Kajitsu – Zen and Veganism in NYC

Kajitsu serves exquisite vegan Japanese food in the Buddhist fashion; it's good and interesting enough that you probably won't miss the meat - I didn't.

Kajitsu, the name of the discreet subterranean Japanese restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, means ‘a fine day’, which is something you can be assured of having should your diurnal cycle happen to conclude within its enlightening confines.

Upon entering, don’t let chef Nishihara’s youthful glow fool you. He spent over 12 years learning the intricate art of kaiseki cuisine; 10 in Kyoto and two in Nagano, where he specialised in producing the multicourse affairs of hand-made buckwheat soba noodles. He brought all of this experience with him to New York two years ago and, for some unknown reason, no one really seems to have noticed. That is, if you ignore Messieurs Michelin, who promoted the restaurant to two stars in last year’s guide.

Kajitsu serves shojin ryori cuisine, a purely vegetarian form of gastronomy that was popularised in the 13th century by Chinese Zen monks in Japan, and is still served in Zen temples today. And, if these monks’ food is anything like what I recently sampled, no wonder they always seem so happy.

The meal was a fascinating vacillation between the paring down and joining together of exquisite ingredients.

Fried Trumpet Royale Mushrooms with Fresh Persimmons & Pine Nut Cream (with Gyokuro & Lahpet)

Our opening course set the tone for what was to come. The most delicately fried cubes of Trumpet Royale mushrooms had been wedded to fresh persimmons and pine nut cream. The green and golden pyramid was presented insideindividual clay dishes which resembled blossoming flowers. The ingredients bled umami on the palate (luckily not the plate), with the sweet and tangy persimmon ably dabbing up the spillage.

So immersed was I in this dish that I was taken aback when a fellow diner at the other end of the chef’s counter snuck up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. “I also photograph my food,” he offered. I felt like telling him, “That’s probably not something you want to gloat about to a stranger – even if he also has the peculiar habit of recording every potentially memorable bite he consumes – especially now that you’ve got the chef’s attention, numbskull.” Rudely ignoring my internal rant, he continued, “I was so eager to taste this course that I forgot to take a picture of it before I dug in. So I was wondering if, um, I could take a picture of yours.” My dining partner and I couldn’t help but smile, and let him complete his simultaneously innocuous and brave task before shuffling back to his stool to show off the stolen image to his other half.

The next course, a seemingly simple carnelian yellow and “scarlet-tinged” minestrone soup consisting of kabocha squash, bell peppers (which I normally hate – and yes, hate is a strong word), yellow yuzu and the mild but flavorful shichimi togarashi (seven spice), maintained my interest throughout, with citrus and chili notes peppering my tongue while I enjoyed the savory yet ever-so-sweet sweet broth.

And so it went: complex followed by ‘simple’.

Our third course was fittingly composed of three separate dishes, each more elaborate than the last. Let’s just say it involved wheat gluten which had been fashioned to resemble yellow maple leaves with orange edging; three rice cigars wrapped with tofu skin, crowned with beads of ‘land caviar’ (cypress seeds) and complemented by the best ginger I’ve ever tasted, and an immaculate pile of braised enoki mushrooms with nori, daikon and a radish wedge that provided a peacock-worthy splash of color.

This was followed by soba noodles with dipping sauce. While this is a dish you can order in any number of Japanese restaurants, the noodles won’t likely be made in-house and certainly won’t taste or feel like this – the texture was springy and superb – and the unusual addition of fresh wasabi was a welcome one.

Chef Masato Nishihara Whisking the Matcha

The main course was certainly the triumph of the evening, both in visual affect and deliciousness. An assembly of vegetables – some raw, some steamed, some fried; some warm, some cold, some neither – resembled autumn leaves that had been raked together into a pile similar to those you see at the end of proud homeowners’ driveways. The foliage was sprinkled with edible ‘pine needles’, which were actually brittle green tea noodles. This was both substantial and without a doubt one of the tastiest dishes I’ve eaten in some time, endlessly dazzling in its variety of textures and tastes, with no dud notes to speak of. Lying next to the leaves was a wooden wrapper, beneath which lay a row of cedar-smoked, green wheat gluten and portabella mushrooms that was surrounded by soft walnuts and a sticky combination of red miso paste and salsify. This was also surprisingly, and quietly, good.

A straight-forward bowl of steamed rice dotted with chestnuts was pleasant enough, but it was the trio of pickles residing next to it that made a good case for being a dish on its own.

Desserts continued down the same path, each containing only a few ingredients that were perfectly confident spending time with themselves. A diminutive mochi pancake with dates and sweet azuki bean paste was branded with the logo of the restaurant – a circle/square/triangle image descended from an ancient Buddhist story in which the master tells the student that once he realises the meaning of these three shapes he will truly be wise. I am, alas, still pondering.

Soft and delicate, the pancake led us to our final unassuming course of rice cracker candy and green tea. The chef whisked the matcha right in front of us and, while there was not much liquid in the bowl, it packed a punch. The surprise of the meal was learning just how good a sweet rice cracker could be – it was out of this world (well, definitely from out of this country), and perfectly offset the intensity of the frothy green tea.

The meal hadn’t actually lasted that long, and my companion and I lingered for another hour or so talking about relationships and food. At one point, the chef came up to us and smiled as he presented us with an extra nibble: a mini sweet potato ice cream ‘hamburger’ with a single walnut topping. This was subtly divine, and I was glad that the crunch of the light rice cracker ‘bun’ – coupled with the flavour of cool, sweet yams – was my final bite of the evening.

As I left, I felt completely content and not the least bit bloated. Despite a successful pairing of five sakes, I also felt remarkably lucid. The meal was something of a revelation as, without basic kitchen foundations such as dairy butter (the food is suitable for vegans), chef Nishihara was able to create a delightful meal that never seemed wanting in any regard.

In fact, his food resembles the enigma of traditional Japanese culture I experienced when I visited the country some years ago: it has been developed over a long period of time; it is undeniably beautiful and painstakingly considered, and it has a sea of emotions bundled up at its core. You may or may not experience the emotions, depending on your state of mind at the time, but they are worth discovering.

Given that the seasonal menu changes with the months, there is much still to be unearthed from this serene and (still) hidden goldmine.

Kajitsu
414 East 9th Street|
New York, NY 10009

Roussillon – A Class Act

Roussillon
16 St Barnabas Street
London W1W 8PE
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Menu Dégustation at £75/person and Menu Légumes at £65/person

Roussillon seems to quietly delight in its subtle defiance of established central London gastronomy: it is just off the beaten bath, with a slightly different approach & an independent soul – it is a unique, classy, satisfying & highly worthwhile dining experience

Roussillon seems to quietly delight in its subtle defiance of established central London gastronomy: it is just off the beaten bath, with a slightly different approach & an independent soul – it is a unique, classy, satisfying & highly worthwhile dining experience

The Lonely Star of Pimlico?

For me, the word Roussillon conjures up images of Provence – Luberon to be exact. It is here that this beautiful little hilltop village perches pristinely in the heart of the Vaucluse, its ‘Colorado’ red cliff-sides nearby, and not far off the magical mountain village of Gordes, the bustling markets of Apt and the quiet streets of Lacoste. Yes, I’ve spent many a hot July day (but never enough) vacationing in this lovely corner of the world, and never felt more at ease. The hot Provançale sun, the landscapes that inspired Cezanne, and the distinct colors and flavors of the local fruit and vegetables.

Ah yes, the distinct flavors of local fruit and vegetables…this is surely how this lovely little region of Southern France connects to the lovely little independent French restaurant on a sleepy street in London’s Pimlico neighborhood. But no, the Roussillon I am referring to is not the same one from which this restaurant takes its inspiration. Rather, it refers to Côtes du Roussillon, which as chef Alexis Gauthier explains is “a very up-and-coming wine region of France…which makes some amazingly good one at a low price.” In fact, at his restaurant they have a number of stellar wines for between £14-25/bottle as well as having many of the more expensive wines you would expect from a Michelin starred establishment.

Star, you say? Yes, Roussillon has been the holder of a Michelin star for some time now, and despite achieving such consistent standards, the restaurant certainly seems to have garnered less attention than many of its starred London counterparts. I first heard of the place a few years ago, and somehow never felt an overwhelming urge to visit it until recently, when I began reading about how much some of my fellow food bloggers like it. So, a few weeks ago I decided to book a table for a Saturday night.

But back to the connecting point of fruit and vegetables – well mostly the vegetables. You see, Roussillon seems to have been the first fine dining establishment in London to offer a completely vegetarian tasting menu. And quite unusually for a French chef in a fine London restaurant, Mr. Gauthier is a real fan of British produce. In fact, the menu is to a significant extent constructed around the best, most fresh local ingredients that can be found – instead of relying on a core set of classic French dishes which feature on the menu for 10+ years. “We pride ourselves on the vegetables and all of the vegetarian dishes that we prepare…[we are] probably one of the only gastronomic restaurants in Great Britain that makes a full tasting menu around vegetables,” he explains. Gauthier’s keen interest in local produce is also evidenced by the fact that he was instrumental in setting up the New Covent Garden Soup business, which was sold prior to him opening Roussillon.

So, excited and intrigued by the prospect of this little restaurant, Mrs. LF and I arrived at St Barnabas Street enthusiastically early for our dinner.

Not so Lonely After All, Then

The exterior of the restaurant is pleasant enough to look at, with a prominent semi-circular bay window jutting out from the center of the facade. It is certainly a surprise to find a restaurant on this residential side street off of the lovely Pimlico Road.

When you enter Roussillon, you almost feel as if you are entering someone’s home, and it is decorated in the manner that a stylish (and wealthy) host or hostess might decorate their own large dining room. Very tasteful indeed. Unscathed white walls with mustard accents and appropriate paintings that are there but not in your face; attractive aubergine chairs; crisp white tablecloths; sophisticated downlighting; immaculate carpeting; fine crystal; shiny cutlery; fresh flowers floating in water in little individual glass vases. Check.

When we did step through the door, we immediately got the vibe that we may have arrived to early for them though, as they were still laying some of the tables and the gentleman standing at reception (who turned out to be the sommelier) was resolutely focused on the screen in front of him and seemed slightly perturbed that we had walked in at just that minute. In any case, our French waitress came to the rescue, showed us to the dining room and let us choose between a few different tables. We selected one facing out from the wall where we could sit on the same side of the table as each other – which is always more pleasant for couples in my view.

As we were one of the first tables to arrive, it was very quiet to start with, but around 8pm the restaurant seemed to fill up all at once; well, at least our half of the restaurant did. For some reason (help?), they decided to seat all of the guests on the far side of the restaurant. It therefore got quite loud, quite quickly – something I hadn’t been expecting. To be fair, this was in large part due to the stentorian voice of the elderly Australian gentleman sitting next to us, but it was certainly noisier than I had envisaged for a romantic dinner for me and the missus. It was also very hot inside for me, possibly because there didn’t appear to be any A/C vents on our side of the restaurant, but then again it was one of those unusually warm evenings we’ve been having in London as of late.

Soon, canapés were received and menus were handed out, and things began to roll. We eventually decided to go for the (normal) tasting menu and the vegetarian version of the tasting menu. The sommelier came over, was very professional and helpful, and we eventually arrived at a bottle of wine that would hopefully suit both menus – we were not feeling up to the full pairing option on this occasion, especially as we had driven there!

The service up to this stage had been very professional and quietly reserved. I liked the fact that the staff all had consistent, well designed uniforms, appeared to be very focused on what they were doing, and definitely took their roles seriously. Well, I can hear Speedy Gonzalez in my ear, saying “Ándale, ándale, arriba, arriba”, so onto the food we go…

The Meal, etc.

The canapés were excellent and were good precursors of things to come. Served on a single plate, they comprised of chickpea beignets with whole grain mustard dipping sauce and smoked eel with roasted apples. The beignets looked like thick-cut chips and were fried perfectly – light and crisp on the outside with a soft chickpea center, with the mustard sauce complementing them to a tee. The flavor of the smoky eel went well with the little bits of apple on top of them, and our appetites were duly whetted.

Before the courses of the main meal, we were offered a wide assortment of breads. The bacon and onion roll was of particular note, but unfortunately the crust on the classic mini-baguettes was not crunchy enough (we tried two just to make sure).

The assistant sommelier came over to confirm our wine selection, showing us the bottle and then letting us try it. We had chosen the 2005 Jurançon Sec “Chant des Vignes”, Domaine Cauhapé (Southwest France), the sommelier’s keenest recommendation at £44/bottle, which is made from the local Gros Manseng grape. The nose of this wine was outstanding and very memorable. It had hints of the tropical (pineapple, grapefruit and a hint of banana) and I also detected a touch of minty-ness. On the palate, it retained its fruitiness, exhibited some lively spiciness, and had a great streak of acidic minerality. It had great grip and body too. It was perfectly nice sipping it on its own. I would highly recommend this wine if you haven’t had it before, especially as it looks like you can get it for around £12/bottle on the internet.

As we both had tasting menus, I think it will be too complicated to go through both the menus in tandem, so I have listed the dishes below, along with salient comments.

Menu Dégustation

  1. Lobster & Tomato Tortellini, Lobster Broth Infused with Lemon Grass. This was a very pleasant dish. It came with the tortellini naked in the middle of the shallow white bowl, and the waiter then poured the broth in. The tortellini itself was miniscule but well done, with the flavor of the lobster and the tomato melding well and coming through fully. The broth tasted fresh and but was not overly flavorful – according to my own taste, it needed a bit of salt, but I understood that possibly it had been served this way on purpose in order to emphasize the freshness of the produce (?). 7/10.
  2. Foie Gras & Almond, Broad Beans & Peas Sautéed Together with Light Madeira Jus. An excellent dish all around, executed very well. The foie gras came in much the same shape as a plump mini-baguette, except of course that it was dark brown and covered with sliced, toasted almonds. It was cooked the way that I like seared foie gras, and wasn’t overly soft and jiggly. The almond flavor was a very nice accent to the richness of the foie gras and the slight sweetness that came from the memorable Madeira jus. The green vegetables surprisingly worked very well, as they offset some of that rich sweetness with their summer freshness. Again, it seemed like it could have used more salt to bring out more of the foie gras flavor (maybe my palate is too salty?!). 8.5/10.
  3. Summer Black Truffle Risotto, Parmesan & Brown Butter (with Beef Stock). This was a near triumph for me. The risotto was almost perfect; the rice was al dente (but about 10-15 seconds too much so for me), and was surrounded by creamy, soft elegance. The black summer truffles, which have a completely different flavor to black winter truffles and are much milder, were excellent and infused the dish with their unique aroma and taste. The parmesan sharpness cut through all of that rich indulgence. The brown butter sauce provided even more depth of flavor and an extra tang of saltiness, which I thought it needed. My version apparently had beef in the stock. 9/10.
  4. Grilled John Dory, Roasted Baby Aubergine, Ratatouille Jus. The fish was cooked perfectly and was a well-sized portion (not too big!). The roasted aubergines were rich and sweet, and the jus was very good. I didn’t personally think the aubergines went overly well with the fish, but it tasted fine together. This dish just doesn’t stick out in my memory like some of the others. 6.5/10.
  5. Pink Grilled Squab Pigeon, Glazed Sweet & Sour Baby Beetroots, Fresh Black Figs & Chard Leaf Salad. The flavors of this dish were excellently conceived. I am not an expert on pigeon by any stretch of the imagination (or game birds in general), but for me the pigeon breast wasn’t cooked as it should have been. I wanted it to be redder, and for the skin to be crispier (is it supposed to be crispy? I really don’t know). The little leg, however, was crispier and absolutely scrumptious. The beetroots gave the whole dish a wonderful sweet & sourness (as advertised), and the black figs were another unusual yet very successful combination. Had the pigeon breast been a bit rarer, this would have been an 8/10, but alas, it gets 7/10.
  6. Truffle Brillat – Savarin & Baby Leaves Salad. By this point I was getting pretty full (remember that I was also tasting all of Mrs. LF’s dishes…in the name of research, of course). So what better to have next than some cheese and more truffles?! Before the cheese arrived, we asked the sommelier for a recommendation of a glass of sweet wine to have with the cheese. By this time, he had warmed to us and decided he would make it a surprise by selecting something himself, which we were very open to, given the quality of his earlier recommendation. It turned out to be a 2001 Vendemmia Tardiva (Canneto, Italy), which is made from the Traminer grape. He poured the one portion into two small dessert wine glasses, so we could both have some, which was a nice touch. The cheese itself was a cow’s cheese from Burgundy and was quite soft and mild; the truffles added a nice, well, truffle flavor :), but we didn’t feel that the accompanying dark olive tapenade added much to the dish, though it wasn’t particularly offensive either. We both liked the wine, although we had very different opinions about the start and the finish of it (I thought it started bitter and finished sweeter, but Mrs. LF thought the opposite). Anyway, it worked well, and had notes of sharp marmalade and a bittersweet caramel. 6/10 for the cheese plate.
  7. Fresh Raspberries, Champagne Sorbet & White Chocolate Tuille. The first of my desserts was excellent. The raspberries had good sweetness (I find the raspberries you tend to get in England are often way too bitter), and the white chocolate disc that covered them was creamy and delightful against the sharpness of the raspberries. The champagne sorbet was right at home, although I was a bit disappointed that it very quickly seemed to melt into a pool of transparent liquid and didn’t retain its icy texture – it tasted damn good though. 8.5/10.
  8. Louis XV, Crunchy Praline. This was a small, very dark round-ish chocolate dessert with a tiny bit of gold leaf placed on its crown. It was served on a correspondingly very large white plate (a nice effect). It was pretty close to perfection, with the dark chocolate, praline and thin & delicate biscuit base all working together to provide a flavor explosion in your mouth. 9/10.

Menu Légumes

  1. Chilled Broad Bean & Thyme Cream, Herb Salad. The broad beans were fairly raw (or maybe completely raw?) and had a bitter, slightly nutty taste. Around the broad beans and herb salad was poured a frothy thyme cream, which gave this dish a delicate lightness. Mrs. LF said it was very “precious” – in a good way – but didn’t think it had a ‘wow’ factor. 6/10.
  2. Soft Potato Gnocchi Rolled in Parmesan, Sautéed Mousseron & Courgette Flower Tempura. My better half said this was the knock-out dish of the evening for her, and she is still banging on about it. “This is the kind of dish that makes you realize you don’t need meat to have a satisfying meal! The meatiness of the sautéed mousseron mushrooms provided the heartiness that the dish required,” she noted. The gnocchi was perfectly cooked too, and I thought the fried courgette flower was really delicious (yes, she did let me have a bite or two). 10/10.
  3. Summer Black Truffle Risotto, Parmesan & Brown Butter. See comments above, however, Mrs. LFnoted that had it been served with a vegetable stock similar to that of the one served in the non-vegetarian menu (this version didn’t have a stock at all), it would have been significantly enhanced. 8/10.
  4. Green Ricotta Quenelles, Sautéed Girolles & Crispy Sage. Mrs. LF is not the biggest fan of ricotta cheese in savory dishes, as she finds it a bit bland and prefers it in desserts, so didn’t particularly like the quenelles (I thought they were fine). Both of us agreed that the sautéed girolles were way too salty and really stood out (in a bad way) because of this. The sage tempura was nice to look at but didn’t really add anything to the dish. 5/10.
  5. Summer Baby Vegetables Cooked Together, Aged Balsamic Reduction. Mrs. LF commented: “This was essentially a vegetable jardinière, which is usually served as an accompaniment to something else more substantial. Here, however, the baby vegetables were placed in the spotlight and therefore had a lot to live up to. Each individual vegetable stood out and they were fresh and cooked perfectly. But in the end, it was still a jardinière and it was just lacking that extra ingredient which would have provided an extra oomph to complete the dish. As nice as it was, for the main course of the menu, it just doesn’t stack up, especially when your dining companion may be having pigeon or lamb.” 7/10.
  6. Truffle Brillat – Savarin & Baby Leaves Salad. See comments above.
  7. Cherry “Griottes” Mousse, Almond Biscuit & Lime Sorbet. I don’t remember this dish. The missus said that it was a very tiny portion and that while it was very pretty to look at (with a decoration of red sugary shards on top), it was sort of pointless as she’d rather have one dessert that was substantial and memorable rather than two desserts, one of which pales in comparison to the other (and in this case, the Louis XV clearly came up trumps). She did however highly rate the cherry “griottes” mousse – which reminded her of Petit Filous – which went well with the texture of the almond biscuit, but thought the lime sorbet was just too sharp and didn’t go with the rest of the dessert. 6.5/10.
  8. Louis XV, Crunchy Praline. See comments above.

Overall, Mrs. LF said she adored the vegetarian tasting menu and for the most part really didn’t miss the meat at all.

I finished off the meal with a single espresso, which was made ‘long’, just as I like it. It was accompanied by some petit fours, which included 2 peach marshmallows (soft, creamy and dreamy), 2 of the best chocolate truffles I’ve had in a while, 2 almond financiers and 2 florentines, both of which were good. There was also a nice little touch at the end of the meal, when the waiter gave my wife a box of macaroons in a pretty little Roussillon box to take home.

The service was excellent throughout our rather extended stay at Roussillon. After initially being quite reserved and neutral, a number of the waiters began to show their personality and became engaging while always maintaining their professionalism. After the desserts had been served, I kept joking that I was still hungry and wanted to start all over again. They definitely called my bluff by rolling out a divine cheese trolley which unfortunately I was too stuffed to seriously contemplate. We all had a good laugh, though.

As we left, the Maître d’ showed us out and we stood lingering on the steps a while longer discussing the Wimbledon results. We leisurely strolled back to our car, both feeling happy and content with our experience at Roussillon – it had been a delightful evening.

Lingering Thoughts

Without a doubt, Roussillon is one of London’s hidden treasures. It provides a unique dining experience as it independent in every sense of the word. It is one man’s vision, with a dedicated team to help him execute it. And it works well. The dining space is very pleasant, and you can tell that the restaurant is not part of a chain or attached to a hotel. The service is professional and discreet. The menu is a breath of fresh air, changes frequently, and the food is generally executed to a very high standard, although there were occasional lapses and a few debatable flavor combinations on this particular occasion. I think the restaurant deserves its star from the robust French man covered in white rubber tubes, and certainly has the potential to achieve more.

Chef Gauthier says that, for him, having dinner at Roussillon should be “…a grand evening; it’s not just sitting, eating and going. It is something that we want you to remember, and we make sure that you do remember, through the wine, through the food and through the service.”

Well, I don’t think I could have put it better myself.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: 8/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined at Roussillon once. And, in case you were wondering, I am not a professional journalist, so all quotes from Alexis Gauthier have been taken from a video on the restaurant’s Facebook page, where the proprietor introduces the concept and ethos of the restaurant.*

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