Kajitsu's Rite of Spring
A cherry-tree leaf is fried to a sheer crackle. It conceals a single flowering fern, clipped before it could unfurl, snap peas, and a three-headed bloom of broccolini, all balancing on a wobbly cube of tofu that's been studded with petals. In case you're not getting the point, there's a pink-tinged, cherry-blossom-shaped dumpling called sakura-fu balancing on top.
Kajitsu's bare dining room in midtown may be one of the finest places in the city from which to witness the planet's low-speed twirl toward the sun. It's been a long winter, but here is the kind of dish that assures us no matter how dark and cold it gets, the ground will thaw, the light will shine, and things will grow.
Kajitsu serves food in Japan's tradition of shojin-ryori, the vegetarian food which blossomed in Buddhist monasteries in the 13th century and laid the groundwork for extravagant, multi-coursed kaiseki, and modern Japanese haute cuisine. Shojin's got hundreds and hundreds of years on the young American vegan traditions of faux bacon and bean burgers, and it shows. The kitchen knows how to coax a multitude of textures and flavors from the vegetable world, then compose a carefully structured meal of them. In short, save your vegan-phobic rant for someplace else—you won't miss animal products at Kajitsu, nor will you go hungry (in fact, it's pretty impressive how heavy things can get without meat or dairy in the picture). In a dinner filled with small, beautiful vegetables—much of them served on small, beautiful pieces of pottery—there will also be piles of thin, cold soba noodles, warm rice, soups, and bubbling stews of tofu, vegetables, and a range of jellies from jiggly vinegar to chewy seaweed.
Baby-faced Ryota Ueshima was born and raised in Kyoto, and spent a decade working at a 400-year-old, three-Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant there called Hyotei. His dishes are made up of many parts, each one fresh and vivid and pristine. Ueshima has run Kajitsu for just over a year now and moved the kitchen from a basement in the East Village to new digs in midtown about a month ago. Here, big windows on the second floor look down on 39th Street, where some guy is always smoking and shouting into his cell phone, slamming the doors of his van, and spitting with gusto. Women in stockings and sneakers can be seen picking up stuffed parathas for lunch, bolting between the cement-turning trucks that rumble down the street.
But inside Kajitsu, the room is quiet and full of sunlight, decorated with a single framed piece of paper and a clay pot the size of a strongman's fist. That's all. Tables are spaced far enough apart that if an ex were seated at the next one, it might not even be that awkward (but odds of this happening are low, since Kajitsu hosts even more business meetings and stylishly dressed senior-citizen couples since its move uptown). Service is charming and professional, but not as ceremonial as you might imagine for temple cuisine, though dishes are always brought to the table gracefully and one at a time. Kajitsu may also be the only place in the city to send diners home with leftovers after a tasting ($40–$100)—a big box of rice from the hot pot course, impossible to finish in one sitting.
But what makes the restaurant so special is the way Ueshima draws our attention to tiny seasons within the seasons. Right now it's all about cherry blossoms, young bamboo shoots, and fresh sansho, the peppery, lemongrass-y leaves of the Japanese prickly ash. The bamboo shoot is long and spiny and scored like a frat boy's bedpost. It's tender and delicious, too, lightly battered and fried, cut in slices over cubes of cold rice with miso and fresh wasabi, or crisped in a hot pot.
Desserts draw on the elastic capabilities of rice flour. A steamed mochi was tough as a stress ball and so sticky that it was almost impossible to cut. Its flavor, not imperceptible, but barely there, didn't justify the work it required. Sips of bright green matcha with wee geometric shapes of flavored sugar from Kyoto make for a better ending, toggling you back and forth between the warm tea and a pure, melting sweetness.
Inedible garnishes are inexcusable distractions from the food, if you ask me, and generally pointless. But the rule doesn't apply at Kajitsu, where the best dishes offer a glimpse at the natural world's quietly moving parts. Here, the small branch of flowering dogwood on your plate is just more proof, the kind that can be hard to glean in midtown, that spring is here.
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