Dining at Kajitsu, the Michelin-starred vegan restaurant in midtown Manhattan, is like nothing you’ve ever done before. (Trust me.) There’s a reason it’s been on my list of places I’d like to go, even though I don’t typically list completely vegetarian restaurants on the list. The restaurant features Japanese shojin cuisine — a style of cooking that is centuries-old and comes from Buddhist monks. But it’s much more accurate to say that this is a place that uses ingredients you might or might not be familiar with and concocts them into incredible works of food and art.
From the moment you enter Kajitsu, you know it’s somehow different. Perhaps you can’t place it at first — I couldn’t; it took me until about halfway through the meal, when my friend pointed it out to me — but you will notice it, at least subconsciously. The place is almost completely silent. I was at Kajitsu on a weeknight, admittedly not the busiest time, but even sitting right next to the kitchen, I heard nary a peep.
This is not just an odd quirk of the place. Shojin (Japanese Buddhist) cuisine is very simple and focuses on seasonal, natural ingredients. This is not the kind of place where you’ll find Miles Davis or the Rolling Stones displayed in the kitchen; the simplicity of the food carries over into the simplicity of the decor, atmosphere, and service.
Kajitsu typically offers two menus: a five-course menu at $55 and an eight-course menu at $85. When I was there, they were also offering a version of the eight-course menu for $100 that included fresh, seasonal bamboo shoots imported from Japan. I passed on the third and went for the eight-course menu, with sake pairings. My friend and I also split a carafe of sake because the waitress told us it was the “best”. How could we say no?
The first course was a combination of jellies. It was made with bell pepper, okra, yam, and several things I’d never heard of. It was also kind of amazing. The green leaves you see at on top are not edible; they’re symbolic and intended to ward off evil.
As you can see form the picture below, the jellies were pretty intricate. The greens that you see on the right side are okra (below, slightly darker green) and bell pepper (above, slightly lighter green). Both were cut very thinly, just as the onions were. And the jellies held the entire dish together — literally. It’s nearly impossible to describe but it was a great start to the meal, showcasing the tremendous effort that goes into pulling together a dish so simple-looking.
Next up was tofu-ball soup:
The tofu balls themselves were as expected — fried, with a bit of a crunch, and surprisingly resilient even in the broth. (They were also very hot, as I learned when I bit into the first one!) The white bits you see are puffed rice, which was kind of gummy and hard to eat — the pieces were chewy and stuck to my teeth. Overall, this was very good, though it wasn’t strikingly out of the ordinary.
The next course, though, was incredible. It was described as “onion gratin”, though that’s a confusing description. The onion you see at the top of the frame was (apparently?) roasted, and the onion gratin was inside the rest of the onion. The seasonal vegetables were fantastic, with the deep fried white asparagus (foreground) contrasting with the creamy onion. There was a crunchy “spring roll” (diagonally across the plate), artichoke leaves, mushrooms, and more. I had never heard of shojin cuisine before coming to Kajitsu, but if I had to guess what it would be like, this would probably be my guess — vegetables, cooked in different styles (although the menu says “fried”, not everything was fried), all very simple, and each allowed to shine on its own. The only bit of embellishment was the salt on the side (lower right), which I guess you could add to anything but was particularly good with just a few grains sprinkled on the onion.
The homemade soba noodles are a specialty here; although the menu often changes, the noodles always make an appearance at some point. I have to say, when I read “fried tofu” on the menu, this is not what I had in mind. The tofu was shredded into fine, silky strands. The noodles and tofu were eaten dipped in to the broth (left side). It’s a testament to the cuisine that something that looked relatively bland was actually quite appealing. The sasamaki sushi was in the upper left-hand corner:
and that’s what it looked like on the inside. The sushi was wrapped in the leaf, which you don’t eat. The sushi itself was of sweet rice wrapped in seaweed. The one thing that struck me as weird about this was that the rice was very sweet and seemed incongruous with the rest of the course.
I should point out at this point that my friend and I were sitting at the chef’s counter. Kajitsu has recently moved to midtown, and at this new location, the dining room is up a flight of stairs. The chef’s counter is immediately in front of you when you come upstairs; the rest of the dining area is behind you. We were sitting at the far (right) side of the chef’s counter, immediately adjacent the kitchen. And yet the place seemed as quiet as a monastery, even though we weren’t the only ones there. I suppose that’s kind of the point.
Our next course was the seasonal vegetables in sesame cream sauce. Cabbage, bell pepper, and potato made appearances. The sauce was quite good, and the green you see are finely chopped green beans (there’s the “finely chopped” again, which came up as early as the first course). I saw this course as sort of an intermission — I’m not sure if that was the point or not! — between the last two courses, which were fairly substantial, and the next.
The final “main” course was served with our final, and largest, sake. I wish I remembered all of the sakes we tasted, but I just couldn’t keep track. I will say, though, that as someone who is not into sake, it was hard to tell how and why a particular sake paired with its corresponding course.
Next up was the sizzled rice. When it was brought out, I was confused — it was just some rice in a really hot cast-iron plate. But then the broth was poured onto the rice, and then it all made sense…
The rice was cooked in the plate, and in fact it continued to cook, because the plate was extremely hot. So the rice formed a nice crust on the bottom that was quite crunchy, even when soaked in the broth. The cabbage, pine nuts, and other ingredients were a plus, but in my mind the real star of this dish were the rice and broth.
Dessert was billed as “yomogi tofu”. I could not figure out what that meant, so I did some digging online, and this is what I think I had: a springtime Japanese sweet made from, among other things, the yomogi plant. It’s described on wikipedia as a “mochi” (a glutinous rice), but whatever it was, it was sweet and interesting. I actually thought it was a little too sweet, and of everything I had, this was probably my least favorite course.
Some candies were up next, along with matcha tea. The candies are in the shape of a square, triangle, and circle, as you can see above. This is not an accident; according to Kajitu’s website,
The shapes “” were sketched by the Zen monk Sengai Osho (1750-1837), to illustrate one of the most essential principals of Zen: the journey to bring meaning out of something that seems to have none. At Kajitsu we use this symbol to show our respect for Zen philosophy and the traditions of shojin cuisine.
The candies are served with matcha, a Japanese green tea. The tea was good, though a bit bitter (this is why it’s served with the candies), and was prepared quite ceremoniously. At least when you’re sitting at the chef’s counter, the chef actually bows to you after serving it. (I’m not sure if that’s also true if you’re at a regular table.)
Overall, Kajitsu was an incredible experience. I’d recommend it to anyone just to experience this unique way of preparing and experiencing — not just eating, but experiencing — food. So often, the “best” restaurants are ones that are flashy, high-energy, loud, and gogogo! (Yes, I realize I have heaped praise on a restaurant for exactly those reasons very recently.) Kajitsu stands out for its simplicity. The restaurant is quiet when you walk in, and that sense of serenity permeates the entire experience. You’re unrushed, the food is simple, the principles are ancient, and for a while, you can take a step out of the bustle of the world.
I have two small criticisms of Kajitsu, neither a deal-breaker. First (and this is minor), it was really hard to keep track of what was going on with the courses. There were so many ingredients I’d never heard of, and ones that I knew used in such unusual ways, that it was impossible to remember what was what. Second (and this is a little more substantive): a lot of dishes had very similar textures and consistencies. From the jelly to the yomogi at the end, the soft, almost custardy texture was a common theme. And — maybe this is because of the technique used to get something into that state — some of the ingredients felt a little “one dimensional”. Not bland, exactly, but just there was just something monotonous about eating multiple courses where things had the same consistency throughout. As I write this, I’m finding it hard to articulate exactly what my quibble is, and maybe that’s reason enough to drop it. In any case, Kajitsu is definitely a restaurant to try once, and should be high on the list for anyone who wants great food, vegan or otherwise, in New York. Four stars.