I don't like vegetables that much. I am not keen on vegetarianism. I am not that into organic vegetables. I hate cooking for vegetarians since I have no idea what to do. Though I buy quite a few items at the Greenmarket, I don't even care if they are soaked in chemicals-- I taint my body with enough booze/smoke.
On top of that, going to a vegetarian restaurant has been out of question, and was very low on my priority list. Due to this, I've never been to some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the city.
Having said that, I am planning a program on shojin cuisine next month at Japan Society. Shojin-ryori is an ultimate example of vegetarian cooking. It has been practiced at Buddhist temples for many many years, and we are planning this program in conjunction with our fall exhibition on Zen art.
Kajitsu (嘉日, joyful day) opened in New York as the first Shojin restaurant. Its chef Mr. Nishihara was classically trained at Kitcho in Kyoto, one of the most respected kaiseki restaurants in Japan.
We are inviting Chef Nishimura for the program, and I thought I had to go taste what's the big deal about shojin cuisine. I've known of this restaurant since it opened, but I have been very skeptical about it. Who wants to spend $70 for a seven-course vegetable only dinner?! However, basically ALL the people who's been to the restaurant keeps telling me how AWESOME the experience is, so I gave in, and decided to give a try. Still skeptical.
I have to admit I was wrong about ALL of my preoccupied mind about vegetables.
First of all, the ambiance and presentation is SUPERB. Since this month is "moon-viewing (tsukimi)" month, the theme was on moon viewing. According to Wiki, Tsukimi refers to the Japanese tradition of holding parties to view the harvest moon. The custom is thought to have originated with Japanese aristocrats during the Heian period, who would gather to recite poetry under the full moon of the eighth month of the lunisolar calendar, known as the "Mid-Autumn Moon." Since ancient times, Japanese people have described the eighth lunisolar month (corresponding to September on the contemporary Gregorian calendar) as the best time for looking at the moon, since the relative positions of the earth, sun, and moon cause the moon to appear especially bright.
First course: Taro dumpling with black daikon.
Dumpling has a texture of sesame tofu, kind of chewy, and according to the chef, it was made with taro, and rice flour mixed to make balls. he green flakes on top is yuzu zest. It was very subtle, and the texture was very enjoyable. The best and most impressive part of this dish was a tiny piece of daikon on the top left, which was cut into the evenings shape of moon. This piece of thinly sliced daikon was very nicely flavored with vinegar and soy. Who does that? Seriously, it is a condiment, or rather, a decoration, and still has flavor. Totally impressed.
Second course: Clear soup with tofu chrysanthemum, lobster mushroom and chrysanthemum petals.
I am sure they made their own tofu, and it was firm enough to be able to cut it to look like a flower. The mushroom was marinated in soy/konbu and fried so that it wasn't a boring fried mushroom. Since they can't even use bonito to make dashi (no fish either, in shojin-ryori), I wasn't sure how it would taste. But its subtle konbu flavor was very nice, plus the bit of oil from the fried mushroom that seeped into the soup was totally amazing. It's hard to see, but the bowl (of course lacquer ware) was shipped specially for this month from Kyoto, has Chinese silver grass drawings on it, which is so seasonal.
Third course: Spinach and matsutake mushroom ohitashi in lime cup, fried matsutake mushroom with sea salt and sudachi citrus, and hearts of palm with truffle oil.
Chef Nishihara's creativity, attention to detail, and use of western ingredients, such as hearts of palm, was incredibly smart, and tasted awesome. I don't like truffle oil, but it was not overwhelming. I wonder where he got grape leaf. I will try to recreate the lime cup myself.
Fourth course: Homemade soba with hoji-cha leaves.
Chef Nishimura was also trained at a famous soba restaurant in Japan, so it was very nice. Didn't taste much of hoji-cha, though. The most surprising part was the dipping sauce. Very strong, with the great flavor of konbu. The sauce was something I thought it would be too hard to do without any use of ocean products (konbu is a sea vegetable, I am talking about fish products here), but he executed it perfectly. It tasted like tsukudani (simmered down konbu, to put on top of rice, usually), and perfectly flavored with soy sauce.
Usuhari (extremely thin) sake cups. How pretty are they?
All the plates and cups come directly from Japan. Drinking good sake in usuhari is such a pleasurable experience.
Even the tray is hand carved.
Main course: Simmered late summer vegetables, corn & nama-fu with sweet corn miso sauce, and green fig tempura with sesame cream.
We almost cried with joy at this point. You totally forget you are eating only vegetables, your taste buds are screaming with joy from the distinct, subtle flavors of each individual vegetable. The simmered vegetables were probably individually cooked. Not over-cooked, just PERFECTION. When I bit into the green fig tempura, I wanted to jump up from my chair and dance, like Tom Cruise on Oprah. Nama-fu (wheat gluten) was amazing. The owner of the restaurant owns a Fu-shop in Kyoto, hence this is their signature item. It almost has a mochi-like texture, and the corn miso sauce on the bottom was sweet and flavorful.
Oh and the actual dish was made by one of Japan's most famous potters, Shiro Tsujimura.
I can't believe I am saying this, but VEGETABLE PORN!
Rice dish: Brown rice with julienne nagaimo (mountain potato) and brown rice crisps with house made pickles.
The chef said this was a bit of challenge. Many Americans don't like slimy food, so instead of grading, he julienned the potato to cut the sliminess. We loved it, but apparently some customers didn't. We were like, "Bring the left overs, we will eat it." Though not pictured, brown rice crisps looked like rice crispies, flavored with soy and pepper. Added crunch and little kick. Total attention-to-the-detail brought to the next level.
Dessert: Ohagi. This is so surprising. First of all, rice was cooked with nutmeg, and red beans have lemon zest, which gives very subtle citrus flavor. And the bits on top is cocoa. To make it even more heavenly, he placed a tiny bit of sea salt on the plate before placing ohagi. Incredibly genius. Red beans, lemon, nutmeg, cocoa and salt, it's a new flavor mixture, yet some of the best desserts I've ever tasted. I am thinking about making a MOffin with this mixture.
At this point, we were drunk with joy, and just looking at the tiny etching on sake cup made us so happy. I so wanted to sneak this into my pocket, but we were sitting on the counter, so not an option. More attention to detail: this cup has etching on the bottom of the cup, so you can look at cherry petals when you drink your sake.
I am utterly and completely blown away by this experience. It's not only the quality of the vegetables, it's the chef's creativity and devotion that matters so much. Since the menu changes monthly, I might have to go every month.
You know me, I don't usually give good reviews on restaurants, but this place is seriously THAT good. They have a very appropriate name. We had an absolutely joyful day. Night.
*Come hear chef Masato Nishihara of Kajitsu and Japanese culinary expert Elizabeth Andoh on Monday 10/25 at 6:30pm, for the program, Field to Table: The Role of Vegetables in Japanese Diet. After reading this post, I know you want to hear more from chef and Elizabeth how important role vegetables play in Japanese cooking, from home to restaurants