Among the many surprises in the latest Michelin Guide was a star given to Kajitsu, a tiny East Village Japanese restaurant that the mainstream critics practically ignored. Among major publications, four out of five stars from TONY was the only full review. The Times relegated it to Dining Briefs.
Some complain that the Michelin Guide fails to conform to “Received Wisdom” about what is good in New York, but I find it refreshing to find out about places the other critics overlooked. So we paid Kajitsu a visit on Saturday evening.
Without a strong recommendation, this is not a restaurant I would have visited. It’s what Americans would call vegan. There are no animal products on the menu at all.
In Japanese, it’s called Shojin, a Zen Buddhist practice based on respect for living things. Plates are artistically composed in the Kaiseki style, with an equal emphasis on taste and beauty.
The only choices are the four-course menu for $50 or the eight-course menu for $70. (Click on the image to the right for a full-size copy.) Both change monthly. It seems silly not to spend $20 more for double the number of courses, and it appeared to us that most patrons felt the same.
The chef, Masato Mishihara, works quietly behind a blonde wood counter. He seems to do all of the cooking himself. There are several servers, all female, who tend to eight seats at the counter and eighteen more at the tables. The space was not full, and reservations had been timed to ensure that the chef could keep up without ever having to hurry.
The first course (above) was a slow braised Japanese turnip with black truffle and a bit of gold leaf. We were impressed by the sweet flavor of a vegetable not often served on its own. Like most of the courses, it came in a bowl that was as artistic as the food itself.
A Carrot and Shimeji Mushroom Soup (above left), with little flecks of mushroom tempura, was much better than I ever thought carrot soup could be.
The next course (below) included Fresh Diced Persimmon, Fig and Jicama with Creamy Sesame Sauce (basically a fruit salad) inside of a hollowed-out gourd. Alongside that was a hot House-made Tofu with Matcha Soy Glaze.
Just as impressive was the feat of hollowing out the gourds, which cannot have been easy.
Next came a House-made Soba Dumpling (above left) with a daub of wasabi. I appreciated the technical skill involved, but the taste was too monotonous for me.
The largest item (above right), which the servers described “the main course,” included a pumpkin wheat gluten called “fu” in a cranberry sauce, tempura vegetables, and salad greens. Like several other dishes, it illustrated the chef’s skill at combining local produce with Japanese technique.
The savory part of the menu ended with Matsutake Mushroom Rice and House-Made Pickled Vegetables (above left). We loved the vegetables, but the rice was merely adequate.
Dessert, described as a Chestnut “Yokan” Pastry (above right), was distinctly unpleasant. Just as perplexing was crumble of peanuts, resembling the leftovers of a snack served in coach.
Rakagun Candies (above left) weren’t impressive, even if they were imported from Kyoto, but I loved the intense fluffy green tea, mixed by hand with a whisk.
I respect and admire the chef’s skill. All of the courses were very good and beautifully presented, except for the desserts. But I am not eager to repeat the experience, especially at $70 per person before alcohol, tax, and tip. By the end, I was starting to pine for some animal fat. That shouldn’t necessarily dissuade you: remember, I am a carnivore.
You could easily miss the place. It’s on a non-descript block in the far East Village, not far from Tompkins Square Park, in the cellar of what appears to be a tenemant building. The rooms are the perfect picture of Buddhist austerity.
The servers are every bit as polished as the cuisine. There is a short list of sakes, wines, and beers, priced for any budget.
Kajitsu (414 E. 9th St. between First Ave. & Avenue A, East Village)