This artful vegetarian restaurant—which moved from its original East Village basement digs 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 meat, the closest you’ll get are the seafood and eggs served at lunch in Kajitsu’s sister restaurant, Kokage, downstairs.
Upstairs are Kajitsu's main 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.
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.
Ingredients change by the month, but recent preparations include harusame noodles soup with shitake, pine nuts and spring vegetables. Then there are plates like 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. These symbiotic relationships are everywhere: in the soft, house-made soba, shored up by chewy shreds of fried tofu, 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.