Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Opening Frenzy: Nakamura Tokichi

In Hong Kong, there are restaurant openings and then there are THE restaurant openings, and the recent launch of Nakamura Tokichi (中村藤吉) definitely belonged to the latter category. Rarely have I seen such a frenzy building up for any new place, other than in the days and weeks prior to the official opening of the first overseas outpost of this 150-year-old, Kyoto-based tea maker/lounge last week. All the social media outlets have been swamped with posts from those who had a chance for a sneak preview, the press was all over it, and in the first few days its operations, many waited in line for hours to get in, some started early in the morning in order to score a table or to order one of the limited menu items.

I had the opportunity to visit the place last Saturday morning at the invitation of their marketing team - on their second day of operation. As I walked in to the comfortable space of the cafe in the morning, we began with an hour-long tea ceremony experience workshop at the raised tatami platform inside, led by chado sensai (tea master) Yokoyama-san and Mikubo-san, who flew in from the Nakamura Tokichi honten in Uji near Kyoto just for a few days for the Hong Kong opening. Through the translator, Yokoyama-san carefully explained the steps of growing, picking and processing of tea leaves into tencha (碾茶), then with a traditional millstone grinding tencha into the fine matcha (抹茶) powder.

Teachers showing us the production and grinding of matcha
The first bowl of matcha I prepared
Making of Koi-cha - the thicker and richer type of matcha requiring more skills and top quality leaves to make.
She went on with a demonstration showing us the key to brew a perfect bowl of tea - from the use of the specially designed equipment to the water type and temperature, to the steps and techniques of whisking, and then to the rituals of the traditional tea ceremony. And next we got to make our own bowl of usu-cha, the lighter matcha which was the more common version (as opposed to koi-cha, the thicker and richer type). It was indeed a valuable and soothing experience getting to sit down and enjoyed a smooth, brisk bowl of tea with a mild after-taste. Our little zen moment in the midst of the crowd.

The best view for a relaxing cup of tea? I think so.
After the workshop, we sat down at the table to enjoy our lunch. Unlike their original branch which was located in a traditional wooden house surrounding by zen garden and trees in the suburb environment near Kyoto, this Hong Kong branch is on the high level of a modern mall right in the heart of the shopping district of TST. But somehow they did manage to keep the tranquility in spirit with its spacious interior and panoramic view from the floor-to-ceiling windows. I almost felt like I was shielded from all the hustle and bustle momentarily.

Matcha Udon
As you would expect, the common theme of all items in the menu is tea, mainly drinks and desserts plus a few savory items to choose from. I started with the chilled matcha udon, served with mentsuyu dipping sauce, the usual condiments of wasabi and green onions, and a little plate of pickled burdock on the side. Matcha powder was kneaded into the dough more for the color than taste (the tea flavor was hardly noticeable except the slight after-taste) and cut finer than the usual udon. It was cooked to perfect "al dente", giving the noodles a bouncy texture and overall it's refreshing and delicious. Reckon it's a great summer dish for a simple, casual lunch.

From left to right: Matcha Tea Jelly, Quartet of Parfaits (both Matcha and Hojicha flavors), Kyo no Fukiyose
But major highlights were definitely the many desserts we managed to try that afternoon. We were struggling with too many choices so we decided to order a few to share at the table. Tea jelly - coming with a choice of matcha or hojicha (roasted tea) flavors - was one of the limited items on the menu, as the tea jelly was made fresh daily in-house in limited quantity. The rich and squishy jelly was served with generous scoops of icecream, shiratama dango (a sweet round dumpling made with rice-flour), red-bean paste and sweet syrup. Kyo no Fukiyose was something similar, but instead of tea jelly, it was served with bits of chiffon cakes. The portion was definitely big enough for sharing among two, or even more if you are to order something else, but I secretly just wanted to keep the whole plate to myself.

Well if I could only order one dessert, my choice would be the Maruto Parfait, which essentially was like half a dozen of different sweets piled in neat order inside a tall glass. On top was the whipped cream with the tea powder sprinkled in the shape of the logo of Nakamura Tokichi, then underneath was the chiffon cake, puffed rice, sweet shiratama dango (rice-flour dumplings), raspberry, chestnut, red-bean paste, tea jelly and ice cream at the bottom. It also came with a choice of matcha and hojicha flavors. I loved the addition of the puffed rice for the crunchy texture and a hint of smokiness. And it's like a treasure hunting digging deep to the bottom of the glass with the tall spoon, figuring out what were inside and every spoonful came up with something different.

Surely there's no shortage of Japanese dessert cafe in town with everyone in Hong Kong going crazy on everything hailed from Japan, but I think the opening of Nakamura Tokichi is a promising and exciting addition and so far it delivered up to its hype. I don't see the long waiting line outside the restaurant is going to die down any time soon, but when it does, at least to a more reasonable level, I will definitely return, whether for a quiet time over a soothing cup of matcha or for the many delicious desserts, especially the ones I couldn't manage to try this time, or I am equally happy with the parfait time and time again.

When? May 16 2015
Where? Nakamura Tokichi Hong Kong (中村藤吉香港店), Level 18, The One, Tsimshatsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Matcha and Hojicha Maruto Parfaits
(Headquarter website)

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