Anyone who has survived a brutal Tokyo summer can testify that roaming the city’s narrow lanes in search of a cool refreshment (not from a vending machine) sometimes seems as challenging as walking barefoot across fiery coals.
And yet, it’s a challenge that is indeed surmountable.
Welcome to New York Muffin Factory, a Tokyo oasis. Located less than a minute from the Nishi-Shinjuku subway station (Marunouchi Line), the NYMF, with its bright primary colors, bold Jasper Johns prints and nifty designer lighting, looks like it was airlifted out of New York’s SoHo district and placed smack into the air-conditioned canyons of B-1 in the I-Land Tower/Atrium.
For most people, muffins are not usually considered to be a high priority when they are searching for a place to enjoy some java. But then, neither are chestnuts roasting on an open fire — which is exactly what owner Hidehiko Yajima originally had in mind when he launched his first shop, New York Caffe, in the I-Land Tower.
Smitten with New York as a college student, Yajima opened the tiny New York Caffe three years ago, hoping to win over finicky customers with his idea of importing Italian chestnuts and serving gourmet coffee in a Manhattan atmosphere. Although the Caffe eventually dumped the chestnuts, customers still flocked to it to for its small but friendly environment (it seats eight), decorated with corrugated aluminum columns, red diner stools, a neon sign and American paraphernalia (including a Jerry Mahoney puppet flanked by American flags). In place of chestnuts, Yajima added annin dofu (a Chinese sweet), shu kuriimu (choux a la creme) and cans of hard-to-find Dad’s Root Beer (tracked down at an import shop in Ueno).
A year later, the success of New York Caffe enabled Yajima to open NYMF, which in fact already existed. But at the time, it only offered “Japanese-style” muffins (which Yajima says were called “pancakes”) and 100 yen cups of standard kohii. So, hearing the voice of opportunity calling, Yajima convinced the I-Land Tower management to give him a shot and allow him to actually provide NYMF what it was missing — New York atmosphere. With a fresh logo by graphic designer Keiya Kobayashi and a hip retro interior designed by Yajima (who had one month of muffin-making training by NYMF’s previous owner) NYMF was reborn.
Although not exactly deluged with customers at first, word-of-mouth got around and now, with its cross section of commuters, OLs and lost tourists, NYMF is never without a steady stream of hungry folk lined up to buy its fresh muffins, wheat-bread sandwiches, homemade cookies, tarts and biscotti, or quaff a reasonably-priced (240-300 yen), hot or iced espresso, latte, Red Zinger tea or even cranberry juice.
Being Californian, I have had my share of huge, bran-packed, berry-filled, vitamin-enriched, cakelike muffins that qualified as meals in and of themselves, that left me feeling like I never wanted to set eyes on another muffin again, much less eat one.
Not so at NYMF. Yajima culled American recipes and researched all the New York muffin “hangouts,” particularly the Bouley Bakery, his favorite shop in Tribeca. With the help of head baker/general manager Minoru Kiyosawa, he came up with perfect-size muffins which run the gamut of flavors from Big Apple to Lemon Ginger. (Look out, because Double Chocolate and Very Berry sell out while still hot out of the ovens!) Light, delicious and, as Yajima proudly states, “made from scratch, with no additives,” three or four of these goodies can disappear faster than Mothra can beat its wings.
For coffee fanatics, it should be noted that NYMF uses UCC coffee beans. Before you let out a gasp take heed: While UCC is indeed a big producer of canned coffee, they also (surprise) have a high-quality blend equal to — you guessed it — Starbucks.
Yajima, a man on a mission, says he hasn’t had a day off since NYMF opened. In fact, he spends his R&R doing what any other intelligent entrepreneur does: getting a leg up on the competition. So, twice a year it’s back to New York to check out the latest recipes and trends at happening Manhattan muffin marts. When his research is finished, he might, if time allows, wing by Las Vegas or Los Angeles, where his (Japanese) friend runs a bagel shop.
When he can’t take the heat in the kitchen — literally — his partner in crime, wife Masami, helps out. Standing behind the showcase of the delicious muffins, she grins and says clearly in English, “We were here before Starbucks!”
And hopefully, for long after as well. Says Yajima, who has plans to open a shop in New York, “We want people to enjoy our shop everyday, so our policy is to provide a beautiful atmosphere and fresh food at affordable prices.”
As I downed my second Double Chocolate muffin, all I could do was nod my head yes.