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How is it possible that in 2012 not one single Japanese-style coffee shop (Kissaten) operated in the most international city in the world? After all, we have some of the best sushi restaurants, there are over one hundred restaurants serving ramen, sake bars can be found in several neighborhoods, and Yakitori is no longer considered street food but the focus of many menus and a burgeoning trend.
Japan’s first coffee shops opened during the late Meiji period of the early 20th century, an era in which Westernization and modern influences flowed into Japan. A century later, Japan has adopted Western practices and influences, making them distinctly Japanese through a rigorous approach called kodawari, the perfection of details. This has especially permeated the preparation of food, drinks, and gastronomic accessories (e.g. ice) so that even Western cuisine is authentically, surpassingly created.
If Japanese pedestrian crossings in Tokyo can inspire London to completely revamp Oxford Circus, imagine what the Japanese did with the delicate and intricate ritual of hand crafted coffee brewing. Japan’s coffee culture also embodies the concept of the third place, the hangout spot outside home and office that cafes fulfill.
A couple weeks ago, I marveled at a Japanese siphon system that cost Blue Bottle more than the average used car to import and setup. Why wasn’t such a system installed in a Japanese café in New York, perhaps with ceramic, hand-painted cups and saucers or maybe double-walled coffee glasses?
Hi-Collar (214 East 10th Street, 212-777-7018), which opened last summer in the East Village, may not exactly offer those aspects, but this is a very-promising first entrant to fill this void in the New York coffee scene. Not far from Manhattan’s unofficial Japan Town, Bon Yagi’s (the unofficial mayor) latest establishment echoes the roots of Japan’s early café culture as expressed in its tagline “Flirting with the West.” This is no solemn, single-focused sanctuary but a neighborhood standby that is equally adept as a daytime coffee house, breakfast or lunch spot, and evening sake bar.
The experience at Hi-Collar is intimate — the space requires it since the long narrow bar with 11 seats leaves virtually no standing room. Leave your laptop behind; this isn’t a café to get work done. Instead, read the paper or engage with the amusing hosts — Yuki is a particularly ebullient barista. If a few cups leave you in need of the facilities, don’t miss the Japanese-style toilet with its heated seat and array of buttons.
On my first visit, I had 12 java options, including seven from Counter Culture (Yuki admitted this was an unusually high number from one roaster) as well as New York’s own Porto Rico Importing Company. I chose two siphons with stark contrasts — a flavorful Ethiopian Yirgacheffe bursting with blueberry notes and a significantly darker French roast blend of Guatemala, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Sumatra from Porto Rico, made especially for Hi-Collar. Aeropress and pour over (Hario V60) are also offered.
Even if you were inclined to skip the siphon and coffee altogether, the food is well-prepared and neatly presented, from the crunchy, juicy pork katsu sandwich to the tempting hot cakes — a thicker, fluffier, sweeter form of pancake. After 7 p.m., the café becomes a bar offering Japanese drinks: several Sake-based cocktails, half a dozen beers, and over 30 types of Sake. It’s a taste of Japan you don’t have to travel far to experience.