On a nondescript side street, a short walk from Shibuya Station’s jangling cell phones and glaring white lipstick, Satei Hato first catches your eye with the dramatic vases and fresh flowers that grace its entrance. Intrigued, you discover a space much larger than you anticipated, filled with the warmth and character that have all but disappeared from the modern-day kissaten.
The interior, by Nishi-Azabu’s Makambo Designs, captures the special qualities of both a quaint English cottage and an old traditional Japanese home. Graceful swan-neck lamps, gentle classical music and china cabinets filled with eclectic collections of antique pipes, dolls, plates and books coexist peacefully with artwork by Shiko Munakata and dreamlike ikebana arrangements by Satei Hato’s talented staff.
Willingly, you take a seat at the 12-meter-long Oregon pine counter, where you are greeted with all the deference due visiting royalty by manager Toyoshi Taguchi. Spirited away in 1989 from a Shinjuku kissaten by Satei Hato’s owner and namesake, Taguchi has since been diligently helping to redefine what coffee should be in today’s world of designer froths and foams.
“Coffee,” says Taguchi, rolling up his dress shirt sleeves before making the first brew of the day “is like fresh food.” As such, he figures, coffee beans (handpicked by himself and his staff) have a lifespan of about three days.
Unless, that is, they are “old beans,” which are extremely high quality and have been allowed to age for up to three years. At that point, although they can be quite pungent, they roast easily. The flavor, Taguchi assures us, is “superb,” although it takes about 15 minutes to prepare one cup. Regrettably, few schedules allow for that luxury, but the blend coffee, also individually attended to by Taguchi, is, at just three minutes, an excellent alternative. It also tastes like real coffee: rich, strong and with a kick.
Although Satei Hato is tucked away in its own corner of the woods, it’s aware of the competition in javaland these days. Accordingly, it offers “enhancers” — ones that don’t include strange-flavored syrups or modified foodstuffs.
The most obvious would be the collection of over 300 dazzling coffee and tea cups, including Wedgewood, Herend (from Hungary) and Meissen (from Germany), as well as some choice beauties from the kilns of the Arita masters.
No two are alike, giving Taguchi ample opportunity to choose cups he feels best suit the customers. All of them are pricey, so while you might be flattered by what Taguchi feels “matches” your personality, it’s best not to ask what they’re worth until you’ve successfully placed your cup in its saucer for the last time. Taguchi claims he keeps a stiff upper lip when someone drops a 190,000 yen Arita-yaki original. While they are in the room, he utters a polite shoganai.
“When they leave,” he says, deadly serious, “I cry.”
If you’re too jittery to cradle, say, a fine translucent Noritake vessel in your hands, you can always opt for the other “enhancers”: a variety of fresh chiffon cakes. These cakes are easy to make behind the narrow counter, because, Taguchi smiles, “we only need to use two bowls.”
On any given day, the air is rich with the sweet scent of cinnamon, matcha, black honey or banana chocolate, so there’s no excuse for not going as often as possible.
The menu (in Japanese) also features pumpkin pudding and an excellent cheesecake adorned with blueberries.
Although Taguchi doesn’t speak English, he loves to get to know his native and foreign customers. Some have been coming since the shop opened. After all, who could argue with a sympathetic ear and a cup of fresh roast?
The crowd varies from salarymen conducting short meetings in the early afternoon to gossiping gals at tea time. Weekends are filled with couples. Mornings allow a little peace and quiet.
Prices are a little higher than usual (600-1,000 yen) but the combination of subdued lighting, classical music and your own special brew attended to personally by Taguchi guarantees a worthwhile coffee experience.