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Restaurant Reviews: An Intellectual Experience at Katjitsu

I’d had Kajitsu on my “to eat” list for quite some time. And though I’m not one of those Michelin devotees, I have to admit I was indeed impressed when the restaurant, which specializes in shojin cuisine, was awarded a Michelin star, and in fact, was unaware that they had been upgraded to two Michelin stars until doing additional research for this post.

Now, for a brief tangent into what shojin cuisine is, and here I will quote Kajitsu’s website rather than attempt to explain it myself:

“Shojin cuisine refers to a type of vegetarian cooking that originates in Zen Buddhism. Even though it does not use meat or fish, shojin is regarded as the foundation of all Japanese cuisine, especially kaiseki, the Japanese version of haute cuisine. In its present form kaiseki is a multi-course meal in which fresh, seasonal ingredients are prepared in ways that enhance the flavor of each component, with the finished dishes beautifully arranged on plates. All of these characteristics come from shojin cuisine, which is still prepared in Buddhist temples throughout Japan.”

And in this regard, Kajitsu is simply in a league of its own. Despite the fact that there are countless Japanese food specialty restaurants here, I’m not aware of another restaurant that serves shojin cuisine, though there are other places to experience kaiseki in NYC, the most famous of which is probably Sugiyama, uptown, and which I’m now eager to try as well.

And Japanese food aside, there are also very few places to experience haute vegetarian cuisine in New York. There are two menus at Kajitsu to choose from, the 5-course “Kaze” ($50) or the 8-course “Hana” $70), and they change monthly. We opted for the Hana menu along with the sake pairing (though I only had the sake pairing for the 5-course, fearing we’d get too drunk to enjoy the meal).

I should also mention that the kitchen was extremely gracious in modifying the menu for my moderately gluten intolerant dining companion -- though we did inquire about substitutions about it a day before we came.

steamed tofu at kajitsuIt’s strange that at a place where the menu is prominent, and in fact we found ourselves frequently referencing it, each dish still manages to surprise. And that’s part of the fun of eating at Kajitsu. I’ve read of others who purposefully do not look at the menu, but it’s almost beside the point because though carefully described, the dishes are not what you expect them to be.

An intriguing sounding “Sushi Ball with Salted Cherry Blossom” brought to mind onigiri, but in fact was not a rice bomb as onigiri often are, but a small, delicate yet tangy cluster of rice resembling a miniscule head of cabbage. Other dishes like the duo of “Grilled Bamboo Shoots with Arugula Tempura” and “Steamed White Asparagus with Nama-Fu” were more straightforward, but still delightful. The most success seemed to be with innocent and humble-sounding items, like the “Steamed Rice with Diced Abalone Mushrooms” and “Steamed Tofu and English Peas with Kuzu Aonori Sauce.”

The tempo of the meal is nice, too -- for the Hana, the smaller courses created nice breaks between the larger “main” courses. Service was gracious, which might have something to do with the number of diners at this small restaurant -- with what seemed to be a front room dominated by a bar with just a few tables, and the rear room is tables-only. One thing which I found somewhat surprising: I expected extremely meticulous presentation (though I’m not sure why), and I was a bit surprised that it wasn’t that over-the-top, for instance with things like the “House-Made Soba”. Judge for yourself with our snaps. 

meal at kajitsu

The Slurp’s Dining Notes:

Go or No Go? GO ... and you have until 3/31/12 before Chef Masato Nishihara leaves to "explore the culinary scene in Europe", to be replaced by Ryota Ueshima (via the NYTimes)
Best For: It’s a quiet place, perfect for a couple, serious foodies or perhaps a unique meal for out-of-town guests. Despite it being a set-menu, ask about the possibility of substitutions (see above). The restaurant also has regular events.

Kajitsu, 414 E 9th St New York, NY 10009 

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