With little ceremony, the chef behind the slender wooden counter blankets your plate with a drift of summer black truffles; you grow giddier with each falling flake. He slides you the dish, and you reach straight for one. It scarcely tastes like anything.
But wait. Try one with some of the sweet, juicy eggplant that sits beneath it like a bashful hunk of steak; now the truffle is getting woodsy. Add some grated daikon and mild Japanese ginger and it betrays hints of garlic. Swish the whole bite through the puddle of sake-tinged sauce and the dish becomes downright intoxicating.
So it is at Kajitsu, where the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.
The restaurant—which recently moved north from an East Village basement to a Murray Hill townhouse—is likely the city’s most accomplished practitioner of shojin cuisine, a type of hyperseasonal vegan cooking that originated in Zen Buddhism, and is at the foundation of the Japanese kaiseki tradition. For those seeking flesh, the closest you’ll get are the seafood and eggs served only at lunch in Kajitsu’s sister restaurant, Kokage, on the ground floor.
Upstairs are the dining room—small and bare, with large windows, straight lines and light finished wood—and an eight-seat chef’s counter. You choose from three ever-changing menus—four courses, eight or a counter-only omakase—each paired with sake if you like (they’ll split a single pairing between two people if you ask nicely).
These meals unfold at a languid pace—the longer menus creeping toward three hours—but the attentive service keeps fidgeting at bay. There’s no music—jarring at first—and the patrons at the counter are hushed, a refreshing quiet that’s punctuated by the incongruous clacking of chef Ryota Ueshima’s wooden clogs.
Ueshima, who replaced original chef Masato Nishihara after a three-year run, worked in some of Japan’s top kaiseki restaurants for more than two decades, before coming to the U.S. last year. His food is subtler than his shoes. Take the spring gelée, an orb of vegetable-stock jelly—studded with okra and mountain yam—that registers bland until you taste it with the bright, tart “noodles,” made from jellied vinegar and soy, that snap it into focus. Or the modest pile of steamed cabbage, bell pepper and potato, whose subtle sweetness is unlocked only by the slick of sesame-wasabi sauce draped over the side.
These symbiotic relationships are everywhere: in the soft, house-made soba, shored up by chewy shreds of fried tofu on the side, and wisps of seaweed in the dipping sauce; and in the final savory course, a bowl of rice in mushroom broth, bolstered into a cozy porridge as you stir in viscous yuba (tofu skin), swatches of nori and dabs of wasabi.
Less exciting are the soups. Fried tofu balls studded with carrot and burdock are too creamy to stand out within the broth of dried shiitake and kelp; you wish they were firmer. A mushroom broth with porcini, morels and fried tofu is shyer than you might like, outmuscled by the numbing, Szechuan-peppercorn-like thrum of sansho flower. But there are good things waiting at the end of your meal.
As you finish dessert—a pleasant surprise of herbaceous mugwort tofu with black sugar syrup and nutty soy powder—you’ll find Ueshima behind the counter whisking your bowl of matcha to an invigorating froth. The steam curls up around your face as you sip; the room is quiet. You are as relaxed as in a spa.
Thinking back on your meal, you perhaps weren’t thrilled by every part, but still, you feel whole.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Meal highlights: The menu changes often, but recently featured spring gelée, eggplant with truffles, vegetables with sesame-wasabi sauce, rice in mushroom broth and mugwort tofu.
Price per person: Tasting menus for $55, $85 and $120; sometimes a “seasonal” eight-course menu is offered for $100. Sake pairings are $35, $53 and $62 for the respective menus, though the prices fluctuate.
Vibe: Relaxing date night (but only if you like your date enough to spend a few hours with them). Otherwise, a very pleasant place to eat alone.
Cocktail chatter: The owners import the wheat gluten (called fu) found in a few different courses from their 250-year-old shop in Kyoto, which used to supply the imperial court.
Soundcheck: You could hear a chopstick drop.
By Daniel Simon Meyer