In New York, the word “parfait” may conjure up images of a breakfast pot from Pret a Manger, crammed with weeping layers of yogurt, granola, and strawberries. A Japanese parfait, however — increasingly popping up on NYC restaurant menus — is a different creation entirely.
Derived from the French word for “perfect,” the parfait is now a mainstay in Japanese cafes and restaurants. The photogenic, versatile treat showcases a careful layering of components including ice cream and colorful additions like fruit, chiffon cake, cornflakes, dango (a Japanese dumpling made with rice flour), jelly, and cream in a clear, stemmed vessel.
For years, Japanese parfaits were a rare find in NYC. Cha-An, the Japanese teahouse and sweets restaurant in the East Village, claims to have been one of the first to sell the parfait in the city starting nearly 20 years ago, according to owner Tomoko Yagi. The dessert has also started to catch on elsewhere, spurred by enthusiastic shop owners and pastry chefs: Kettl has been serving a matcha parfait at its Greenpoint location since opening last September. Orders spike every time a picturesque parfait sails across the dining room, according to pastry chef Chika Hanyu. After all, one of the reasons that Kettl incorporated the parfait on its menu was to attract new customers to its space.
Along with Hanyu’s matcha rendition at Kettl, New Yorkers can now find multiple iterations of the Japanese parfait in the city, from the timeless classic at Cha-An to a sculptural treat at sushi restaurant Momoya in Soho. Below, we break down some of the city’s top Japanese parfaits and how each version is made.
Tomoko Yagi has been serving classic Japanese parfaits at her iconic Japanese cafe, Cha-An, for over 18 years. The cafe’s version was instrumental in popularizing the parfait in New York, Yagi says, because it was one of the first Japanese parfaits that she can remember being sold in the city. Yagi’s vision for Cha-An was to provide an oasis for Japanese sweets that she missed as a transplant to New York over 30 years ago. To replicate those nostalgic flavors, Yagi’s rule for Cha-An’s parfaits ensured they incorporated “wa,” or “Japanese” elements within the construction. Kanten, a springy, clear, and neutral-tasting agar jelly, lines the bottom of the dessert, while a stamped wafer adorns the top. (Outside of being used in parfaits, these wafers are usually used to make monaka, a sweet made of anko, or sweetened adzuki bean paste, sandwiched between two of them.)
Cha-An’s parfaits change seasonally: Currently, the shop sells a sakura parfait ($22) featuring strawberry ice cream, pink shiratama dango, cornflakes, and a pink, sakura-shaped cookie. But, no matter what, the parfaits always include the mandatory kanten jelly. Yagi also serves a version based on hojicha soft serve ($14) at the counter-service Bon Bon cafe next door.
Cha-An Teahouse, 230 E. Ninth Street, between Second and Third avenues, East Village
If Cha-An’s parfait is the iconic original, pastry chef Chika Hanyu’s designs for the Japanese tea cafe Kettl display the potential for a parfait’s imagination.
While Kettl serves other desserts — including Mont Blanc, as well as cookies in shades of matcha, hojicha, and sobacha — co-owner Minami Mangan wanted to offer a parfait because, as she puts it, it is the most joyful iteration of a dessert. Since Kettl is a tea shop, Hanyu’s focus is on the shop’s matcha parfait ($15) for its grassy green tea foundation. The parfait starts with a uniquely American layer of roughly crushed graham crackers topped with a pouf of whipped cream. Dark green pieces of matcha sponge cake follow, topped with a verdant scoop of Kettl’s matcha gelato. Kettl’s parfait also includes two types of Hanyu’s crispy meringue (strawberry and matcha), black tea jelly, and her chewy gyuuhi, an especially soft mochi, followed by a sprinkling of sobacha, or buckwheat tea. Tip: Sit at the bar to watch the parfait’s careful construction in action.
Hanyu has also designed a Japanese parfait for one of ramen chain Ippudo’s Manhattan locations that is a more casual version of a plated dessert that she had already created for their menu. The strawberry parfait ($14) involves a cherry-lemon sauce layered with vanilla ice cream and matcha cookies, and is topped with crunchy strands of knafeh to imitate the look of the restaurant’s ramen.
The edible sculpture
Pastry chef Norie Uematsu knew from the start that she wanted to incorporate a parfait on the menu at the new Soho location of sushi restaurant Momoya. The dessert has long been a part of her life: She and her friends built their own chocolate parfaits at childhood birthday parties, and she has fond memories of serving parfaits while working at Japanese “family restaurants,” perhaps best described as Japan’s interpretation of a New Jersey diner.
Since Momoya Soho opened three months ago, Uematsu has always included a seasonal parfait with various Japanese elements on her dessert roster. She says that as much as she loves chocolate, her parfaits have so far been based on fruit to act as a palate cleanser after a round of omakase. Momoya’s summer parfait ($18) is a canvas of blues and greens: It includes blueberry sorbet, an ice cream made with subtle sake kasu (a non-alcoholic by-product of sake production), yuzu sencha jelly, matcha shiratama, cheesecake spuma, vanilla crumble, and as a final crown, an edible hydrangea made with shiroan (white bean paste) that sits on top of a butter cookie. Uematsu pairs her parfaits with a small pitcher of sauce — the current flavor is apricot-lime — so that customers can “ajihen,” or change the taste of the parfait, halfway through the dessert.
While customers first turned to more familiar desserts at Momoya like the caramelized banana mille-feuille, they are increasingly ordering Uematsu’s edible works of art. “Parfaits are a dream dessert,” she says.
Momoya Soho, 47 Prince Street, between Lafayette and Mulberry streets, Soho
Chihiro Tomioka is a New York-based freelance writer covering Japanese food and culture.