BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Kajitsu, Reborn and Revisited

There’s something different about Kajitsu, and it’s not just the seasonal menu, refreshed every month to highlight fresh produce at its peak. The entire restaurant itself has picked up and moved to a new space in Midtown, large enough to accommodate two separate dining rooms containing two very different food philosophies. The original vegan concept of Kajitsu resides upstairs, now open for lunch and literally showing off the food in an entirely new light- Large picture windows improve the ambiance immeasurably from the previous location. Downstairs, open only for lunch, a second concept called “Kokage” offers eggs and various seafood in traditional kaiseki style. Happily, there’s more than enough to delight the senses with their shojin cuisine that one would never feel the need to venture back down to the lower dining room.

Previously a dinner-only spot, the addition of lunch service has opened up not only more cost-conscious prices, but a wider range of choices. In addition to the typical prix fixe filled with authentic (and perhaps challenging) delicacies, diners can pick from more familiar dishes such as rice and noodle bowls.

Tanuki Udon, a regional specialty of Kyoto, is presented with finesse that elevates the humble soup far beyond its deceptively simple roots. Vibrant green and still crisp scallions swim amongst the chewy wheat strands, enveloped in the hot and ginger-spiked broth. Generous squares of fried tofu add richness, all while soaking up that aromatic liquid like the tender edible sponges they are. Yomogi-fu, a new ingredient to me, is made of mugwort; I’d compare it to a savory cross between tofu and mochi. Posessing a unique chew that seems to bounce between the teeth, the surprising texture is a welcome interjection in the otherwise low-key, soothing stew. The oversized bowl seems bottomless, but should your spoon finally clink against the polished ceramic, it’s a sad moment indeed.

Not to worry though, because there’s more! Inari Sushi is included alongside, putting all previous experiences I had with the stuff to shame. Nothing more than fried tofu skin stuffed with vinegared sushi rice, the quality of ingredients and care of preparation are key to creating anything beyond subsistence rations. Soft yuba yielding easily to the lightest pressure, each grain of rice was perfectly cooked. Coated with the lightest hint of sweetness, it is an excellent study in contrasts, balancing out the gentle acidic bite within.

For those craving a bit of tempura, the Kakiage Donburi is sure to satisfy. Thin ribbons of various roots and gourds, with the incongruous handful of corn kernels mixed in, are expertly fried to a crisp consistency. The whole wispy jumble is perched upon sticky rice, and sides of miso soup and pickles round out the meal. Not a lick of grease is to be found here; you’d hardly know it was even deep-fried if not for the batter.

What makes Kajitsu a truly memorable experience, however, is still their carefully curated set menu. On this occasion, spring was in full force and the offerings gracefully reflected that transitory period from start to finish. “Ichi Ju San Sai” means “one soup and three dishes,” a format that ensures both balance and variety in a given meal. The rice is masterfully cooked, of course, but rather unexciting in comparison to the other culinary delights. Miso Soup always hits the spot, no matter how hot or cold the day is outside, and this particular interpretation held delicate strands of fresh yuba, reminiscent of an umami egg drop soup. After warming up on the savory, salty miso, the very next side brings some relief; chilled, refreshing, and wonderfully slippery…

Yes, the Spring Jelly would be best described as slippery, or perhaps gelatinous if one were feeling less charitable. It’s a texture that I happen to adore, but it may be more challenging for unfamiliar eaters. I hastily deconstructed the artful dish, plucking the finely shaved radish off the top and fishing out the jelly-like tokoroten noodles. Somewhat like a vegan aspic, the spring jelly itself was a melange of star-shaped crunchy vegetables, suspended in a dome of clear agar. The only thing I could positively identify in the mix was okra, since the other vegetables provided more crunch than flavor. Regardless of how strange that might all sound, may the record show that I adored this dish. No where outside of Japan would you ever find such a thing, and even then, I wouldn’t trust it to be without some fishy addition. This is what my memories of Japan taste like, and I only wish it was available a la carte so I could reminisce all year round.

The main event, Tofu with Ginger Sauce, arrived at the table in a heavy but shallow stoneware vessel, bubbling madly. Like a box full of edible treasures, the surprises never ceased with each successive bite. Sure there was tofu, both fresh and fried, plus a big dollop of freshly grated ginger just as promised, but it was otherwise nothing like what I had imagined. A starch-thickened sauce coated everything, infusing ginger into all the components. More of that chewy yomogi-fu made an unexpected cameo, and the addition of avocado was particularly inspired. Hot avocado rarely appeals, although something about how soft and tender it became, practically melting into the sauce itself, was utterly delectable. Though not a meal for the texturally challenged, I would it again any day, or every day if given the chance.

So how does the new Kajitsu compare to the old? It’s hard to make any definitive judgement so early on, although all signs point to greater success on the horizon. The very same spirit propels the establishment forward, while fresh inspiration pushes cooks and diners alike down a new path. I can’t wait to see where this new departure will lead.

Many thanks to Liz of Kosher Like Me for treating me to this unforgettable culinary adventure!


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Day of Celebration

Nothing motivates quite like a hard deadline, and this one certainly lit a fire underneath me. Kajitsu, temple of shojin cuisine in NYC, had been on my radar for years, but always seemed just outside of reach, despite its easy accessibility. Offering a set menu that changes each month, your only choices are between four courses or eight, with prices that match the painstakingly crafted edibles on offer. There just never seemed a proper occasion or reason to visit, never enough justification to drop that kind of cash on the experience of a single meal. As it turns out, the reason is presented right in the name: Kajitsu, translated as “fine day,” or “day of celebration,” says it all. In other words, treat y’o self, because today is just as worthy of celebration as any other.

When it came to light that the restaurant was closing up shop and moving to a new location, that was the catalyst for finally dropping by. Sure, it was due to reopen only a few weeks later in the heart of Manhattan, but I wanted the full, original experience. Moreover, I wanted an excuse, and this was as good as any.

Seated at the chef’s counter, we were privy to some of the fine details to go into composing these plates, but without seeing any of the real hustle and bustle in the kitchen. To call the atmosphere “meditative” is an understatement; there is no music, no loud chatter. Overhead lights focus directly on the food, which is the only place your attention is desired to fall. Distractions are at a minimum, right down to the tableware. Everything has a place and a purpose, including the attentive waitstaff, never missing a beat.

After the shorter kaze menu was chosen and our fate effectively sealed, the performance began.

Real, sharp, pungent wasabi grated mere seconds before hitting the plate took me by surprise. It was nothing like the colored horseradish found in most other eateries, but that was only an accent flavor to the Sashimi Style King Oyster Mushroom. Served chilled, the slippery slices of mushroom were paired with a savory sauce, a perfect compliment to the natural umami found within. Another delicious surprise came by way of the pickled celery, delightfully tender and yet crunchy all at once. That’s the sort of condiment I would buy by the jarful if only they would package it.

Daikon Soup may not sound like much on paper, but the surprisingly thick broth, enriched with a light asparagus puree, perfectly hit the spot. Concealed by a thin sheet of simmered daikon, a single piece of wheat gluten shaped like an ume blossom stood out in brilliant pink, a playful addition that lightened the serious mood. It would be a stretch to describe a bowl of soup “fun,” but that little touch brought a smile to my face.

The main course ,which was named the Plum Tree Plate, was a collage of complimentary components, displayed together on one plate. Standouts include the lily bulb puree, which is something never before seen in my world, and tasted for all the world like classic, comforting mashed potatoes. Fava beans and string beans came coated in a crispy, completely grease-free shell of tempura, adding just the right degree of indulgence into the meal.

Finally, ending on a soothing note, Baby Mountain Yam Soupy Rice gave diners an opportunity to play with their food just a little bit. Soup came in a separate pitcher, to be poured over a perfectly molded square of yam-filled sushi rice. Sheets of nori practically melted upon contacting the hot broth, seamlessly adding just a hint of oceanic salinity into the mix. Though my sweet tooth still yearned for a sphere of mochi or a small matcha cookie, I found myself perfectly full and content after that last spoonful of soup.

It was a meal worth the wait, although I certainly won’t let so much time pass before my next visit. Happily, they’re due to reopen in Murray Hill by mid-March, so there’s no excuse not to celebrate the day, for any reason at all.

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