In Kyoto I failed to convince my travel companions to dine at the famed Kanga-an, a temple serving some of the finest fucha ryori (Buddhist vegan temple food) in the world… at least that is what I’ve been told. I wouldn’t know, would I…
Back in New York I found some solace in the newcomer Kajitsu, a shojin ryori (Zen vegan temple food) restaurant nestled in the East Village. Located in an austere and spacious basement, it is a distinct Japanese/NYC hybrid; the large wooden bar where diners can watch the chef artfully prepare each dish could easily fit 16 people, but at Kajitsu the arrangement allows a maximum of 6. We were seated at the (seemingly much too large for our group of three) front window’s organically undulating slice of hefty wood, the only bold object in the otherwise restrained dining room, but in this restaurant we are arranged with purpose, and negative spaces becomes a part of the $70 (+$30 Sake pairing) eight course Hana menu experience.
Course 1: The meal began with the artful Steamed Hearts of Palm with Plum Sauce, Daikon Radish, and Menegi. It is fragile sculpture of white rings standing in succession crossed by a young green sprig like a beauty queen’s sash. The hearts are delicate and do not struggle to slide from my silver chopsticks and I slowly made them disappear.
Course 2: The red lacquered bowl flashes gold before opening to reveal the Sake-kasu Soup with Daikon and Leeks, Enoki Mushrooms, Japanese Taro, and White Miso. The smooth starchiness of the soup existing by the grace of sake mash and arrives with the very sake it helped to forge. The complement between the two is profound, and although obvious, makes it no less delicious.
Course 3: “7 Gems” Sushi Roll, Plum Nama-Fu, Roasted Nuts and Soybeans Tossed with Tea Leaves, Lotus Root,Soybeans, Cashews, Peanuts, Pine Nuts, Mizuna, Cherry Tomatoes. The picture cannot express how tiny these dishes were, I felt like a looming monster (and may have pretended to be one) when they were placed before us. Nicole called the little pink nama-fu “The Alien” after it slipped into her mouth in its entirety as she tried to take a little nibble. Despite this attack, at the end of the meal when we reflected on our favorite dishes, that chubby chewy nama-fu flower was the first thing that came to mind. In the background, a half snowflake of lotus root rested on an otherwise unremarkable vegetable roll. The dollhouse dish of beans and nuts was not eaten in a single amuse-bouche style swoop only because the chopsticks forced us to select and examine each morsel with singular intent.
Course 4: Though some of us had had enough wheat gluten, I was quite pleased to be presented with Grilled Nama-Fu with Simmered Napa Cabbage flecked with glittering salts nestled in a lagoon of yuzu broth. The napa leaves are rolled into three little stumps that unravel into lacy ribbons, dewy with citrus sweat, as they are pulled from the clay flower bowl while curls of yuzu zest drift by. The rectangles of nama-fu are smooth and chewy and perhaps a too similar to some yet to be invented unflavored Bubblelicious, which I mean in the nice way.
Course 5: The main entrée of the menu was as much of a theatrical performance as a grand dish. The Seasonal Vegetable Stew of cauliflower, bamboo shoots, trumpet royal mushrooms, carrots, lilly bulbs, green peas and served over fried house-made Soba Noodles. The crisp, haphazard tower of soba succumbs to the viscous stew as the waitress gently ladles the bite-sized vegetables from the still sizzling silver scalloped bowl atop a heated stone. Although this dish was the favorite of my two dining companions, I was left feeling it tasted markedly Chinese and rather commonplace, like an excellent Buddhist delight… wait, this is a Buddhist restaurant… so I guess that is what is suppose to be… nonetheless, I am still not a fan.
Course 6: The main dish was followed up by a far simpler concept, deep black lacquered bowls holding a scoop of Steamed Rice with Grilled Turnips served with crispy turnip leaves and house-made pickles. While Japanese pickles are a food I annoyingly obsess over (according to my BF), even I could find little redeeming quality in the muddy offering of mushrooms, eggplant and daikon. The salted dried turnip leaves were the only exciting element of this dish – served whole, leaving to us to crush them in to dull green glitter with our hands… an act filled with all the tactile satisfaction of popping bubble wrap.
Course 7: We watched as the chef sprinkled sugar over the Sesame Milk Brulée with dried persimmons soaked in rum. The chef wicks a flame across the top forming a not quite crisp enough thin skin that offers none of the pleasure of cracking in the otherwise pleasing sesame custard. For the paired sake in this course, we were given the choice of yuzu or plum wine, the yuzu being the (obviously) better choice.
Course 8: And finally, we are served traditional Matcha Tea served with candies by Suetomi Sweet Shop. The thick tea seems bitter next to the near-pure sugar styrofoamy wafers served alongside. I attempted to drink the tea in the traditional style, cupping the bowl, ceremoniously turning the motif away… but it began to seem pretentious even to me, so I refrained from my Japanese ways and crudely drank my matcha like the good ol’Americanized happa that I am.
Our bill plus tip was exactly $400 for 3 people, a somewhat difficult penance to pay for a meal that did not dazzle with every bite – especially considering that the similarly sized vegetarian Omakase menu at Zenkichi is only $48, though not as decadently prepared nor as elegantly served/serviced as Kajitsu.
414 E. 9th St.
New York, NY 10009