It is not often that a humble cheesecake causes a tizzy in the culinary world but that's what happened when popular Japanese cheesecake shop Uncle Tetsu launched in Lahore.
Customers lined up outside its outlet when it opened its doors on Mahmood Ali Kasuri Road on March 30; many had no issues waiting up to 30 minutes to get their hands on that jiggly, cotton cheesecake.
So what's the hype all about?
Uncle Tetsu first launched in Japan in 1990 and has opened around 100 branches around the globe since. Its signature cheesecake is thus world-famous for its jiggly dance and light, airy texture unlike regular American cheesecakes.
While Japanese cheesecake isn't exactly new to Lahore – at least one restaurant and a home-based baker has offered this cake over the last year. But it just didn’t pick up.
However, as it is with other foreign chains, especially desserts, the expectations and hype around Uncle Tetsu skyrocketed, at least on food forums. And that’s where all hell broke loose as soon as the brand launched. It was a clearly divided house!
What's Lahore saying about Uncle Tetsu?
Some people just wouldn’t have it. One user on a popular food forum claimed, “I am cheesecake gourmand and this was the worst one I ever took (sic).” Another thought it shouldn’t be called a cheesecake: “It tastes like raw eggs. It doesn't deserve to be called cheesecake. Not recommended at all.”
Some were more subtle with their criticism and admitted that perhaps they just don't have the palate for Japanese cheesecake: “Four of us went... one of us loved it, one hated it... two of us had mixed reviews... it's about an individual palette [sic] for each... it's a [different] cuisine.. gulab jamun can't taste like [chocolate] truffles even if they look alike. Do try once for yourself.” Another commenter agreed, “Yeh kashti cake khanay wali qoum kiya janay japanese cake ka swad.”
But that’s just one part of the feedback. There were happy customers too. One young woman said, "After reading a lot of negative and positive reviews, I tried Tetsu today and I LOVED IT! It's [a little] eggy but that's fine for a person like me. Not everyone will like it. It's NOT for the people who love extreme meetha [very sweet desserts] and run away from eggy desserts. If you are into egg puddings, soft fluffy textured desserts with thora sa meetha [that are a little sweet] then this beauty is for you!”
One man even claimed to have had it for lunch: “It was bloody delicious! I just had it for lunch.”
"The concept [in Pakistan] is that a cake is fresh only if it has just come out of the oven, but that’s not the case with this cheesecake. It remains fresh for three days. When it’s warm, it’s more airy and fluffy; when it’s chilled, it’s denser, sweeter and you will taste the cheesiness." — Uncle Tetsu co-owner Waqas Arshad
Waqas Arshad, the chief executive officer and co-owner of Uncle Tetsu Pakistan, attributes the hordes of negative comments to a lack of awareness.
He told Images, “After looking at the negative comments, we thought we’d educate people. This cake has two properties: when it’s hot it’s lighter, airy and fluffy; you won’t detect a lot of sugar and cheese in it. But when it’s cold and chilled, it’s denser and sweeter and you will taste the cheesiness. You can have it either way. Though it remains light whichever way you have it and the taste doesn’t change."
Arshad isn't disheartened and believes customers will develop a taste for the cake. “I’m pretty sure soon enough people will realise that if they don’t like the egginess, they’ll love the cheesiness. That’s how it is all over the world: the cake can be had both oven-fresh and chilled. But here, the concept is that a cake is fresh only if it has just come out of the oven, but that’s not the case with this cheesecake. It remains fresh for three days. Even if you refrigerate it, you need to warm it for 30 seconds and it’ll become fluffy and light again.”
He feels that right now everyone has had the cake warm, fresh out of the oven because the outlet hasn’t had the time to chill it due to long queues of customers. They churn out a batch of 12 cakes every 15 minutes. “People have made their perception based on the warm ones and haven’t tried the cooler one yet,” he explains.
We tried the cheesecake both ways
The debate has yet to rest. So, to break it all down and find out what all the hoopla is about, we headed over to Uncle Tetsu to try the cake ourselves.
As soon as we enter, we're greeted by the aroma of fresh coffee beans intermingling with the cakes being baked in the oven. The space is large, sunny and has a spacious counter behind which we can see baristas brewing coffee and batches of cheesecakes being prepared and packed in an open kitchen.
Beside the ample sitting space on the ground floor, there are two floors of outdoor seating as well with a little cherry blossom tree for an additional Japanese touch.
Upon Arshad's recommendation, we decided to try both the fresh, warm cheesecake as well as the cooler, refrigerated one to experience the difference. While waiting for the cakes, we ask Mr Arshad what made him introduce Uncle Tetsu to such a risky market.
“Uncle Tetsu is a very quirky brand, full of happiness, excitement, sweetness. And our market was missing that. We have so many fast food restaurants and coffee chains, but what was missing was the excitement of a brand. This cake makes you happy when you see it jiggle. This cake got famous in Canada around eight years ago. Then it went to Australia, and in seven years they were all over the world. It’s a new phenomenon that no one has been able to copy yet.”
He then shared the supposed health benefits of desserts like Japanese cheesecake.
“We have very sweet desserts right now in the market; you have a couple of bites and you get a sugar rush, sometimes it's not possible to finish a whole slice of cake.
"People have now become health and calorie conscious and are avoiding a lot of sugar. This cake is so low on sugar that even if you have an entire cake its sugar content will be equal to that of a single slice of a conventional cake. I’m confident that gradually people will realise how good a low-sugar cake is. You can satiate your sugar craving with it without technically eating a lot of sugar. It’s completely healthy,” he claims.
"Uncle Tetsu is a very quirky brand, full of happiness, excitement, sweetness. And our market was missing that. We have so many fast food restaurants and coffee chains, but what was missing was the excitement of a brand. This cake makes you happy when you see it jiggle."
Our oven-fresh cake arrived by this time, and just the smell is tempting enough. Contrary to many of the comments, it doesn’t overwhelmingly smell of egg. It’s a little brown on the top with an Uncle Tetsu logo stamped on it, and slicing into the cake is like slicing into air: it is THAT light.
In fact, it’s so airy that cutting a perfectly held-together slice is quite a task. And as soon as we put it in our mouths, it vanished. You definitely get the egg flavour, but it’s very subtle and doesn’t put one off. Also, it’s so lightly sweetened that no matter how many slices you have, you don’t feel a thing. And yeah, Mr Arshad was right – one person CAN indeed have an entire cake, with it weighing barely a pound.
We devoured our cheesecake with a mug of freshly brewed Americano. And what a combo it was!
By now, the other cake had been refrigerated and was served. We must admit, the cold cheesecake tasted equally delectable as the fresh, warm one. The only difference was that it gets slightly dense after refrigeration yet it remains light, soft and fluffy.
But there’s a hack to this too: a refrigerated cake can be brought back to its fresh, softer, airier state by warming it in a microwave oven for just 30 seconds. Surely, this cake can be savoured both warm and cold. A cuppa coffee just makes it a sinful experience.
Besides the jiggly cheesecake, Uncle Tetsu offers Honey Madeleines and Cheese Sticks, as well as a range of coffees, chillers and tea. The madeleines are soft, buttery cupcakes made from honey instead of sugar. Just like the cheesecake, they’re light, soft and not too sweet. The cheese sticks sprinkled with some sugar could even serve as a quick breakfast along with a hot cup of tea or coffee.
The price tag of a little over Rs1,000 for a cheesecake may appear costly, but Mr Arshad says: “The new government has changed the import policy, which has raised ingredient prices. The dollar is also going higher every other day, so all ingredients are getting more and more expensive. It’s hard to maintain a price in such circumstances, so we’re still economical that way.”