AS soon as I approach Damansara Uptown, I can’t help but mutter a quick prayer for an available parking spot. It’s almost four in the evening and it’ll be a miracle if there’s an available space in this notoriously packed business centre. However, God must be pretty free today to pay heed to my insignificant request because an empty parking bay immediately presents itself along the row where Shugatori — the latest entrant to the rising growth of trendy dessert cafes — is located.
“Hallelujah!” I rejoice. However, my happiness is short-lived. A quick scan of the row of signages above the shop lots reveal that the cafe I’m looking for is at the other end of the block from where I’m parked. Sighing, I slowly trudge along the long sidewalk towards my destination.
A soft tinkle from the small bell above the door announces my arrival and a friendly waiter looks up from the counter with a smile. “Please take a seat wherever you like and I’ll get Daniel and Nicholas (two of the three co-founders of the cafe),” he says after I’ve introduced myself. I pay little attention to what he says because I’m immediately transfixed at the sight of pretty cakes displayed in the refrigerator. The sumptuous cakes shimmer in shades of lilac, pink, green and dark chocolate like semi-precious gems. They seem to beckon at me from behind the crystal clear glass case.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out each cake’s flavour with straightforward names such as Okinawa Purple Sweet Potato Cheese Cake and Green Tea Cheese Cake. It may put just a little damper on your imagination but it would definitely help a lot when it comes to decision-making. A necessary evil, perhaps? The only odd name in the mix is for a large chocolatey slice that towers above the rest, unfathomably called Tiny. There’s certainly nothing tiny about that generous piece of heaven.
A sudden gentle tap on my shoulder brings me out of my reverie. “You can have any cake you like,” offers a well-built fellow who stands grinning behind me. Introducing himself as Daniel Tan, he cheekily teases: “Or you can have them all!”
A very tempting proposition! But before I can make my choice, another guy slighter in frame, walks out from behind the counter and stops me. “You’ll want to hold that thought until you’ve tried the other desserts on our menu,” advises Nicholas Wong, eyes twinkling.
THE PERFECT TRIO
Shugatori, is a combination of two Japanese words that literally translates to “sugar bird”. Their logo — an origami hummingbird — is a nod to their Japanese influence aptly represented in the desserts they serve.
After choosing a cosy seat by the window, Wong brings out three large white plates filled with a myriad of colours, comparable to avant-garde paintings on bright white canvases. There’s a stack of green pancakes paired with azuki-bean (Japanese red beans) cream, a dual-toned waffle that looks like a black-and-white chequered wheel, and a perfectly square piece of thick charcoal toast topped with a swirl of whipped cream.
Each dessert also comes with a scoop of different flavoured ice-cream that complements the respective sweets accompanied by a few pieces of meringue crisps. As the head chef and a stickler for “correct” flavour pairings, Wong recommends me to try each dessert with the specific ice-cream it’s paired with.
“It’s not that you can’t switch the ice- creams, but certain flavours will clash with others.” What if the customer insists, I wonder aloud. “Then the best we can do is to suggest that they order an extra scoop. We’d remind them though that it’s a risk they’re taking on their own!” he replies, wryly.
As Wong and I are conversing, Daniel, who’s also the cafe’s operations manager, surreptitiously picks up a fork and slightly rotates the waffle so that it aligns symmetrically with the chocolate swirl on the plate. He soon realises we’ve been observing him and looks sheepish as he confesses: “It’s one of my pet peeves from having a graphics design background. Each plate needs to be perfect and Instagrammable.”
Shugatori is founded by three best friends — Daniel Tan, Nicholas Wong and Marcus Tan, all in their late 20s. The three founders have very differing educational and career backgrounds. While Daniel is a graphic designer by profession, Marcus is an IT specialist. Wong, as it turns out, is the only one with food experience. It’s an unlikely partnership in theory. But it’s worked amazingly well through their shared fondness for desserts. Except for Marcus, both Daniel and Wong work full-time at the dessert cafe.
Daniel, who’s the more talkative of the duo seated in front of me, sums up their relationship aptly. “Basically, as a graphics designer, I make sure we look good on the outside, while Wong, who was previously an assistant pastry chef, ensures we taste good. And then there’s Marcus. He’s good with numbers. So, he makes sure we have money to run the show!” he says, chuckling.
The affable chaps then suddenly stop the conversation and urge me to take a bite before the ice-cream melts. They even go so far as to put the cutleries in my hand and pour the little pots of sauces that come with the desserts. The only thing they stop short of doing is to place a napkin on my lap to seal the deal!
“Everything you see here except the ice- creams, are made from scratch. That’s why you’ll need to wait awhile for your order to be served,” confides Wong, who admits that this is the biggest challenge of the business. “It’s not easy to make people wait and unlike hot foods, we don’t have the advantage of having the aromatic fumes spread through the cafe. So the only way to attract customers and to satisfy them is to appeal to them visually.”
“Nothing makes a more lasting impression than a beautifully plated dessert,” chips in Daniel who’s familiar with his customers’ social networking habits from his six years of working experience in the advertising industry. “Nowadays, everyone wants Instagrammable products. If you don’t have anything nice to be posted on Instagram, then you’ll be losing out in the race,” he says.
Nodding in agreement, Wong explains: “A vanilla cake will always be a vanilla cake, and not many people would want a plain vanilla cake. But if that vanilla cake is transformed into a unicorn cake, then everybody would definitely want a piece of it. Or at least a picture of it!”
He goes on to tell me with a chuckle that he did end up baking a unicorn cake as a request from one of their loyal customers.
He is quick to add that he would never compromise on taste even though they put a lot of their focus on visual stimulation. “You need a fine balance between taste and presentation,” says the passionate baker, pointing out that the cafe aims to first visually attract people into buying their deserts and then to ensure they have repeat customers — their desserts have to taste really good.
“No one but the Japanese has been able to do it so well! That’s why we’ve decided to emulate them!” proclaims Daniel. Their hard work has somewhat paid off recently when they received praises from Japanese customers living in the neighbourhood. That recognition has spurred them on in honing their skills to serve up even more perfectly decorated and delectable desserts.
It’s funny how desserts can have such hold on you that time can be rendered inconsequential. I realise with a start that the sun has already set and it’s way past 7pm. Feeling stuffed and inexplicably happy, I compliment the duo on their desserts.
Smiling, Daniel concludes: “At the end of the day, our main goal in opening Shugatori is to see empty plates and happy faces when customers walk out the door. I’ve always believed that desserts are the ultimate reward for a life that’s already filled with challenges. And having a piece of cake after a bad day is like catching sight of a beautiful rainbow after a storm. Don’t you agree?”
Shugatori - The Dessert Cafe
WHERE: NO.95G, Ground Floor, Jalan SS21/1A, Damansara Utama, PJ