Kajitsu is a Michelin stared Japanese restaurant serving authentic plant-based kaiseki ryori in New York. The owner, a grain exporter from Japan, stages a biennale of talented Japanese chefs taking over the sensible shojin vegan kitchen at Kajitsu. The first chef scored high with two stars in the Michelin guide. The Kyoto tradition celebrating the seasonal harvests through gastronomy impressed America, and kaiseki has since inspired similar efforts on the local culinary scene.
The change of chefs is an alluring asset to Kajitsu as much as it can be a self-defeating challenge. Although the successors were so far not able to replicate the level of the first Kajitsu chef’s cooking, the one Michelin star consistency proves it is worth trying.
For a more casual and faster meal reserve the seat at the counter where also most of the meals are being finalised. My first time at Kajitsu involved a fascinated gazing at the artful assemblage of the produce by the two chefs staged there. While the counter is deal for solo diners, the main dining room offers more conversational privacy between the widely spaced massive wood tables.
There are two menu options – the foundation is seasonal Hana, and the slightly tweaked, three course longer chef’s choice Omakase tasting. The same menu must be ordered for the table and gluten, mushroom or onion allergies cannot be accommodated because of the nature of the small kitchen. Protein-rich extras like Aburi-Age, deep fried tofu, or in koji (same rice ferment used for making miso and sake) fermented tofu typical for Okinawa supplement the set tasting menus.
The seasonal vegan tasting menu haloes the produce found around New York but also from Japan. Despite the large interest in Asian ingredients over the past decades, there are still some vegetables, fruits and soy products not easily available in America.
Even though some popular restaurants on Manhattan now serve yuba, the acquired taste tofu skin used in the Buddhist temple cuisine is challenging for the Western palates. Yuba can be served either in its most natural gooey texture, deep fried like at Jean Georges’ ABCv or as steamed strings enveloping foods at the macrobiotic branches of Souen.
Hiroki Odo now helms the kitchen until March 2018. After the pudding smooth first course of Sesame Tofu topped with shiso sprouts, nori seaweed and wasabi, the chef served the gooey yuba in an ornamented lacquer bowl of Matsutake mushroom soup seasoned with seasonal chrysanthemum petals. Preceding the menu at Kajitsu a brief with cultural and seasonal updates from Japan introduces the diner to the gastronomic event about to be experienced. Kiku, the edible chrysanthemum is the flowering symbol of fall in Japan and was incorporated into the imperial crest. A truly elegant and honourable expression of seasonal appreciation, that may not please your highly expressive taste seeking taste preference. For us this was the least enjoyable serving, but having tried many of the authentic kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto asserted us to appreciating it.
The nine courses that followed were much easier for the Western palates not familiar with the traditional Kyoto cuisine. An assortment of seasonal vegetables Imomeigetsu celebrating moon viewing, the Otsukimi, was creatively assembled, marinated, pickled and pureed. Each morsel tasting so distinctive, while being harmoniously puzzled together. This potatoes and other seasonal harvest worshiping offering is traditionally set out by famers on the window in the eve of the August full moon. Japanese taro, ginkgo nuts, tomato, okra, ume plum paste, spinach, Momiji-fu, broccoli rabe, wasabi, royal fern, shiitake mushrooms, sesame, corn, burdock root (gobo), chickpeas and green bean adorned the leafy plating.
Before weaving slowly to the autumn, the nose-pulling king of foraged treats – Black summer truffle shaved over sticky rice won us over effortlessly. Simple, yet reassuring Tempura of eggplant, Manganji pepper, shiso leaf, sweet pepper and the most delicious ripe fig, sweetly melting under its tempura batter coat, introduced more natural bounty to our palates. Seasonal shift geared up as the Early Autumn Vegetables with delicate fried tofu were served cold on the table. Not exactly a masculine dish as my husband’s reluctant play with chopsticks betrayed, but I was intrigued by the Kajitsu take on miso simmered arugula, daikon, lotus root, the shallot-like myoga-ginger and pumpkin enriched with almonds, pine nuts and walnuts.
Any still hungry belly was sated with a large claypot of Seasonal Mushrooms Rice, known as gohan in the kaiseki repertoire. Serve yourself as much as you manage. Pickled bell pepper and beans come on the side. Simple, but satisfying, and the rest can be packed for later enjoyment at home. In the Hana tasting you choose between rice or soba course, but in the omakase we got both. The buckwheat soba noodles were served chilled in a simpler broth version with lime. A simpler soba based four course lunch menu is available from Tuesday till Sunday at Kajitsu.
Next, final chapters were sweet. A frozen treat of Nashi pear with homemade pistachio ice cream served in a Martini glass preceded my favourite dish of the night. Dusted with roasted soybean powder (kinako) with caramel hues, the Edamame Rice Cake with adzuki beans and domyoji was sublime. On another dining occasion at Kajitsu I indulged in Adzuki sticky cake, that was more conventional, but also perfectly executed.
The sake list at Kajitsu has the most fascinating offering of this fermented Japanese rice beverage that we came across in the West. Even though the wine list is well composed, we were lured into an illuminating sake tasting. The sommelier was sensitive to our taste preferences, offering samples and suggestions. After a small bottle (about a flute) of Kajitsu exclusive unfiltered sparkling sake, I moved to Super Premium Sake flight, and with dessert sipped on a plum sake. The sake was served in delicately engraved thin Japanese crystal glasses, which next to the other Japanese tableware you can buy at the restaurant. Some bottles exceed the thousand dollar sum, and these are not offered by carafe or glass, but there are other rare sakes to savour. My favourite was to only 18% polished rice Tatenokawa Junmai Daiginjo. Balanced, smooth with a long aftertaste.
The food can be paired either with sake or tea by Ippodo. Ippodo is one of the oldest Kyoto tea houses, that has opened a small concession in the basement of Kajitsu in New York. The currently trending matcha is whisked either traditionally warm, as a slushy or in a latte to go, plus a wide selection from sencha, roasted houjicha, genmaicha, and other teas from Japan can accompany your meal. There is not a tea room per se, but a space reserved for a more causal encounters at Kajitsu downstairs is shared with the Ippodo tea bar.
A cultural phenomenon, the traditional Kyogashi Kyoto sweets are served with the bowl of matcha to wrap up of the kaiseki. The mid Edo period established Kagizen-Yoshifusa supplied the custom-made marumaru rice cracker and hi-gashi hard shaped sweet bunny. The edible jewels please your Instagram followers, but you must find your way to appreciate their subtle flavours. The Kyoto handmade sweets house considers the location of the sugar used in its confectionery to precisely create the perfect taste. For example when the “Brown sugar is obtained from Amami Oshima because of its rich and clear-cut flavor”. Now, this is sugar cane brought to a sophisticated connoisseurs level! Kajitsu gears up New York dining scene with its Japanese focused detail of craftsmanship.
125 E 39th street, New York, USA
Lunch: limited offering Tue-Sun; Dinner: full kaiseki 5:30-9pm; Closed on Mondays
+1 212 228 4873