Having reservations somehow makes me feel really cool–despite the fact that only old people plan their meals and that I’d actually be much cooler if I just walked into restaurants on a whim–and I love using OpenTable to book just about any meal I can. While rating my recent wd~50 dinner last week, I saw the OpenTable Diners’ Choice list for the top restaurants fit for foodies and was surprised that I’d never even heard of #1. So naturally, I promptly booked a table for two there for Sunday night.
Kajitsu is a cozy, sparse, underground East Village Japanese den dedicated to shojin cooking, which is the basis for all Japanese cuisine, especially haute cuisine. And it happens to be vegetarian, which is . . . fine. I was vegetarian for several years and think it’s a completely valid lifestyle choice, but I wasn’t sure even an eight-course tasting menu was worth $70.
Osechi (new year) box: black bean, lotus root, soy candied pecan, nama-fu, burdock (thistle) in kelp, crosnes (Chinese artichokes), broccoli rabe, chestnut paste, simmered vegetables
The first course had me convinced. We didn’t know what any of this was (okay, maybe the carrots), and it was all so exciting. Even things I generally wouldn’t care for, like broccoli not covered in butter and/or melted cheese, seemed more delicious when placed delicately in a lacquered box next to all sorts of unknowns. There were so many highlights I can’t choose just one favourite, but the most delightful bit was probably the two black beans lying atop the chestnut paste on the plate in the back of the box. They were surprisingly sweet, skewered onto what looked like a cherry stem, and covered in a bit of gold leaf. It just goes to show how important plating is.
The real delight in a dish like this is that no matter how freakily eel-like something might have looked, I could just remind myself that it had to be vegetation of some sort, and vegetables don’t scare me. The little novelty ball of white, pink, and green in front was just gelatinous and starchy-tasting, and there was way too much bamboo for my taste, but even then, I appreciated the way they were presented.
Clear soup with grilled mochi, tiny turnip, carrot, daikon ribbons
Upon first taste, this was a relative disappointment to the first dish, because it was so mild. Upon second taste, I appreciated that we had to really stop and explore each sip of the soup in order to really get the flavor. The top piece of mochi was raw, and the bottom piece was cooked, and their juxtaposition was immense. I don’t really see a need for raw mochi to exist anymore, other than to remind me how much better it is grilled.
Lotus root cake, nori (seaweed) , myoga (flower bud), lotus seed
This was the closest to what I’d call comfort food, but it was much more delicious than, say, mashed potatoes. The skin on the cake flaked right off into crunchy layers that matched the crunch of the lotus seed and complimented the sweet pickledness of the myoga. The nori provided the base of the cake and a lot of ocean flavor.
House-made soba noodles
I think I was a lot less impressed by the soba than my boyfriend was. I’ve had some really delicious hot soba at Soba Totto near Grand Central, and cold soba just doesn’t compare for me. The texture was wonderfully gritty and made the noodles seem very rustic, but even with the dipping broth and wasabi, they were missing something for me. Perhaps a HUGE HUNK OF BLOODY STEAK.
Ankake (thickened sauce) tofu, tempura of red potato, oyster mushroom, asparagus, and cauliflower
This was the silkiest, smoothest tofu ever. I still don’t quite understand what ankake is, but it was syrupy and slightly sweet. You can’t go wrong with anything tempura-battered, of course, but the crispy chrysanthemum leaves on top made this special.
Steamed multigrain rice, lily bulb, white miso soup, nama-fu (raw wheat gluten), house-made pickled vegetables
Do not be won over so easily by the lily bulb! Yes, it’s beautiful, and yes, it’s unusual, but it doesn’t taste like anything! Fortunately, the rest of the rice did, especially after I soaked it with my miso soup. Which of course made it impossible to eat with chopsticks and thoroughly embarrassed my boyfriend. The real star, though, were the pickled vegetables, which were delicious to a surprising degree. I’m sure kelp would make me slightly squeamish in any other context, but it was so pickley and sweet here.
Steamed manju filled with red bean paste
This was one of the better red bean desserts I’ve had. I sometimes don’t feel like topping a dry pancake with dry bean paste is very pleasing to the throat, but the warm outside skin of this was so moist. Still, as a dessert-lover, I would hardly call this a complete dish. A big, fat scoop of red bean ice cream was entirely necessary, and no amount of cute little red fork can convince me otherwise.
Matcha (green tea), rakugan (sweet, solid rice flour cake made with the Japanese sweetener mizuame) candies by Kyoto Kagizen Yoshifusa
This was another dessert for people who don’t like sweets. I don’t want to say that the Japanese don’t understand the glory of insulin shock, but the lukewarm green tea was creamy and entirely unsweetened, the tiny rakugan domes tasted of plain sugar, and the hard candies didn’t explode in my mouth to reveal a gooey chocolate center or anything. Call me a glutton, but I’d rather have no dessert than two savory courses posing as dessert.
Of course, we also had to try the five-course sake tasting, and the drinks that came with dessert were better than either of the actual plates. My boyfriend got a plum sake, and I got a yuzu sake just to try something different, since I’d usually go for the plum without question. But the yuzu was incredibly sweet, and the plum reminded my boyfriend of a popular Persian soft drink, so we both ended up with what was perfect for each of us. We delighted ourselves by talking about how drunk we were going to be later, but sadly, there was just too much food for us to walk out swaying.
Aside from the dessert, which I’m half-kidding about, my one real criticism overall would be that the dishes in any given course didn’t necessarily seem to go together. None of the flavors ever clashed, exactly, but I never felt like, “Wow, this tofu wouldn’t be the same without those battered mushrooms.” Still, when I think about the dishes that really wowed–the osechi box, the grilled mochi, the lotus root cake–I’m blown away thinking about how simple yet flavorful they were. If a meat-filled tasting menu in this town is $125-$150, then $70 for all of this new-to-me deliciousness is more than worth it. The fact that I only missed meat in exactly one dish seems like a major accomplishment.
414 East 9th Street
New York, NY 10009 (map)