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The Swiss Baker of Toshogu

by Roger Smith

· Food,Vegetarian,Desserts

La Maison Rose, a patisserie

I slip past a stream of students heading towards Toshogu Station and turn onto a narrow street busy with cars. I pass a yakitori shop with a chicken statue outside advertising “rock and yakitori” (I guess they took “cock rock” literally) and spot an abandoned-looking shack that may still be a bar… but where is the bakery?

In the first floor of what looks like a house, there’s an understated sign hanging outside with a rose emblem—I’ve found La Maison Rose.

Through the large window I spy an expansive counter with chocolate chip cookies cooling on a rack. As I open the door, the smell of cinnamon emanates from the rear kitchen.

Owner and baker Armor Katahira smiles from behind the counter. I first met her in 2015 when she arrived in Shiogama to work as an English teacher. From the start, Armor was constantly experimenting with delicious oven-baked goods, coaxing a simple toaster oven to make delicious lasagnas and brownies.

Armor recalls, “I started making vegan sweets at home for myself. I would share a lot of what I made with people I knew and coworkers.”

Her passion for cooking, and the encouragement of the friends and coworkers who tasted her handiwork, eventually led to opening her own bakery.

It is the middle of December, and on this fourth day since the shop’s opening, things are quiet. The shop’s centerpiece is the huge glass display case full mouthwatering baked goods. Today it entices with cinnamon rolls, pumpkin bread, cookies, and Linzer torte.

As I browse the selection, a mother and young child come in. The little girl demands, “Let me see!” and the mother lifts her up to counter level. She spots the Linzer torte, filled with a rich red raspberry jam, and exclaims “This one! I want to eat this one!” The mother tries to interest her in the other goods, too, but her mind is already made up.

Trusting the wisdom of children, I also decide to start with the Linzer torte. My first impression was how full of flavor it was, the cinnamon enlivening the sweet tartness of the raspberry filling. The second was that the crust did its part by providing a moist and chewy counterpoint to the filling.

Armor told me that as a child in Switzerland, she loved going to bakeries, “There's always such a warm feeling when you walk into a bakery. I wanted to recreate that European atmosphere here, in my bakery.”

It’s no accident that the display counter is right by the window. “At nighttime, especially when the lights are on, many people have been stopping by to take pictures. There's something kind of magical about seeing a bakery and the creations together," she observes.

Next, I try the cookies. I’m not a fan of the dry, crumbly ones so often found in fancy boutique-style bakeries in Japan. In fact, I actually bought an oven in part so I could bake some just how I like them! Armor’s chocolate chip cookies were large, moist and chunky, just like the ones I loved back in the United States. Maybe I won’t be needing my oven as much…

I ask Armor about how she came up with the concept of a European-style bakery gone completely vegan.

“La Maison Rose is a bakery, first and foremost. I want it to be a place where anyone can come, vegan or not,” she insists. “I really want to show that even without dairy ingredients it's still possible to make delicious baked goods. I'd never seen a vegan Linzer torte before."

How can she make convincing renditions of dishes like tortes and cinnamon rolls without any dairy products? Everything is homemade from a variety of ingredients including coconut oils and sweeteners like unrefined sugar, maple syrup and agave.

Recalling her first experiments with her Japanese colleagues, “No one really knew about veganism, so it was exciting to share that with people and show that by using only plant-based ingredients you can still make delicious baked goods."

Pumpkin and zucchini breads were favorites from my childhood, and are a staple of my baking in Sendai. Their cake-like texture but mild sweetness puts them on the dinner table, rather than relegated to a dessert role. Armor’s moist and light pumpkin bread is still warm from the oven and perfectly spiced. It reminds me of home in autumn. I love sharing these breads from my childhood with my friends and am glad Armor is helping them find new fans in Japan.

Armor made the jump from English teacher to full-time baker in 2018.

“Most people think, 'I could never open a store in a different country.' I don’t want to let that stop me. I almost feel I have a better chance of doing well in Japan because everything I do is so different."

Sendai actually has several entities to help first-time entrepreneurs establish themselves, including in-person support sessions at the Jigyodan, where there is English-speaking support available.

“For someone who isn’t fluent in Japanese, I didn’t find it that hard to navigate the process,” she recalled. “I made many trips to the sanitation division but didn't once feel people were trying to stop me from opening my bakery. In fact, people were excited. Everyone's been really supportive.”

At La Maison Rose, the focus is less on fancy flourishes and more on getting the flavors just right. She specializes in her personal favorites from Switzerland (and beyond). La Maison Rose may have opened only recently, but has already begun to attract a loyal following. Armor varies tarts, scones, brownies, cookies and muffins by day and season. She continues to expand her selection, launching a line of granola this spring, and cheesecakes just a few days ago.

La Maison Rose

Hours: Tue–Fri 10:00–17:00, Sat 10:00–15:00 (check Instagram for schedule changes)


Address: 3-chōme-1-48 Komatsushima, Aoba-ku, Sendai, Miyagi 981-0905
Access: 6-min. walk from Toshogu Station (Senzan Line)

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