How long does it take a business to achieve cult status in Tokyo? Years or decades in most cases. For Omotesando Koffee it was barely a matter of weeks.
First there’s the setting. Where else in the city can you find a contemporary espresso counter tucked inside a traditional tatami-matted room more suited to the tea ceremony? Hidden away in the residential heart of Harajuku, it also has a tiny Japanese garden with benches. It really is one of a kind.
Owner-instigator Eiichi Kunitomo mixes his obvious design savvy with his calling as a barista — he trained in the Naples region of Italy, no less — and dispenses his machiatos and lattes with understated panache.
And to give Omotesando Koffee that extra edge of class, Kunitomo has even developed his own homemade sweet. He simply calls them Baked Custard. But essentially they are a variation on traditional canelés, those delicious little French confections with firm, dark-caramelized exteriors and soft, rich, eggy cores. Instead of using the standard bell-shaped molds, he prepares his version as cubes. And he cooks them up by hand in an alcove adjacent to his coffee chamber.
The cube motif echoes the steel frame of the counter. It also lends itself perfectly to presentation and packaging, whether served individually, wrapped with almost origami delicacy, or in packs of five to take home and stack next to a cappuccino.
Freshly made and straight from their molds they’re delectable. Maybe a tad too sweet when nibbled on their own but, paired with a demitasse of good, strong espresso, it’s a great match — as well thought out and executed as every other aspect of Omotesando Koffee.
However, the crowning glory that gives this place its cult-classic credibility — among Tokyo’s design community and coffee cognoscenti alike — is its impermanence. Originally it was only meant to last a year, the length of Kunitomo’s lease on the room. The response was so positive that he’s managed to parlay that into three years. Even so, at heart it remains a pop-up, a temporary installation that is destined to disappear.
The good news is that a successor has now appeared to carry the torch. Opened this year on Valentine’s Day, Café Kitsuné is a couple of short blocks behind the Omotesando Crossing, just along from the Comme des Garçons flagship showroom. Look for the dwarf pine, head down the short paved pathway flanked by bamboo fencing and slide open the latticed wooden doors.
Produced by Kunitomo for the French fashion brand Kitsuné, it shares shop space with a small selection of clothes, CDs and miscellanea. But the main attraction is the impressive cafe space. Like its progenitor, the look is a blend of sleek-modern and warm-wood Japanese, albeit in this case the traditional accents are new.
The menu is identical to Omotesando Koffee — no fancy blends or syrups, just good, honest, full-flavor java — and so is the way you order. You pay at the counter, wait for your drink and then retreat outside to sip on simple benches protected from the elements by a thin plastic awning.
And the same Baked Custard cubes too. But a word of warning here: They’re best as fresh as possible. If you’re buying the packs of five to take out, then eat them up the same day. It’s not at all difficult.
Omotesando Koffee: 4-15-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5413-9422; www.ooo-koffee.com. Open daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Cafe Kitsuné: 3-17-1 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5786-4842; maisonkitsune.fr. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.