Japanese cooks have a thing about reinventing Western desserts, especially those containing dairy products, which were once a relative rarity in Japan. Twenty years ago, New York City was happily bombarded with Japanese creampuffs, some from chains like Beard Papa’s that still thrive. Those creampuffs were pale and almost light enough to float away. More recently, Japanese cheesecake hit town, including Uncle Tetsu’s, whose cheesecakes are almost as light and airy as the creampuffs, the opposite of traditional American cheesecake.
The latest in this dessert influx is Flipper’s, not to be confused with the punk band or TV dolphin of the same name. Its specialty is Japanese pancakes. Do I need to tell you these pancakes are not typical diner pancakes? The company website lists 12 stores in Japan, mainly in Tokyo, and there are others in Taiwan, Korea, and Hong Kong. Ours is the first American location. While Japanese dessert specialists have traditionally occupied some very cramped real estate here, Flipper’s is comparatively gigantic, situated on two floors at Grand and West Broadway on a prime Soho corner with a full-on restaurant.
Though there’s a dining counter downstairs and a carryout division that has not yet revved up, most of the 60 seats are upstairs in a comparatively luxurious room with bare bricks, big windows, and yellow neon. Yellow flowers grace every table, and a big communal table in the center is lined with small, precarious stools — though the regular tables have sturdy chairs with backs. Don’t worry about falling off those stools, because no alcohol is yet available at this place that clearly aims to be a quintessential brunch spot.
On two early visits, although we arrived when the restaurant opens at 11 a.m., a friend and I were made to wait for 20 minutes and 60 minutes, respectively, in a line that numbered no more than 25 at any one time. The excuse given was that it takes a long time to make the pancakes, but both times when we finally climbed the stairs, the premises was more than half empty. Clearly, the chain likes having customers seen waiting outside.
The signature pancakes are small, circular, and puffy like a chef’s toque. Cut into them and they are spongy and yellow inside, like the room’s flowers and neon. Sometimes individual pancakes collapse into a low heap that looks like scrambled eggs, especially if you don’t eat them with two forks, according to the instructions on the menu. Flavor wise, the egg predominates in these pancakes, which are more like soufflés.
The most basic presentation of the signature pancakes ($16) features a cloud of heavy cream whipped with butter and maple syrup beside and on top, which does little to dispel the taste of eggs, but is good nonetheless. Three permutations are available: one faddishly features matcha, while the other two come with fresh fruit. The “fresh fruit Flipper’s pancake” ($19) deposits strawberries, bananas, and blueberries on top, which makes the three pancakes, which are like feather pillows, seem more like a full meal.
Another type of pancake is also available, very much like the product found in a diner, only a little less greasy and more carefully formed. These pancakes, called “meal pancakes” in Japan and “sweet pancakes” here, are thankfully not very sweet, but come with a vast range of toppings involving things like fresh fruit, maple syrup, prosciutto, custard, lemon ricotta, and cream cheese. Indeed, the version called blueberry cream cheese pancake ($18) was the best thing we tried at Flipper’s: three perfectly round and perfectly registered pancakes with a layer of fluffy white stuff on top that tasted more like whipped cream than cream cheese. On top of that were crushed walnuts, blueberries, and blueberry syrup. IHOP, get lost!
While the menu of the Japanese branches is limited to five pancake mains along with lots of bubble teas, the Soho menu is larded with all sorts of other things that might be regarded as brunch options. In addition to 17 pancakes, there are french fries served with beet ketchup and truffle mayo, sausages and bacon, fried chicken sliders, and — god help us — a kale salad. Naturally, I had to try some of these, though they lay far afield from the stated purpose of the place, which is flogging a Japanese pancake.
Priced at $16, a decent but not distinguished waffle comes with two pieces of breaded white-meat chicken. Both the waffle and chicken were delivered hot but dry, a defect that the accompanying maple butter was incapable of fully remedying. The kale salad ($10) was nicely prepared with a light white dressing, but small for the price, strictly aimed at those who must have kale at every meal. The biggest disaster was a version of eggs Benedict featuring pancakes instead of English muffins. While the hollandaise wasn’t bad, the tomatoes and purple onions sabotaged the flavor. Onions and pancakes are never a good match.
Still, I certainly didn’t hate the signature fluffy pancakes, and would even eat them again when I wanted something light for breakfast or even lunch. Adding fruit isn’t a bad notion, either, but matcha pancakes doesn’t sound like a great idea. The Japanese branches don’t offer it. My advice to the Flipper’s chain: Find a way to make pancakes faster before inviting the public in.