Bessie's Best: Japanese Tea-Room Elegance at Hi-Collar in the East Village

The East Village has no shortage of Japanese eateries, but Hi-Collar stands out in its elegance and its particular genre of Japanese culture. Hi-Collar is a kissaten, a café serving fancy coffee, tea, sandwiches, rice sets, pastas, and desserts. At night, it transforms into a high-end whiskey and sake bar. Hi-Collar only seats a dozen people, small, much like the kissatens in Japan it models itself after. It manages to not feel cramped because of some smart mirror placements and fine furnishings. Instead, it feels exclusive.

Hi-Collar’s tagline "flirting with the west" speaks to kissatens as one of Japan’s versions of when cuisines get totally localized by other cultures. Other examples would be Hong Kong’s tea restaurants or Irani cafés in India. In this case, kissatens take elements of Western foods and made them entirely their own.

The main hook here is the many varieties of Japanese-style brewed coffee. You pick your bean with your choice of aeropress, drip, or siphon for hot coffee. While most people come here to geek out on the coffee, the matcha au lait I ordered is the only thing that has ever come to close what I’ve had in Japan, superb and presented beautifully.

In terms of food, a huge draw is the omurice, a simply fluffy egg over rice dish that they do very well and is a kissaten staple. Also popular are the sweet dishes,thick fluffy pancakes and the coffee zenzai with ice cream, red bean, and coffee jellies are favorites. I love the katsu sandwich, a deep fried pork cutlet with soft white bread. They only make a limited number of these per day. The other is the mentai cream pasta with roe, mushrooms, and nori that is al dente and creamy in a way that is distinct from Italian and American varieties.

Lastly, one more thing you’ll notice is the delicate beauty of everything even though it remains understated and not stuffy. The dishes and silverware are sophisticated and unique, even the presentation of the bill comes on a beautiful tray with antique miniatures of cute brass animals. The woman behind the bar said they hand-picked them from a second hand store.

You shouldn't get take-out here, even though the food is great, but given it’s quite pricey—that cup of matcha I mentioned above will run you about $7 dollars and the pasta $12—the point of going to Hi-Collar is to take in the entire atmosphere. You’re getting the full experience of a culture beyond the usual sushi and sake places. A good comparison is how you can find decent burgers all over the world, but it’s really hard to get good BBQ north of Virginia.

Pro-tip: Go here when it first opens or close to before they turn over to become a bar, the place tends to get packed with tourists during the day. It’s also next door to another favorite, Curry-Ya.

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