bear pond espresso

Much has been writ­ten about the food scene in Tokyo.  In the end, maybe it’s just a very, very big city.  The “largest met­ro­pol­i­tan area in the world”, says Wikipedia, and among the dens­est (at more than 37,000 per square mile).  I’m sure that if we plot­ted the num­ber of Miche­lin stars per city against either of these vari­ables we’d find a more-than-lin­ear rela­tion­ship, for the same rea­sons one finds such rela­tion­ships with the num­ber of patents or any oth­er mea­sur­able cor­re­late of cre­ativ­i­ty.

Well, on a recent trip to Tokyo I expe­ri­enced this cor­re­la­tion first­hand.. or maybe I just ran into a very spe­cial tal­ent.  Not that either of these pos­si­bil­i­ties excludes the oth­er.

Mor­gan-san intro­duced me to this very cute neigh­bor­hood, Shi­mo-Kitaza­wa, just a cou­ple of tube stops from our hotel in Shin­juku, and home to the extra­or­di­nary Bear Pond Espres­so, with own­er and appar­ent­ly sole barista Kat­su Tana­ka pre­sid­ing over his tricked out La Mar­zoc­co.

Some pic­tures first of the neigh­bor­hood:


The scale and pro­por­tions of neigh­bor­hood archi­tec­ture in Tokyo are so dis­tinct.  I feel as if, were a streetscape reduced to noth­ing but fea­ture­less white box­es, I could still pick out a street in Tokyo from one in any oth­er city in the world.  When it works, there’s some­thing pleas­ing and inti­mate in this con­fig­u­ra­tion of space, a sense of implic­it trust, of social con­tract and effi­cien­cy, of high­ly inten­tion­al design.  In Shi­mo-Kitaza­wa the Japan­ese love of tex­ture and mate­r­i­al is also evi­dent, and thank­ful­ly there isn’t so much of that ubiq­ui­tous rec­tan­gu­lar ceram­ic tile on the build­ing façades which I find so oppres­sive.  Instead, lov­ing­ly rust­ed iron plates, sal­vaged twists of wood and art­ful­ly rough cal­lig­ra­phy dec­o­rate the bou­tiques, which rub shoul­ders with what look to me like tra­di­tion­al Edo hous­es among the back streets.

And now, Bear Pond.  There was a “no cam­era” sign inside, so I was only able to snap a pic­ture of the white slid­ing doors from the out­side.  The space is small and cement-floored, com­bin­ing the shab­by genius sen­si­bil­i­ty of a Bay Area garage with the curat­ed aes­thet­ic Miyaza­ki and Kondō cap­ture so won­der­ful­ly in Whis­per of the Heart.  There’s enough care­ful­ly deployed clut­ter in the minia­ture space to make it clear that this is a neigh­bor­hood cof­feeshop and not a bou­tique, yet even the furred, ingrown cor­ners of the “order here” sign seem to sig­ni­fy, like the ful­some red drips of the graf­fi­ti on the cof­fee machine (cour­tesy Cur­tis Kulig).


(Note that sev­er­al of these images are from the lit­tle Bear Pond book, which I bought a copy of although it’s unde­cod­able by my non-Japan­ese-read­ing self.)

OK, let’s talk about the cof­fee.  It was amaz­ing.  Mor­gan and I had an espres­so and a mac­chi­a­to each.  The espres­so rede­fines ristret­to.  It was a messy dark syrup, just a few cc’s, and dense, dense, dense.  There were plen­ty of trapped aro­mat­ics, but the thick extrac­tion didn’t cre­ate any­thing like the usu­al tiger-stripe cre­ma— at the bot­tom of the cup, noth­ing but an inky, intense depth of fla­vor and col­or, sweet, funky and com­plex, cocoa-ish, with no hint of the “south­ern” burnt fla­vor and even less of the acid lemoni­ness of an improp­er extrac­tion.  This real­ly was some­thing new, and I’m afraid I don’t real­ly have the words for it.  It’s just a dif­fer­ent beast.

The mac­chi­a­to was good— I would have been hap­py with it under any oth­er cir­cum­stance— but I think it’s a waste to blend such exquis­ite nec­tar with milk, even small amounts.  The caramel-like effect Vivace achieves in the mac­chi­a­to with their Vita blend was not in evi­dence here; this espres­so felt both too dense and too ephemer­al some­how to fold with the milk fla­vors, they seemed not imped­ance matched.  Per­haps an issue of pH?  The Japan­ese milk is dif­fer­ent, also, with less body it seemed to me, and this may have con­tributed to my impres­sion.

The work­man­ship of the lit­tle roset­ta was of course per­fect, but alas, “no cam­era please”.

In any case, if you find your­self near­by, treat your­self well— wan­der the neigh­bor­hood, drop in, taste what I sus­pect might be the most beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed espres­so any­where.

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