So, we went.
And as I predicted, it was amazing. I’m sorry, Hangawi, I’ve got to bump you down one spot: Kajitsu is now officially my new favorite restaurant in NYC, or, to be honest, pretty much the whole world. All vegan Zen Buddhist Kyoto-influenced (shojin) cuisine—is there anything else to say?
The night in pictures:
First course, and I’m gonna straight up tell you: my least favorite. That reddish pool is umeboshi paste, and, having suffered through too many classes on the joys of umi at my macrobiotic-leaning cooking school, I am not a fan. It’s an ancient Japanese condiment, but to me it tastes one-dimensionally salty salty salty. But the handmade lotus root “mochi” filled with shiso wasabi was delicious. And look that that adorable garnish: a ginkgo (I think) nut with a pea shoot poked into it.
You already knew, dear internet, that I am constantly tossing off witticisms that make sane people (Veronica, on my right) slightly uncomfortable all the time, but now you know another truth about me: I have a freakishly small head. (I also dress slightly like a nun.)
Everyone always says it, and I suspect it sort of annoys Selma, but she is FREAKING ADORABLE.
Back to the food: after the first course, soup, of course!
And, oh, maybe my favorite. What is the secret of Japanese clear soups? I believe I have a special affinity for making soups. But I can’t make a perfectly clear broth with as much pristine flavor as I’ve had at Japanese shojin restaurants. This one was “clear soup with spring mountain yam filled with yamogi paste,” and oh, oh, oh. Transcendent. So much more flavor than a picture can convey.
Juan, Than (I love it when JuanThan are together! Say it: wonton!!), Jacob, and Carolanne, Selma’s unintentionally-hilarious partner. Carolanne is one of those people who is constantly coming out with deadpan, oddball little speeches that make me laugh every time, though she’s not trying to be funny. She’s just bizarre in the way that all interesting people are, and I adore her.
From top: spinach tossed with tofu paste, pine nuts and deep-fried fu (a bound salad, very creamy and nice); roasted corn purée over rice (garnished with cornsilk. Oh, the loveliness. I could eat this for breakfast for the rest of eternity), carrot pâté with mustard miso and, if I am remembering right, those tiny dots on top of the pâté are shoyu “caviar.”
I think the caviar was made with a caviar machine, something I have been keeping in the back of my head as a future project. The pâté was most likely made with agar-agar, it was firm, sliceable, and ultra carroty.
What is fu? I didn’t know either, and I’m sort of ashamed I didn’t. Fu is a Japanese version of seitan (which is Chinese)! They gave Selma and I painfully adorable little booklets that explain it. At the end of this post I will scan in the relevant pages.
Oh, and the dishes. Apparently a lot of them are Japanese antiques, some up to 200 years old! We were very very careful with our chopsticks after hearing that.
Homemade soba noodles—very hard to make because buckwheat (the primary flour in soba noodles) has no gluten, making it super hard to work with. These were cold, with nama (=super high quality) shoyu and the requisite scallions and very high-quality (but I do not think real) wasabi.
We all adored our smart, awesomely-coiffed, sweet waitress. She put up with Selma’s and my endless questions with complete aplomb, even when Selma wanted to know how she could cook the bamboo in her yard like the bamboo in this dish.
Grilled fresh bamboo shoots from Kyoto with vegetable tempura and deep-fried fu. There was also a delicate little millet cake, and shiso-wrapped white asparagus tempura that melted my heart. I usually don’t eat white asparagus because it strikes me as somehow miserable that the spears are deprived of all sunlight so they retain their pale beauty. Poor asparagus (yes, you can roll your eyes at my tenderheartedness)! Eggless tempura is a feat, indeed, and here it was executed flawlessly—it wasn’t cloyingly thick or heavy or anything other than absolutely appropriate.
A Bloodrootie in NYC is a rare occurrence, and Selma and Carolanne were recognized by not one, but two devoted Bloodrootistas: one was a woman eating at the restaurant whose parents live near Selma and Carolanne and who used to come to the restaurant before she moved to NYC, then this young woman, a former Bloodroot cook, dropped by when she heard Selma would be in town. Selma introduced us and I promptly forgot her name.
The dishes kept coming out (can you believe this entire meal was just $70 per person? Plus some of the most amazing sakes on this side of the planet.): rice with snap peas accompanied by house-made pickled vegetables. Little French Breakfast radishes, picked with their greens still attached, perfectly crispy and deliciously pickley.
Now the sweets: “Japanese pastry made of blueberry-infused mochi” shaped to look like the irises in season now. Selma rightfully pointed out that blueberries won’t be in season for another month or so, but these were delicious.
There were maybe three or four whole blueberries: two on the plate and one or two inside, as well as the blueberry-infused adzuki, but the whole blueberries popped and exploded in your mouth and made you remember all over again why blueberries are so delicious.
That experience is what I love most about fine dining: small plates and concentrated flavors reinforce the sumptuousness of pure ingredients. Particularly in Japanese cuisine, flavor is exemplified through subtraction: three blueberries taste somehow more of the pure essence of blueberry than an entire slice of blueberry pie.
My experience with blueberries in this dish reminded me of the Infamous Plum Encounter from Milennium, (except that in this case the delicious plum wasn’t an aberration from the rest of the meal).
The mignardises were the little sugary candies designed to go with bitter, emerald-green, bamboo-whisked, frothy matcha tea.
The circle, triangle and square is the logo of the restaurant, which was expertly explained to us by our waitress, and whose significance I have of course forgotten.
It reminded me of other sugar candies I’ve had with other matcha tea in Kyoto:
Selma gave the chef one of the cookbooks:
And that was it.
We tumbled out into the sweet early summer air, feeling light and sated and perfectly at peace.
Then, the tragedy.
I forced everyone to go to a new vegan ice cream shop around the corner that replaced glorious tastes in our mouths with an onslaught of trashy sugar and soymilky ick. OK, so it’s sweetened with agave, that’s fine. I’d prefer a little real nice sugar instead of a headachey ton of agave syrup, but that’s just me. Even the coconut-based flavors didn’t do it for me. I’m just getting to this place where I don’t get excited just because ice cream is vegan, I also want it to be sophisticated and nuanced and good.
In short, Stogo = don’t go. I don’t know what people on SuperVegan are talking about. It gave us all instant sugar headaches and stomach aches and was just so….what can I say? American. Overdone. Too much and too little at the same time. I guess I’m happy they are there because boring mainstream people will now understand that their kind of ice cream can easily be vegan. It’s not my style—I’ll take blueberry-infused adzuki beans and bitter tea any day.
(Photos by me and Than Luu.)
July 2009 updates:
- Jacob went again (I had to work, boo) and had their newest menu, which he actually liked better than this one. He reported: “I want to talk Kajitsu up to everyone because i want it to last for forever! it’s right now my favorite resto in NYC, if not tops in the world! and the menu changes every month, they serve amazing sake, it’s in the east village, what else do you need??!!!” Wow.
- Then Veronica went with her family for her birthday : “It was exquisite! Everybody loved it, but how could they not? Our waiter was super nice, and he was talking to us about how he wants to own his own farm some day. He’s growing blue corn in the Bronx this year, and next year he hopes to grow vegetables they can use at the restaurant! Adorable! Also, they brought out an extra dessert for my birthday: Sesame tofu!!! It had a cherry (and I think he said something about adzuki paste) sauce and a perfect little cherry on top, and it was AMAZING!”
- Yeah, we’re all obsessed with this place, OK?