Kajitsu’s website explains that it “serves shojin cuisine, an ancient Japanese cuisine developed in Zen Buddhist monasteries. Following the Buddhist principle of not taking life, Shojin cuisine does not use meat or fish. Meals are prepared from fresh, in season vegetables, legumes, wild herbs, seeds and grains, chosen at the moment in the season that best reflects their flavor.” Meat, poultry, fish, and even eggs are proscribed. The principle derives from the belief that all sentient creatures are capable of achieving buddha-hood; therefore, to the greatest extent possible, all are permitted to do so. Also in keeping with the Buddhist philosophy, nothing is wasted: much of the dishware in use at Kajitsu has been patched or repaired when necessary, a conservation that has made it possible to use some of the same plates or bowls or cups for more than a century.
“Shojin” is a concept embodying devotion to the pursuit of a perfect state of mind. That entails, among other things, dismissing worldly thoughts and striving for perfection. (“Ryori” is the word for cooking). In essence, shojin-ryori (精進料理)is itself just another aspect of how a Buddhist lives his life. And although modern kaiseki does not have the same stringent limitations that shojin-ryori does (it has plenty of its own), shojin-ryori is the predecessor to kaiseki as we know it today.
This is simplicity elevated to high art.
We took a cab down to the East Village and found ourselves walking down a quiet residential street. Tucked away—hardly noticeable unless you’re seeking it out—is Kajitsu (meaning “fine day” or “day of celebration”). Walk down a flight of stairs, open the door, and step into another world. I mean that just about as literally as I possibly can. Being in Kajitsu is not like being in a Japanese restaurant; it’s like being in Japan. There is little doubt that they could probably cram in twice as many tables if they wished. The lighting is quite subdued, the decoration minimal. Servers are Japanese; not Japanese-American, not non-Japanese. English is a second language and, in some cases, as minimal as the décor. No matter.
Your server will not provide a detailed explanation of every ingredient, the chef’s intention, or the feeling being evoked. That experience can be wonderful and invaluable in certain establishments; they have a different aim. The sole and entire focus of this meal is on the food. On the experience of eating the food. Nothing else. And so there is nothing else to detract or distract: little decoration and no music. The server brings the food and departs after an exceedingly brief description. Indeed, even the number of tables is in service to the philosophy: fewer tables allows more space, fewer intrusions on your meal, whether of sound or presence. Cumulatively, these elements contribute to an enormously powerful influence on you, just sitting there awaiting each course.
If this sounds like a sensory deprivation chamber, I’ve done a poor job of explaining it. There are sensations—but they are few, carefully controlled, and contribute to the larger experience. And what an experience it is! We had one decision to make: the “regular” tasting menu (“Hana,” or flower) or the special, seasonal matsutake-focused menu. We would have preferred to each try one but that was not permitted. In the event, we decided to go with the regular tasting menu of eight courses.
We started with:
Seasonal vegetable plate
(Spinach, turnip, edamame, sweet potato, mountain yam, parsnip chip)
Sounding the theme that would repeat throughout the meal: simplicity. You don’t need fancy gadgets, expensive gizmos, or world-class whozits to create a remarkable meal. Extraordinary ingredients, carefully handled, in knowledgeable hands. Don’t misunderstand: I like foam. Sometimes. I like what fancy gadgets, expensive gizmos, or world-class whozits can offer. Sometimes. I guess it comes down to placing yourself in the hands on someone who has knowledge. Trusting the chef. These courses, almost without exception, I would venture to guess could have been made and enjoyed exactly as we did one hundred years ago—or even more.
Japanese onion soup
(Konbu and onion chive)
Fascinating. We’re programmed—some of us, anyway—to expect certain things when the words “onion soup” appear on a menu. No matter how much I might know about Japanese cuisine, and particularly if it is a dish I’ve never had before, all that knowledge can’t displace some of the expectation. Of course, on some level, onion soup IS onion soup, no matter the culture or the cuisine. And yet. Japanese onion soup is different—at least this Japanese onion soup was. Less intense, less “forward.” Sweet, but in a more subtle way. Tasting, at least to my palate, as if made from a wholly different kind of onion. Accompanying the soup is a small dish of finely shredded konbu (or kombu).
Shredded konbu for soup
Adding the konbu, of course, changes the flavor a bit. You’ve just dropped in a bunch of seaweed and it alters the flavor, as it must, bringing that indefinably briny edge to the soup. If you dropped it all in at once, it clumped up into a fairly homogeneous mass with a texture somewhat like the cheese in French onion soup. Learning from LDC, who did just that, I tried to sprinkle mine lightly throughout. To the same ultimate effect: instead of one large mass, I had a number of smaller globs. The konbu added the expected sea-like sense, rounding out, filling out the flavor of the soup.
Pot-baked mushrooms (served in an orange)
Mashed potato with house-made chips
Assorted vegetable chips
(Lotus root, Brussels sprout, avocado, fig, okura [as in okra], sun-dried tomato [!])
Probably my favorite course. A hollowed-out orange contained baked mushrooms (the season having just begun and seasonality being an essential “ingredient” in shojin-ryori). I would never have expected the orange to lend much to the mushrooms or, if it did, to be a complementary flavor. Wrong on both counts. While the addition is more in the nature of perfume than of outright flavor, the combination is wonderful. Don’t think sweet. Think orange rind, think orange flavor without sugar. And that citrus-y perfume was a harmonized beautifully with the woodsy umami of the mushrooms.
Chilled udon noodles
(Daikon, moromi miso, myoga, wasabi)
There are many, many different kinds of miso. I’ve given up trying to keep them straight in my head (and that’s not even accounting for all the ones I’ve never heard of or know nothing about). The miso fan(atic) might be interested in this website. It’s where I learned that moromi miso “(もろみ味噌）is a mildly salty, chunky miso, usually with added grains of rice or barley that is meant to be eaten as a condiment rather than in cooking. It’s used rather like a dip on raw vegetables and things like that.” So there. In any event, this course was a light, refreshing change from the heavier (all things are relative here; it was hardly “heavy”) preceding course. The noodles were exceedingly fresh (made in-house, as I recall) and with the accompanying daikon (very finely shredded, on top), miso (brown blob in front), ginger (not evident from the picture), and wasabi (the real thing, not a lesser expedient), made for a wonderful interlude.
Taro and fried tofu cake
The flavors here were fairly delicate (as opposed to bland, see below). I don’t know that I’ve ever had chrysanthemum sauce and I find it very hard to describe. The texture was slightly thickened and the flavor was vegetal with a sour edge. I like sour; hell, I love sour. But there was something off-putting about this that I didn’t care for. The textures were all related—soft and yielding. I enjoyed the interplay of fairly subtle flavors but, although the sauce was…intriguing, it isn’t a dish I’d run to have again.
Steamed multi-grain rice with konbu broth
(Myoga, shiitake, sansho pepper, nori)
Pickles accompanying multi-grain rice
Rice signals the end of the meal, not only for shojin-ryori but for kaiseki meals in general. Here, we were treated not to steamed white rice but something much more…interesting. Thank god for the pickles! I was fascinated and enjoyed every course—except this one. The multigrain rice tasted so bland that it brought back memories being force-fed things to make me “better” when I was a child. I guess there are two kinds of bland in my culinary lexicon: bland that’s inoffensive (like cream of wheat) and bland that’s sort of aggressively flavorless. Which might not make a lot of sense. But I will say that it was one of a vanishingly small number of things that I have started and simply refused to finish. I’ll try most things and it is extraordinarily rare for me not to finish something—particularly if it’s not something likely to make me gag, literally. But I couldn’t do it. I simply couldn’t stand it. Whereas the LDC enjoyed it. On a positive note, I can honestly say that the house-made pickles were wonderful.
Orange jelly with lotus nut cake
You must understand: I am a sucker for homemade orange jello. Someone in my house likes to, uh, make light of my affection for the orange “jello” at Renga-Tei. I remain unreformed. The Japanese aren’t big dessert folks and most of what they’ll have is light, often fruit (or fruit-based), and only lightly sweetened. This was really quite excellent. Nice, rounded orange flavor, sweet without being overpoweringly so. The lotus nut cake was delicate. A beautiful penultimate course leading to:
Matcha with candies
Matcha—the highly whisked green tea of the Japanese tea ceremony—is notable for its bitterness. To most non-Japanese sensibilities, I think, (including mine), it is not an easy drink to like. And I don’t particularly care for it. I presume—I can’t find a definitive answer—that it is served at the end of a meal in part for its palate-cleansing abilities. Having just returned two nights ago from Next/Kyoto, I have another matcha to compare it to in recent memory. Although the Kajitsu avatar was probably a bit more bitter, I liked it more; it had more texture (the one at Next seemed watery by comparison), more depth, more flavor. This was strong with no nonsense about it. (Intriguingly and for what it may be worth, Kyoto happens to be the origin and epicenter of shojin-ryori.)
A concession to American sensibilities. The little red ones taste like nothing so much as starch and sugar (which is probably all they were). Pleasant but somehow a little…wrong.
I had the meal with the optional sake pairings. Whether because of language limitations, intention, or otherwise, the server bringing each sake would invariably describe it in three words: “fruity and dry”; “fruity and semi-dry”; “a dry sake” and so forth. I didn’t learn much about what I was drinking from her but I’ve got a detailed listing (which I would be happy to share with anyone interested) and can always learn more. Each was served in a small, etched crystal glass. Each glass was different and they were all absolutely exquisite. I enjoyed the pairings and generally found the sakes, like the meal, very refined. Maybe even too…haute for me to appreciate fully.
So, I’ve been asked, “Where did you go for dinner afterward (wink-wink)?” In fact, I was sated afterward. Pleasantly full. Not stuffed, certainly, but who wants to waddle away stuffed? In retrospect, I guess part of me is surprised that I wasn’t hungry afterwards. But I wasn’t.
As I’ve turned the meal over in my mind, one word keeps recurring: austere. Not in the sense of something forbidding or severe but rather in the sense of rigorous (self-)discipline. It’s almost impossible to have a meal like this and not be forced to contemplate, on some level, the philosophy driving it. Shojin-ryori is not merely a kind of cooking; it is a means to a meditative, reverential, end. It reflects a way of conducting oneself in and as a part of the universe. I can’t say whether the cuisine or the way of life is for you, but I think that Kajitsu is an indelible, immensely rewarding experience. Next time you’re in NYC, I’d urge you to work hard to get a table. In that most dynamic, headlong, materialistic American megalopolis, I find it no small tribute that a table at Kajitsu is one of the toughest “gets” in the entire city.