I can’t think of a more thoughtful culinary practice, more grounded in principles and devoted to harmony, than that of the Japanese.
I have long held deep respect for Japanese food culture, even etching a Confucius-influenced Okinawan food philosophy permanently on my forearm. Not that I follow it, ever. But it feels virtuous to look at.
On a recent trip to NYC, I was intrigued when ChuckEats put Kajitsu on my radar. Not only because it features “Shojin Cuisine”, which I knew little of, but also that it is a multi-course vegetarian meal, one of just two restaurants I know of that are Michelin rated and completely vegetarian. Kajitsu received two stars last year.
Shojin cuisine is an ancient culinary practice developed in Zen Buddhist monasteries, and following the Buddhist principle of preserving life, no meat or fish are used. Instead the focus is on fresh, in season vegetables, herbs and grains.
Executive chef Masat Nishihara worked for 10+ years at Kyoto’s most well regarded Kaiseki restaurants before coming to New York to head the kitchen at Kajitsu.
In his words, “Kaiseki is the pinnacle of modern Japanese cuisine, developed from the tradition of cha-kaiseki, a cuisine served at tea ceremony events. Cha-kaiseki itself evolved from shojin cuisine. For this reason, I believe that shojin cuisine embodies the spirit and the origin of all Japanese culinary categories while dealing with the constraints of not using foods of animal origin, of striving to get the very best out of each ingredient, and of using one’s creative ingenuity to entertain the customers.”
And how that shines through his cooking.
Upon entering the restaurant, a calm washes over. The dining room is long, with ten seats along the chefs counter. Minimalist decor reflect wabi sabi principles, also rooted in Zen philosophy.
Our seats at the counter brought us close to the action, Chef Nishihara was plating appetizers of poached winter melon and cipollini onion.
There was no music drifting through the room and diners around us all spoke in hushed tones in seeming reverence of this master in his temple of food.
I soaked up the fine details around me. Service was understated but attentive. We were efficient in ordering as we knew we wanted the 8 course tasting menu ($70) with sake pairing ($34), and the first items came out just as quickly.
The dishware is an integral part of the Japanese meal, and the ones used at Kajitsu were created by pottery masters over 200 years ago. Out of deep respect for these works, when dishes are chipped in the restaurant, they are carefully patched and repaired, displaying the Shojin practice of frugality.
I was especially taken by the delicate sake glasses that held each pairing. Different in shapes and sizes, they all had beautiful etchings of flower patterns on their thin bodies. Sake had never been more pretty to look at.
The menu changes monthly to keep up with seasonality, and we caught the tail end of July. These were our courses.
Poached Winter Melon and Cipollini Onion
Cucumber, Snow Peas, Edamame, Myoga, Green Yuzu
Sake Pairing: Matsunomidori (Kyoto)
Assortment of Summer Vegetables with Celery Root Bagna Cauda
Cauliflower Paste, Porcini Mushroom Soy Sauce
Sake Pairing: Dassai (Yamaguchi)
Soba-Tofu with Nori, Star Pasta and Black Night Carrot
Okura, Scallions, Wasabi
Sake Pairing: Kokuryu (Fukui)
Chilled Somen Noodles with Asian Citrus Gelee
Ginger, Scallions, Kaffir Lime, Lemongrass, Cilantro
Four Kinds of Grilled Peas and Satoimo with Smoked Salt
Vegetable Tempura with Soy Glaze
Shiso Nama-Fu with Miso Marinated Plum
Sake Pairing: Daishichi (Fukushima)
Steamed Rice with Roasted Tomato and Black Olive Bits
Black Sesame Seeds, Mitsuba, Karashi
Sake Pairing: Ohyama (Yamagata)
Japanese Black Beans, Mochi Balls, Azuki Paste
Matcha Tea with Candies by Kyoto Kagizen-Yoshifusa
Unfortunately I didn’t have my regular DSLR and the light was unforgiving on my Lumix. You will have to make do with these thumbnails for visuals.
The first dish was served chilled, a medley of poached winter melon and cipollini onion on bed of thinly sliced cucumber, snow peas, edamame, green yuzu. I am a big fan of winter melon, and don’t think it gets nearly as much attention as it should. This dish was light, tart, and ethereal.
Then came a wooden boat loaded with raw summer vegetables, Berkeley-esque in its simplicity. Each bite held the rediscovery of a vegetable, and in the case of a couple I’ve never had, something of a revelation. The best part was the dipping paste of pureed cauliflower and porcini mushroom soy sauce. Kind of like the laocou, dark soysauce frequently used in Chinese cooking to add colour, this was made instead with porcini mushrooms to add a punch of umami that veiled the vegetables beautifully.
My dining companion favoured the next dish of soba-tofu with nori, star pasta and black night carrot. Everything about this dish looked magical, like you were about to be whisked away on a thrilling adventure in the night sky. The star-shaped pasta bits were beyond cute (how did they make that?) and floated in the thick soup as if suspended in space. The tofu made of buckwheat had a thick, almost chewy consistency, and harmonized with the other elements.
The chilled somen noodles were almost a palate cleanser in its lightness. The thinly pulled wheat noodles sat chilled, wrapped around an ice cube in a citrus gelee. There were garnishes of ginger, scallions, kaffir lime, lemongrass and cilantro on the side, and when mixed all together, produced a perfectly subtle marriage of flavours.
The next dish was probably my favourite of the night, simple and rustic, four kinds of grilled peas sat in their pods on the plate, surrounded by a baby ear of corn still in its husk, satoimo (taro root), vegetable tempura, and shiso nama-fu. The server explained that this dish was best eaten with one’s hands, so we started peeling the perfectly done peas out of the pods. It came with a mound of smoked dipping salt. I’m a salt fiend, which probably explains why this dish stood out to me.
A note on the Nama-Fu. FU is the name in Japanese given to gluten, the protein element of bread, and has become part of Japanese haute cuisine. This technique was brought to Japan from China by Zen monks as an addition of protein into their vegetarian diet. NAMA-FU is a half-half mixture of gluten and uncooked glutinous rice powder (that which is used to make dumplings also known as mochi), which gives NAMA-FU its smooth texture. FU was an integral part of early Japanese tea ceremonies, and as the tea practice was increasingly adopted, its popularity soared.
Our Nama-Fu was flavoured with shiso leaf by chopping it finely and kneading it into the dough. A daub of miso-marinated pum sauce topped the cubes.
I later read that the owner of Kajitsu is the heir to an esteemed FU shop in Kyoto called FUKA that has been around for 130 years. Before the Imperial Court shifted to Tokyo, FUKA was the sole purveyor of FU products to the Court, and its sixth generation chef still holds a pass to enter the Imperial Palace grounds today!
The final savoury course of the night was a simple steamed rice with mistuba- a Japanese wild parsley, dried black olive bits, topped with a perfectly roasted small tomato and a dot of Karashi- a wildly hot Japanese mustard. The dish epitomized comfort. I could eat this every day.
Desserts were watermelon anmitsu- agar jelly cubes, with black beans, mochi balls and azuki paste. Very classic Asian ingredients that an unaccustomed western palate may not care much for. But I preferred it for its lightness, a theme throughout the meal that made all eight courses go down effortlessly. Dare I say it- I had the feeling of ??? afterwards.
By now the meal had reached a high point, I was overcome with a certain type of glee only generously poured glasses of sake could evoke. And as the sake made it impossible to take notes, I don’t remember anything beyond that they were freaking awesome.
My eyes were glued on chef Nishihara. Every move he made was saintly. I had become a follower, and the pilgrimage was not over.
For a very long time he stood, intently watching a kettle of tea, stirring occasionally. This was no ordinary matcha tea. It was the highest quality green tea from Ippodo, a 300 year old tea maker in Kyoto.
When he finally poured the tea carefully into small bowls, its green froth glistening, I was thoroughly tantalized by its perfume. I told my dining partner that nobody had ever put so much care into a cup of tea for me before, and we both agreed that it contributed something rather extraordinary to the flavour.
As is custom with Japanese tea culture, little sugar candies from Kagizen-Yoshifusa, one of Kyoto’s oldest and best-known sweets shops (see ChuckEat’s visit here), were served alongside.
We were the some of the last people to leave the restaurant that night, and I would have stayed longer if I could. Kajitsu has created a temple of Shojin cuisine in the East Village, and I was a convert.
414 East Ninth Street (First Avenue), East Village, (212) 228-4873