From the outside, Workshop Issé looks like just another unassuming little Japanese grocery and gift store. There are quite a few stores of this nature scattered about Europe these days. But inside this little boutique in the heart of the Japanese quarter in Paris, you can experience something quite special: A crash course on top quality artisanal Japanese food and drink.
Inside the tiny store, sleek modern shelves are filled with what, to the untrained eye, might seem like the normal Japanese cooking ingredients - soy sauce, vinegar, spices, sake and other alcoholic beverages. Look closer though, and you soon see that these are no ordinary products. There’s a soy sauce that’s been aged for 2 years in ancient barrels; a pitch-black sweet miso that’s been aged for 3 full years; finely sliced and dried battera konbu seaweed for making marinated mackerel. There are salted cherry blossoms that have been matured for six months, so no trace of bitterness remains. There are gardenia seeds (kuchinashi no mi), used as a natural yellow colorant - I’ve never seen these for sale outside of Japan, anywhere. There are what seem like dozens of fine sakes and shouchuus, and vinegars of all flavors and colors. This is a store with some seriously high end foodstuffs for sale.
The variety and quality of the selection is a little overwhelming, even for someone like me who at least knows what the products are. This store would be quite intimidating to someone not familiar with Japanese cuisine. But the Workshop part of Workshop Issé’s name is a clue to their selling approach. Here, you can do a sampling of products, a degustation in fact (the method normally used to by a wine maker or merchant to sell wines), gently guided by a knowledgeable staff member, at least one of whom is a sake sommelier.
I had a chance to sit down and chat with with Monsieur Toshiro Kuroda, the owner and president of Workshop Issé. Having owned and run a Japanese restaurant in Paris for nearly 4 decades, he started Workshop Issé two years ago. His main reason, he said, was simply because he couldn’t get a hold of the high quality ingredients he wanted from Japan through existing channels, so he decided to import them himself. There are no mass produced products here. All are of the highest artisanal quality; a typical supplier has 20 employees or less, and has been in business for more than 200 years. Here’s M. Kuroda with his dog Pii-chan.
Besides selling via their web site  and the boutique directly to customers, they also supply some of the best professional kitchens in France. For instance, if you’ve had the yuzu-flavored macaroons from Pierre Hermé , the yuzu juice and powder came from Workshop Issé. They also sell to the Michelin three star restaurant Troisgros .
I asked M. Kuroda about his marketing approach. He said that his mainly French customers take very well to the concept, since they are after all used to buying wine this way. They also don’t blink an eye at the prices for their Grand Cru equivalent sakes, which can cost up to €250 per bottle and more.
It’s obvious that M. Kuroda, not to mention his staff, take great pride in what they are doing. And no wonder - their product lineup would be impressive even in Tokyo. I don’t know of a store like it anywhere, certainly not outside of Japan.
My budget that day was not up to buying a Grand Cru sake, so I picked up a few things that intrigued me. Here are a bottle of ume vinegar, and aged soy sauce. I love the classic labels, and the simple list of ingredients - for the soy sauce, just soy beans, salt, wheat. The ume vinegar is made from organic ume plums.
And here’s some stone ground yuzu powder. Now I usually have this sent to me from Japan (or I buy it there), but it’s nice to know it’s available on this side of the world. The fragrance of this slightly coarse powder is wonderful, and the slightly bitter citrusy taste is addictive.
Is Workshop Issé worth a detour in Paris, even if you go to Tokyo regularly? I would say absolutely yes, unless you are thoroughly familiar with Japanese cuisine, speak and read Japanese fluently, or have a Japanese gourmet guide at your side. The combination of the carefully selected range of products and the knowledgeable staff, who speak Japanese, French and English, make this store a real winner. And if you aren’t going to Tokyo on a regular basis and live anywhere near Paris or are visiting, and love Japanese food and cooking, it’s a must stop.
I guess the only negative things about Workshop Issé are: They don’t really have much in the way of fresh ingredients. There is a small refrigerated section with a limited supply of things like tofu and vegetables, plus real grated wasabi in a tube (€15, but worth it). Also, their prices are not cheap by any means, but you are paying for top quality.
You may also want to check out the rest of the Issé & cie. Japan-in-Paris mini empire: Bizan, a high end kaiseki restaurant; Issé, a ‘tempura and tapas’ restaurant; Momonoki, a tonkatsu and obento restaurant; and O-bento, a bento delivery service. All are described on this page (French) . You can buy some readymade foods (osouzai) from the last three establishments at Workshop Issé too.
For a look at cheap Japanese eats in Paris, see A Frugal Eats mostly Japanese blitz through Paris .
(Merci beaucoup to Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini  for telling me about Workshop Issé!)