November 19, 2009
On November 15, 2009, Linda and I dined at Kajitsu, a new shojin restaurant whose name means “Day of Celebration.” It is in a somewhat hidden lower-level location on 9th Street east of 1st Avenue, a block SE of Momofuku Ko. We could spot it by the zen sign on the railing at street level.
Kajitsu‘s website says:
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 beverage menu was presented along with hot towels. We ordered a bottle of Denshin Yuki Junmai Ginjo, Fukui sake. It was accurately described on the list as: “Dry, pure, and gentle with fragrant and refreshing taste.”
The restaurant’s website says:
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.
It started with
Slow Braised Japanese Turnip with Black Truffle
Tokyo Negi, Lotus Root
The cuisine at Kajitsu is presented in lovely pottery, some of it decorated, as here; some of it plain. The turnip had a very good, slightly sweet, but unassuming flavor. Folded underneath it is negi, a Japanese scallion the size of a leek, and a slice of lotus root. The two white asparagus pieces complete the nice medley of subtle vegetables, while the slice of truffle and the gold leaf let you know that you should be impressed with this cuisine and take your time to appreciate it, which we did.
Maitake Mushroom Tempura
One feature of Japanese cuisine I have never understood is preparing a lovely crusty piece of tempura and then drowning it in a soup. Here the tempura of a hen-of-the wood mushroom is in the soup of carrots and Shimeji, a group of Asian mushrooms known for their slightly nutty flavor and their umami. I thought I could taste some ginger.
House-made Tofu with Matcha Soy Glaze
This beautifully presented dish is quite eclectic. There is large variety of persimmons in Japan, where they are widely appreciated. Figs are Mediterranean and have only recently been cultivated in Japan. Jicama is a root, not a fruit, but is commonly used in fruit salad in its native Mexico. Sesame is used worldwide but is most popular in the Middle East and India, but not in cream sauces, which, in turn, are not Japanese at all. On the other hand, the cup of warm tofu with finely ground green tea leaves and soy is completely Japanese. The dish was well thought out and composed. We enjoyed it.
Soba is Japanese buckwheat and usually refers to the thin noodles made from its flour. Kajitsu‘s dumpling must have been made from the kind of dough used to make noodles. Its bland flavor was sparked up by the wasabi “stem” on top and the light soy sauce with scallion slices underneath.
Matsutake Mushroom Rice
House-Made Pickled Vegetables
Matsutake, or pine mushrooms, known for their excellent flavor and aroma, were used to flavor a bowl of rice that was not sticky in the common Japanese fashion. It included some ginko nuts and was topped with Matsutake. Alongside were pickled eggplant with mustard; kombu, the kelp used to make dashi, and grated Japanese turnip. They were excellent and made the sedate, but flavorful, rice into a lively dish.
Yokan is a traditional dessert made with red bean paste. It was originally jellied with gelatine, but in the shojin version is thickened with agar, a seaweed base gelatine substitute. The chestnuts added a nice seasonal touch. There were an almond and powdered almond alongside.
This is the traditional frothed green tea of the tea ceremony which ends many Kaiseki meals. It was a good conclusion. The little candies in Kajistu‘s zen symbols were mint flavored.
We really enjoyed this meal. The chef has made the transition very well from Kyoto to New York with its different ingredients and eclectic tastes. The service was always cheerful and efficient. The pace was just right, a feat for one chef, but then there are no choices. The menu changes each month so we will plan to go back in a different season.