A Comic Review of Kajitsu

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.

Kajitsu Review ComicKajitsu Review ComicKajitsu Review Comic

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.

Chef Nishihara 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.

Pot au Feu

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?

Kajitsu Dish

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.

Nama Fu with White Truffle and Sweet Miso

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.

Finger Limes With Yuzu-Sake Sorbet at Kajitsu

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.

  • Rhonda

    I love how you presented your review. You will again receive my vote as you have all along. Thank you for sharing your talent with us.

  • Anonymous

    that was pure genius! i’m mostly in disbelief that L let you leave the house like that and if she actually went to dine with you, i’m even more impressed ;)

    to be serious though, your writing always blows me away. this post is my personal favorite and i’m rooting for you to go all the way!

    -alice

  • Hot Polka Dot’s Mom

    Your description of yuzu-sake sorbet had me drooling. Fabulous post!

  • http://popartichoke.blogspot.com Megg (PopArtichoke)

    I LOVE the comic book approach! I laughed, I cried, I got really hungry! Great review, Marc!

  • Norma823

    I have been meaning to fo there as I pass it all the time on my way home from work..now I have to go. I can’t wait to vote for you. After the holidays, we must get a group of New York bloggers together. Good luck…what talent you have….loved the comic book!

  • http://twitter.com/vegangoodthings Vegan Good Things

    Fantastic review & post. So glad that you spotlighted this beautiful, vegan cuisine!

  • Brian @ A Thought For Food

    HAHA! Great review… not sure what I would have done if I’d made it this far. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/fujimama Rachael

    Now this is the kind of restaurant review that I love to read! Not only was the comic book portion way too much fun (seriously genius), but the serious review was wonderful. I’ve never wanted to try a restaurant so badly as I do right now! Now to figure out how to get to NYC ASAP.

  • http://twitter.com/janis_tester Janis Tester

    R. Eviewer you aced this PFB with this entry. I love it.

  • http://inomthings.com ila

    How fun! And I’ve always wanted to try Kajitsu. Shojin cooking FTW :)

  • http://savorysweetliving.com Margaret @ Savory Sweet Living

    I truly enjoyed reading this post especially the creativity of your alter ego and the comic strip (hilarious). I also enjoyed learning the story behind the type of food this restaurant was serving, and your detail description of each dish made me feel like I was actually tasting the dish. Great job and good luck!

  • http://twitter.com/riceandwheat angi c

    This makes me want to move to NYC. Great review, Marc!

  • http://twofeettentoes.blogspot.com Astrid

    I love this. Such a refreshing and entertaining take on the challenge. You have my vote! And since I only have 3, that is HUGE deal, sir!

  • http://bonvivant.wordpress.com/ Danielle

    You keep outdoing yourself with each challenge Marc, and this is no exception. Your “lift and chew” technique absolutely cracked me up! I’m also really impressed that the chef uses local ingredients in his menu, it goes to show his full range of creativity and ideas.

  • http://www.ilkeskitchen.com Ilke Mcaliley

    I love the comic book idea!! You brought back memories :)
    Too bad I am not visiting NYC any time soon but I will pass this onto my friends who live there. Thanks for the great review!

  • http://darjeelingdreams.blogspot.com/ Indie.tea

    Haha, I love this entry. The comic book format is a really creative way to do a restaurant review, and you pulled it off beautifully.

  • http://www.thelittlefoodie.com Mariko

    Frick. The thing that is bugging me here is that this restaurant is, what, 6k miles away?
    Google maps informs me that this involves a 2600 mile kayak, toll roads, and 16 days.
    You’re certainly making it sound worth it.
    I can’t get enough Japanese food. Ever.
    Great review, and I love both formats. Not sure which I like better.

  • http://stumptownsavoury.com Gareth

    Excellent and fun review, Marc. When you get a chance, why don’t you make some finger limes and post about it. I’d love to know how they’re done.

  • http://www.oilandbutter.com Rich

    THAT is some great copy, Marc! I admit, I usually find reviews dull and uninspiring, but this was anything but.
    I don’t know a whole lot about the contest, but between the approach, levity, inisght and professionalism your posts include, I’d be walking pretty tall right about now if I were you – regardless of how it all shakes out.

  • http://messycook.blogspot.com Isabelle

    Great review, Marc…. errr… I mean R. Eviewer. :)
    I’ve heard about finger limes before, but I’ve yet to have a chance to try one and I’m more intrigued than ever now that I’ve seen your description. Hopefully there’s a trip to NYC in my near future so I can try out Kajitsu for myself… it sounds like an unforgettable meal!

  • TheWifeOfADairyman

    How creative was that?!! Loved it! You have my vote:)

  • Alexandra

    creative, sophisticated, fun and intelligent – love it!

  • Stay-At-Home-Chef

    Very creative post – nice work! I love how your photos turned out so well…not the usual dark restaurant pics that we typically see. Good luck :)

  • http://www.thelittlefoodie.com Mariko

    Wow! This is great restaurant review.
    I really like to visit someday.

  • http://www.thelittlefoodie.com Mariko

    I’m having a long phone conversation with my mom about how to post a comment. She did it successfully but posted as me, apparently.

  • http://mrsmulfordscakes.blogspot.com/ Pauline

    What a clever disguise – I nearly didn’t recognise you ! Entertaining but still clear photos showing beautiful food.

  • Anonymous

    Very creative and funny review! It’s wonderful how a place has the ability to influence your mood and whisk you far away just by ambiance!

  • Anonymous

    I love this post! Great job with the creative comic interpretation. The “serious” part of the post is beautifully written as well. You’re seriously making me want to try this place the next time I’m in NYC!

  • Emme @Food Samba

    Man, I wish I lived in NYC! Great review…my mouth is watering!

  • Joan Nova

    Great review, Marc. Visually and verbally compelling, informative and totally entertaining.

  • Vegspinz

    As a vegan, I am mesmerized. The comic book part is hilarious! Nice work!!

  • http://mysugarnspice.net ZMM

    Oh my.. I’d never really eaten a full vegetarian meal in a Japanese restaurant.. this looks good.
    I don’t think that I’ll be able to visit this restaurant since I don’t live in the US, but just looking at the pix is satisfying enough. I love the part you wrote about the sorbet.. I wonder if they’ll ever serve somethng in the restaurants here.
    Anyway, voted for you.. good luck.

  • http://bibberche.com Lana

    Mark, your post is quirky, creative, and eloquent. I am not familiar with Japanese cuisine (except for the most ubiquitous Americanized dishes), but I was mesmerized reading about these monk-inspired meals. As an omnivore, you made me want to try all of these dishes right now!
    You have managed to transport me into a completely unknown and mysterious world by the power of your words. What an accomplishment!
    Good luck!

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  • Oui, Chef

    A thoughtful, yet playful post…a tricky balance that you achieved beautifully. Good luck in the final round! – S

  • http://www.saltyseattle.com saltyseattle

    Go undercover guru Marc- FTW. (of course you got my vote, baby, x0, l)

  • http://www.foodgal.com Carolyn Jung

    Is that a finger lime?? Oh my gawd, I fell in love with those when I visited Australia earlier this year. So much so, that I’m dying to try growing a tree in my yard in the Bay Area. ‘Course, I’m not the world’s greatest gardener. But to have finger limes at my — uh — fingertips, I’d give it a the good school-girl try! ;)

  • http://twitter.com/feedthebf Peggy Labor

    That finger lime looks fantastic! So intriguing! I love your approach to this review! Definitely have my vote!

  • http://ladymorgiana.wordpress.com/ Kasia

    fantastic post! and food looks so delicious!

  • http://twitter.com/sugarbardiva davina

    I love how you always infuse every post with creativity, intelligence and most of the time, humour. LOVE IT. What a review dearest R. Eviewer!

  • http://twitter.com/togetherinfood Stephanie Morimoto

    I love the fun launch of this post via the manga review combined with the artfully-executed description of the meal. What an interesting meal to review as well. I lived in Japan for a year and enjoyed a similar meal in Kyoto; I want to try this next time I’m in NYC (likely in early January!).

  • http://twitter.com/shescookin Priscilla Willis

    Absolutely love the creative graphic novel treatment you used to draw us into your wonderfully descriptive and knowledgeable review, artfully infused with touches of humor!

  • http://kitchen-confidante.com Liren

    Clever approach! Love the whimsy and tie in of the comic, but I also enjoyed your thoughtful review. This is the type of meal I would love to cleanse my mind and body with, especially after (or during) the gluttony of this holiday season.

  • http://www.indochinekitchen.com Jun

    Good luck on the challenge, Marc! You did really good on this one. I love all the photos, and the comic strip is really cool!

  • http://www.tastewiththeeyes.com/ Lori Lynn

    Hi Marc – I love that you teach us how to cook a big steak one day, then review a vegan restaurant! You rock! Good luck!
    LL

  • http://www.tastewiththeeyes.com/ Lori Lynn

    Hi Marc – I love that you teach us how to cook a big steak one day, then review a vegan restaurant! You rock! Good luck!
    LL

  • Stacey Snacks

    Wow! You are too much! You have my vote.
    This is fantastic!

  • http://smalltownoven.wordpress.com/ Sharlene

    Wonderful review! I love the comic. So creative! As always, my vote will be cast in your favor!

  • Foivi Geller

    SOOO glad you found me!!! Because i found you back! Amazing work!!! I have my Blog away hunger on my Donkey now… i am a huge fan!

  • http://www.russianseason.net Alina

    This was a very interesting read for me, as I’m afraid we have only “Japanese-style” bars and restaurants here – I’m pretty sure their food stands very far away from authentic Japanese cuisine… I”ve never heard of finger lime before, looks beautiful!

  • thoma

    i should say you have an outstanding blog. food criticism is my interest too and what you’ve put up there (believe me, i read it closely) is truly sensual. you seem to be a bundle of talents. good show. keep it up and good luck!

  • http://fannetasticfood.com Anne P

    That comic is the coolest thing ever. Very creative! :)

  • Lisa Orgler

    Congrats on advancing to the top three!

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  • http://www.ilkeskitchen.com Ilke Mcaliley

    You did it!!! Congratulations! BIG TIME!

  • http://twitter.com/heidileon heidileon

    this is brilliant, funny and really interesting. Good luck on the final challenge on project fb.

  • CBrook

    “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.” That’s a horribly huge & sweeping statement, which of course, is right some of the time & absolutely wrong some of the time.
    Even people who do have a limited understanding of the food they’re critiquing…they know what they liked & didn’t like, they know if they enjoyed the food & the experience. Eating is restaurants is SO much more than just the food. Everyone has a right to their opinion of a food experience that they had…especially if they PAID for it. You don’t have to understand chocolate to know that it tastes good.
    And just because someone has never been to say, France, doesn’t mean they haven’t had or can’t understand fantastic French food. Or are you saying that there aren’t any good French chefs outside of their motherland? No, I didn’t think so. That would be absurd.
    I do love your blog by the way :-)

    • Anonymous

      Of course everyone is entitled to an opinion, and the first amendment
      lets us all voice it publicly. I guess I wasn’t very clear, but what I
      meant is that without a more complete understanding of a cuisine and
      what the food is supposed to taste like, it’s just one person’s
      opinion. The problem is that many critics are considered culinary
      experts, so their word is not interpreted as an opinion, but rather
      fact.

      The problem with this is that no two people have the same palette and
      so a meltingly tender piece of pork belly to one person may seem
      greasy and gummy to another. There’s no right or wrong, and again,
      they are just opinions, but if an “expert” is going to put forth a
      negative opinion about something that doesn’t suit their own palette,
      they should at least have enough knowledge about the cuisine to
      explain that this is how something is supposed to be, but that it’s
      not a taste/texture that particularly appeals to them personally.

      Case in point, the NY Times review of Kajitsu stated: “But others —
      notably the desserts, with their sticky textures and grassy flavors —
      will only mystify New York palates.” The reviewer clearly didn’t get
      that Japanese desserts are supposed to taste like that. Sure glutinous
      rice cake isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but to make a generalization
      that New Yorkers (many of whom are Asian) won’t like it is grossly
      misleading.

      Worse yet is when reviewers distill down their opinion into stars,
      which many people absorb without actually reading the review.

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