125 East 39th Street (b/n Park and Lexington; map); 212-228-4873; kajitsunyc.com
Service: Outstanding. Soft-spoken but attentive.
Setting: Simple, minimalist, classy.
Must-Haves: Not many choices on the menu.
Cost: $55 for four courses, $85 for eight.
Grade: Recommended. It's not quite up to the staggering heights it used to be, but Kajitsu is still the best vegan meal in town, with impeccable service and gorgeously zen appointments.
A little over a year ago I wrote about the meal I had at Kajitsu. Based on the principles of shojin-ryori—Japanese Buddhist monk cuisine—it started out as an attempt to find a halfway decent vegan restaurant in New York. It turned out to be not just decent, but indeed the best, most memorable meal I had all of last year. It was the kind of restaurant that you could easily bring a meat-eating friend to and not worry that they will be missing anything, so complex, interesting, and vibrant are the courses.
Since then, the restaurant has undergone a few major overhauls. On the surface, the most significant is its new digs. No longer in the basement of an East Village town house, it's now housed on the second floor of a spacious midtown building, yielding better views (hey look, natural light!), but slightly impaired noise control. While at the old Kajitsu dinner was zen-like in its serenity, the high ceilings at Kajitsu 2.0 lead to inadvertently eavesdropping on the conversations of your neighbors.
Still, as Manhattan restaurants go, it is about as spacious and peaceful as you'll find, with an understated but impeccably-timed service the likes of which I've only ever experienced in Japan.
In traditional Japanese cuisine, the table settings and flatware are as important to the experience as the food, and the new location uses the same exquisitely hand-crafted serviceware that made the original location such a pleasure to dine in. Sake ($30 for a four-sake pairing or $38 for five) comes served in wafer-thin glasses etched with geometric and nature-themed patterns. Food come in mirror-finished lacquerware or hand-formed clay and wooden plates. It's museum-quality stuff that almost outshines the food itself.
Which brings us to the other big change at Kajitsu: the chef. Masato Nishihara, the chef behind the perfect meal I had last year moved on last spring and was replaced by Executive Chef Ryota Ueshima, a chef with intense traditional Japanese training born and bred in Kyoto, the epicenter of shojin-ryori.
So how does his food compare to Nishihara's? Unfortunately unfavorably.
Don't get me wrong. The food is still outstanding. An opening course of tempura-fried spring vegetables served in a pale green English pea and white miso broth is as delicate and nuanced as you could wish for, but it doesn't stack up to the white miso and baby turnip broth that opened Nishihara's menu.
The eight course hana menu progresses to a soup made with a thickened shiitake and toasted pine nut dashi served with slippery glass noodles and scallions. Again outstanding, with a depth of flavor most meat-based broths never dream of achieving, but again nowhere near as elegant or diverse as the tempura vegetables in warm dashi with seven greens I'd tasted previously.
Seasonality, time, and place play prominently into shojin ryori, and as a Japanese restaurant in New York, I appreciated that seasonal dishes paid equal attention to Japanese and American ingredients. This being the heart of bamboo shoot season, it was the star of Ueshima's Spring Bloom Plate, served toasted with a sweet white miso topping, as well as lightly grilled in nigirizushi form, a prime example of how excellent sushi can be even when not fish-based.
The most interesting bite on the composed dish was a tempura-fried butterbur blossom, a relative of the daisy with a lightly bitter, sweet vegetal flavor that paired nicely with a pickled salad of bamboo shoot and mustard. Blanched snap peas and paper-thin slices of cucumber balanced out the heavier fried and grilled items, especially when you took a bite of a black vinegar aspic along with them, letting the vinegar slowly dissolve on your tongue.
That said, the dish showed neither the mastery of texture and flavor contrasts nor the perfection of plating skills and knife work demonstrated in an osechi jubako from the previous chef. It is telling indeed when a dish based on spring vegetables comes across as heavier and clumsier than a similar dish based on winter roots.
I don't want to sound like a downer here, because in all honesty, it's only in comparison that Kajitsu 2.0 falls a bit short of the mark. Served as-is, I'd find a very hard time finding anything wrong with the House Made Soba Noodles. The noodles—which my mother pointed out tasted a bit more like wheat-based somen than true buckwheat soba—were thin, delicate, ever-so-slightly springy, and perfect for dipping in the sweet soy-dashi broth. A tangle of marinated shiitake mushrooms flavored with pickled green sansho peppers—the Japanese version of mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns—a pile of simmered wakame seaweed tossed with nameko mushrooms, and thin slivers of sticky mountain yam with a dollop of freshly grated wasabi root finally captured the lightness and deeply savory flavors that are the hallmark of Japanese cuisine, making it easily the best course of the night, and on-par with what I remember Kajitsu to be.
The next course—Deep Fried Bamboo Shoot and Mochi was another strong one. Served in a light dashi broth, the tempura coating softens as it soaks up the liquid, drawing flavor from a myoga (young ginger) shoot, grated daikon and ginger, and a pile of blanched mitsuba (Japanese parsley).
The most memorable course of my previous meal—the one that still haunts my dreams with its perfection—was the yuba. The Japanese tofu skin came in cloud-like whisps floating in a sweet soy-based broth, a layer of earthy buckwheat porridge hiding underneath it. Our spring yuba dish this time around was positively heavy-handed by comparison. Thick with a texture like hard scrambled eggs in a goopy soy-based broth that wasn't lightened enough by the fava beans sprinkled on top. While the rice underneath it was perfectly cooked, it was still the only true disappointment of the evening.
I'm not big on Japanese desserts, which tend to be starchy and overly sweet, but I could have eaten more of a lightly-flavored starchy carrot-flavored dessert soup served with crisply fried cherry blossom leaves. It's one of the surprise flavor combinations that make you really wonder why not all of Ueshima's dishes are so elegant or thought-provoking.
Kaiseki, the pinnacle of shojin-ryori that Kajitsu's food is based on evolved as nothing more than a precursor to properly made matcha tea, so every meal at Kajitsu ends with it. If you've never had properly made matcha, served frothy and intense in a warmed clay cup, those final sips alone (accompanied by candied fruit imported from one of Kyoto's most renowned candy-makers) can be worth the price of admission. After all, by Manhattan standards, the meal is a steal. I can think of burger joints in which a meal for two would cost as much as the $55 four course menu at Kajitsu, and your burgers don't come served on handmade pottery either.
One final change, and it's a major one: attached to the new Kajitsu is Kokage, the ground floor, lunch-only restaurant that expands the menu to encompass seafood as well. I haven't been yet, but I'm dying to. Yuba and Sea Urchin with Ankake Sauce? Man, does that menu know how to make my heart sing.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer 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.