An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


A Better Bistro

“Elevated cuisine” is not the bill of fare one might expect to come out of a shoe-box of a food trailer parked in the outskirts of east Austin, and yet Bistro Vonish seems determined to defy such preconceived notions. Redefining the category of fine dining through the lens of a classically trained vegan chef, Craig Vanis isn’t your ordinary line cook either. Propelled by a basic desire to feed others and express his creativity, his true inspirations are diverse, interwoven into the tangle of modern food politics and nutrition. “Food touches everyone, more than just micro nutrients,” he explained to me over a plate of three sisters ragu, a vibrant melange of summer vegetables crowning crispy seared polenta cakes. Clearly, none of this philosophy clouds the flavors in world-class dishes like this one, presented with equal flare on the ever-changing menu.

In sharp contrast to his current surroundings, Chef Craig first found himself in Texas to pursue a career as a mechanical engineer in the oil fields. Laid off after the 2009 economy collapse, that marked a turning point that began in Houston kitchens and ultimately led him back for professional training at the Natural Epicurean School in Austin. This complex path is perhaps what gives the food at Bistro Vonish such a clear and unique voice; there’s no one else with the same formative experiences, and certainly none quite so fervently determined to pursue their passions in the food industry.

Showcasing more than just impeccable cooking skills, the local, organic, seasonal produce dictates the daily offerings. Weekend brunches are a distinct treat, featuring pillowy french toast with homemade fruit syrups, and savory tofu scrambles that would put a plate of eggs to shame.

This is all just the tip of the iceberg, and only the start of greater aspirations for Bistro Vonish. Chef Craig plans to expand into a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant as soon as possible, enlivened with tempting menus that echo the successes of supper clubs past. While it will be difficult to wait for this upcoming new chapter in the Bistro Vonish saga, Chef Craig was generous enough to share his recipe for Grapefruit Panna Cotta; a sweet finale to tide us over until the next meal.

Photo by Craig Vanis

Grapefruit Panna Cotta
by Chef Craig Vanis of Bistro Vonish

1 (13.5-Ounce) Can Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 1/2 Teaspoons Agar Powder
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
Zest of 1/2 Grapefruit
1/2 Cup Grapefruit Juice
1 Teaspoon Sea Salt
6 Ounces Silken Tofu
1/4 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk

Simmer the coconut milk with the agar powder and sugar for approximately 10 – 15 minutes, to thoroughly cook and dissolve the agar. Blend the simmered liquid with the rest of the ingredients until creamy and smooth. Pour into lightly greased molds or ramekins to set; at least three hours or until firm. Chill thoroughly before serving.

Gently remove from molds and serve with the accompaniments of your choice. Suggestions include candied and fried sage, orange liqueur syrup, and tuile cookies.

Printable Recipe


Gather Together

Gather is much more than a place to eat, more carefully sourced, passionately created, and openly hospitable than the average eatery. Explicitly conceived as a means for connecting farmers, cooks, and diners with every bite, local and organic ingredients aren’t mere buzz words tossed around these vaulted ceilings, but honest mantras held in the highest regard. A certified LEED Platinum building in downtown Berkeley provides the foundation for this mission without missing a beat.

Guests are invited to take a look into the open kitchen and watch the chefs in action, meticulously crafting dishes at a steady but brisk pace. The great outdoors are welcomed inside, with a comfortable sundeck seamlessly connecting the two spaces, while large-pane windows allow daylight to readily flow throughout. Even the menu itself exhibits this very same openness, boasting plates for every imaginable dietary constraint all in the same breath. Most impressively, the inherent depth of flavor found in food itself doesn’t suffer one bit for all these extraneous considerations. Impeccably fresh produce sings on stark white plates, imploring eaters to join the song, whether they’re vegan, gluten-free, omnivorous, or just plain hungry.


Kombu, Hidden in Plain Sight

Situated right in the heart of downtown on Market Street, you’d think Kombu would have snagged a prime location, and for all intents and purposes it couldn’t be in a better place. Stumbling distance from both the Powell and Montgomery BART stations, you’d be crazy to walk by without grabbing a seat… Except that if you’ve been in downtown San Francisco recently, there’s a strong chance that you already have, and multiple times at that, because it’s nearly impossible to find. There might be a menu stand out front if you’re lucky, but there’s no sign on the street, and the address is better known for housing an outpost of Equinox Gym. Even after making it up to the fourth floor, you must still suspend disbelief and walk past the casual takeout counter, because what you’re really looking for is just around the corner.

Each item on the menu is clearly composed with intention and care. Numerous vegan options appear in each section, handily labeled, making it easy to dine out with eaters of all stripes here. The views are stunning, especially midday when light streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Quiet, aside from the incongruous mix of 80’s and 90’s pop music, Kombu is like an oasis high above the traffic below.

Falling firmly into the New American category, the menu features locally grown and organic foods in what could best be described as unfussy, elevated comforting cuisine. Each dish is clearly composed with care, from conception to cooking, and I can confidently say that after tasting almost the entire vegan menu, there isn’t one lackluster selection amongst the ever-changing seasonal options.

Appetizers kick off any meal in style, but these introductory gems are tempting enough to draw one in off the street for a quick snack in their own rights. When it comes to the Carrot and Beet Hummus, no beans need apply, because these are actually vegetable-based purees, much lighter and more refreshing than the traditional dip. They’re brilliant alone and even more fabulous mixed together, swirling into a an edible watercolor painting on the plate. Each has a unique earthy sweetness, nicely complimented by the buttery points of toast provided on the side. Truth be told though, all I need is a spoon, since I’d like to order these up by the bowlful.

Providing a bloodless answer to the classic steakhouse starter of steak tartare, Kristin’s playful interpretation of Beet Tartare is much more than your average beet salad. A duet of citrus in the form of orange and grapefruit creates unique nuances in each bite, some more tart or tangy than others, anchored by the tender cubes of red beets. Both earthy and bright, sweet and sour, it’s a bold study in contrasts that ultimately comes together to create an implausible harmony on the tongue.

Moving on to the main event, the Seared Tofu might not sound like much by name alone, but this is not your run-of-the-mill tofu stir fry. Seasoned with finesse, you can really taste the tofu without feeling overwhelmed by the earthy, beany aspect of it. Accompanying vegetables remain crisp and vibrant, featuring a rare example of sautéed kale that hasn’t had the life cooked out of it. The tomato jam-infused rice hidden underneath posseses a firm bite, and the silky miso sauce adds just the right touch of richness and saltiness, like a refined version of dengaku.

What constitutes the ideal veggie burger is a point of contention amongst herbivores and omnivores alike, but I’m happy to report that the Kombu Burger (slider sized as seen above) would definitely pass muster with even the most discerning of eaters. A dense, buttery, brioche-style bun caps off a savory, satisfying patty, seated atop creamy cabbage slaw. It’s very rich all told, but guarantees that those who partake have no chance of walking away hungry. The firm burger holds itself together remarkably well, refusing to crumble under pressure, which is the downfall of all too many lesser vegetable patties.

Tempting fate and testing my eggplant intolerance, the rich eggplant caponata crowning the velvety Polenta was flavorful enough to be worth any amount of pain. Delightfully salty thanks to briny little capers hidden throughout, the dish wouldn’t be the same without them, as they brought out just the right meaty, savory notes to make it feel like a complete meal. Incredibly soothing, easy to eat, but never coming close to approximating a bowlful of gruel, you can truly taste the corn of the polenta base, accentuated by rich vegetable broth undertones. Shatteringly crisp squash blossoms are real gems here, worth of a menu slot all their own. I would gladly order them up by the plateful and munch through them with a drink at the bar.

A glowing, golden mountain of creamy rice, the Saffron Risotto readily flaunts its riches, showing off a treasure trove of spring delicacies at the summit. Morels, maitake, wild asparagus, and impeccably seared fiddlehead ferns all sparkle with a subtle hint of charred flavor. Thick enough to easily eat with a fork, the risotto itself boasts ideally al dente grains thoroughly infused with saffron and cooked to a comfortingly sticky consistency. I only wish there were more of those glorious vegetables found throughout the towering mound and not just on the peak, as it’s a whole lot of rice once the garnishes have been devoured.

Dairy-free dessert choices are a bit limited, but one would never feel restricted once a perfectly chilled glass of either Mango or Mocha Chia Pudding arrives at the table. Rather than approximating tapioca with soaked, whole seeds, this interpretation finds them roughly ground, creating a smooth custard that still boasts a bit of texture. The bright mango flavor is every bit as juicy and sweet as the whole fruit, making it a perfectly refreshing, light finish to any meal. However, chocolate-lovers would be foolish to pass on the mocha version, no matter how filling the preceding meal. Full-bodied 90% chocolate, deep, dark, and intense, shares the spotlight with the bold espresso flavor woven inextricably throughout the creamy melange, managing to compliment one another and not compete.

The true sign of a chef’s skill is their treatment of vegetables, from the most humble to rarefied. Few examples of more perfectly cooked greens, roots, and legumes alike can be found in all of the city, and even fewer opportunities for vegans to partake in those culinary exploits. Don’t be afraid to ask about vegan options should you stop in for yourself; beyond the numerous options that are clearly labeled for every meal of the day, many of the other dishes can be easily converted as well.

Chef Kristen was kind enough not only to share these incredible dining experiences with me apropos of nothing, but offered to extend that generosity even further by giving her recipe for that luscious polenta, in case readers far from San Francisco wanted a taste of their own. Though nothing could compare to the flavors wrought forth by the skilled kitchen staff at Kombu, I’m delighted to have this summery main dish on file to soothe any inconsolable cravings that may strike. It’s worth whipping up in your own kitchen, and ideal for featuring the freshest produce of the season.

Creamy Chive Polenta with Eggplant Caponata and Roasted Tomatoes
By Chef Kristen Thibeault of Kombu

6 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
4 Roma Tomatoes, Halved
1 Teaspoon Herbs de Provence
1 Shallot, Finely Minced
1 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
1/2 Cup White Wine
2 Cups Rough Chopped Japanese Eggplant
1 Tablespoon Capers
1 Clove Garlic, Crushed
2 Cups Vegetable Stock
1 Cup Dry (Uncooked) Polenta
1 Cup Unsweetened Coconut Milk Beverage
Black Pepper
Crushed Red Pepper Flakes (Optional)
Sea Salt

1. Roasted Tomatoes

Place halved tomatoes on baking sheet with silpat or parchment paper. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil. sprinkle with herbs de provence and salt and pepper. Roast at 350 until golden brown and caramelized. Set aside.

2. Eggplant Caponata
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in medium saute pan. Add shallots. Saute until translucent. Add tomato paste and saute until browned. Add chopped eggplant and saute until soft. Add 1 clove minced garlic and saute briefly until just translucent. Deglaze pan with white wine and scrape browned tomato paste from pan to enhance flavor. Reduce by 1/2. Remove from heat and add capers, red pepper flakes (optional) and black pepper to taste. Set aside.

3. Creamy Polenta
In medium sauce pan bring 2 cup vegetable stock, 1 cup drinkable unsweetened coconut milk, 2 tablespoons olive oil and a pinch of salt to a boil. Slowly whisk in 1 cup polenta. Continue stirring until starts to thicken and bubble. Fold in chives. Season with salt to taste. If too thick stir in additional coconut milk to desired thickness. Serve immediately, dividing the polenta amongst four plates. Top with eggplant caponata and roasted tomatoes on side. Finish with drizzle of good quality olive oil.

Makes 4 Servings
Printable Recipe


A Working Holiday

It’s been quite a few years now since my last Thanksgiving on the line, but I can still feel it in my bones; a physical memory that persists like a scar, emblazoned deep within. The crushing heat of the oven, pumping out roasted vegetables and tofu steaks; the furiously boiling pots of thickening roux, destined to become bases for a dozen different gratins; the reverberations of the knife on the cutting board, mowing down everything from beets to scallions seemingly of its own free will. These sensations return in flashbulb moments, random and unexpected glimpses into the past. Every Thanksgiving wasn’t just Doomsday, but Doomsweek. Manageable lists of orders quickly swelled into a wild mass of demands, nimble hands always turned out in short supply, and yet the shoebox kitchen still couldn’t accommodate the number of bodies toiling away, jockeying for a place at the tiny four-top burner. It was a violent dance, or perhaps a dark comedy, but it was certainly a show for all to see. The utilitarian rubber mats became our stage- No, red carpet- As we all starred in our insular performance. Though anyone outside of the industry could only consider this affair a pre-show for the great event, this was our time to shine.

Time continues to put more distance between this memory and the present, as the cafe has been closed and darkened since the ravages of Hurricane Sandy took their toll. For as long, painful, and exhausting as those long days leading up to Thanksgiving were, I wouldn’t have dreamed of being anywhere else. Fierce loyalty to the business and the team behind it drove me forward; that sense of comradery kept us afloat. No matter how much I dreaded those days, I secretly adored them and looked forward to them just as much, if not more. While it’s a luxury to finally enjoy Thanksgiving like most other people do- with their families, partaking in the festive meal, and cooking only enough for a dozen rather than half the town- I miss the maddening Thanksgiving catering rush dearly. Nothing made me more grateful than completing a successful day-long shift, bidding farewell to my cooking compatriots with hugs and long goodbyes, and quietly departing into the dark, cold autumn night once more.

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate, whether you’re working, cooking, or just lucky enough to be amongst family and friends.


Earthly Delights at Dirt Candy

No larger than a modest walk-in closet, this unassuming storefront in the East Village is lined not with clothing racks but compact tables, hungry customers flanking all available sides. You don’t eat at Dirt Candy for the ambiance, but if you’re lucky enough to get a reservation in the first place, it’s hardly a distraction once the game of human Tetris has been played and all are snugly seated. An open view of the matchbox kitchen provides a unique sort of dinner theater, a glimpse behind the scenes, but also transfers a frenetic, chaotic energy to the whole meal. As the action spills out into the main floor, service does suffer; plates are hastily deposited without announcement or expansion, and questions are brushed off with unsatisfying half-answers. But ah well, these are reasonable compromises to be made in a chef-driven restaurant, provided that the food itself is capable of making up to these perceived slights.

And it does, for the most part, outshine the otherwise less than ideal conditions. An ambitious menu set on exploring new flavors and textures of vegetables, the entire list of dishes can be ordered in vegan format if they aren’t already free of animal products. Short and sweet, it reads like an excitable gardening catalog. Endearingly enthusiastic, that energy is contagious, making the anticipation for each coming course ever greater.

Cucumber! was my first pick of the evening, a hot and sour roasted cucumber soup poured tableside over shredded wood ear mushrooms and crispy fried rice sticks. For a clear liquid, that steaming broth was stunningly rich, enhanced with the toasted, nutty flavor of sesame oil. Fiery spices build quickly and linger through each subsequent slurp, unfortunately overshadowing the more delicate namesake vegetable. Though warm cucumbers don’t sound the least bit appealing on paper, somehow this curious combination really worked. The round sheets of cucumber gel were the stars of this show, combining a fresh cucumber flavor with a soft, jelly-like texture that seemed to melt delicately into the surrounding liquid.

A perennial favorite, mushroom! is a must order for anyone unfamiliar with the Dirt Candy perspective. So deeply and intensely savory that you can smell the umami coming at you from three feet away, the aroma of pure mushroom will reach you before the plate even emerges from the pass. Portobello mousse is the obvious star of the show, commanding your undivided attention with its impossibly dense, silky texture and deeply earthy, almost smoky flavor. Distilling the pure essence of portobello into this 1-inch cube must be some feat of alchemy, as it creates something that tastes more of the mushroom than any unadulterated fungus I’ve ever encountered. A seasonal fruit compote lends a stabilizing hit of sweetness to this umami powerhouse, the toast is a perfectly crisp vehicle for the decadent spread, but those secondary components can’t hope to rise beyond their supporting positions in the wake of that heavy-hitting mousse.

Though topped by a tempura-fried egg by default, corn! is happily veganized by request with tempura-fried watercress instead. While it doesn’t strike me as an equivalent swap, I can hardly argue with the results. Shatteringly crisp and delightfully salty, I could have happily gone to town on a plate of those battered greens for dinner. Moreover, their crunchy texture offset the luxurious pool of creamy polenta beneath. A buttery porridge of coarse cornmeal with the surprising twang of pickled shiitake peppered throughout, the whole dish screamed out “comfort food.” The promise of the highly elusive huitlacoche was a big selling point for me, so it’s regrettable that I walked away from that meal still unable to say what they taste like. Meted out in tiny dots around the periphery of the plate, it was more about the idea of eating rare corn fungus than the actual act of eating it.

When I think of beans, piles of beige chickpeas and navy beans come to mind, so the appearance of beans! was a bit of an initial shock. Towering above the other dishes in one carefully balanced stack, the beans came in the form of soybeans (tofu,) sea beans, and wax beans. Taste aside, you must know that this is the most flawless execution of tofu cookery I’ve come across to date; seared to an impossibly crunchy finish on both long sides of the white slab, it’s what every block of tofu dreams to become. The flavor is no slouch either, powered by a heavy-handed sprinkle of cayenne across the top, at times overwhelming the senses with heat. Such a blatant lack of finesse is startling at this level, preventing such a promising entree from becoming a clear winner. What really stands out in my mind was the unexpected inclusion of “savory oreos” hidden alongside the main stack. The “cookies” consisted of crispy black rice, and the filling was nothing more than yellow wax bean puree. Playful and creative, those two small bites really exemplified the mission statement at Dirty Candy.

Hands down, the best part of the meal was saved for last. I was certain that the famed Sweet Pea and Mint Nanaimo Bar wouldn’t translate into a dairy-free rendition, but it was my lucky day. Although comfortably full at this point in the meal, I’m so glad I made room for dessert, because the mint ice cream was just the light, refreshing finish to cap off a fairly decadent round of savories. Regrettably, the pea flavor was nowhere to be found, but that disappointment was short-lived. With such bright, herbaceous mint at the helm, who could complain? If only there were enough seats to squeeze in for a quick late night snack, I’d be sorely tempted to drop in for just another layered bar of ice cream delight.

Leaving the restaurant with mixed feelings but an undeniably satisfied stomach, it’s clear that the dining experience at Dirt Candy can’t be compared to any other in all fairness. A truly cerebral affair meant to inspire, challenge, and perhaps even provoke the diner at times, the food isn’t just the end product of the chef’s efforts; it’s the beginning of a whole new conversation about vegetables.


A Meditative Meal

Not so far from the maddening crowds of Manhattan midtown, there sits an oasis of tranquility, hidden in plain sight. Prompted to remove your shoes before entering the dining room itself, this simple gesture simultaneously suggests that all other extraneous distractions be left at the door before proceeding. Adhering as closely to tradition as an entirely vegan Korean restaurant can, the experience of dining at Hangawi is almost as noteworthy as the food itself.

Presented as a modern temple of cuisine, it may be understandably intimidating at first glance, but waiters will kindly guide the curious, the clueless, and the seasoned eater all with equal grace. Even if you’ve never tasted kimchi before or couldn’t tell bibimbap from bulgogi, you’ll be able to find a meal that satisfies. Entering into this serene cocoon within the city, my most memorable prior experiences led me to believe that Korean food would taste somewhat like spicier Chinese takeout, which is to say homogenized, Americanized fast food. It was about time I got a new perspective on this previously foreign food culture.

Lightening the serious mood with a splash of iced tea, beverages are poured right at the table into purposefully imperfect ceramic tea cups, spacious enough to rival the pedestrian venti latte. Pomegranate Iced Tea, with its clear ice cubes sparkling within luscious crimson liquid, is a study in restraint. Tart without being aggressive, gently sweetened to take the edge off, and bearing a well-rounded fruity flavor, even such a generous pour goes down easily. Awareness of the sweltering heat and humidity just beyond those insulated walls vanished after a few restorative sips.

Diving head-first into the unknown, I was clamoring to try Todok Salad above all other dishes. Never before had this unusual root crossed my path, despite how common it seems to be in Asian cultures. Frequently described as “poor man’s ginseng,” todok has similar purported health benefits, but what I was more interested in was the taste. Fibrous yet still tender, the pale white shreds were very subtle in flavor- Mild, slightly nutty, and perhaps bearing an earthy sweetness, they proved to be an easy introduction for a meal outside my comfort zone. Paired with watercress, carrots, and dried cranberries, it would have been a pleasant enough start if not for the tide of dressing that washed away distinction between the vegetables. Already soggy by the time it hit the table, in hindsight, it might have been wise to request dressing on the side.

Picking up the slack for that underwhelming salad, an appetizer plate of Combination Rolls brought together a wide variety of savory samples, each one wrapped up in its own discrete nori or rice paper package. Trios of buckwheat noodle rolls, seaweed rolls, mushroom rolls and kimchi vermicelli rolls artfully adorned the plate, ideal for sharing with an equally hungry date. Easily eating more than my fair share of both the mushroom and buckwheat assortments, they both shared an unexpected depth and richness, enhanced by a lightly battered and fried exterior.

Silky Tofu in Clay Pot brings the heat, arriving in a bubbling hot broth and sizzling metal bowls we’re advised not to touch. Served with sticky white rice on the side to soak up every last drop of flavorful soup, this dish alone would have been enough for a solo diner’s lunch. So soft it practically melts in your mouth, the tofu is just as tender as promised. Stewing away in the boldly astringent, tangy, and spicy liquid, this pillowy bean curd is anything but bland.

Arriving with a plume of aromatic steam, each order of Kimchi Stone Bowl Rice comes with plenty of bean sprouts, shredded nori, and of course kimchi, with a bit of performance art on the side. After allowing us to admire the kitchen’s handiwork on the carefully composed grains and vegetables, our waiter snapped to attention and began vigorously mixing, scraping, and stirring, until every last morsel in that bowl begged for mercy. Dramatics aside, it’s easy to see why this signature dish has taken off with such ease. Well balanced, as I had come to expect from Hangawi‘s offerings, the crispy rice is truly the best part. Perfectly crunchy in a way that standard skillets can only dream of achieving, it’s the sort of dish that I could never fully replicate at home. There’s such finesse that goes into the technique, transforming plain white rice into something extraordinary, which demonstrates the mastery of the chefs here.

The spice level in the funky, fermented Kimchi isn’t hot enough bowl you over, but the burn certainly grows with each successive bite. Crazy though it may sound, the thin sheets of delicately rolled cabbage struck me as ideal palate cleansers between bites of so many wildly different dishes.

Unrivaled even in this city of unparalleled choice, there is no better place to experience a wholly plant-based Korean meal. Fine dining does come at a price, but lunch specials are much more budget-friendly, and I’ve heard that Hangawi‘s sister restaurant, Franchia, also serves similar dishes in a more casual, low-key setting. Clearly, my adventures into Korean cuisine are far from over… I can see a trip out to this second outpost in my near future, purely for the sake of research, of course.


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!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,624 other followers