Restaurant Review: Kajitsu
January 21st, 2010 by plumpdumpling

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.

Kajitsu Osechi BoxKajitsu Osechi Box
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.

Kajitsu Clear Soup with Mochi
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.

Kajitsu Lotus Root Cake
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.

Kajitsu Soba Noodles
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.

Kajitsu Ankake TofuKajitsu Tempura Vegetables
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.

Kajitsu Multigrain Rice with Lily BulbKajitsu White Miso SoupKajitsu Pickled Vegetables
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.

Kajitsu Steamed Manju with Red Beans
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.

Kajitsu Matcha Green TeaKajitsu Rakugan
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)

16 Responses  
  • Owen writes:
    January 21st, 20104:44 pmat

    great photos Katie, what you using?

    • plumpdumpling writes:
      January 21st, 20105:26 pmat

      Hey, thanks. It’s a Canon S90, which was just released a couple of months ago, and which I waited MONTHS for and then wrote an embarrassing blog post about.

      It has a bunch of manual features, but I’m literally setting it on auto and shooting at this point, having been to lazy to actually figure the thing out thus far.

    • plumpdumpling writes:
      January 22nd, 20102:36 pmat

      Also, are you into photography?

  • Heesa Phadie writes:
    January 21st, 20105:38 pmat

    Man o’ man…you had me laughing throughout that review. I was going to quote parts but man there was just too much good going on there. Fantastic write-up…love the photos too. I would love to try this place out. I hadn’t heard of it either. I love me some plum sake…that would go nicely with my meal. I think I’m off to BevMo now.

    • plumpdumpling writes:
      January 22nd, 20102:48 pmat

      BevMo, eh? I’d of course never heard of that, but their website seems to be California-centric, which explains why you were offended that I didn’t know about animal-style In-N-Out fries. I enjoy “SaveMo!” and “MixMo!”, but the general slogan is pretty terrible, right?

  • Lori Young writes:
    January 21st, 20107:30 pmat

    It’s all so pretty! Especially the first course.

    • plumpdumpling writes:
      January 22nd, 20102:49 pmat

      Everything was a letdown after that first course, really. Kamran wants to live on osechi boxes from now on. The Google images are astounding!

  • Tracey writes:
    January 22nd, 20101:09 amat

    I was looking all over for Kamran’s hand in one of the pictures and didn’t see it!

    • plumpdumpling writes:
      January 22nd, 20102:57 pmat

      He actually had his fingers replaced with chopsticks recently, so take a closer look.

      • Tracey writes:
        January 22nd, 20105:18 pmat

        Kamran Chopstickhands would make a great movie!

  • Bachelor Girl writes:
    January 22nd, 201012:50 pmat

    Japanese cuisine doesn’t normally make my mouth water, but these photos are gorgeous.

    You made me drool, is the point I’m driving at here.

    • plumpdumpling writes:
      January 22nd, 20102:59 pmat

      I was going to argue that Japanese food is soooooo beautiful, but then I realized that you’re right; as pretty as I think it is, it never makes my mouth water like American comfort food does. But hey, collect that drool and send it to me so I can blog about it, thx.

  • Tracey writes:
    January 22nd, 20105:20 pmat

    Also, that is one sexy RSS button. It’s HUGE.

  • The Savvy Soybean writes:
    February 1st, 20101:17 amat

    OHMYGOOODNESS. How have I never heard of this place?! As a vegetarian, I am shamed. The food is gorgeous- it reminds me of Kyotofu over by me.

    Oh, and about this: “only old people plan their meals and that I’d actually be much cooler if I just walked into restaurants on a whim”
    Me too, but I also dream of food 99.9% of the day. I like to make reservations, because then it turns into a big countdown for me (“only 3 more hours till dinner!” etc). I also like to eat at 5pm. Sigh. Maybe 20 is the new 60.

  • Kajitsu writes:
    January 25th, 20112:14 amat

    […] If you are not already aware, the menu at Kajitsu changes from month to month, so some items resurface in one way or another. To see reviews on some of their other past menus, you can go here and here. […]

  • NYC Restaurant Reviews » The End of an Era at Kajitsu – Japanese/Vegetarian – East Village writes:
    April 11th, 201211:02 amat

    […] still remember the subtle delights from my first trip to Kajitsu back in 2010: the juxtaposition of grilled mochi on raw, flaky layers of lotus root […]

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