Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy New Year Michelin Countdown: 2 (food)

On the evening of Christmas Day, my friend SM and I went to Kajitsu, a 2 Michelin star Japanese restaurant in the East Village. Let me begin by saying that Kajitsu is probably the least expensive Michelin starred restaurant you will find. Every month they offer only two menus. One 4-course menu for $50, and another 8-course menu for $70. Even on Christmas Day, when everyone else jacks up their prices, our 9-course menu was $90. How is this possible? It's possible because Kajitsu serves Shojin cuisine, which is based off of Buddhist vegetarianism. There is no fish or meat throughout the meal.

It was very different having a vegetarian meal on Christmas while most other people were having ham, turkey, goose, duck, or Chinese food. It was also very different stepping into the serene and zen-like surroundings of the restaurant and being separated from the hustle and bustle of the festive holiday season.

Our Christmas Special Menu. I think their square-triangle-circle logo has something to do with the zen buddhist philosophy, but I really don't know as I originally thought it had to do with the buttons on a playstation controller.

GRILLED WALNUT SESAME TOFU with grilled walnut, wasabi, soy sauce. Our first course was very savory. The sesame soy sauce was rich, and the tofu had a strong sesame taste that went well with the grilled walnut. The tofu had a very firm texture. I kept worrying that I was going to break the tofu when I grabbed it with my chopsticks, but my chopsticks wouldn't break through the tofu. The wasabi provided kick but I didn't think it needed it.

VEGETABLE POT-AU-FEU WITH YUZU with rutabaga, cabbage, green pea, kintoki carrot, cherry tomato, yukon gold potato, rice paper, cipollini onion. A truly gorgeous dish. The rice paper on top was a play on the way it looks when the top of a pond turns to ice. The broth was extremely fragrant. All the vegetables had great flavor, but none of them overpowered any of the other vegetables. This dish reminded me of my meal at Blue Hill Stone Barns in how a simple combination of vegetables could provide so much flavor.

(left) GRILLED KABU TURNIP WITH SAKE-KASU SAUCE with tiny turnip and turnip leaf, (right) BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND COUSCOUS CAKE WITH BLACK MISO SAUCE with pine nuts, (top) DAIKON SUSHI with black daikon, watermelon radish, frise, pickled green daikon. There was a lot going on with this dish. The grilled kabu turnip caught me off guard because it was served cold. I had expected something different when the description read "grilled". It was okay, along with the tiny turnip, in that I could feel the freshness but there wasn't much to the taste. The butternut squash and couscous cake was very interesting in that it added a depth of texture to what would otherwise be butternut squash served anywhere else. The daikon sushi was also interesting. The sushi rice had much more vinegar than normal sushi rice, but I guess it made sense in this context with daikon instead of fish. It was crisp and refreshing and worked well with the frise, but I would have preferred to have a hot component on this dish to get some more contrast.

NAMA-FU TEMPURA WITH AZUKI BEAN SAUCE with pumpkin fu and yomogi fu. Namafu is a wheat gluten product like seitan. It's made with some glutinous rice flour, so it has an interesting sticky/gummy/chewy component to the texture. I would say that it's similar to some rice cake textures (the Cantonese sweet year cake comes to mind), and not for everybody. I must say that I was so busy pondering the texture that I really didn't notice the flavor infusions. There is no photo because they had originally brought us this course out of order (it was meant for the people next to us), and by the time it was our turn, I mistakenly thought that I'd already taken a picture of it.

UDON AND TOFU PORRIDGE WITH BLACK TRUFFLE and white mushroom paste. This was the extra course that was special to the Christmas menu.

Uncovering the paper layer revealed a wonderful truffle smell. I liked the tofu and udon textures in this, but I wouldn't call it a porridge. The noodles were thin and soft, but it wasn't really cooked down.

HOUSE-MADE SOBA with leek, grated radish, scallion, horseradish. This was served chilled and the horseradish hits you a little differently than when you normally have wasabi with your chilled soba. The noodles were good, but I still think Matsugen makes my favorite soba noodles in the city.

VEGETABLE HOT POT WITH KIRITANPO with maitake mushrooms, taro, nappa cabbage, nametake mushroom, burdock root, mizuna, mitsuba, rice dumplings. They showed us the whole pot before ladling our individual servings.

The menu read yam noodles, but ours came with rice dumplings which were absolutely amazing. Large rice balls with a slight hint of grilled flavor, they remained robust with great texture even while absorbing the flavors of the magnificent broth. The many ingredients just combined wonderfully to bring out the warmth and earthiness of those mushrooms.

This was the "main course" so to speak, so there was some left over to make sure we filled up.

SNOW BALL MOCHI with strawberry, white bean paste. This was by far the best mochi I've ever had. The texture was not gummy or chewy like what I normally associate with mochi. It was a good clean bite and there were some crispy bits like coconut or rice flakes studded on top. The filling of small strawberry slices and white bean paste had this terrific hint of sweetness that was just right. Not too sweet, no syrupy mouthfeel. It was sweet, but felt very clean and light.

SESAME MILK BRULEE WITH CHOCOLATE NAMA-FU with persimmon paste. I really liked the sesame milk brulee, but that namafu texture was still quite distracting.

CANDIES BY SUETOMI had a nice seasonal design and were once again just right in terms of sweetness.

The candies were to accompany matcha tea, which was being prepared on the spot by the chef using his tea brush in the traditional manner.

Our matcha tea was quite precious actually. There was very little of it, but I love how matcha goes with sweets so it was a nice way to round out the dinner and warm up.

This was quite a meal. The artistry of a kaiseki meal using vegetarian ingredients in a Shojin cuisine style of harmony amongst ingredients. All the vegetables had terrific flavor, and look at how many individual vegetable ingredients went into the entire meal with no repeats! I would very much recommend this place to anyone, especially with its reasonable prices, and I think it definitely deserves its two star accolades.

1 comment :

Dan said...

This is exactly the kind of thing I look for in a meal with my wife. There are not nearly enough high quality vegetarian tastings available.