Japanese cafe Momonoki in Midtown isn’t just an opportunity for Atlantans to enjoy more of Brush Sushi’s chef Jason Liang’s dishes. It’s also a place where pastry chef ChingYao Wang can share her baking prowess.
Liang and Wang — the two are married — met in Taipei, Taiwan, during their internships at the Regent Taipei hotel. Even back then, Liang, who grew up in Taipei but was born in South Carolina, planned to open his own restaurant, but he didn’t share his intention with her right away. After getting married and moving to the United States, the couple became determined to help each other pursue their dreams. Wang is not a native English speaker, but Liang is there to translate her thoughts, acting as her “microphone” — and her biggest fan.
When she wasn’t working, Wang taught herself to bake desserts she missed from home using ingredients available to her in the States. Liang, who did some pastry work at the Regent Taipei, helped Wang a little. Opening Brush Sushi Izakaya in 2016 gave her craft a bigger platform.
Back when Brush opened, not many Japanese restaurants cared about the quality of their desserts, according to the couple. “A lot of desserts these days are overly sweet and you can’t really taste the ingredients,” Liang explains.
During the first year, Wang worked the front of house, greeting guests as they arrived while Liang focused on getting the restaurant up and running. She practiced recipes for desserts and pastries at home to prepare them for the menu at Brush.
When Momonoki opened this summer, the couple agreed Wang needed more room in order to produce desserts for both restaurants. She bakes everything at Momonoki now, then ships some of those desserts to Brush, where they may get dressed up and seasoned, as with the matcha brownie.
Brush and Momonoki’s sweeter offerings comprise Wang’s favorite confections and ingredients. After all, she started baking to reproduce what she missed from Taiwan. She gets many of her dessert ideas while traveling to places like Tokyo, New York City, and Taipei — she’ll see something and then try her own version of it. Her inspiration comes from seasonal ingredients or whatever’s fresh at the moment in Georgia. Market finds might include interesting varieties of plums or elusive kumquats. “Whenever we see it, we grab it,” Liang says.
Another big ingredient? Tea. Although tea is a popular ingredient in Asia, not a lot of people in the U.S. utilize it, Liang points out.
“I think tea, in general, adds a good earthiness to the dish, and sometimes it works really well with citrus and the natural sweetness of the fruit,” Liang says. “We want to introduce that combination of fruit with tea.” He adds that integrating tea into desserts makes other ingredients — like fruit and dairy — “sing.” Wang’s matcha lemon tart, for example, harmonizes matcha’s bitterness with lemon curd’s saccharine and tart notes, and commands attention with its eye-catching mint-green color. The matcha tea used at both restaurants and in Wang’s desserts is imported from Japan.
Wang’s favorite confection, cheesecake, allows her to explore vast possibilities of ingredient and flavor combinations. “When we talk about Japanese or Asian-style cheesecake, it’s airy and softer and not too sweet,” Liang says.
Because Japanese cheesecake isn’t loaded with cheese and fat, there are a lot of variables Wang can work with, such as texture, combinations of cheeses and fruits, and even layers. The key is maintaining the right degree of sweetness.
As fall approaches, Wang is experimenting with ingredients that are timely both here and back home in Taiwan. Peach season has faded out, so she’ll turn to lychee (soapberry), chestnuts, and different varieties of sweet potatoes — purple Hawaiian and Korean sweet potatoes contain less water, so they’re easier to manipulate. In the coming months, the couple says diners can expect new iterations of cheesecake and whole baked sweet potatoes topped with soft serve ice cream on the menus at Brush and Momonoki.
“We stick to what’s right, what we like, and what will be unique,” says Liang. “We don’t like to copy or be unoriginal.”
Wang’s desserts and pastries are also available at Momo Cafe, Momonoki’s adjacent coffee shop.