Haute Plates

From Japan to Paris on $20 a day: Café de Japon offers inviting, exotic eats on a student’s budget

We’re back in the wacky world of Japanese cooking, this time at a kissaten, or a Japanese-style coffee shop. Chef Kiichi Okabe, formerly of Sushi Roku at the Forum Shops, decided to open one of these places, a concept I frequented in various forms as a student in Tokyo.

Food here runs to Japanized Western dishes such as spaghetti, omelets, a hamburger steak like you’ve never seen before, and popular student fare ranging from Japanese curry and rice bowls to siphon-brewed coffee. Want sushi? Fat chance.

Café de Japon is a bare-bones operation: two rooms, with one under renovation. Kiichi-san is planning to make the décor like a Paris coffee shop. But right now, it’s not too much to look at.

The food, however, is delicious, and the price point will suit a student. For a modest $15 you can get a four-course prix-fixe lunch, both with siphon coffee and miso salad (greens with a tasty sea urchin-orange dressing made from fermented soy).

For the main course, choose anything from the lunch menu, including options such as hayashi rice (beef and onions in gravy with steamed Japanese short-grained rice); kinoko pasta (spaghetti with three types of mushroom: enoki, maitake and shimeji); or tororin (chicken-fried rice topped with a fried egg and house-made tomato sauce). It sounds weird, I know, but it grows on you.

Lunch A offers these options with dessert, Lunch B with an appetizer. I tried both. One day, the appetizer was koroke, Japanese for croquette, in this case, two palm-size panko-breaded potato cakes. Another visit, the dessert was Kiichi-san’s homemade cheesecake, a soufflé-like creation topped with mixed berries and fresh whipped cream. Such a deal!

Dinner doesn’t vary from the main theme, but prices are slightly higher, and items are a la carte. I adore the kara-age appetizer, bite-size pieces of lightly breaded fried chicken with a piquant, Worcestershire dipping sauce. And order the fried green beans from the specials board when they are available. They come topped with katsuobushi, shaved bonito flakes that look alive, squiggling as they release steam.

Among the four variations of hamburg (sic) steak, I’d opt for the one with grated daikon radish and shiso (Japanese basil), with the teriyaki-coated one running a close second. The two large patties come with a delicious interpretation of scalloped potatoes, on a sizzling iron plate.

Another dinner option is Japanese curry, a dish I’d wager is eaten about 10 times as often as fancy fish-topped sushi in Japan. It’s shiny, pasty, filling gravy poured over rice, best here with chicken katsu, a breaded chicken cutlet.

Kiichi-san does a vegan-friendly curry as well, with seasonal veggies, and one laced with stewed beef. All three are milder than Indian curry, with a sweet, almost medicinal (yet pleasantly delicious) finish. In fact, the chef is more than vegan friendly. He doesn’t use a freezer, makes much of what he serves from scratch, and uses a rare, vegetarian stock for many of his dishes, including Japanese curry.

This being a coffee shop, there’s a five-seat counter and a sideboard piled up with magazines in both English and Japanese to linger over. I love siphoned coffee with Kiichi-san’s desserts. Flourless chocolate cake might be my favorite, but the most Japanese is definitely coffee zeri, coffee Jell-o eaten with more whipped cream.

What were you expecting, a banana split?

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