We have previously written a photographic narrative and a guide to Japanese wagashi sweets, Lilliputian works of art that are the “Jimmy Choos” of the Japanese dessert world. Although we have yet to spot such high-falutin sweets in NYC (or indeed, elsewhere outside of Japan itself), another form of Japanese dessert has become increasingly popular across NYC. As we review below, one can increasingly find traditional “mochi” balls in a number of places, as well as more contemporary inventions that fuse a Western sensibility with the Japanese tradition – “mochi doughnuts,” for example. Even if the results can sometimes be rather perplexing, dessert creativity that transcends borders is always something worth a little stomach space, we think!
- ☑ Dessert destination: Minamoto, Financial District and Midtown East, Manhattan.
- ☑ Short and sweet story: Box of 8 = approx. $20. If you have been to Japan before, you will know that many traditional sweet stores are set up in a rather high-end way, with the sweets behind glass counters. Minamoto offers Japanese sweets in the most rarefied of shop environments in NYC. While we do not recommend the colourful jellies here, we do recommend the boxed mochi sets. Either the strawberry or the white peach mochi – pillowy soft with slight chew – will make fine accompaniments to your daily afternoon tea session.
Elegant plated mochi desserts
- ☑ Dessert destination: Cha-An Teahouse, East Village, Manhattan.
- ☑ Short and sweet story: $12-$15. As we have blogged before, Cha-An Teahouse is one of our favourite dessert spots in NYC, a little sanctuary away from the crowds… although on a recent visit, the ambience was somewhat more raucous than we last remembered. For reasonably-priced elegant Japanese desserts, there’s no better spot in NYC. For example, the “Hojicha Anmitsu” is essentially three different textures of hojicha tea – jelly, mochi and ice cream. Contained within a small vessel, it is further layered with a sweet syrup to balance the slightly bitter, earthy hojicha tones. By contrast, the “Mochi Mochi” features a large scoop of hojicha ice cream and several types of mochi, the rice-based shiratamamamochi and the more jelly-like, powdery green tea warabimochi cubes.
Mochi on a stick
- ☑ Dessert destination: Cha-An Bon Bon, East Village, Manhattan.
- ☑ Short and sweet story: $4. If you don’t have the time for a plated mochi dessert, or the stomach space for a full mochi doughnut, another option is mochi on a stick – also known as “dango.” The only place that we know of in NYC that offers dango is Cha-An’s smaller sister store, located adjacent to the teahouse. Slightly overpriced for the tiny dessert satay that you receive though, the dango balls come in a variety of rotating flavours (e.g. green tea, yuzu, sakura, strawberry etc). They are a little bland and hard.
- ☑ Dessert destination: Mochii, East Village, Manhattan.
- ☑ Short and sweet story: Mochi icecream ($3 for 1 piece). Mochi icecream was probably the the first foray that we sighted of dessert shops attempting to fuse the traditional Japanese confection with more Western dessert sensibilities. Today, it’s fairly commonplace, one can easily find it in most grocery stores in the icecream aisles. If you have never had it before though, mochi icecream is essentially an ice cream dumpling — a circle of rice flour is moulded around a ball of icecream, so in one bite, you get the textural contrasts of savoury and sweet, smooth and chewy. Of the handful of places that one can find mochi icecream, we particularly like the small dough balls from Mochii, a semi-hidden, below-street-level store in the East Village. The green tea matcha and the lychee here are our favourites, making for a slightly sweet treat regardless of whether it is bone-chilling winter or sticky humid summer in NYC.
First mochi doughnut trendsetter
- ☑ Dessert destination: Alimama, Chinatown, Manhattan.
- ☑ Short and sweet story: Mochi doughnut ($4). Opening in early 2018, almost two years ago now, Alimama was — in our recollection — the first place in NYC to offer “mochi doughnuts.” If you are craving something slightly lighter than the hyper-glazed saccharine doughnuts from the likes of Dough or Doughnut Plant, this may be an idea. These Dessert Correspondents however, are not entirely persuaded that Peter Pan’s simpler fried dough creations can be beaten. In any case, over several visits, we have sampled a few of the flavours available at Alimama, most of which are painted in shimmering, almost cosmic colours. The silvery chocolate one is our favourite, though for the matcha lover, we have no hesitation in recommending the particularly intense matcha mochi doughnut. Be warned that Alimama’s interpretation of this Japanese dessert craze is ultra-chewy. A jaw work-out. Also, do note that Alimama’s mochi doughtnut creations are the more dear of the other mochi doughnut offerings in NYC. (If you are not enchanted by Alimama’s doughnuts, do try the bubble tea cream puff, which we previously reviewed here. It is a dessert wonder.).
Pon-de-ring mochi doughnut
- ☑ Dessert destination: Dough Club, Chinatown/Nolita, Manhattan.
- ☑ Short and sweet story: Mochi doughnut ($3). If there’s a tried-and-tested marketing plan for attracting the Instagram generation, it would be this: paint a shop in white and pink, make sure to include some neon signage and install bright lighting fixtures. Note, for example, Momofuku Milk Bar, which we have previously reviewed (see here). Following this formulae, not a day goes by that one does not see the Dough Club’s mochi doughnuts posted on Instagram. Distinctive for its “pon-de-ring” shape, the doughnuts are essentially eight small dough balls in a circlet form, and come in six different flavours: matcha, miso bacon (!), strawberry, hazelnut chocolate, cookie, ube with fruity pebble cereal (our favourite). We have also sampled a seasonal peppermint variety. Texture wise, we found the doughnuts lacking a “mochi chew,” being more similar to a Hong Kong-style bubble or egg waffle. That said, the mochi doughnut from Dough Club are easier to eat in entirety than the far denser mochi doughnuts from Alimama.
When cake meets mochi
- ☑ Dessert destination: Oh Mochi, Midtown West, Manhattan.
- ☑ Short and sweet story: Mochi doughnut ($2.75). Aside from desserts, your Dessert Correspondent’s other favourite hobby is…shopping. As such, when we heard that Nordstrom finally opened a multi-level store in NYC, we struggled to contain our excitement because truly, aside from Bloomingdales, what other department store caters for all budgets? Not Saks, not recently-bankrupt Barney’s, not high-society-only Bergdorf Goodman, and arguably, not really Macy’s (does anyone else find the 34th Street Herald Square Flagship completely anxiety-inducing?). The new Nordstrom store a few streets away from Columbus Circle/Lincoln Centre (one of the few uptown areas of Manhattan that we do enjoy venturing too) is quite wonderful. While it doesn’t hold as much stock as the fabulous online platform, the store is beautifully designed, spacious, airy and light-filled…and it has a mochi doughnut store downstairs! Yes, desserts and shopping in one! Oh Mochi offers a dessert that marries a cake doughnut and a mochi together. If the Dough Club has spongy mochi doughnuts, and Alimama’s require much teeth strength, Oh Mochi’s mochi doughnuts lie somewhere in the middle. Moderately chewier, with a dense cake doughnut-like texture. We have sampled the Red Velvet and Champagne Confetti flavours, and would recommend the Lemon Citrus glaze one with freeze-dried strawberry slices.