Last week, I lined up for cake, and as a result, joined the countless other fans across the world who make up the cult following of Japanese pastry chef Hidemi Sugino. Having just been awarded the title of Asia’s Best Pastry Chef, at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 awards, Sugino has truly achieved epic boss status within the culinary world. He’s also OG, having won the prestigious La Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie back in 1991. With all this press, I was expecting to see crowds lined up (on par with lines for pancakes in Harajuku) when I arrived at 10:30am, 30 minutes before opening. However, quite the opposite, I was the third person in line, and by opening, there were a mere 5-6 behind me. We were ushered in quietly and orderly, whispering in hushed voices as we awed over the first sight of the cakes.
The cakes, or rather, cakelettes, each resplendent in its own uniquely distinct beauty, were displayed inside a glass case like museum pieces. Sugino is best known for his mousse cakes using seasonal fruit, dark chocolate, toasted nuts, and fresh cheeses and cream. Specifically, Sugino’s entremets–cakes with layers of mousse, sponge cake, jams, and creams–are embellished with each its own distinct handmade décor, ranging from fruit gelée glazes and fresh fruit to quenelles of fresh whipped cream to gold leaf details. Each bite is a textural contrast of creamy mousse and buttercream, soft cake, and juicy fruit.
The cakes’ flavor combinations range from the elegantly simple to the layered and complex. Sugino chooses flavors that on first glance, would appear incongruous when combined, but under his masterful skills, actually results in a complementary and sophisticated balance of flavors.
While in front of the display case, I fought the urge to pull out my camera, as I had already read up on the shop’s rules beforehand. Rule #1: no pictures allowed. This is very much reasonable, since picture taking at the display would clog up foot traffic, slow down lines, and be loud and distracting to other customers’ experiences. Update: On a second and more recent trip to HS, in the interest of investigative journalism of course, I did manage to sneak in a quick (and silent) picture of the display case…
Which brings me to Rule #2: Although all cakes can be ordered for dining in, in the café in the back, only some cakes are permitted for take-away, while a select few cannot, as these are too delicate. Sugino’s chilled mousses do not use much gelatin to set the mousse, resulting in an ethereally light and delicate texture. Too much jostling and warm temperatures outside can no doubt, ruin these cakes.
When your turn is up to order, you can order your dine-in selections and your takeaway selections at the same time. The staff will wrap and store your takeaway pieces for you when you are ready to leave.
The café area includes about 10 tables, with seating for about 24 people. There is a drink menu which includes espresso, café au lait, cappuccino, and teas. The dine-in crowd is an eclectic group of “ladies who lunch,” tourists, and the sporadic businessman, who all understand the privilege and good fortune of dining here. So, expect a certain amount of hushed reverence here, mixed with ooo’s and ahh’s followed by excited whispering.
The cakes are truly sublime, ranging from ethereally light fruit mousse cakes to heavier selections of chocolate and pistachio mousse with ganache. With such wonderfully complex concoctions, each bite deserves a slow and prolonged moment of reflection.
The Ramoni was a cherry mousse cake embedded with boozy cherries, a orange mousse center, vanilla sponge cake base, cherry gelée glaze, and almond biscuits studded along the outer sides. Subtly sweet and tangy, the two types of mousses balanced each other out. The almost biscuits provided a contrasting crunchy texture to the soft, light mousse.
The Ambroisie (eat-in only) is a show-stopper and the piece for which Sugino was awarded the Coupe du Monde in 1991.
This is one of the more complex creations: chocolate sponge cake base, followed by a layer of dark chocolate mousse, then raspberry jam, then pistachio cake and pistachio mousse, all enrobed in a layer of dark chocolate mousse, and chocolate ganache glaze. The garnish is a small gold leaf on top, and four chocolate petals on the sides. Obviously heavier than other of his cakes, the Ambroisie is a must try, as it is wonderfully rich and decadent without being too sweet or unctuous. It’s also said that only 10 of these are made daily, so go early, or they will sell out fast.
In contrast to the Ambroisie’s richness, the Sicily is a lighter cake of pistachio mousse, with a fraise du bois mousse center, a pistachio sponge cake base, and topped with berries. The mousses had such a delicate mouthfeel, like a feather would brushing against your tongue. The pistachio mousse had a light pistachio flavor with a subtle nuttiness, that was balanced by the acidity of the fraise du bois.
The Merveille is a hexagonal shaped mousse cake of raspberry and mulberry mousses, with a peach mousse center, pistachio sponge cake base, raspberry gelée glaze, and fresh berries. This one was more sour than the others I tasted, and the berry mousse overpowered the more subtle peach flavor, which I wish would have been more prominent.
The Tartelette au Caramel Passion falls into Sugino’s other genre of creations: pastry. A sablé biscuit forms the base, filled with a mixture of dried fruits and nuts in a passionfruit and caramel sauce, and topped with a quenelle of tangy whipped cream. This was another complex combination of flavors–tangy passionfruit, earthy caramel, rich and savory sablé, and milky cream. On certain days I believe, this dessert is made without the passionfruit.
The Apricot Romarin is a seasonal cake for this summer. An apricot mousse surrounds a red peach mousse center, with a rosemary cake base, and topped with fresh raspberry and peach. With these highly sophisticated combination of flavors, this cake was more interesting to eat than delicious or decadent. The rosemary cake was, like all of Sugino’s cakes, subtly flavored. Overall, more tangy than sweet.
The Framboisie was a towering beauty of repeating layers of almond cake soaked in liquor, raspberry buttercream, raspberry jelly, and currant jelly. Topped with crunchy raspberry-flavored bits, this cake is for the raspberry enthusiast. I really enjoyed this cake as it was exceptionally moist, flavorful, and a bit boozy. The buttercream had more lasting power compared to the other mousse-based cakes, overall having more substance and richness.
The Neo is another fruit and herb concoction: fromage blanc mousse, with mango mousse center, a basil sponge cake base, and mango gelée glaze. I truly adore anything mango, and this did not disappoint. This reminded me of a light cheesecake, from the creaminess of the fromage blanc. The basil cake was again, very subtle.
The Émotion is another sophisticated interpretation of a traditional flavor profile: chocolate and banana. Milk chocolate mousse, infused with ginger, surrounds a banana mousse center, with chocolate sponge cake base, and exotic fruit gelée glaze. Apologies for the somewhat sloppy presentation in this picture–a casualty of riding the train.
Below is a copy of the Summer 2015 Cake Guide, with my translations:
Unquestionably, Hidemi Sugino is worth the pilgrimage, the wait, and the strict adherence to the shop’s rules. There are very places in this world where you can enjoy such edible visual works of art from a true master.
Pâtissier Hidemi Sugino, 3-6-17 Kyobashi (Kyobashi Daiei building 1F), Chuo-ky, Tokyo
Hours: 11:00 – 19:00 (Tues – Sat), Closed Sun – Mon