The Japanese like their bread soft and fine-grained. This is partly due to the baleful influence of American culture, post-World War II, when the taste for Wonder-style white loaves spread with American food rations into Japanese society. Today, Japanese may eat more bread than rice, mainly as breakfast toast and quick-lunch sandwiches. Most of this is shokupan, a big, white Pullman loaf that's sold in crinkly cellophane bags. Like any bread, it can be ruined by adding preservatives and too many cheap ingredients. In New York, the place to buy your shokupan is Tribeca's Takahachi Bakery, where the cooks are committed to quality, freshness, and wacky invention.
Takahachi Bakery was opened by ex-mountain climber Hiroyuki Takahachi, whose eponymous restaurant on Avenue A was a pioneer of the East Village Japanese scene. He opened his Tribeca bakery early last summer, bringing a French-trained chef from Kyoto to develop recipes and train the bakers.
Their shokupan, baked daily, is excellent, with a warm and yeasty aroma and a chewy, but not too dense, crumb. It's made from the flour-water-yeast trinity, with added sugar, salt, milk (regular and powdered), and butter for flavor and texture. The Japanese like to cut the crust off their bread to make perfectly rectangular little sandwiches, but I say, what a waste of good bread.
Another Japanese bakery standard they produce is anpan, a kind of roll stuffed with sweet red bean paste. It's clearly influenced by the Chinese baked bun tradition, as in baked char siu bau, and comes out fresh from the oven three times a day. The anpan's savory counterpart is a first-rate karepan, or curry bread, stuffed with Japanese potato curry.
Beyond these standards, the sky's the limit for the Takahachi bakers. From six basic bread doughs, they create a wide and sometimes weird variety of baked goods, 70 types in all. To shokupan dough they add ground black sesame seeds, producing a loaf with a rich but not overpowering sesame flavor. Two slices of black sesame bread elevate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a higher plane.
The bakery's baguette is merely good, but they also make an aonori, or seaweed, baguette from rye flour with an ample portion of shredded nori flakes. Their greenish color is a little off-putting, but the flavor combination quickly grows on you.
You'd expect the wasabi rolls to hit you between the eyes; instead, the Japanese horseradish flavor is just strong enough to stimulate the tastebuds. They're now trying to amp the spice quotient but discovered that too much wasabi kills yeast, bacteria, and other good things (one of the reasons it's served with raw fish).
On any given day, you can also expect to find such singularities as yuzu rolls, shiso-tomato breads, matcha baguettes, wasabi mayo hot dog buns, and whatever else tickles the bakers' fancy. Management is also open to suggestions from customers. I thought of mochi pan, but guess what—they already make it.
25 Murray Street, New York NY 10007 (map)