Saturday, July 31, 2010

Restaurant Review -Kajitsu-

The subway stopped at Astor Place, as I made my entrance into the busiest part of East Village. I passed by Almo, the famous cube sculpture, and walked through the ever-crowded St. Mark's Place. A few blocks away from such bustling streets, it is a pleasure to find a peaceful restaurant, where people experience Zen through authentic Japanese cuisine. Kajitsu is a shojin kaiseki restaurant that opened its doors in early 2009 in the quiet side of East Village. Shojin cuisine refers to a type of East Asian vegetarian cooking that has its roots in Buddhism. Japanese style shojin cooking follows veganism, which forbids dairy and egg products. A kaiseki is a multi-course meal made with shun (in-season) ingredients and artistic presentation. Kajitsu's menu changes every month since seasonality is one of the most important concepts in kaiseki.

My husband was waiting for me in front of the restaurant. It was over 90 degrees outside, and a ten minute walk felt like much longer. We took a few steps down to the small garden-level establishment. There were a few tables and a wooden-counter with several seats. Our reservation was for six thirty, and we were the first guests of the evening. As we settled down at the counter, a server brought us chilled towels for wiping our hands. In the winter, they would have served hot towels. This is a typical service at the nicer restaurants in Japan. The menu at Kajitsu is quite simple. There were two kaiseki menus, an eight-course menu named Hana, and a five-course menu named Kaze. We went with the Hana kaiseki and a sake pairing.

The Executive Chef, Masato Nishihara, offered us watermelon juice in a shot glass as a tsukidashi, a type of amuse bouche. It was simple yet so refreshing, and a perfect way to start off dinner on a hot summer day. That was followed by chilled tomato aspic with avocado, paired with a glass of light-bodied sake. The tomato aspic was covered with clear jelly, which made it look like a crystal. The spoon slid into the beautiful square with very little resistance. It did not have the rubber-like texture which is often found in jelly products. The secret was kanten, a Japanese agar. The chef used both gelatine and kanten to achieve this texture. The tomato aspic was sweet and almost juicy. It was like eating a perfectly ripened, off-the-vine tomato, and the sliced avocado and a touch of wasabi enhanced the flavor. Amazed, I asked the chef if he uses special tomatoes. He said, “I use the freshest tomatoes I can find at the green market. They are regular tomatoes. They are good because they are shun.”

House-made hiyamugi, a type of Japanese noodle, was served with a sesame dipping sauce. In my experience, the sesame dipping sauces tends to be rich and thick, however, this version was invigorating. The sliced Japanese cucumber was crisp, and the myoga ginger was a good accent. The flavor of myoga brought back memories of my childhood when my mother would send me to a grove behind our house to pick a handful of myoga, which I hated as a kid. However, over the years my tastes have changed, and now the peculiar flavor makes me pleasurably nostalgic. By the time the server took away our empty hiyamugi plates, we were completely cooled off and ready to have the hot dishes.

The clear soup with simmered watermelon and shiso nama-fu was probably surprising to my American husband. The chef used watermelon rinds, which are generally discarded and almost never eaten. They are semi transparent and delicately flavored with dashi, Japanese stock. My husband was curious about Junsai, brasenia floating in the soup. Junsai is a type of aquatic plant that looks like young sprouts coated with a clear gel. They are beautiful to look at and have a slimy, slick texture. There was a twisted nama-fu at the bottom. Nama-fu is steamed wheat gluten mainly produced in Kyoto. Nama-fu doesn't have much flavor, but its soft and chewy texture makes it hard to resist. The nama-fu in the soup was good, but I much prefer it grilled. FYI, grilled nama-fu is on the a la carte menu at Kajitsu.

The next course was like a miniature combo plate. There were three different dishes: buckwheat risotto with porcini mushrooms, panko fried zuccini blossoms stuffed with corn and satoimo yam, and an array of seasonal fruits. The fried zuccini blossoms were served with orange tomato paste and pink pepper. The sweet and savory paste was, to me, the best part of the dish. The crunchy zuccini blossoms were my husband's favorite. And then there was a fruit that I never had before. It was like a fruit version of a tomatillo. Trying new things is always exciting, and that's what I like about eating out.

The server brought another sake to pair with our main dish. I was pleasantly surprised to have a sip of my favorite sake, Sasaichi, which is hard to find outside of Japan. My yearly visits to the Sasaichi brewery ended when I moved to the United States, and it has been seven years since my last glass of their rice wine. This sake from the Yamanashi Prefecture is smooth and refreshing and goes well with many types of food. It was well paired to our main dish: spaghetti squash stuffed with chilled summer vegetable soup. The squash was served over mixed tempura and was garnished with two pieces of gold leaf, which the server explained, was to commemorate Tanabata.

The Tanabata legend is well known in Japan. It is a story about Orihime, the weaving princess, and Hikoboshi, a cow herder. Orihime was a daughter of the star king, and she wove beautiful clothes by the Milky Way. She worked so hard that she did not have time to meet anyone. To cheer up his sad daughter, the star king arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi, who lived on the opposite side of the Milky Way. They fell in love quickly, and eventually got married. However, they enjoyed their new lives so much that they stopped working. Outraged, the star king separated them across the Milky Way and forbade them to see each other. Orihime was shocked and grieved. She begged her father to see Hikoboshi again. The star king decided to allow them to see each other once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, if she work hard. The gold leaves in our dish represented Orihime and Hikoboshi. It was the only day in the year when they could see each other.

While I explained the story to the lady sitting next to us, our server poured vegetable soup over the tempura. While it was called a soup, but it was more like ankake, which is a sauce thickened with starch. There were okra, nameko mushrooms, carrots, purple cauliflower, baby corn, celery and nama-fu in the soup along with the spaghetti squash, and every bite had a different texture. I would have enjoyed the soup by itself, but pairing it with tempura raised the dish to another level.

Good tempura is very difficult to cook. Most tempura served at restaurants in the U.S. are overly battered and tend to be oily. Well prepared tempura should be coated with a thin layer of batter and have a delicate crunch. It should never be heavy. Chef Nishihara prepared it perfectly. The eggplant tempura was particularly astonishing because an eggplant is like a sponge and can absorb too much oil while frying. Eggplant tempura isn't something I generally enjoy, however, I would definitely come back for this dish.

Sauteed asparagus rice was served with an aonori (green sea weed) sauce, and I was blown away at the first bite. The taste of the asparagus was so intense, and the aonori sauce and the ginger heighten the buttery/nutty flavor of the early summer vegetable. Several varieties of the house-made pickles offered color, texture and aroma and improved the already perfect dish.

The chef served small plates of sake kasu ice cream, which were not on the menu. “Happy birthday,” he said. Indeed, it was my birthday. He probably overheard it in our conversations and made a thoughtful gesture. Sake kasu are the lees, the left overs from the final pressing of the sake. The ice cream was silky, and a hint of fermented aroma pleasantly went through my nose. There were tiny black flakes on top of the ice cream. “Those are Tasmanian pepperberries, my favorite ingredient,” Chef Nishihara said. “They are not peppers. They are berries. You'll know when you taste it.” They were as pungent as peppers but were fruity to the taste and almost floral. The black berries brought out the delicate flavor of the sake kasu ice cream. The chef kindly showed us the husks of the berries, explaining that they make very good sauces for meat dishes. That was the only time I slightly wished the restaurant wasn't vegan. The dessert was a mochi ice cream with fresh peachs and it was by far the most elegant mochi ice cream I hve ever had. It was followed by the last course, macha tea with three pieces of tiny rakugan, traditional Japanese confectionery made of rice flower and sugar. The pleasant bitterness of the tea refreshed my palate, and my husband and I left the restaurant completely satisfied.

Seasonality, simplicity, and subtlety are the three pillars of Japanese cuisine, and every dish at Kajitsu showcased these important essences. As many Japanese restaurants offer Americanized menus, I was glad to find a restaurant which served authentic Japanese cuisine. It's almost August, and their course menus will change again soon. These dishes that I have truly enjoyed will be gone, but there is no question that the August menus will be as fabulous as July's.

414 E 9th St New York, NY 10009
Between 1st Ave. and Ave. A
Tell: 212-228-4873

Tuesday - Sunday
5:30pm - 10:00pm
Monday closed