Sunday, April 2, 2023

Ihatov Brings Heartfelt Bakes to Nob Hill

Tokyoites Nobu and Yuko foster utopian ideals through bread and pastry.

Walking into Ihatov: The Land of Harmonious (ee-hah-tov) in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill, I was immediately struck by what the owners have done with the place. If you can remember far enough back, this charming bakery was once an Arby’s. After that counterfeit-cheese-peddling franchise closed, Starbucks took over. The structure got a bit of a facelift, but the specter of Arby’s remained. (A few years later, for some dumbfounding reason, yet another Arby’s was built right next door.) Now the trappings of those two chains have been swept away. Ihatov offers tasteful decor and the comforting smells of baking bread and freshly brewed coffee.

Ihatov’s founders, Nobu and Yuko, grew up in Tokyo; they moved to New Mexico from New York City, where they had lived for close to two decades. The clean and peaceful look they have created betrays aesthetic touches from all three lands. The glass display cases that don’t hold baked goods are full of beautiful cast iron ware and pottery, punctuated by neat stacks of books on the art/craft of the bake, as well as more varied yet telling publications: photography collections and Japanese literature. The photobook Celebrating Albuquerque by Vennie Eline White jumped out at me; on the front cover Nobu reaches across a bountiful spread of breads and pastries, seemingly about to hand over one of his creations.

That image reminded me of the first time I tasted their baking. There was always a crowd gathered around Nobu and Yuko’s stall at the Downtown Grower’s Market. Prices were somewhat dear for Albuquerque, but clearly many thought the breads and pastries, lovingly worked from organic flours, were worth it. I wasn’t so sure. The first time I committed to a purchase was well into the great Albuquerque bagel drought. I saw, through the well-packed pre-COVID crowd, that there were only three bagels left in the welcoming display. And they cost two dollars. Each. My cheapskate New Yorker sensibilities kicked in, spiraling me into a prolonged internal dialogue. Two dollars. Bagel drought. Two dollars. Only three left. Two dollars. But I knew the caliber of their sourdough, if only because Nobu and Yuko had always been generous with free samples. So I bit the bullet and forked over the most I have ever spent on a single bagel. It was indeed worth it. While the disc of boiled and baked dough topped with a poppy seed-heavy everything seasoning had not achieved the rise that many aficionados look for, it was perfect in every other way. Chewy but not doughy, a crust that had achieved both sheen on top and a roughness on the undercarriage. I had planned to make an egg sandwich out of it but ended up scarfing down the whole thing as is, without even the addition of a schmear. I would love to see these dreamy bagels come back as specials, now that Nobu and Yuko have secured this brick and mortar.

At first, looking at the banner proclaiming a new bakery early-on in the pandemic, I assumed that Ihatov was a Hebrew name. I wasn’t the only one. It has that sound to it. Turns out, according to Yuko, that the name comes from Japanese literature. Ihatov is a fantastical utopian vision of the late Nipponese writer Kenji Miyazawa. The land of Ihatovo functioned as a backdrop for much of the writer’s creations, a toponym that built off the beauty of Japan’s Iwate Prefecture while spanning many lands and offering a vision of a better tomorrow through Miyazawa’s egalitarian-tinged lenses of Nichiren Buddhism, vegetarianism, Esperanto and utopianism. Bringing together Japanese ideals of beauty with foreign lands and concepts was seemingly at the heart of Nobu and Yuko’s idealist vision.

My mind was chewing through this symbolism as I took my first nibbles of their buttermilk biscuit ($3). The texture was perfect. A light crunchiness in places on the exterior. A remarkable fluffiness inside. And the flavor was decadent, with waves of rich sweetness from buttermilk and honey. My focus turned next to a slice of Ihatov’s tomato and basil quiche ($5.75). I ordered this version knowing that fresh tomato can result in a challenging bake, as the tomato’s excess moisture all too often produces the dreaded “soggy bottom” effect. This quiche, however, was flaky beyond measure. The custard, cheese and vegetable combo were just set, while boasting a welcoming light char on top.

Lastly, I ripped off a chunk from their Nigella baguette ($5). The sweet yet bitter bite of the black caraway seeds (Nigela Sativa seeds are both spice and traditional medicine and have been in use since antiquity) married perfectly with the toothsome dough and caramelized onions within. These batons are packed with flavor and would pair well with all manner of cheeses, but in my opinion are a perfect snack or meal all on their own. That said, reaching the very center of the small baguette, I found a small stretch of dough that had not quite aerated. I am no Paul Hollywood, so I turned to a more baking-experienced friend. He, too, found the bake lacking. Perhaps the moisture left in the onions had thrown-off the cooking of the very center? Anyway, a wide majority of the loaf was well-baked and it was all delicious, leaving me fantasizing about a nigella seed rye bread… or bagel. If you have never tried toasting Nigella seeds they can conjure up the hard-hitting impact of the poppy, sesame, garlic and onion combo of an everything bagel.

It gives me hope to see a space that once housed multinational chains/franchises serving such heartfelt offerings. May Nobu and Yuko continue to thrive, and may Ihatov help Albuquerque’s culinary scene embrace the utopian ideals of Miyazawa Kenji. And good riddance Starbucks. This is the kind of place Nob Hill, and Albuquerque beyond, needs: fostering community through loving attention to detail.

Ihatov, 3400 Central Ave. SE, Albuquerque, NM 87106, Breads, Pastries, and Coffee/Espresso., (505) 539-5445, $$, open Tuesday through Sunday 8am through 5pm: pastries are available by 8am but breads first come out of the oven around 9:30am


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