A taste of the nontraditional - Hiroki café brings new flavor to Meridian neighborhood

One might wonder what a Japanese-European fusion-style dessert may taste like, but you only need to stop by the charming Hiroki Specialty Desserts in the Meridian neighborhood to find out for yourself.

One could easily drive past the corner café, but a large amount of foot traffic takes notice of the small shop with the light-green exterior resembling Hiroki's signature item: the green-tea tiramisu.

The café's owner and namesake, Hiroki Inoue, has established a loyal following in the neighborhood, where the majority of clientele comes from friends' recommendations and the curious passers-by.

Also head baker, Inoue whips up a wide variety of desserts. "It's more flavor-intense rather than sugar- or butter-intense," he said of his inspired treats.

From far and wide

Located near Green Lake at 2224 N. 56th St., Hiroki has served the area for close to four years. Once the site of a Dutch Maid Laundromat, Inoue renovated the small space for a café and kitchen.

The café sells high-end desserts (available in single servings), pastries, coffee and loose-leaf teas. Customers are known to travel from as far away as South Seattle, Bellevue and Brem-erton to purchase one or more of the ever-changing items in the café's display case.

Open Wednesday through Sunday, Inoue is devoted to his job, often working 13-hour shifts, six days a week. He employs three bakery assistants and four part-timers from the area.

While the wholesale business continues to grow, supplying desserts to more than 10 restaurants and two cafés, about 65 percent of his business is generated from regular, walk-in customers.

A café unto its own

A unique bakery to Seattle, newcomers often need guidance when choosing from the menu.

"When people ask me, 'What's my favorite?' I tell them, I only make my favorites," Inoue said.

For the indecisive, though, Inoue may suggest his signature item, the green tea tiramisu, whose sponge-cake layers are soaked in a plum-wine sauce. It's an example of the European and Asian influences found in his recipes.

Other popular items include basque cake, a baked custard covered in toasted almonds and seasonal fruit cakes.

Employee Jacob Ruff has worked for Inoue for more than two years and believes it's the small touches that distinguish the café. The ginger in the Russian teacakes, or the orange-blossom water in the chocolate-orange cookies, are just a few of the ingredients surprising customer palettes.

The menu is also unpredictable: "Half the things in the case, you won't find anywhere else in Seattle.... Also, you can walk in two days apart and there will be completely different cakes in the case," Ruff said.

The café not only distinguishes itself by a wide array of sweet goods, but by being an integral part of the community. Neighbor Paul Coleman and his family discovered Hiroki early on and have made it a weekend morning ritual.

"I think the two things that make Hiroki's different are one, the food is phenomenal, so whatever you get, I'm sure you'll enjoy it. Second, we have a personal relationship with Hiroki [and the employees] who work in there, so it feels like a little bit of an extension of our family," Coleman said.

A change of course

Inoue moved to Washington five years ago, beginning his stay by completing a two-year, chef-training course.

"Initially I wanted to study linguistics, but I always liked cooking, and so I decided to go to the Art Institute of Seattle," he explained.

Inoue discovered his talent during his high school years, when his mother, though a wonderful cook, began buying pre-made dinners and no longer regularly dished up home-cooked meals, he said. Inoue drew the line and began making his own dishes.

Excited by the idea of providing an unfamiliar product to the community, Inoue said starting the café was an excellent business opportunity for him. "I used to spend many hours a day just thinking about recipes," he said.

He still has not exhausted his recipes nor has he ceased to be inspired. "I'm not really under the pressure to come up with new ideas. I'm just trying to take it easy and do my best and introduce people to some nontraditional items," he said.

Inoue welcomes feedback from customers, often handing out samples.

It's possible he may expand to a more visible location, but he plans to always keep his original shop, where it all began.

Abby Lund writes about places Off the Beaten Path on the third Wednesday of the month. She can be reached at needitor@nwlink.com.[[In-content Ad]]