When I lived in Tokyo, and later New York where I actually ate even more Japanese food, I always felt Japan fell down on dessert. It didn't seem to be part of the food culture. When dessert was presented at all, it wasn't sweet enough for my tooth.
A reader's letter espousing the virtues of Patisserie Norina's "Japanese Cheesecake" convinced me to take another taste.
Patisserie Norina showcases the custom creations of Noriko Abe, born in Japan and now living in San Francisco. As a classically trained pastry chef, she searched the Bay Area for desserts in the spirit of those from home, but came up hungry. So she started baking them herself. Most of her work is by custom order, but with a one-cake minimum, that's not exactly a hindrance.
Spending time with Abe and her pastries, I've come to realize that while the Japanese have a fundamentally different palate than I do, their focus on dessert isn't lacking: it's just different. Texture, presentation (as in all things Japanese), and lightness dominate over sweetness.
Abe and I sat down in the city over several of her pastries, and I found them all to be excellent. All showed lightness and balance, and a significantly lower level of sweetness than dominates the American palate is consistent throughout the line. A delicate tooth, moistness, and the airiness of her top seller, sponge cake, are hallmarks of her brand.
Her strawberry shortcake, sponge cake really, was as light of sponge as I imagine one can bake. The soft, barely sweet cream provided a pleasant offset. The cake whispers its desire to be mated to a delicate bone china cup of jasmine tea.
The originally noted cheesecake, not a primary focus it turns out, was half as dense as a Cheesecake Factory caricature, again with a light sweetness and a pleasant spongy crust.
Perhaps my favorite was Abe's cream puff, which married an airy, challah-like shell with a light cream and a denser, eggy custard center. A very nice contrast of texture and flavors.
She also makes banana roll cake, vanilla and matcha-green tea cream puffs, yuzu macarons, and other products I wasn't able to taste as she wasn't making them for orders that day.
Lighter texture, lighter sweetness, sophisticated styling, and strong attention to detail make these treats as close to Japan as you'll get without a plane ride. Even the packaging, with each slice individually wrapped in a plastic sleeves, summons up memories of Tokyo. They're as close as I've come to Japan stateside, and now I actually have the palate to appreciate them.
Cakes and pastries are available by custom order or in some variants at the grocery store Yaoya-san in El Cerrito. Prices vary by product, but you can order something for as little as $20 or less, and what's in the oven is often posted to the Patisserie Norina Facebook site.