Fork & Knife: Jonesin’ for mo’ at the Mochi Store

When I first visited the Mochi Store, a recent addition to the slew of eateries on Crown Street, I was surprised to learn that mochi ice cream has a fairly involved history. I couldn’t stop myself from asking co-owner Harrison Robbins-Pesce questions, many of which were in no way relevant to this article. I simply needed a socially acceptable excuse to stare into his dark brown eyes for an extended period of time. Robbins-Pesce’s job is to sell frozen rice flour treats made by Bubbies, a company founded by his uncle. He is obligated talk to me (I’m a customer), but I pretend that he actually wants to.

Anyway, back to the mochi.

Harrison’s “Bubbies” — did I say “Harrison’s”? I meant “Robbins-Pesce’s” — are balls of gourmet ice cream surrounded by a coating of mochi, a Japanese delicacy consisting of glutinous rice pounded into paste. Robbins-Pesce reads me the astounding range of flavors, all of which are written on the board: azuki bean (a.k.a. red bean), chocolate coconut, green tea, lychee, sakura (a.k.a. cherry blossom), passion fruit, cantaloupe and peach (to name a few).

Each flavor tastes astoundingly fresh, probably because each ice cream is made with the ingredient it claims to imitate. The only one I suggest you avoid is the strawberry, which tastes of cough syrup. The textural combination of the chewy mochi coating and the smooth, silky ice cream inside is pleasing to the tooth and tongue. I tell this to Harrison Robbins-Pesce.

Bubbies was founded by Keith Robbins in Honolulu in 1985. Robbins was disappointed with Hawaii’s ice cream scene, so he decided to take matters into his own hands and open Bubbies Ice Cream Shop. As word of his ball-shaped dessert concoctions spread, several Honolulu restaurants began placing orders. Distribution soon expanded across the country to gourmet retail stores like Dean and Deluca and Whole Food Markets. Bubbies mochi ice creams are now an international item found in France, Dubai, El Salvador, Mexico, Singapore, Australia, Bahamas, the Middle East — and now New Haven.

When I stopped by, the store wasn’t too happening, but Harrison Robbins-Pesce assured me that it’s usually busier. I‘ll believe it. But I don’t believe it’s going to be easy moving forward. Crown Street isn’t terribly vibrant, and many people aren’t crazy about mochi, if they even know what it is. Yale senior Molly Goodkind, now a fan of the Mochi Store’s peach and chocolate espresso flavors, admits that it took her a while to get to this point. “I’ve had mochi probably five to 10 times, and I’ve always thought it was weird,” she said. “I think I just had to get used to it.”

While people in America have been getting used to mochi for the past couple of decades, mochi is commonplace in Japan, and has been around for centuries. Japanese mochi is traditionally made in a daylong ceremony called mochitsuki, when the community comes together to pound rice with a sledgehammer. “The men do the pounding; the women sing to keep the beat,” Bill Shimer, who has spent 18 total years in Japan, told me. “It is important to keep the beat because on the upstroke, someone has to kneed the mochi, and there could be an accident if the down-stroke coincides with the kneading.”

Shimer also told me that Japanese contractors make and distribute mochi to neighbors right before building a new home, as a way of apologizing for the coming noise. And apparently at geisha parties, there are several mochi-pounding games in which “men’s privates are substituted for the mochi and the geisha do the kneading.”

As far as I know, this isn’t a thing in America. My knowledge of mochi has, until now, been limited to the little pieces you can put on yogurt at FroYo World. But mochi is on the rise — it continues to be sold at a more and more diverse range of venues. I know I’ll be getting my mochi fix at the Mochi Store, where $1.50 can get you two sweet treats — a ball of mochi-covered ice cream and a chance to talk to, look at and pretend you are loved by Harrison Robbins-Pesce.

Correction: September 27, 2011

An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Harrison Robbins-Pesce as Harrison Robbins-Pierce.

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