Hawai’i, Guam – next it’s the Land of the Rising Sun. This one is going to take a few posts, indeed – there was so much cultural saturation, both gastronomical and otherwise, in such a short timespan, that I’ve needed this much time just to process it in my head, let alone on the page.
Before we jump in, I need to introduce you to someone very important – a central, nay, crucial character throughout the following tales of culinary intrigue. His name is Dan Shiramizu: he is a Tokyo native, a graduate of Keio University in Digital Media Design, and an avid food-lover, among many other credits to his name. We met back in the summer of 2009 when I was in Tokyo with the Cats as a freshman, and we’ve seen each other periodically since, as we’ve been back in Japan and he visits the States often. This time around to Tokyo, we planned in advance to take advantage of every spare moment for him to show me his favourite spots around the city. This was to be my fourth time in Tokyo, and having already made the necessary (and rightfully so) visits to the Imperial Palace, Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, Asakusa, Ginza, Omotesando, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Akihabara, etc. etc., I was ready for this one to be an unabashed, no-holds-barred food tour of one of the world’s greatest food cities – and with such an unbeatable, fearless, taste-making guide leading the way, I knew it would be nothing short of revelatory.
Let’s start with coffee. Dan and I are both big fans. I don’t really drink it every day, because I don’t use it to wake up – but I do love the taste of a good espresso and I really enjoy discovering new flavours in each new cup I try. The coffee bean is so malleable, so sensitive to terroir, roasting, and storage, that there is such a range of flavour profiles to explore, and that makes it very exciting.
Dan took me to four of his favourite coffee places – two on Day 1 (Monday, May 30th) and two on Day 3 (Wednesday, June 1st):
Mi Cafeto is one of the most unique coffee companies in the world. Founder and owner Jose Kawashima is an expert coffee agronomist, having studied and conducted research in almost every coffee-growing region of the world for decades. Through his work, he has formed relationships with some of the best coffee producers in the world, and recently brought his knowledge and expertise into the creation of his business, Mi Cafeto, a supplier and roaster of high quality beans. He treats the beans just like vintners do their grapes – with utmost respect and care. He invented a method of hermetically sealing freshly roasted beans in wine bottles, miniature beer bottles, and water bottles, to preserve their freshness and their full aroma that we almost always miss out on. He also created the world’s first ‘coffee cellar’, a temperature-and-humidity-controlled room at his cafe where clients can rent part of a shelf to keep vacuum-sealed batches of their favourite beans, which Kawashima will roast, bottle, and deliver on request, to ensure the freshest possible, most vibrant coffee experience. Dan is friends with him and he took us on a quick tour of the cellar – it was just amazing to see all that he is doing to really change how coffee is viewed and experienced as a food. He also gave us some freshly roasted beans to sample with some chocolate – they were the most fragrant beans I’ve had, full of luscious caramelly notes from a perfect roasting, slightly tangy, exceedingly nutty, with just a hint of a floral aroma that almost no coffees I know of retain. I splurged on a tasting set of three miniature beer bottles filled with beans from three different regions, and I’m going to try them soon. I will let you know how that goes.
This one was a life treat – you know, the type of thing that is just so extraordinary that the whole experience and memory of it are suffused with the soft glow of slow joy. It is on the second floor of a nondescript building right near the Omotesando metro station; up a narrow flight of stairs and behind a rough-hewn wooden sliding door and the intrepid explorer sinks into this dark-wood paneled, serene coffee bar like that second slip into bronze onsen waters (the first is abrupt, sensorial; the second is reclarifying, like the second shave, or the anchor sinking after the initial splash settles). It is a temple to craft, to time. There are a few old photographs, framed and hung at intervals. Their subjects are at once intently particular and effortlessly universal. The windows are slid back; the traffic is a league or two away at least. I am usually an espresso person, occasionally a macchiato (or that one cortado C got me to try – and bless him for that), but here, Dan tells us, here we get the milk coffee. The master responds with the utmost efficiency and grace to our order – barely a sound, barely a look – and the alchemy begins. His assistant brings four ceramic chawan to the workbench below the bar. The master brings the water to the perfect temperature; filters the coffee, strains, decants. He steams milk, pours it from just above the rim, lifting his arm up, lengthening the stream of the liquid, aerating the mixture in the clay cup below. His movements are practiced, highly aesthetic and wholly unaestheticised; that, or divine. It is a tea ceremony of sorts, though clean of hospitality, purely of the object, the transfer of skill to product to apprehension. I receive. It is a moment of beauty. The bowl is wide, the whole face gets inside, basking in the warm glow of the aroma, like a hologram. The nose (or the face, rather, in this case) is humus. There is soil and clay and organic matter, rishi mushrooms, caramel, cream, and eggshell. The organic aromas sift away as the liquid passes over the lips and onto the tongue; there is something in the physical contact with the elixir that transforms the experience, a lapse into deeper bliss. The caramel comes out, tempered by bitters, burdock, hay. The soil returns at the very end, just ever so slightly, but different this time, soaked with the cream that trickled down the edge of the pail. It is, I suppose, a small craft on a milk sea. We finish silently, neither quickly nor particularly slowly, thank, pay, thank, step backwards, exit behind wood in disbelief. Daibo means ‘big child’. That is what it means.
This cute, well-designed little spot is in the quieter, residential area between Harajuku, Gaien-mae, and Omotesando. It has a modern, spare aesthetic that is welcoming, not austere, with white surfaces and glass and good lighting (very 無印良品, we agreed).
Dan and I came here for a brief bite before my call at Suntory Hall for our concert that night (all-day prep!), and actually we didn’t have any coffee here. Apparently (according to my guide, whom I trust absolutely) they used to have good espresso, but then something changed in how they supply and it hasn’t been that good since. But we did get a couple pastries fresh out of the oven to share: a corn roll, with a crispy crust and a sweet/savoury, fluffy middle, and a raspberry-anko-black pepper-filled butter pastry that was out of this world – smooth, slightly tangy, fruity, rich. “Japan is a DJ” says Dan, on the subject of how his country appropriates things from other cultures, like the French patisserie, and makes it into its own, often extremely successful interpretation. Later that day, we return with Oki and John to pick up some mu-pan, Dan’s favourite item they make. It is the fluffiest, butteriest bread, almost like a croissant without the flakiness, with a teensy sourdough flavour and a perfectly browned crust (that is also incredibly spongy – hardly ‘crusty’). And it comes in a cube.
For our espresso that day, we went somewhere else, very close by, and very worthwhile.
Also located in Jingu-mae, just a few blocks from bread/espresso, this hidden gem of a coffeehouse is tucked away in the first floor of an unassuming residential house. The entrance is through a small garden with a pair of benches and lush greenery, which opens into traditional space with tatami, shōji, and wooden beams that evokes a modernised version of a shinto shrine.
(that’s Dan, our fearless leader, on the right)
We were in a decadent mood, so we each ordered a ‘Baileys espresso’ (a macchiato with Baileys), and took them outside after chatting the coffee master, Kunitomo-san, a soft-spoken, gracious, clearly brilliant man.
Mine had a heart; Dan’s had a star.
The Baileys, rather than being overly sweet, just barely cut the bitterness of the expertly-pulled espresso. It had just the right amount of creaminess to bring out the full richness of the espresso flavour, without dampening it down or washing it out (things about overly-creamed coffee drinks I don’t like). In other words, it was perfect.
They even had a lamp collaborative art project, made of notes written by people from all over the world, expressing their thoughts on love.
We returned here in the afternoon with John and Oki, because it was so good and we had to show them (we were also much in need of coffee by that point).
I think this one was my favourite overall, for its ambiance, aesthetic, and of course, the quality of its coffee. But if I ever need a revelatory experience again, I’m heading straight back to Daibo. Mi Cafeto I’ll save for when I’m old and moneyed, and I can have a private vault of fresh, personally-selected coffee beans to be roasted and sealed at my request. Omotesando will be my daily escape to calm.