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Hi-Collar, Serving Highbrow Japanese Coffee by Day and Sake by Night in the East Village

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Welcome to Eating Japanese, a series in which Eater Editorial Producer Kat Odell explores the city's collection of unsung Japanese restaurants and bars.

Inside Hi-Collar in the East Village.
Inside Hi-Collar in the East Village.
Paul Crispin Quitoriano

You can drink a $7 siphon coffee out of a $800 Christofle gold-faced tea cup at Hi-Collar, a high-tech Japanese coffee bar by day and sake den by night on 10th Street in the East Village. But the usual trophy of third wave coffee bars, a fancy La Marzocco espresso machine colored to match its environs, is noticeably absent. That's because espresso drinks are not pulled here. Instead the bar is dressed like a chemistry lab, with rows of coffee siphons, AeroPresses, and Hario V60 ceramic coffee drippers at the ready to make liquid magic.

Hi-Collar is, by Japanese standards, what's called a kissaten, a traditional Japanese coffee and tea house that also sells Japanese-American breakfast, sweets, and light lunch fare, usually including some sandwiches and even a pasta dish or two. The first kissaten opened in Japan in the late 19th century, but it wasn't until the 1960s that these serious coffee houses reached their heyday. Back in the day, kissaten focused on coffee and black tea, but more contemporary iterations brew the full spectrum of leaves. And from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hi-Collar follows suit, then flips itself over to sake service and bar-friendly bites from 6 p.m. to midnight daily.

It's not an entirely traditional show here. The intent to share Japanese culture with New York holds true as at all Bon Yagi establishments, like Sake Bar Decibel, Curry-Ya next door, and Cha-An on 9th Street. So, while a kissaten in Japan wouldn't provide a buzz other than caffeine, to make the most of its sleek copper-topped bar, Hi-Collar pours a list of sake and Japanese beer curated by evening GM Kohei Fujita.

You can order coffee at Hi-Collar in the same way you'd sidle up to the bar at Attaboy or Little Branch and ask for a bespoke cocktail, suggesting perhaps a spirit and flavor profile. While the menu directs customers to select a brew method and variety of bean, the best way to go about ordering a drink is to consult your barista. Describe the style of coffee you like. Dark, medium, or light. Acidic or not. And some flavors, maybe chocolate or melon. Different beans are best experienced through different brewing methods, be it siphon, AeroPress, or pour-over.

Barista Shinichiro Sakaino says his favorite way to truly taste the nuances in a bean is via siphon, but those who prefer a darker yet still flavorful roast might want to opt for pour-over. Yuki Izumi, who was educated by Counter Culture in D.C., designed Hi-Collar's coffee program. She's the one who decides how many grams of coffee to ounces of water go in a cup, how long to brew the beans, the temperature of the water, and the duration of the pour — vital details for coffee nerds that most people overlook. And although she and Sakaino follow the same set of standard brewing practices, a cup can taste different from one barista to the next.

George Howell is a pioneering artisanal coffee roaster based in Massachusetts, and his beans are notoriously hard to procure. He's selective to whom he sells, and Hi-Collar is one of the few places in the city where you'll find his beans. Though the bar regularly cycles through coffees, usually one will find eight or so options from different countries, farmers and roasters. Stop by today for roasts and micro-roasts from Counter Culture, MadCap, and even a proprietary house blend Hi-Collar makes in conjunction with Porto Rico. And just for the record, the roaster is based here in New York, not Puerto Rico.

Any bean can be turned into a hot or cold drink. And in fact, the priciest beverage on offer, at $8.80, is a siphoned ice coffee, which is priced as such because of the lengthy processed used to make the drink. It takes a full five minutes. Depending on the beans, Hi-Collar drinks cost between $3 and almost $9. Newest to the menu is a Vietnamese-style iced coffee made with your choice of beans, and a coffee float made with a scoop of Ciao Bello vanilla gelato and cold brew. Outside of coffee which, by the way, isn't served with milk (although you can request whole, cream, or almond) there's milk tea, and a drink cryptically labeled on the menu as "Fruit Enzyme w/ Soda." This, it turns out, is seasonal fruit, at the moment Fuji apple, macerated in sugar. The natural juice from the macerated fruit is then mixed with sparkling water, yielding "Fruit Enzyme w/ Soda," on offer only during the day.

Though it sounds like a totally Americanized mashup, dishes like omurice (basically ketchup rice topped with an omelette and decorated with more ketchup), and spaghetti twirled with spicy cod roe and cream and crowned with nori are similar  to the Westernized Japanese dishes one would typically find at a kissaten. Hi-Collar's hot cakes are sort of like a pancake gone cake, with a spongy interior and crisp exterior, and they're served with a mini scoop of orange butter and maple syrup. They make for an appropriately sweet and unique coffee partner. Meanwhile, the fruit sandwich is constructed from two crustless slices of white bread filled with strawberry, peach, and banana-studded whipped cream.

During the evening, when sake and beer kick in, eats are more along the lines of home-style Japanese tapas, but still in sync with the fusion Japanese-American theme. Don't be surprised to find cured fish with cream cheese but also grilled stingray fin.

Most Japanese restaurants in New York buy sake through the same few distributors, but Hi-Collar has relationships which enable the bar to procure hard-to-find bottles of rice wine not sold elsewhere in the city. And what perhaps might be most special is Hi-Collar's soba ale brewed with buckwheat, sold at all of Yagi's restaurants. The beer is made exclusively for him in conjunction with Oregon-based Rogue brewery.

At its core, Hi-Collar, like many Japanese eateries, is a place built on simplicity. But, as Izumi explains, "Sometimes simple things need more detail and attention such as just simple pour over." And perfection in simplicity can be the hardest to achieve. But when it comes to coffee, Hi-Collar comes damn close.

Hi-Collar - ハイカラ

214 E 10th St, New York, NY 10003 (212) 777-7018 Visit Website

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