The unusual desserts of Sake 107 in Petaluma

Ayako Masuda stays true to her Japanese heritage with desserts that are less sweet, but don’t skimp on flavor.|

Call me naïve, but when I think of great dessert spots around Petaluma’s dining scene, Japanese restaurants are not the first, or even the second place to pop into my head. But that has all changed over the past year, thanks to Ayako Masuda and her desserts at Sake 107. These dishes are so good that even when we do not know what the special is, we add it to our order, asking the server over the phone, “and two of whatever the dessert is, please.”

Ayako grew up in Tottori, Japan, which is the capital of the least-populated prefecture (think “state” or “province”). It sits on the Sea of Japan and is roughly a two and half hour drive northwest of Osaka. It was here that Ayako eventually meet her husband Paul Masuda, who came over from the United States to study biotech at the local university. This was a return to ancestral homelands for Paul, whose grandparents had emigrated to the US two generations earlier.

After graduation, the couple moved to North Carolina for Paul’s work, which revolves around mushroom cultivation. That was in 1996 and after a year and a half, and the birth of their first son, the young family moved to Pennsylvania for another mushroom-related job. They had two more sons before moving to Sonoma County, for Paul’s new job at Gourmet Mushrooms Inc. in Sebastopol.

Always interested in cooking, Ayako delved into baking once her kids were old enough to attend school. She had no formal training, instead she taught herself from books and TV.

“Dessert is very different in Japan,” Ayako said. “Cakes are lighter and less sweet. I was looking for those flavors and couldn’t find them so decided to see if I could make them myself.”

She started simple with treats like cupcakes before moving on to more complicated desserts.

While on a camping trip with a local Japanese social group, Ayako got to know chef Eiji Ando and his family. (Eiji is pronounced “Age-e”.) Later, the two family’s children attended the same Japanese language classes. At the time, Ayako was working at a sushi restaurant in Santa Rosa, so knew a thing or two about restaurants. During those camping trips and subsequent social gatherings, Ando would talk about his dream to open his own restaurant.

“I told him that if he ever did, I wanted to work for him,” remembered Ayako. “He is such a nice person and is so passionate about what he serves to people that I knew working with him wouldn’t even seem like work.”

Sure enough, as Ando prepared to open Sake 107, Ayako was his first hire and she’s been there ever since.

“I used to avoid sweets,” Ando said. “I was a runner back in the day and so didn’t eat sugar. I hadn’t had sweets in 20 years and then tasted Ayako’s desserts on camping trips and was blown away. I knew I wanted her to make our desserts.”

When ask which is his favorite, he honestly could not choose, saying, “I love them all.”

At first, Ayako handled the standard dessert menu, but by the time we first visited back in 2017 to research our article on Sake 107, Ayako had just started branching out into more exotic desserts. We were lucky to taste her very first custom Sake 107 creations, of which I wrote: “We finished out with two unique desserts that I would return for in a heartbeat. One was a mix between flan and crème brulee, while the other was a semi-dry, green tea whip of some sort. Both were excellent, and no matter how hard we tried, we could not decide on a winner and will likely order both to conclude all future Sake 107 dining experiences.”

In the subsequent three years, Ayako expanded her repertoire, always trying new things.

“My favorites are tarts and pies but they don’t last long,” she said, explaining that shelf life is important for creating desserts for a restaurant. Ayako’s dessert specials are usually available for roughly a week. It’s best to keep an eye on Sake 107’s Facebook and Instagram to stay on top of her rotating specials.

Ayako also offers one-off specials, which in the case of her cookie crust cream puffs with Meyer lemon custard, require pre-ordering. When we first tried a bite, we could not believe what we were tasting. It was the same for Ayako.

“The cookie crust cream puff was a mind blower when I first made it. I’ve had many cream puffs before but that’s my favorite,” she said.

As Japanese “sweets” tend to be on the less sweet side, Ayako’s desserts set her apart in Petaluma. “The richness of the flavors is what always gets me, without a lot of sugar,” Ando said.

Another great example of Ayako’s preference for flavor over sweetness was her recent Basque cheesecake special (“gazta tarta” in Basque), which also coincided perfectly with our Thanksgiving Basque dinner (and subsequent article). As I wrote then, “The key difference between American and Basque-style cheesecake is that we wrap ours in a crust and cook it slow and low, while the Basque use no crust and bake at a super high temperature for a short amount of time. The cake at the side of the pan caramelizes, giving it a crust-like exterior.”

When I asked Ayako why she tried Basque cheesecake, she told me that it had become popular in Japan last year, probably because it leans more toward the savory side.

Not surprisingly, it was the look of Ayako’s desserts that first caught our attention through social media. We still cannot decide if they are more beautiful or more flavorful, but either way, they are true pieces of artwork. Her black and tiger fig tart is so beautiful that we had a hard time even cutting it.

Ayako’s attention to detail seems to know no bounds. Even the simplest tarts and tiramisus are beautiful and thoughtful. But her attention does not end at her desserts.

“I’m very happy to be working with great people and for Sake 107,” she made a point to mention in parting. “And our customers are the nicest people. I am thankful to be serving Petaluma customers.”

“Omakase” loosely translates to “I’ll leave it up to you” and is most commonly heard when a diner with deep pockets is putting their trust in the sushi chef’s best offerings. We like to use it more universally, when we have faith that we cannot go wrong, no matter which dish we order. We never ponder on Ayako’s desserts at Sake 107. It is “omakase” for us every time.

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