At Kajitsu, a server lifts the lid of a clay pot and sets loose an earthy, woodsy blast of autumn. Inside, says fooder, is irresistibly aromatic steamed rice with matsutake, a climactic course in a seasonal Japanese dinner built around this highly prized fall fungus. It's warm, comforting, and "filled with the sweet umami of the wonderful mushrooms."
This eight-course vegan feast ranges from austere to robust in seasoning, from minimalist to mind-blowingly elaborate in preparation, yet each dish puts the vegetables first. A clear soup of matsutake with fried tofu and a slice of yuzu-like sudachi is simple, subtle, and all about the aroma of the mushrooms. Matsutake also appears lightly fried as tempura alongside pleasingly chewy house-made udon with a beautifully balanced sesame sauce. And it comes in a croquette—earthy and creamy inside, perfectly crisp outside—on a platter of grilled vegetables seasoned with smoked soy.
But matsutake is absent from one of the most memorable dishes of the meal, a terrine of vegetables—broccoli, lotus root, corn, bell pepper, okra, snow peas, mitsuba, beets, zucchini, edamame, and more—served on a base of parsnip purée with a scattering of chestnut crumbs and two pieces of wheat gluten sliced to look like autumn leaves. Simply seasoned, it emphasizes the clean flavors of its cornucopia of ingredients. It's also an edible snapshot of Japan in fall, notes kosmose7: green at the southern end and red at the north, where the leaves have started turning color. "Absolutely gorgeous," says fooder. "Beautiful colors and lots of vegetables."
Matsutake are relatively scarce, and so is this special dinner—it's served to just five parties a night through October. And it's priced accordingly at $100 per person, compared with the regular $50 and $70 set meals. But fooder, a longtime devotee of Kajitsu's temple-style vegetarian cooking, says it's not a bad deal. "A beautiful, solid meal," he concludes, "and I think that the matsutake is worth the extra splurge."
Kajitsu [East Village]
414 E. Ninth Street (between First Avenue and Avenue A), Manhattan