Located just south of Times Square, New York’s first Uncle Tetsu is a narrow storefront with no seating. But crowd control barriers snake around inside as if giant crowds were expected, or maybe just to guarantee the orderliness of the customers. From many surfaces, the balding, bespectacled visage of Uncle Tetsu beams down, toque askew. His specialty is a Japanese cheesecake invented in 1985 (the first shop selling them opened in 1990) in Hakata, Japan, a place more famous for its ramen. These cheesecakes have gone worldwide and are now sold on four continents.
Our branch of the bakery sells only two other items, madeleines and rusks. I’m a big fan of New York City cheesecake, so I went around 11:30 a.m. on a weekday recently to find out how the Japanese version stacked up against our own. The furor had apparently died down, because the shop was completely empty except for the red-hatted staff, some of whom were busy in the back pouring batter into round glass baking pans.
The lines reported earlier may have been partly caused by the long spiel that the counter attendant was required to deliver. Here is the gist of her lecture: The cheesecake should be eaten within a day of purchase unless placed in the refrigerator, in which case it lasts three days. She further suggested it would benefit from being heated for a few seconds in a microwave. The madeleines last for three days unrefrigerated or seven days in the fridge. The rusks, she promised, “can last forever.”
New York cheesecake is unthinkable without cream cheese, an ingredient popularized in the early 20th century that along with sour cream makes our cakes dense and creamy. Uncle Tetsu’s cheesecake is similarly round and slightly brown around the edges, making a very pleasing sight. In the middle of the top, Uncle Tetsu’s visage is stamped like a brand burned into a horse’s flank.
Instead of being dense and creamy and slightly funky (New York cheesecakes are often aged a day or two before serving), Uncle Tetsu’s is light and airy like an angel food cake, with no complexity of flavor. It’s the polar opposite of New York cheesecake, but ironically uses many of the same ingredients (cream cheese, butter, milk, egg, and sugar).
Is it good, though? If you’re expecting the taste of cheesecake as New Yorkers know it, Uncle Tetsu’s will disappoint you. On the other hand, the concept is interesting, and you could easily gulp down an entire cheesecake ($13.50) if you were so inclined. As with many Japanese products, it comes in an over-designed box, this one with interlocking flaps and holes in the sides as if a small animal were caged inside. Once the box is open, the cake is extensively swaddled in gauze. The packaging and product are both a little nutty, and worth experiencing once.
The madeleines ($2.50 each, four for $7.50) are similarly not like the grooved, oblong French cookies, and would never have set Proust to dreaming of them. They are really more like plastic-wrapped muffins bought in a convenience store. At least they are wholesome and freshly prepared. Still, I don’t know about keeping them a week in the refrigerator. At least not in my refrigerator.
The real gem of the collection are the rusks. When I was a kid, rusks were common, and consisted of twice-baked slices of bread that were hard as rocks and often given to teething babies. Adults avoided them at all costs. The rusks at Uncle Tetsu’s are more like square white cookies, as if they’d been made from flattened and re-baked cheesecakes. They have a satisfying sugary flavor that avoids being too sweet. Buy a bag ($4.50) and skip the rest of the stuff. Besides, they keep forever. 135 W 41st St, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, Times Square