First I want to thank each of you for taking the time to read my past Project Food Blog posts and voting. I honestly didn’t think I would make it this far, and I have all of you to thank for proving me wrong:-) As a special treat, I’ve deconstructed my transformation into an evil food critic in comic book form. The comic strip also seemed particularly apropos for a Japanese restaurant given that over half the books sold in Japan each year are manga (comic books). Consider this the CliffsNotes version of my full review, which you can find at the very bottom of this post.
One of my biggest problems with restaurant reviews is that they’re written by people with a limited understanding of they food they’re critiquing. I’m guessing you’d be a little concerned if your dentist tried to sell you hemorrhoid medication. So why on Earth would you listen to some Brooklynite prattle on about food from a place he’s probably never been to? The fact that food, unlike medicine, is more an art than a science makes it all the more difficult to ingest the words of of a food critic without getting indigestion. That’s why I decided to review a restaurant serving the type of food I am most familiar with: Japanese food.
From the moment you descend the stairs into Kajitsu, your mind and body are transported away from their Manhattan existence as though in a deep meditation. The low ceilings, hushed conversations and monastic decor add to the surreal departure from the City, suddenly making you very self-aware. Your footsteps sound clamorous, and your nose picks up the intoxicating aroma of the cypress-clad interior. Artifacts from Kyoto are sparsely placed around the earth-toned dining room, furthering the illusion that you’ve stepped through a portal, across the Pacific.
Even the menu reflects this minimalist philosophy, giving you a choice between the $50 Kaze menu and the $70 Hana menu, which comes with a few extra courses. After a chaotic week in Manhattan, where life-and-death decisions–such as when to cross the street– are a daily fact of life, I crave the muted ambiance and serene simplicity of Kajitsu.
A music instructor would say that Kajitsu “plays the pauses”, while a photographer would say they make good use of negative space. Whatever your chosen profession and associated metaphor, everything from the food and decor, to the ambient noise, brings things down a notch.
I don’t want to give you the impression that their food lacks flavor. In fact, quite the opposite. I’ve tasted a wider range of flavors at Kajitsu than in any restaurant I’ve been to in recent memory. The food isn’t infused with some magic elixir that heightens taste. It does however rely on Buddhist principles. In his book Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana states that “The purpose of meditation is to achieve uninterrupted mindfulness”. By taking away distractions, chef Nishihara helps uncover the true nature of each ingredient.
In no dish was this more apparent than in the Vegetable Pot-au-Feu. The rutabagas were sweet and grassy, the yukon gold potatoes earthy and nutty, and the yellow cherry tomatoes literally burst in your mouth as a sweet tangy exclamation, like Haydn’s fortissimo chord in the “Surprise Symphony”. These charismatic bites were served under a canopy of rice paper floating in a neutral consume that neither watered down nor overwhelmed the vegetables floating within.
If you’re thinking this doesn’t sound particularly like any Japanese food you’ve ever had, you’d be right. Kajitsu specializes in Shojin-Ryori, a style of Japanese cuisine eaten by Buddhist monks. Since monks must not eat any animal product, the cuisine is vegan. It’s a cuisine that’s not especially popular in seafood-loving Japan, so what made the owner think it would succeed in New York?
The lack of animal products on the menu may keep with Buddhist beliefs, but the plating at Kajitsu is not exactly consistent with the ascetic minimalism of traditional shojin ryori. Instead, Chef Nishihara stays true to his kaiseki training and builds edible dioramas that depict scenes redolent of the season. Many chefs in his position would have stubbornly insisted on flying in ingredients from Japan, but Chef Nishihara has embraced his new environment, discovering ingredients with an innocent gusto and eagerly adding them to his menu, which changes monthly.
One of the standout dishes on my most recent visit was a tempura of nama-fu served with a sweet miso sauce and shaved white truffle. This certainly isn’t the food of monks, and yet these tender gluten and rice cakes–which have been a source of protein for monks for centuries–sat before me in a humble pile, with a scattering of the most expensive fungus known to man.
It’s also hard to overlook the educational value of a meal at Kajitsu. Every meal there has come with moments where I’d look at an ingredient I’d eaten many times before, and thought to myself “I didn’t know this could taste like that”. But a meal at Kajitsu isn’t just about rediscovery of the familiar. You’re equally likely to put something in your mouth and wonder what planet it came from. Such was the case during one dinner when my cover was blown, and chef Nishihara asked me if I’d ever had finger limes. I told him I hadn’t. A quick fist-pump later, he was off to fetch something from the recesses of the kitchen.
What he brought out looked like a cross between a Ferran Adrià experiment and some flora straight off the set of Avatar. There were two cups of yuzu-sake sorbet, and on a small plate to the left lie a fruit that bore a small resemblance to lime. Instead of the usual segmented citrus with sacks of juice, there was a pile of blushed pearls spilling out of the lime. The chef told us to eat the pearls with the sorbet, and so we complied. First we scooped the pile of pearls from the plate onto the sorbet, then we picked up a lime and gave it a squeeze, marveling as more tangy pearls fell from each segment. My first spoonful of sorbet tasted intensely of yuzu and was almost too sweet… but as I bit into the cold slurry, the pearls of lime started popping like little sacs of tobiko. Each bursting sac of finger lime released a balancing tang, while providing a satisfying crispness between my molars.
Like a bad drug habit, Manhattan restaurants compete with an increasing cacophony of flavor, pretense and panache. It’s unsurprising then that our taste buds, eyes and mind grow increasingly numb, requiring more and more stimuli to be sated. Kajitsu, in all its subtlety and restraint is a like a reset switch that will make you taste food, as if for the very first time.
I won’t insult you or the restaurant by tacking on stars, forks, lips or any other absurd quantitative judgment to this review. I will however close by saying that if this is your kind of food, it’s definitely worth trying. Even if “vegan” or “meditation” aren’t part of your vocabulary, Kajitsu is worth a visit to reboot your palette.