Address: 414 E. 9th Street, New York
You don't have to be a vegetarian to appreciate the food at the newly opened kaiseki restaurant, Kajitsu in East village. The delicate kaiseki cuisine will keep you happy, full and satisfied even without serving any meat or fish. Aside from being the only true kaiseiki restaurant in NYC (there is no a la carte menu other than a pre-determined kaiseki style set meal), the restaurant is also the only place in the city that serves shoji ryori kaiseki.
Shoji ryori was brought over to Japan from China about 1500 years ago when Zen Buddhism was introduced and spread in Japan. Shoji ryori emphasizes on meatless cooking and the use of vegetables, tofu, fu, leaves and flowers in keeping with its buddhism philosophy of no killing. Shoji ryori also highlight the importance of not wasting anything when preparing dishes, so every part of the vegetable is used in creating a dish (including leaves, stems, roots and seeds). Since there is no meat in the Zen Buddhism diet, fu had been used as substitute as a major source of vegetarian proteins in the diet of the practitioners. Fu is essentially wheat gluten, and Kajitsu's owner is the third generation owner of Fuka, a three hundred year old Fu store in Kyoto that has been making fu for six generations. They were once the official purveyor of fu to the imperial household in Japan.
In Kyoto, shoji ryori can be found in the zen temples or restaurants near the zen temples. Although the dishes are mainly vegetarian, a shoji ryori meal in Kyoto can easily set you back about $100 just for lunch! So you could say that Kajitsu's kaiseki courses is a steal at $50 for Kaze (five courses) and $70 for Hana (seven courses).
Kaiseki is an experience and the dishes served are left to the chef, much like the omakase in sushi. Like Anthony Bourdain, we generally think most vegetarian or vegan dishes can be quite boring, but not the dishes at Kajitsu (much to his chagrin, I'm sure). The preparation and presentation of the dishes at Kajitsu is delicate and the flavors of the dishes are surprisingly much more sophisticated than we could have imagined. The ingredients are of the highest quality and is very fresh. They are sourced both from farms across America as well as Japan, especially Kyoto the capital of the Kaiseki cuisine. The restaurant also changes its menu monthly, so you get to taste different dishes every month!
The shoji ryori kaiseki turned out to be an amazing experience for us. It would have been even more perfect if not because of the couple sitting next to us, who were very loud and obnoxious. Our "zen" moment disappeared as soon as they started with the maddeningly disruptive giggling and laughing!
A Lotus Root Savory "Mochi" served with Plum Sauce and a touch of Shiso Wasabi -- The first course was "mochi" with plum sauce. According to our waiter, it was called mochi because the chef does not know what else to call it. Honestly, it tasted more like dumpling to me than mochi. The crunchy lotus root inside the mochi reminded me of mengkuang and the entire mochi tasted like vegetarian dumpling that my mom makes. The plum sauce was a little too sour for Gan's liking.
Clear soup with spring mountain yam filled with Yomogi paste -- The second course was clear soup with mountain yam with yomogi paste. It was a nice clear soup, but a little bland. The simplicity of the dish did make it easy for us to appreciate the quality of the yam and broth.
(Counter clockwise from top) Spinach tossed with tofu paste, pine nuts and deep fried fu; Roasted corn puree over rice; Carrot pate with poppy seed and mustard-miso -- The third course was a surprise but it was simply amazing. It's a trio of small, delicate dishes that were magnificent in presentation and taste. It was much more sophisticated than we would've imagined for a Kaiseki or Buddhist meal. It definitely had a strong impact and attracted our attention. The sesame tofu, carrot pate and the roasted corn purée rice were very impressive! Gan and I thought the carrot pate was one of the tastiest thing we have eaten!
Home made soba noodles-- Our fourth course was homemade soba noodles. The simplicity of it was almost anti climatic until we had our first bite of the slightly coarse texture but finely pulled buckwheat soba, which was first dipped into a perfectly chilled soba soy sauce that has been mixed with the crispy scallion and fresh ground wasabi. Chef Nishihara is definitely a master in making top quality soba, it was one of the best soba noodles we have eaten for a long time.
Grilled fresh bamboo from Kyoto; Vegetable tempura and deep fried fu --This is the main course. The fried vegetable tempura/fried fu was done really well, not oily and the fried fu with toasted seven spice will leave you wanting more.
Rice with snap peas accompanied by home made pickled vegetables -- The last dish, the snap peas rice with homemade pickles was a light rice dish and the home made pickled vegetables or oshinko were perfect condiments.
Japanese pastry made of blueberry infused azuki -- The dessert was azuki and almond paste with blueberries. The azuki and almond paste were really good, but we were more surprised by how fresh and sweet the blueberries were. The ladies who sat two tables away from us could not stop commenting on the blueberries.
Matcha and a petit four by Kyoto Gion "Kagizen Yoshifusa" - We have been to the Gion area in Kyoto before, a place where you can see the Maiko or Geisha apprentice strolling along the ancient style Japanese street but the sweets were the most memorable part of our trip to that place. The Matcha or powdered green tea was so delicious that I finished all of it before I could take any pictures. The waiter gave me some really good tips in making good matcha which I will try.
Chef Masato Ishihara of Kajitsu. Aside from his experience working at Kitco, a well regarded Kaiseiki restaurant in Kyoto, Chef Ishihara was selected by owner Shoji Kobori because of his specialty in making soba.
*Congratulations to Kajitsu for earning their first Michelin Star (2010)! It was well deserved!