A Sauce Worth Slaving Over
By MARK BITTMAN
Published: January 19, 2012
A couple of years ago, a friend told me that a vegan Japanese restaurant called Kajitsu was doing “the best food in the city.” I ignored him. (Typical: I ignored him when he told me about Noma, and I at first ignored friends who told me about Momofuku, El Bulli and, in 1987, the young chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller. So much for the vision thing.) After this friend called me stupid once or twice, I made it over to the place, which is in the East Village, just down the block from the Good Beer Store. The word “best” should not be thrown around, but I will say that Kajitsu is distinctive, astonishing and wonderful.
John Von Pamer for The New York Times
Part of this is the nature of shojin cuisine, a kaiseki — that is, multicourse — style brought to Japan from China by Zen Buddhist monks in the 13th century. Simply put, it focuses on carefully prepared seasonal fruits and vegetables (an idea, you might say, whose time has come), along with tofu and other high-protein plant-based foods. It does so in a way that might take a few centuries of otherwise-unemployed monks to achieve: precise, imaginative, beautiful, deceptive, flavorful and labor-intensive beyond belief. I have some limited experience eating (and even cooking) shojin-style food, and I will say that in general it deserves more attention.
But the expression of that cuisine at Kajitsu, an unsurprisingly minimalist little place with stunning dishware (some of which has been repaired; traditionally, it’s almost never discarded) and a self-effacing chef named Masato Nishihara, is mind-boggling. I could name you dishes, but they’ll either sound ordinary (steamed rice with mushrooms) or confounding (“Autumn Vegetable Fukiyose”). To the palate, nothing is either.
I was originally curious about Kajitsu because of the word “vegan.” Although so many restaurants advertising themselves as such tend to be dull or even ridiculous, Kajitsu is lovable because the cooking makes that label irrelevant. The place is putting out delicious food that fascinates, not unlike whatever super-duper four-star place you care to name.
After two or three visits to Kajitsu, I was determined to cook with Nishihara. I introduced myself and we discussed a number of possible dishes for him to show me. We settled on fresh goma-dofu (essentially, tofu made from sesame seeds) with a simple but luxuriously creamy miso sauce and panko-fried vegetables (very close to tempura) with vegan Worcestershire sauce.
When I say labor-intensive, I’m not kidding. It took two of Nishihara’s assistants nearly 90 minutes of nonstop beating, stirring and pounding to make the goma-dofu; it took Nishihara himself, with me hanging over his shoulder, a few hours to make the “Worcestershire” sauce.
It was worth it, at least for the curious cook: the combination of 30-odd ingredients and several steps produces a sauce (two, actually) that you will want to drink. On top of the crisp-fried vegetables (and with a little flash-cooked cabbage), it gives you a hint — relatively quickly — of what it took those dedicated monks centuries to develop.