The pace at Cafe de Lion is slow — a very deliberate slow that’s now as rare in Seattle as it is in Japan, where owner Daisuke Miura, his wife Tomoyo and their son Lion (the cafe’s namesake) moved from two years ago.
Francoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg play in the background as young diners enjoy green tea macarons or lobster bisque. Miniature Eiffel Towers adorn the bakery case and bar. Daisuke teases a customer for killing off his bowl of chowder in mere minutes.
The ornate cursive lettering on the sidewalk A-frame sign boasts “luxury boutique pastries.” But do not mistake this patisserie for one of the many trendy pie and cupcake shops strewn about Seattle. Cafe de Lion’s sweets cost a few dollars more — about $5.50 apiece — but they are made dense, dainty and detailed by Tomoyo herself. And they are beautiful, like edible Limoge boxes.
Tomoyo spent 15 years in Paris studying French pastry after working in the fashion industry, and that inventiveness is evident in her pastries. She works with Japanese teas, fluffy infused mousse, chocolate, cookies and caramels. The results vary wildly and are always delicious — like the popular Hoji, a short cylindrical stack of chocolate and green tea mousses on a foundation of almond cookie. Tomoyo bakes about 100 such confections every morning, and they often sell out by early afternoon.
“We have 16 or 17 pastries left, and they’re all reserved,” Daisuke tells me. He updates Cafe de Lion’s Facebook page daily, where you can ogle the day’s selection and call in to reserve one.
Daisuke handles the coffee, which is made in a variety of intriguing cold brew systems resembling laboratory beakers. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice him take a sip of your drink before handing it to you, just to test the quality.
“Back in the day, like when I was young, I’d go to this cafe and you know, the barista is like an old guy doing the siphon, all that stuff,” Daisuke explains. “Now in Tokyo, you don’t see that often. Everything’s about Starbucks, Tully’s … Just really grab-and-go kind of coffee.”
Cafe de Lion is an interesting blending of cultures, “We kind of wanted to represent the old-school Japanese style with nice Tokyo-French sweets,” says Daisuke, explaining that pastries in Japan and France, like fashion, can be years ahead of the U.S.
“If you go to Tokyo right now, you see all the trends in fashion, including food. And then you see that like five years from now, here in Seattle.”
Given the world famous coffee culture here, it’s easy to see why Daisuke and Tomoyo chose Seattle as their home base. “We can go global,” Daisuke says, “If Tokyo’s fashion and trends are faster than U.S. — like let’s say Seattle — we don’t have to be in the Seattle time; we can be in Seattle and then try to compete with the Tokyo time.”
Cafe de Lion has built up quite a following in its year-plus since opening. It’s a rare day that they don’t sell all the cakes that Tomoyo prepares.
It’s also gained some recognition abroad – including a Tokyo pastry chef that recently marveled at their work on Facebook. But it’s Seattle that Café de Lion really wants to impress.
“I love the comment from the customer when they go, ‘I went to Japan, and I had sweets in Tokyo, but yours is much better,’” Says Daisuke, “I love that comment. And I want the people in Seattle, if they ever get the chance to go to Japan, I want them to say, ‘You know what, I think that Seattle has better sweets than yours.’ ”
Laura Hawkins is a graduate of the University of Arizona. She has trained under veteran copy editors in the recession-hit newsrooms of the Tucson Citizen and the Seattle Times, and written about local and state politics for PubliCola. She also edits academic papers, novels, websites, freeway signs, restaurant menus…