Last week, I was invited to check out downtown Berkeley’s new Japanese-style dessert restaurant, Amausaan Uji Matcha. Had I any doubt I was at the right place, I needed only to follow the white rabbit inside. The kimono-garbed anime-style hare statue, that is, which stands just inside the door, holding forth an ample bowl filled with a bright green swirl of matcha soft serve.
The decor at Amausaan is uber kawaii, with a red torii entrance and a front dining room covered in garlands of bright pink faux cherry blossoms. Your average seven-year-old will think they died and went to Sanrio heaven. But I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t charmed by its saccharine kitsch, too; you can’t help but feel a little giddy inside, as you should in any dessert place.
Co-owner Wilson Chan showed me around the space, which was once a Body Time retail store. Continuing with the shrine theme, just past the Shinto-esque gates and to the right of the ordering counter is a wall of ema, small wooden plaques, where guests who spend more than $30 on a visit, are invited to write their wishes. And to the right of that, there’s a free diversion — a dark wooden chest that holds fortunes.
Although the decor and desserts imply Japanese origins, Amausaan Uji Matcha is a Chinese international franchise chain. Chan said one of the company’s co-founders is from Uji, Japan, but he pitched his idea to Chinese investors who brought the idea to life. After the first location opened in China, others followed in Indonesia and Toronto. Last month, Amausaan Uji Matcha made its stateside debut, opening an outpost in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond. The Clement Street store, though, is just a take-out window and offers fewer menu items.
I sat down at a table, where Chan helped me choose items to try. The menu, offering more than 70 items, has lots of pictures, which is a good thing, because this is the kind of place where the look of what you’re eating, in addition to the taste, encompasses the experience and fun. Chan pointed out the most popular items in every section. Not surprisingly, they were mostly matcha-flavored desserts — which aside from a handful of items — you pretty much can’t avoid here. Uji is a city just south of Kyoto, well-known for its premium matcha. Amausaan uses a high-quality matcha powder, Chan said, showing me a traditional Japanese bamboo matcha whisk the restaurant uses for making drinks with the potent green tea. You can’t get the same results, he said, using a machine.
After taking my order, Chan disappeared into the kitchen, and I was joined by Lola Lo of Amausaan Uji Matcha’s marketing team. She seemed a little disappointed to hear I had eaten lunch, probably because I was about to consume a variety of desserts that might total about a week’s worth of calories. I was resigned to that; I’m a professional glutton, after all.
First to arrive to the table was the Ishita Shiratama Matcha Story ($8.90), a bowl of matcha soft serve, topped with goodies like sweet azuki beans, egg pudding, mochi balls and two crunchy additions — puffed rice and black ice cream cone bits. Most ingredients are made at Amausaan’s commissary kitchen in Hayward, including the soft serves, mochi and other toppings. One of the few things that are sourced are the ice cream cones, which are colored black, bought from the same vendor that provides Disneyland their cones, Lo said. Although black as coal, they are flavored with chocolate, not trendy charcoal, as I had initially thought.
Before I could even gulp down one chewy dango ball, two drinks arrived at my table. The Hakodate Starry Sky Lemon Drink ($4.60) is part of Amausaan’s “Rainbow” category, one of the few sections of the menu that doesn’t feature matcha, instead offering mostly refreshing soda drinks in a colorful multi-colored ombre presentation. I stirred the beverage until the top purple half blended with the opaque lemon section, forming a bright fuschia. It was lemony, sweet and slightly effervescent, but in the end, just a pretty lemonade.
Chan recommends the other drink, the Kyoto Matcha Cube Latte ($5.60), for guests who have time to linger. Slightly sweetened matcha ice cubes come in a tall glass with a small carafe of cold milk that guests pour over the ice. As the cubes melt, they flavor the milk. Just as you can’t hurry love, you can’t speed through this beverage, either.
When Lo found out I hadn’t ordered a parfait, she made sure I got her favorite version, the Kashyo Uji Matcha Soft Cream parfait ($13.90), which comes in a tall milkshake glass, with layers of flavors and textures, including matcha soft serve, whipped cream, Japanese-style oatmeal, chocolate cone pieces and two types of flavored jellies. Topping the beast are mochi balls, puffed brown rice, a canned mandarin orange slice, two sticks of matcha-flavored Pocky, a piece of match ring cake, and a matcha chocolate-covered strawberry cut in two. One spoon deep and I started to regret eating lunch after all.
My favorite dessert at Amausaan Uji Matcha, though, was a slice of the Inari Chidori Matcha Mille Crêpes ($9.90), a delicate 18-layer cake made of thin crêpes sandwiched between light matcha flavored whipped cream and then dusted with green matcha powder. The restaurant offers three other mille crêpes cakes — another matcha version with red bean, chocolate and one flavored with caramel black tea. Chan said each is handmade at the central kitchen in the morning, and only two to three cakes of each variety are available per day (one whole cake provides 12 servings). The Inari Chidori Matcha is the most popular, often selling out by mid-afternoon, Chan said. If you like not-so-sweet desserts, you’ll enjoy this incredibly light, but creamy cake with a smooth matcha flavor.
Fans of strong, bitter matcha may find Amausaan’s offerings disappointing. Lo said the recipes at the U.S. locations have been modified for American tastes, which means matcha flavors are less intense and less bitter.
If you happen to eat your way through all 70 items on Amausaan’s menu, take note that this is just the introductory menu. Lo said the restaurant plans to roll out additional seasonal items every two to three months.
And soon, Lo said, Amausaan will be expanding further into the Bay Area. The company is in talks to open locations in San Jose, San Leandro and Cupertino. Every Amausaan Uji Matcha location, she explained, has a different theme, color scheme and animal character. So while you’ll follow the white rabbit in at Berkeley, you may find yourself beckoned by other beasts at other outposts.
Amausaan Uji Matcha is currently open noon to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday and Sunday; noon to midnight, Friday and Saturday, but hours may change in the future.