A February dinner at Kajitsu hovered between the heaviness of late winter and the delicacy of early spring. It was an evening of patience and pauses.
This Japanese restaurant in the East Village specializes in Shojin cuisine, vegetarian and ultra-seasonal, developed centuries ago in Zen Buddhist monasteries. (The menu changes monthly. To see what's being served in March, have a look at our pal Kate's blog.) We began by simply sitting in the back, looking at a pair of chopsticks on a red tray. Then we ordered the eight-course Hana menu. To start, grated celery root with early spring vegetables served in a ceramic dish shaped like a shell. Atop the agar noodles and other ingredients was a dot of wasabi, a crest of spice crashing against crunch, both buoyed by a lightly salted foam.
Second, fried black-eyed peas tossed with sunchoke chips, salsify, mushrooms, and nori-fu (stretchy, elastic gluten). The crisps and crackles here helped wake up our mouths. The second course as well as the third (below) were prepared in honor of Setsubun, a festival at the start of spring that banishes evil spirits and welcomes positive ones. To do so, one must eat the makisushi roll facing northwest (this year's lucky direction) using both hands. We did. Granted, it's only been a few weeks, but so far, so good.
Above, a creamy cup of sake kasu soup, made from what's left over during the production of sake; a salad of banana flower, bamboo shoots, and bean sprouts on a banana leaf; and the aforementioned uncut roll, stuffed with mushrooms, cabbage, pumpkin, and spinach and wrapped in nori. Perhaps we're just superstitious, but that roll was umami-licious, and we could have eaten about six more.
The next courses got heavier. Cold soba came with its own mini-shaker of seventeen spices and an earthy broth, a reminder that spring isn't just about what we see peeking out from the surface but also about what happens beneath, processes we don't usually see since we're no longer in seventh-grade science class, staring at slides made from digs in the dirt.
Above, a selection from the grill, including leeks, turnips, and satiomo (taro), with a peppery sauce made from miso and served on a wooden board, and a citrusy one made from ponzu.
The last savory course consisted of seven types of tempura veggies plopped atop rice. Nibblets of umeboshi (like a plum) added sourness, while subtly reminding us of the bounties to come. No, we're not talking about dessert, which included a mochi so cute we didn't know whether to eat it or pet it. We're talking about the plethora of good eats available in the spring and summer. Soon, the farmer's market will be overflowing, and our gray concrete world will go green and sun-dappled.
Finally, some pellets of sugar candy and a big bowl of matcha, like green tea on acid, bitter and grainy. Despite our anxieties about inadvertently elbowing a hole through the lovely paper screen near us, we loved our meal at Kajitsu. It was like a yoga class for our mouths, and brains, as we stretched through different textures and ingredients we don't know much about, inhaling deeply and going with the flow.