Picture perfect cakes, lined up in the counter like little gems, seducing you gently as their suggestive colours, decorations and names tantalize your cranial taste buds. They call these Petit Gateaux (Little cakes) in France and when its your turn at the counter, you start panicking for everything LOOKS SO DAMN GOOD! What do I get? What do I get? My answer: “If you can, EVERYTHING.”
Where is this place and who is behind such alchemy? Read on for a glimpse of his history and detail on his cakes.
The one. The only. Hidemi Sugino, a perfectionist and artist of the highest order. Is it an exaggeration to say he is the best in Tokyo and perhaps even Asia? I first heard of Hidemi Sugino from this post on Keiko’s amazing blog, Nordljus. That same year was my first experience eating there and it was perspective changing. The cakes were light, extremely light, and the flavours were pure and unadulterated, well balanced and left you wanting for more. This year’s visit was no different and 3 visits to his shop to eat almost everything on offer makes me yearn to return still.
Arrive early or all the cakes are gone and do not count on arriving 15 mins before opening. Try half an hour earlier on a weekend or you will end up like me…..taking this picture from the back of the queue 15 mins to opening. Don’t forget to look up on the 2nd floor, where you might catch a glimpse of the man and his team in action.
At the risk of making this post too long, I think a short history of the man and his vision is very important to understand why he makes such amazing cakes. Parts of these were told to me by his wife (He was judging the Coupe du Monde in Paris at the time), and from a Japanese tv series.
He never started out as a maverick pastry chef, but worked in a high end hotel’s kitchen making ice cream at the back of the kitchen. He worked there for a year or so but still had no idea how to make a cake. Ashamed at his own inability, he decided to go to France to learn from what then was considered ‘The Home of Pastry.’
When he got to France, they used him as cheap foreign labour and all he did was plate pre-prepared desserts and other odd jobs, hardly the artisanal experience he was seeking. However, he came upon Patisserie Peltier (Now defunct and whose name is used in Japan), and he wanted to work for him. After about 4 years of begging, he was finally accepted and realised that there were no special recipes or ingredients that made Peltier’s pastries so special. He realised that it was the attention to detail that mattered the most.
He then entered the Coupe du Monde with the Japanese team in 1991 and they took the 1st prize. I cannot ascertain when he opened his patisserie but Japanese websites say “depuis 1973″, or “since 1973″. That seems like a really long time ago so its still unclear if its accurate or not.
Anyway, this is a man who pays attention to detail and you can see it in his cakes. Anyone who dips their hand in ice cold water to chill it till the point of pain before piping delicate mousse for cakes has to be a perfectionist! You see, even the slightest heat in our hands can deflate the mousse and change its delicate, airy texture.
Attention to details so strict that fruits with the tiniest imperfections are not used and the opening of oven doors prematurely results in products in the bin. Detail is everything and that is what makes him who he is and why he is at the top of the pastry game at the moment.
3 years ago, you could take pictures at his shop, but with his fame exploding worldwide since then, perhaps it has become a hassle for his other customers as tourists click away so unfortunately, I have no real photos to accompany this post. The next best thing are pictures from his book, “Le Gout Authentique Retrouve” and my tasting notes and the drawings of the internal structure of the cakes. Hope they do justice to his cakes and also bear in mind that these cakes were all eaten over the course of 3 days…..not 1 sitting.
- Raspberry jam was spread onto the sponge cake and accentuated the berry flavours
- Very balanced cake, with the kirsch bavarois providing the fat to cut the acidity of the black currant
- Black currant mousse was fresh, bright and had a delightful ribena hint to it
- Could taste a bit of the Italian meringue used in the mousse, which gives this cake an amazingly light texture
This cake disintegrates to release berry flavours that dance around the mouth, showing their faces one after another. A homage to Black Currant, the purity of flavours on display here seem to be result of the lessons that Hidemi Sugino’s mentor, Peltier, instilled into him. Amazing.
- Very beautiful cake with the sauteed apples giving a nice contrast to the green mousse below
- The glaze had a hint of mint in it that provided showings if coolness on the tongue
- Caramel mousse had a bitter tinge and had a nice caramel flavour, but I did not taste the cognac
- Probably because the apple mousse above was nice and tangy, but seemed like more than 3% volume (From the recipe) of Calvados was put inside as it was too strong (Note that Hidemi Sugino was in France at this very moment)
This was a beautiful looking cake that seemed to have been made carelessly as the calvados threw off the balance of the cake. I will taste this again next time and see if it was indeed a mistake or just the way it was supposed to taste. However, the components all worked well togather and beyond the Calvados, was a truly tasty cake.
- Very fruity smelling cake redolent of strawberries (Duh!)
- The fromage frais gave the mousse a measured dose of tanginess that brought out the full flavours of the strawberries
- The jelly provided a different texture and another strong dose of strawberry flavour
- The pistachio sponge really played not much part in the overall flavour
Would have liked the jelly to have been wild strawberry though, as they would’ve given a different kind of strawberry flavour and, if similar to the ones I get frozen in Singapore, would’ve given a very slight hint of bitterness from the strawberry’s fruit (Achenes).
Confused? What we know as a strawberry is really just a ‘container’ for the fruits, which are the small little ‘seeds’ that you see. Those little seeds are the real fruit and the big red thing we eat is merely its container. Nature’s little joke.
- This was on helluva complicated looking cake with 8 layers!
- Hidemi Sugino debuts a new cake every christmas and this is presumably from X’mas 2008
- Though its components do not really make it sound light, the smart balancing of fat to acid makes this a surprising balanced cake that is medium lightness.
- Pairing the buttercream with raspberry tamed its sharpness for a wonderfully, round raspberry flavour only the nectar of the bovine gods can bestow
- This allowed the tangy apple jelly to direct proceedings and come to the fore with the raspberry playing a supporting role
- The most interesting component was the mint mousse, apparently from mint liquor and this added a beautiful brightness that perked up the berry an apple flavours
The only complaint is that there was not enough texture in this cake as there was a lack of crunch. However, the flavours were beautiful togather and very well balanced for such a complicated cake.
- The sliced almond garnish gave a nice crunch and background almond flavour
- The red fruits confiture accentuated the aromatic fromage blanc mousse and would have been too acidic, had it not been for the chantilly cream
This was a rather plain and ordinary cake which somehow reminded me of the ubiquitous ‘Strawberry Shortcake’. Fromage frais and red fruits is a classic combination and I craved more of the latter in this cake but also understand that the fruits were not meant to be the star of this cake. This is a cake that everybody will love as it is so delicious and easy to eat. Chefs on the other hand may think it too plain!
- Griottes are Morello Cherries from the sour cherry family that work wonderfully in this mousse as they have nice acidity, a dose of sourness and lots of cherry flavour. This is unlike the insipid sweet cherries we get named after a chinese bloke named Bing
- Blood orange mousse was very citrusy which unexpectedly carried the cherries well whilst contributing an added flavour dimension as well
- The brandied cherries provided a beautiful look from the top, but I think Griottines are horrible tasting and pack the mule kick of cheap alcohol. I’d make my own in the future as only the best tasting stuff will be used and it’ll sure be cheaper than buying them. However, they need to be macerated for at least 1 month.
- The almond batons or Marechaux were delightfully crunchy with a deep nutty, almondy flavour.
This was a very well executed cake and the purity of flavours was just outstanding. The garnishes all played their parts well as cherries are from the same genus Prunus, which also includes almonds. In fact, cherry seeds contain the same flavour compounds as almonds, this making this a marriage of nature. This cake was also exceptionally light and use of gelatine so delicately calculated that you could swear only egg foam was holding the cake up.
- Chocolate mousse was chocolatey but the griottines once again spoilt everything as the strong, unpleasant alcohol taste just cast a dark cloak over all the flavours
Honestly, I was looking forward to this cake, as it is deemed one of his more famous cakes. However, it is probably personal taste bias, but the griottines were just too harsh tasting. The missing kirsch cream can be understood for this is Charme, not a Black Forest cake, but I can see why customers would love this cake for the alcohol kick, but its not for me. Once I plucked the offensive molotov cocktails out, the cake tasted really great with the kirsch soaking syrup in the sponge.
- Thank heavens this coffee mousse was not made with Trablit Coffee Extract which is the margarine of coffee. Sad to say, once I taste trablit in a shop, I won’t expect too much. How hard is it to use a high quality instant coffee?? In this case, instant coffee gave this mousse a nice, rounded coffee flavour with roasted notes. Nescafe?
- The caramel mousse had a nice caramel flavour with a slight bitter tinge which complemented the coffee mousse perfectly and giving it more depth
Alright, bet there are a bunch of you going “Where the *^%O is the Ambroisie”? Well, save the best for last right? When this cake was at the table, I was quite afraid to eat it as its his trademark, the one that won him the Coupe du Monde. What if……it was merely pedestrian? These are the risks that we, in the field of gluttony and chef idol worship have to face as we put our lives on the line. How can life be the same again if such a monumental creation comes with a larger serving of abject disappointment? I shudder at the thought.
- Chocolate mousse was chocolatey and had a good texture, not too heavy, yet the chocolate taste did not overpower the rest of the ingredients
- Pistachio mousse was a light pistachio flavour, and combined with the sponge, gave the slightest hint of nuttiness that went really well with the chocolate mousse. Just a slight deviation in the pistachio taste would have made the pistachio anonymous amongst the stronger chocolate flavour. I can only imagine the recipe being adjusted to how the pistachios themselves taste.
- The use of raspberry jam here was a revelation as its acidity cut through the rich chocolate and nuts really well. The bright raspberry flavour gave a wonderful fruitiness to the whole confection, providing a right touch of acidity to enhance and bring out all the flavours
Alright, why do I think its Valrhona Pur Caraibe? Well, the book wrote 66% chocolate, but really, thats what I wrote in the notes, probably Pur Caraibe, and that was before the book. Firstly, Manjari is really too sour and acid nowadays as the beans seem to have changed. If it was Guanaja, it would have been too ballsy and gutsy with a deep chocolate flavour.
Caraibe on the other hand, is like a tamer version and in between Manjari and Guanaja. Where Manjari is strong, acidic and fruity, Caraibe has a gentler touch suggestive of berries. Where Guanaja is gutsy and deep, Caraibe is smoother, not as strong but assertive enough to lend itself well to ganache and mousses.
This is probably over analysing it, but if you think about it, Caraibe = Less Berry + Less Balls. Being in between Manjari (Max Berry)and Guanaja (Max Balls), what other ingredients would’ve been needed to carry the chocolate, give complexity yet achieve balance?
In comes raspberry and pistachio, the latter of which, if too strong, would’ve given it too much richness and nuttiness. Pistachio is a gentler, more refined kind of nutty flavour as hazelnuts or almonds would have dominated the taste excessively. Acidity had to come from somewhere, and a light spreading of raspberry jam did the trick perfectly whilst at the same time contributing its own beautiful flavour.
Is this why he won the Coupe du Monde with this cake? It is really well thought out, yet so simple in their individual components. Eating this cake was a lesson in designing a cake. A lesser chef would have tried to impress with exotica or going over the top. Instead, Chef Sugino decided to let the nature of the chocolate do the talking and guide the flavours. Its a cake only a chef with the maturity and understanding of his ingredients can design. A lesson for all of us.
If you are looking for innovative designs and flavour combinations, go to Pierre Herme or Spain, but if you want well thought out, perfectly executed cakes with purity of flavour, come here. Cakes published in his book in 1998 are still on his display.
To say that this is a bastion of innovation would be overstating it, but to say no new creations occur here is also wrong. Every christmas, Hidemi Sugino comes up with a new cake, and La Amethyst was the latest one.
I’d sooner eat on of his cakes and enjoy their wonderful balance and pure flavours then a creative one with flavours that confuse the tongue and seem to shout out, “Look at me, I’m special!” And we konw special people can sometimes be annoying! Chef Sugino’s cakes however, send out a different message. Simple garnishes that say, “Eat me, I’m sexy.” Who can resist that?