The abbreviated name of a new Japanese dessert and pastry shop in Los Altos merges three words together. IKUKA borrows the first syllable of the ingredients imo (sweet potato), kuri (chestnut) and kabocha (pumpkin). Miyuki Ozawa’s tripartite concept is part of her parents’ Orenchi restaurant group. The first of which was Sumika Grill, also located in Los Altos.
With the addition of IKUKA, the Ozawa family is now running six sister restaurants. “I’ve been working at those restaurants since I was a child,” Ozawa recalled. “My parents were just two people who wanted to open their own business. And they wanted to serve food from Japan.”
Initially, the plan for IKUKA was to open it in its own independent space. But an opportunity came up in the State Street Market where Orenchi Ramen had already secured a spot in the food hall. Ozawa said that her mother proposed the café to the Market’s landlords. “After they saw my presentation, they said we could come in,” she said.
Ozawa was inspired to open IKUKA because she wasn’t seeing those three popular Japanese flavors being served in the Bay Area. “I wanted to bring a sense of what Japan is really like,” she said. “The Japanese sweet potato is different from the orange ones we typically eat in America,” Ozawa explained. The two prominent varieties grown in Japan are white or purple. Imo is often used as a filling in manju, a sweet bread or bun. IKUKA is currently serving pumpkin mochi bread, which contains a sweet potato purée.
“My favorite dessert is the kabocha Basque cheesecake,” Ozawa said. “It’s just the perfect level of creaminess, and the sweet, starchy flavors go really well together.” Before she opened IKUKA, Ozawa was studying abroad in Japan. While she was there, she set up interviews with pastry chefs and hired two of them to return to the United States with her.
Chef Shizuka Uozumi is IKUKA’s resident cake specialist. She cuts thick slices of kabocha and places them on top of the cheesecake as an edible garnish. Ozawa’s other hire, Chef Nozomi Yasugi, has worked in France and is skilled in making French pastry and croissants. Her Mont Blanc is the most popular item. “It’s made with chestnut paste, whipped cream, a whole chestnut in the center and a tart on the bottom,” Ozawa said.
IKUKA has been open for approximately two months but Ozawa has been working behind the scenes since November of last year to create a solid concept. “Then the chefs arrived to practice and finish the recipes for another couple of months,” she said. Ozawa would bring home dessert samples to her family so they could not only decide what tasted good but also determine if people would actually order it.
“I thought IKUKA would take off with East Asians and Koreans because they like these kinds of flavors,” Ozawa said. While she was coming up with her menu, she drew a lot of inspiration from Korean bakeries. “I wanted to be unique, different from other bakeries and not conform to what people were used to.”
Customers have been pleasantly surprised by the Mont Blanc, which is popular in France and Japan but not as well known in the United States. “People immediately want to try it and they seem to love it,” Ozawa said. “It’s been exciting to see them experience something new.”