Land of the Rising Pastry Dough

by James Boo on September 1, 2009 · 3 comments

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NYC Japan Street Fair 2009 - Midtown East, New York City
Just over a week ago I met up with some friends to check out the NYC Japan Street Fair, which drew hordes of New Yorkers to the intersection of Madison and 43rd for a Japanese block party.

Grilled Fatty Pork - Hakata Ton Ton - NYC Japan Fair 2009 - Midtown East, New York City Kobe Harami - Gyu-Kaku - NYC Japan Fair 2009 - Midtown East, New York City
Needless to say, I was interested in little that wasn’t edible. A number of Japanese restaurants had set up booths on both sides of the street, selling bite sized samples of their full course press. Aside from a thrilling demonstration on how mochi would be made by the Hammer Bros., the most eye catching displays were the ones conducting some fine summer grilling. Gyu-Kaku‘s kobe harami, essentially a Korean style short rib sourced from kobe beef and soaked in a miso marinade, and Hakata Ton Ton‘s fatty grilled pork (which tastes exactly like it sounds), scorched their peers with small but powerful doses of fire, flavor, fat and flesh.

In the end, however, meat was not the order of the day. Tucked unassumingly between two merch peddlers, Cafe Zaiya was the only vendor whose Japan Fair booth immediately convinced me to visit its storefront on E. 41st St. Since then I’ve become obsessed with is glorious offerings.

This post is the first record of that obsession. Cafe Zaiya is a Japanese cafeteria of sorts, housing several counters and a dazzling spread of sushi, bento, sandwiches, breads, pastries and other snacks for Midtown Manhattan’s mix-and-matching pleasure. Many of the items here are priced at $3 or less, making any given trip to Zaiya a futile struggle not to walk out with thirteen pieces of dessert for lunch.

Shrimp Tempura Onigiri - Cafe Zaiya - Midtown East, New York City Salmon Onigiri - Cafe Zaiya - Midtown East, New York City
Cafe Zaiya’s assorted onigiri are definitely at the lower end of its awesome spectrum, but starting at $1.50 a pop and pre-wrapped in the most practically frustrating yet aesthetically whimsical of Japanese forms, they’re impossible to resist. Plus, can you really turn down an excuse to eat more dried seaweed? No. The answer is no.

Vegetable Croquette - Cafe Zaiya - Midtown East, New York City Curry Pan - Cafe Zaiya - Midtown East, New York City
Moving up along the savory scale at Zaiya also involves moving up along the deep fried scale. Case in point: the Cafe’s crunchy/fluffy croquettes, a breaded and fried patty of mashed potato and vegetable that is one-upped only by the neighboring curry pan, which wraps up a beef-and-vegetable curry filling in a thin, chewy, mochi-like roll, then breads the entire thing with panko and throws it in the deep fryer for $2 of textural brilliance.

Yakimochi - Cafe Zaiya - Midtown East, New York City An Red Bean Doughnut - Cafe Zaiya - Midtown East, New York City
While Cafe Zaiya’s savory options abound, pastries are its most obvious muse. Yakimochi takes on a particularly beautiful form: Zaiya’s bakers fill a puck of mochi with slightly sweet, semi-whole red bean filling, garnish with black sesame, then grill for a texture that is simultaneously crunchy, flaky and chewy. The bakery’s classically fried and sugar crusted red bean doughnut represents the other side of the pastry fold just as well; both treats are delicate and satisfying without being too sweet.

Peach Danish - Cafe Zaiya - Midtown East, New York City
Shockingly, they don’t take the cake. Slyly eclipsing its red bean cousins, the peach danish is a gorgeous take on a pastry that, when cheaply made, is little more than a hyper-sweet, artificially rendered chew toy. Zaiya’s danish is a diamond of toasty, flaky croissant that encases a mild layer of light custard and half of a canned peach. Baked at the intersection of dainty and crack, it puts the entire factory assembled pastry industry to sugar frosted shame.

Chocolate Mochi Doughnut - Cafe Zaiya - Midtown East, New York City
Still, even a freshly made danish isn’t my first choice at the baker’s counter. for $1.50, I can grab the halo of fried dough nirvana that is Cafe Zaiya’s chocolate mochi donut. Intertwining the dessert orders of two worlds – soft, chewy mochi flour and the structure of a Western cruller – is a simple desire turned incredible feat by virtue of Zaiya’s execution. Regular mochi doughnuts are also available, but hardly needed when there’s a fresh tray of these on the table.

Having made only a few visits to Cafe Zaiya so far, I have yet to plumb the full bounty of its menu. Seeing how the remainder of its choices includes a variety of puddings and custards, green tea steamed buns, black sesame ice cream, omusoba and about 3.4 billion other delicious and recession priced eats, I’m not sure I ever will. All the better, I suppose; an obsession this bite sized deserves to unfold two bucks at a time. Hopefully, by the time the next Japan Street Fair rolls around, I’ll actually stick around to try the rest of its samples.

Cafe Zaiya
18 E. 41st St.
New York, NY 10017

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Anonymous September 3, 2009 at 11:15 pm

u need to try their tofu cheesecake!!

wasabi prime September 4, 2009 at 12:55 am

What an amazing event that must have been. It made me think back to a lot of comfort foods my mom would make or just things we would get when visiting family in Hawaii, which has a big Japanese population. The fatty grilled pork mentioned in the blog sounds like heaven on a stick — as I’m sure it was!

James Boo September 4, 2009 at 2:49 pm

TOFU CHEESECAKE?

Prime – The event was fun, but too small (only one block of festivities) to make a day of the festivities. The high point was definitely having my eyes opened to Cafe Zaiya. While the grilled fatty pork was pretty money (crisp, charred edges and entirely unapologetic strips of fat), it couldn’t compare to the fresh yakimochi Zaiya was selling for $1 a piece at their stall :)

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