Location: 598 Bay Street, Toronto
Uncle Tetsu’s opened last month, and almost instantly became notorious for its perpetually long line-ups that snake out of the store from morning to night.
I didn’t particularly want to write about any of the usual suspects in Japanese cuisine (sushi, ramen, katsu, etc.). So why not stand in line for a ridiculous amount of time and see what the fuss was all about?
My would-be line-mate stood me up, so it was just me, the line, and tedium for a solid ninety minutes.
It was an interesting experience. Standing in that line, it quickly becomes apparent that you are now an object of curiosity, subject to countless bemused stares from gawking passersby.
There are the hushed questions: what’s that line for? followed by the obligatory chuckles and raised eyebrows when it’s revealed that yes, it’s for cheesecake.
There are the ersatz photographers commemorating your poor judgment for all eternity (I witnessed at least three people photographing the line, and those are just the ones I noticed).
And of course, there are the muttered grumblings of “this better be good” by those of us foolhardy enough to while away a Saturday afternoon standing in a barely-moving queue.
I also saw triumph: a man holding a tiny, shivering dog, greeting his cheesecake-clutching girlfriend with palpably emotional squeals of joy; a woman emerging from the store as if reborn, sighing with relief with a wrought exclamation of “ninety minutes!” Who was she talking to? Nobody. Everybody.
This isn’t just about cheesecake. It’s about the wait. The experience. You’re paying for the cheesecake, sure, but is that why people are flocking here? If you could just stroll into the shop and buy a cheesecake whenever you want, would people care?
Clearly, it’s not about dessert, or at least it isn’t just about that: it’s about the shared communion of the line. It’s about standing in the cold and inching forward slower than you thought possible. It’s about sweating in the cramped, claustrophobic heat of the store. It’s about doing something.
But yes, after all that, you do get a cheesecake. A tasty cheesecake?
It’s unique, particularly when it’s still warm from the oven. The fresh cake is very subtly sweet, with an airy souffle-like lightness and an almost custardy flavour that’s fairly irresistible.
It’s seriously eggy though; it’s almost like eating the lightest, fluffiest (and sweetest) omelette that you’ve ever had. It was a bit much for my taste, but then I’m not a huge fan of overwhelmingly eggy desserts in general.
Oddly, I couldn’t detect any cream cheese flavour at all — at least not when it was still hot and fresh. If you had given me a slice of that cheesecake blind and asked me to guess what it was, I never in a million years would have guessed cheesecake. Is it souffle? Some kind of custard cake? A weirdly sweet omelette?? My mind would have never gone to cheesecake; it is about as far removed from the dense, richly sweet New York variety as you can possibly get.
When it cools, however, it becomes more recognizable as a cheesecake; the texture congeals into something denser and less cloud-like, and the cream cheese flavour pokes through a little bit. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
In fact, subtle is a good word for this cake in general; nothing here is assertive. It’s light and fluffy, with an ethereal taste and texture that defies the boldness of flavour that you typically expect from a dish like this. A lot of desserts are full of flash and pizazz, like that needy coworker who just cannot stand it if you don’t like them. This cheesecake is the opposite of that.
It’s tasty. But was it mind-blowingly good? Was it terribly memorable in any way, other than the experience of getting it? Was it worth the insane line-up? No, no, and no. Does it matter?
One of the points of contention around Uncle Tetsu online is that, well, T&T sells ’em cheaper, and without the indignity of standing in line-up the approximate length of a Woody Allen movie (or on a busier day, a Judd Apatow movie).
This is true. I went to T&T so I could do a side-by-side comparison, and found individually-sized cheesecakes for $1.79, and larger ones (which are a little bit bigger than the Uncle Tetsu version) for $6.49. It’s cheaper, but not dramatically so (Tetsu’s version is $8.88).
The T&T version is denser, richer, and sweeter than what Uncle Tetsu is serving up. It doesn’t have the pillowy airiness of Tetsu, or the delicate complexity of flavour. It’s much closer to a traditional cheesecake. It’s also not nearly as off-puttingly eggy, which is a plus.
It’s different enough that I can conclusively put the T&T-as-an-Uncle-Tetsu-substitute talk to bed; if you want the Uncle Tetsu experience, you’re going to have to suffer through the line. T&T’s version is a different beast altogether.
That’s not to say it’s bad. The flavour is less nuanced and more one-note sweet, but if I’m being honest with myself, I enjoyed it more. It has less to offer, but it’s simpler, more familiar, and to my palate at least, easier to love.