanced past. The tables and bar are each carved out of a single piece of heavy wood, precise yet stark in its straight-edged proportions. No music disturbs the room, no spotlights or decorations accent the bare walls.
Sake is poured by friendly and knowledgeable waitstaff into feather-light, delicate sake glasses imported from Kyoto. They're etched with intricate cherry blossoms and geometric figures that are impossible not to run your fingers over. I want these glasses, bad. Much of the dishware used throughout the meal are carefully preserved pieces crafted by Japanese potters over two centuries ago. Kajitsu has its dishes repaired, patched, and repainted every time they get chipped or cracked. When was the last time you ate off of a 200-year-old plate?
Traditional tokkuri (sake flasks) get a modern makeover in gleaming metal. The hand-crafted pitchers reflect light in a way that makes your sake—selected from a short, well-curated, and reasonably priced list—literally glow.
Throughout the meal piece after magnificent piece arrives at the table. You'd think you were at an art showing, if not for the fact that this is art you can eat out of. Luckily, the food is as well-crafted as the tableware.
A New Year's-themed January tasting menu begins with a version of zoni that starts with grilled mochi—a sticky, chewy cake of pounded rice given a nutty char accented by a single, perfect baby turnip. It sits zen-like as faint aromas of yuzu curl up from a pool of creamy white miso soup bound together with a touch of corn flour that makes for a satisfyingly rich texture.
A tiny lidded porcelain pot comes on a polished wooden saucer. Removing the lid reveals cloud-like wisps of yuba (tofu skin) just breaking the surface of a sweet soy-based sauce. A dollop of freshly grated wasabi sits on top to be stirred into the pot. Digging deeper reveals a layer of earthy buckwheat porridge.
Of all the dishes we had, this one perhaps represents Kajitsu's ethos the best. Nishihara deftly combines dishes from two distinct Japanese traditions—soba along with yuba imported from Kyoto, the epicenter of tofu-based kaiseki cuisine—into a single dish that not only makes sense, but is extraordinarily delicious to boot.
A jubako filled with a dozen or so intricately carved, dyed, folded, rolled, skewered, and sliced vegetables is almost too pretty to eat. Osechi are part of a Japanese tradition that dates back to the 8th Century. Cooking was considered taboo during the first three days of the new year. As a result, Japanese women would prepare a variety of dishes in late December that could be stored and consumed at room temperature for the first few days of the new year.
A tempura course of three seasonal vegetables—leeks, pumpkin, and hen of the woods mushrooms—is crisply fried and served in a light mushroom dashi topped with a bewildering array of greens. I discovered goosefoot, mizuna, pea shoots, arugula, and mitsuba before I lost track and decided just to eat it. It's counterintuitive to some Western palates—why fry something crisp only to soften it up in broth?—but the pleasure of agedashi is in the contrasting textures and flavors between the crisp, dry batter on top and the broth-soaked moist batter underneath.
Perhaps the least overtly "Japanese" dish we had was the Kofuki Potato—powdery chunks of potato served on a creamy pool of heart of palm puree with crunchy disks of grilled parsnip, a pile of soy-simmered black trumpet mushrooms (more of those, please!), a pinch of crunchy puffed rice, and a generous shaving of black winter truffle. All familiar flavors, but stuck together in a completely novel, thoughtful way.
While the meals at Kajitsu don't strictly adhere to the well-defined order of dishes in a traditional kaiseki meal (for instance, soup would appear in the middle of a meal, not at the beginning), rice indicate things are coming to a close. Kajitsu's comes stained a cheery pink from adzuki beans and toasted black sesame seed. Slices of fu (wheat gluten) from Nishihara's family's 250-year old shop comes soaked in a soy-based sauce and topped with tiny dollops of mustard. A small dish of bright, salty pickles accent the dish.
If there's one flaw in the meal, it's in the desserts. This makes sense, as dessert is not typically a part of traditional Japanese cuisine. Our first one came as a pile of fluffy naga-imo—a Japanese yam with a distinctly slick texture—served with white bean paste and sliced lily bulbs on top of a ripe (but out of season) strawberry. It wasn't bad tasting, per se, just a bit mystifying in its unfamiliar flavors and textures in the context of a dessert.
Luckily, the meal closes on a brighter note with a bowl of intense matcha tea and a tray of sugar candies from Kyoto. The matcha comes bright green and aromatic, whisked to a frothy, creamy frenzy, rich in flavor and slightly bitter.
It's really only after you finish your meal and reflect on it (yes, this is the kind of food that invites reflection) that you maybe, just maybe think to yourself, "where was the meat?"
As a short-term vegan, I can tell you that it's rare to eat a vegetable-based meal out in this city and not think to yourself that somewhere along the line you're getting short-changed. At Kajitsu, it's the opposite: you leave thinking that all those meat-eaters who'd never consider dining at a vegan restaurant are the ones missing out.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.