During the coronavirus pandemic, Japan didn’t adopt a hard lockdown but instead asked people to avoid the “Three Cs”: closed spaces, crowds and close-contact situations. I found myself spending my spare time simply strolling my local area, where I fervently pursued a different kind of C: coffee.
At the end of the main shopping street of Shimotakaido in the suburbs of west Tokyo, just as the hustle-bustle and stores seem to fade, a white building juts out toward the sky with four black stars and a yellow smiley face boldly painted on the wall. This is Five Stars Coffee & Bakery, and it fully deserves its self-confident name.
There are few scents more alluring than freshly made coffee and freshly baked bread, so when I happened across the café in early March, it became an immediate source of comfort. It was a place to visit just to get out of the house or to grab a hot cup to accompany me on yet another neighborhood walk. Five Stars roast their own beans, making a well-balanced original blend that is wonderfully smooth to drink and only disappointing in that I usually finish it too fast. As well as espresso-based drinks, they also serve pour-over coffee with a choice of three kinds of beans. With each purchase, customers receive a silver coin emblazoned with the store’s signature smiley-face logo, five of which can later be traded in for a free drink.
When the first wave passed, I started to occasionally take up residence on the airy second floor, adopting the café space as an office, or sometimes simply sitting a while, gazing out the windows and spying on passersby below. I also worked my way through their selection of baked goods. There are Japanese-style breads, such as lightly sweet and fluffy shokupan (literally, “meal bread”), as well as French-style baguettes and fruit danishes. Yet, perhaps most intriguing are their original creations that fuse baking traditions with unexpected ingredients – one tartine is topped with tantalizingly soft steamed chicken, crunchy lotus root and a yuzu-mayonnaise sauce while the pain au chocolat with caramelized banana is particularly decadent.
I have recently gathered another palmful of silver smiling coins. Next week, I’ll probably trade them in for my favorite: a latte, to be accompanied by a baked treat or two. The staff know me well by now, and it feels good to have become a regular at a café that is full of smiles – literally.
Editor’s note: Normally when December rolls around, we ask our correspondents to share their “Best Bites,” as a way to reflect on the year in eating. But 2020 was not a normal year. So at a time when the act of eating has changed for so many, our correspondents will write about their “Essential Bites,” the places, dishes, ingredients and other food-related items that were grounding and sustaining in this year of upheaval.
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