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Boiled and baked, the real thing: New York bagels at Little Tribeca

by David Chester

As the song goes, “Everything Must Change.” Nowhere is that clearer than in the world of the Japanese kissaten. Remember the half cups of coffee (no refills, thank you), high prices and limited choices? Nowadays we have filled-to-the-brim short, tall or grande, the cheap and the cheaper (Doutor and Pronto continue to duke it out) and endless varieties (or, in coffee lingo, “varietals”).

Bagel maven Ryuji Kawamura, flanked by manager Yuko Sato (right) and menu designer Miwa Kosaka

But there’s one more component that some contemporary kissaten owners might want to consider, if they truly want to be successful: bagels. That’s right, those chewy, yummy ring-shaped rolls have brought satisfaction (and good fortune) to many. Just ask Ryuji Kawamura, 36, president of Little Tribeca and bagel aficionado.

Once an industrial district, Tribeca is now a trendy triangle of New York City, filled with shops, art galleries and restaurants. Kawamura, an energetic, bicoastal man who lived in the U.S. for 15 years, wanted to bring some of that stylish Tribeca atmosphere to Japan. More importantly, he felt it was time for Japan to become acquainted with “authentic” New York bagels.

A smart move: In less than two years Kawamura (who also designed the interior and the steaming cup of java/tempting bagel logo) has already opened six shops, three in the Tokyo area.

Consider LT’s Yotsuya branch, thriving since it set out the welcome mat in December 1999. The bilingual menu features lots of cappuccino combinations and the now de rigueur flavored coffees. The bean of choice comes from Japan’s Cocktail-Do company (which also places cartons of its unusually named Aging Coffee at the register, apparently for those who just can’t get over the hill fast enough). Rounding out the beverage options are herbal teas, beers and the newest (and hardest-to-find) drink on the block: Sicilian (red) orange juice.

Display cases offer a small delicatessen of salads, quiches and fruit pies, which are obviously secondary to the real stars of Little Tribeca: the bagels. Twelve varieties, whole, sliced or chips, get ‘em as is or enhanced with plain, blueberry or aloe vera-flavored cream cheese. (Cream cheese flavors change monthly.)

Once you’ve ordered, take your choice of the outdoor cafe, with a view of busy Shinjuku-dori, or the spacious interior, accented with butter yellow walls, subtle halogen lighting and a semiprivate nonsmoking alcove. The BGM tends to rock a little, but not loud enough to distract you from enjoying your snack.

Those who know their bagels will appreciate that Kawamura insisted that his bagels be made in the “real N.Y.C. style” — big, strong and chewy. He made this clear to the staff, most of whom had either never eaten or didn’t care for bagels before coming to Little Tribeca.

Manager Yuko Sato, 23, spent a week in the U.S. with three other foreign students learning how to roll, boil and bake a proper bagel. “It was a challenge,” she grimaces, then laughs. “The entire class was taught in English!”

Regardless, now Sato says she “knows and loves” bagels, and wants others to experience how good they can be.

Ditto for menu designer Miwa Kosaka, 21, who used to buy her bagels from Family Mart. “Most Japanese think the soft kind of bagel is the real thing, but we really want to change their ideas. We’ve got the genuine stuff here, and we’re proud of it.”

Another thing LT is proud of is that half its branches are managed by women. Sato, who was promoted last month, started in August 1999 as a part-time worker at the original (Shibuya) LT. She didn’t realize she would rise up the ranks quite so quickly, but now she dreams of running her own business one day. “Although now that I’m running the place,” she admits, “it’s a lot harder than I thought it was.”

Despite its similarities to other hip, new coffeehouses, LT holds its own. It’s a friendly hangout for those who want to indulge in a little East Coast flavor. You can even buy kitschy souvenirs to bring home to family and friends.

So, though you might not have time to visit the real Tribeca, why don’t you do the next best thing? For less than 1,000 yen, you’ll be enjoying your New York bagel so much, you won’t even know the difference.