The Zen of Zucchini

Kajitsu brings Buddhist temple cooking to the East Village

Please note that Kajitsu has moved to Midtown East

The East Village is already home to one unconventional vegetarian restaurant. And now, just a few doors down, there's another: Kajitsu, where the hushed dining room is the source of the most exhilarating meatless meal in Manhattan.

Here, chef Masato Nishihara, an alumnus of one of Kyoto's finest kaiseki restaurants, turns his talents to shojin ryori ("devotion cuisine"), the flesh-free style of Buddhist temple cooking. And while many thoughtful Japanese restaurants in the city bow only to the seasons of Japan, Kajitsu celebrates New York in August.

Nishihara's prix fixe menus ($50 for four courses or $70 for eight)–which change monthly–alternate between austere dishes, like a tangle of real-deal soba noodles (pictured) served with fresh wasabi and an umami-packed dashi sauce, and elaborate ones so artfully presented you'll hesitate before digging in.

The chef suspends peas, okra and other farmers' market goodies in a rectangle of aspic, like some exquisite piece of sea glass, and adds little sprouts called junsai, a summertime delicacy in Japan and a rarity in the United States.

It probably wouldn't surprise you to see grape-size fritters packed with sweet corn next to a mound of perfectly fried slices of zucchini on a plate at Gramercy Tavern. But Nishihara sends the dish eastward with the addition of grated daikon, tempura-battered, house-made nama-fu (a textural cross between mochi and tofu) and a lime cup filled with ponzu sauce.

Once you sample the revelatory flavors and aesthetics of local vegetables done the Japanese way, meat and fish will be the last things on your mind.

Kajitsu, 125 E. 39th St.; 212-228-4873 or kajitsunyc.com