On a trip to Japan in 2018, Kayoko and Matt Kaye were intrigued by a cheesecake that tasted like crème brûlée. Instead of a bottom crust, a golden chewy exterior formed naturally in a hot oven, creating a kind of caramel force field around the interior. For the couple, owners of Kayo's Ramen Bar on N Williams, it was a revelation: decidedly different from the soft, jiggly Japanese cheesecakes they found in Japan's bakeries and 7-11s. Kayoko remembers hearing the words “Basque cheesecake.”
With no recipe or formula, Kayoko recreated her own version for friends and family, adding what she calls “a Japanese aesthetic, more delicate, not too sweet.” A year later, burnt Basque cheesecake, a dessert popular at San Sebastian's La Viña bar since the 1990s, suddenly blew up on the Internet. Followers called it the best cheesecake ever, as culinary sleuths tried to crack the code of a phenom made with little more than old-fashioned cream cheese, eggs, sugar, and heavy cream. One of the last pieces I wrote before the pandemic shut down last March was called Burnt Basque Cheesecake is Coming for Portland, based on Bakeshop’s excellent version.
Still, the Kayes didn't consider the dessert for their pandemic-born Kimura Toast Bar when it opened last June next door to Kayo’s Ramen Bar. Then another viral phenom happened: Japanese Basque cheesecake, a mash-up of San Sebastian and a Japanese soufflé cheesecake, was selling out in mere seconds online. Oakland, CA creator Charles Chen called it Basuku Cheesecake. Food & Wine called it “the cult dessert of 2020.” Kaye's daughter Lucy, an engineer who lives in the Bay Area, called home: “Mom,” she said, “This is crazy. You should do this. Yours is good.”
It was just the confidence boost she needed. Now, Kayoko's “Japanese-inspired Basque Cheesecake” is a fixture at Kimura Toast Bar, available whole for pick-up Fridays and Saturdays, 10 am to 2 pm. Cost is $25 for a 6-inch round, no pre-order necessary. Slices are also available most days at Kimura, which also offers outdoor seating out front.
So how does it stack up? I tasted Basuku's recently when my friend Gary Okazaki, a.k.a. Gary the Foodie, shared his FedEx shipment (this is the new definition of a friend). It's hard to know how hype influences experience, but the texture was impressive. With folds of stiff egg whites, Chen has merged the airy, melt-in-the-mouth essence of a Japanese soufflé with the rich fluff and chew of the burnt Basque cheesecake. Basuku is not easily dethroned.
But Kimura's Japanese-inspired cheesecake is no slouch. The first bite is like the early stage of a toasted marshmallow—a golden, graham-y, sugar-fired head-rush that is as much as about smell as taste. Inside lies a fresh definition of creamy, light, and subtle, especially at room temperature, when the flavors blossom. As one friend put it, “I'm from New York. I'm used to dense, cut-it-with-a-saw cheesecake. Light to me is like, ‘Why bother?’ I don't like delicate cheesecake—and this is so strangely satisfying.”
Clearly, there's no one definition of a Japanese-inspired Basque cheesecake. Basuku folds in meringue-like egg whites. Kayoko, like most burnt Basque cheesecake makers, uses whole eggs, though the number per batch is a secret. What ultimately defines her version is her own aesthetic. “The Japanese tend to emphasize more delicate, less rich, less sweet,” say Kayoko. “Much less sugar. No sugar bombs.” Compared to Basque versions, Japanese versions use roughly half the amount of cream cheese. And this being Portland, Kimura's version is gluten-free, subbing cornstarch for flour.
Meanwhile, two new cheesecake flavors are now in the mix. The matcha, made with ceremonial tea from Kyoto, has great possibility, but the yuzu is already a keeper, creamed with the fruit's fragrant juice and slightly bitter skin.
Expect more tweaks and flavors from Kayoko, the mind behind some of Portland's best handmade ramen noodles. She's known to test ideas until the wee hours of the morning. “She's a perfectionist,” says Matt. “I've had to sample at 7 in the morning. I say, 'Can I please have coffee first?'”