When Lady M Confections hit the scene back in 2004, word slowly spread of the haute Japanese cake boutique's Mille Crêpes cake: a gâteau made from 20 carefully stacked crêpes layered with pastry cream. Since then, the crêpe cake novelty has worn off, but Lady M has sustained its business, even adding a cafe in Los Angeles last year. And in the world of high-end Japanese cakes, Lady M hasn't had much competition. Not, at least, until Monday, December 8, when another posh Japanese cake shop quietly opened doors in Chelsea, crêpe cake and all.
Harbs, a derivative of the word "herbs," is the first US location of the 33-year-old cake cafe chain, which counts 30 outlets throughout Japan. Like Lady M, Harbs offers "Japanese" cakes that are clearly inspired by French and American technique, while incorporating native flavors, too, like red bean and matcha, which both make an appearance in Harbs' green tea mousse cake. That cake consists of green tea sponge covered in a blanket of red bean-studded green tea mousse, all protected with a shield of freshly whipped cream. More American adventures include slices of banana cream pie, chocolate cake, and two takes on cheesecake. Harbs' take on Mille Crêpes is constructed from six crêpes layered with a light rum-scented blend of whipped cream and custard, and, unlike Lady M's, bejeweled with assorted fruit. When you cut into the cake, each slice shows off the layers and the assorted colorful fruit.
For the winter there's also a seasonal clementine cake tiered with sponge cake and tangerine juice-spiked cream, and a pretty stellar take on the French classic, Mont Blanc. Harbs' version, the Waguri Tarte, which starts with a tart shell filled with a mountain of red bean flecked whipped cream. A birds nest of piped chestnut paste sits atop, encircled by candied Waguri chestnuts imported from Japan.
In Japan, Harbs has a collection of 50 cakes in its repertoire, 12 of which are sliced daily (whole cakes are also sold to-go). And while 12 cakes are on offer every day in Chelsea too, owner Shigemitsu Yamada is still studying American ingredients to figure out how many of those 50 will work here in New York using local products. He's planning to rotate options seasonally, and this spring will import cherry blossoms for a Sakura Cake, which is made from a cherry blossom flavored mousse and sponge cake,and topped with candied cherry blossoms. Other ingredients, like matcha and red bean, are imported from Japan as well.
Many of Harbs' cakes involve freshly whipped cream, sponge cake, and are overall careful with sugar. Harbs whips all its cream in its subterranean walk-in, where, according to the chefs, the cold air results in a denser but more aerated product. At $12, a slice is on the generous size, but most cakes are so light and not terribly sweet that they're easy for one person to take down in a matter of minutes, perhaps alongside a seasonal yuzu sencha green tea or coffee. While there's no espresso, Harbs does serve individually brewed cups of drip made with beans roasted by Cascade Coffee in Seattle.Tea, on the other hand, is sourced from around the world. Harbs buys loose leaves, imports them to Japan, and then makes its slew of house blends. There's green tea, black tea and herbal mixes, in addition to flavored options like Apple-Cinnamon and Caramel.
Before Harbs shacked up in New York, Yamada was adamant that his first location outside of Japan entirely replicate the Japanese experience from food to furniture. That means outfitting the space with the exact same simple, brown, two-top cafe tables and high-backed whicker chairs found at Harbs' cafes in Japan.
Sweet and savory recipes are also pretty much identical in New York and Japan, and Yamada even went so far as to hire a water specialist to analyze the mineral content of water here versus Japan. He wanted to ensure that beverages brewed here wouldn't vary in taste from those brewed abroad, and though he learned that the mineral content in both waters is pretty similar, he still installed a water filtration system to eliminate chlorine and "other unnecessary organic substances."
Harbs' cafe culture extends past sugar to a handful of sandwiches priced from $14 to $16. The restaurant takes great pride in its spongy house-baked white bread (used in all the sandwiches), which was probably inspired by American Wonder Bread at some point, but remade with better ingredients. Though sandwiches are tasty, prices are surprisingly high for simple fillings like a tomato and spinach-studded omelet, and sautéed Japanese mushrooms (shiitake, shimeji, maitake, and eringi), bacon, and house-made mayo combined with boiled spinach and a thin slice of pecorino. There's also a caprese and a prosciutto option, but that spinach sandwich is, despite the price, deceptively delicious.
But most likely, you're here for cake and maybe some coffee or tea. Go with it.