Are you intrigued by Japanese food but unsure if sushi is really for you? Okonomi-yaki may be just the thing for you, as it uses ingredients that are also known and widely used in Western cooking. What is okonomi-yaki, you ask? It’s a Japanese savoury dish, often compared to an omelette or a pancake, whose origins date back to over 400 years ago. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like/what you want”, and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked”, and is sometimes referred to as “Japanese pizza” or “Osaka soul food”. Kansai- or Osaka-style okonomi-yaki is the most common version of the dish, which is based on a tempura-like batter, made with eggs and shredded cabbage, and containing other ingredients such as spring onion, ginger and whatever else tickles your fancy.
Abeno in London serves this Osaka-style okonomi-yaki. They’ve created a niche in Europe, that’s matched in menu and style only by their other restaurant, Abeno Too (also in London). I chose to visit the latter this time. Their interior decor is very minimalistic but functional. Customers are seated around a high counter or at tables with low benches around them, which also store your coat, bag and other personal items you may be carrying. The staff is young, chatty, and friendly, they even give you a little introduction into the history of the dish if you want. Both restaurants source the best ingredients, all their meat and most of their other ingredients are organic. You can choose from meat, fish/seafood, vegetables and/or cheese. There are a few vegetarian options, no vegan or gluten-free varieties though.
But what makes Abeno a truly unique experience is the grill-it-yourself style serving of food, where your assigned waiter/server produces a bowl of raw ingredients that get cooked in front of you on a teppan (a special hotplate) built into your table. This ensures you know what ends up on your plate and makes you feel like you’re part of the process. The preparation of the dish is a great conversation starter, and becomes a social experience. The dish is being presented as it arrives to your table in its still raw form, and you get walked through the different stages of the cooking process, including mixing, shaping, flipping and decorating. The prepared dish is topped with your choice of recommended ingredients that complement the flavours of your meal, such as aonori (seaweed flakes), katsuobushi (bonito flakes), Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger. Yum.
Be prepared to be very hot sitting next to the heat-radiating hotplate, people staring at you eating from the street, and your clothes smelling like that of a grill chef’s, but that takes nothing away from the experience. The food is fresh, healthy and mouthwateringly delicious. Indulge in the great selection of Japanese hot dishes, or the popular starters and side dishes, such as gyoza (deep-fried stuffed dumplings), edamame (boiled and lightly salted soy beans), sashimi (slivers of raw fish or meat), salads, and Korean dishes, like kimchi (spicy dish of pickled Chinese cabbage). If you visit in the summertime, take a peak at their seasonal menu too. If you’re unsure, ask the friendly servers for advice. They all have their personal favourites, and the fact the staff likes (and eats) the food they serve just makes it a more authentic experience for me. After the main course, don’t forget to sample the dessert menu ranging from green tea ice cream to traditional Japanese hot cakes. Itadakimasu!
Have you been to Abeno yet? Or have you tried the original dish in Japan?
(In which case I’m jealous as hell.) In any case let me know about your experiences.
And if you’re hungry for more pictures, click here to see the gallery.