We decided to take a rather more different (Read: Multicultural) approach to celebrating Pancake Day, and opted for an early dinner of Kansai-style Okonomiyaki at Abeno Too. Okonomiyaki (Which roughly means grilled as you like it) are often referred to as savoury Japanese pancakes, and seemed like an excellent non-traditional alternative to the usual crepes. ES & I felt like having good Japanese food and GW's culinary horizons needed to be expanded, and at one shot we could settle both things. Efficiency!
GW, naturally suspicious of all things new, demanded to know what exactly we were eating, which sparked a small debate at the table between ES & me over how best to describe Okonomiyaki. Is 'Japanese pancakes' even an accurate term? What of Japanese pizza? Or should they instead be called Japanese frittatas or quiches? Saying it's a mix of egg, flour, water, cabbage and other ingredients just doesn't sound terribly appetizing, even if it is accurate. Eventually, we settled with just ordering one and letting her try it for herself.
The best Okonomiyaki I had was near the red light district of Sapporo on a cool summer evening, at a small pub housed in little more than a ramshackle lean-to. Dimly lit and decorated with cheap multi-coloured disco ball lamps, we hadn't noticed it until our walk back towards the hotel and someone (Not me for once!) mentioned that they were hungry. Almost like magic, not 50 metres later we passed a window and saw someone inside, hard at work by the grill. We piled inside, ordered a round of shochu cocktails and a portion of Okonomiyaki to share, and had a really good time talking about everything and nothing in particular while shovelling bits of perfectly savoury and just the slightest bit charred and crispy round the edges Okonomiyaki into our mouths.
During ES's three years in Japan, he'd been to a number of Okonomiyaki joints where you get to mix up and cook your own pancake. Those visits had invariably ended in disaster for him, which was why we were all thankful for the fact that our Okonomiyaki was prepared for us at our table by a much more skilled chef, who took the time to explain what he was doing as he worked.
While we waited, we tucked into our side orders, including a refreshing salad with goma (Sesame) dressing. Sometimes, I think the first indicator of the quality of a Japanese restaurant is how accurately the staff shout out the welcome greeting (Irasshaimase!), and the staff at Abeno not only do that, but also communicate with each other in rapid-fire Japanese, which went a great way towards convincing me that they were pretty legit.
As with most Japanese restaurants here in London, a bit of invention beyond traditional menu items was in evidence. We got a plate of piping-hot avocado and cheese gyoza, which was odd but incredibly tasty.
Since GW's vegetarian, we ordered the meat-free Spicy Tsuruhashi, a Kimchi Okonomiyaki, which came laden with lots of pickled ginger and topped with extra eggs. There's an element of performance to the meal, watching the pancake form in front of our very eyes. The shaping in particular astounded me, given my unfortunate tendency to be incapable of producing nicely-rounded pancakes, omelettes and other similar things.
We went for the optional noodle topping, which was added to the pancake before being covered by a lid to speed up the cooking process. Two more eggs were fried and added to the base before more flipping occurred. Eventually, a jar of bonito flakes was brought out and a generous helping scattered over the top. The decoration of the Okonomiyaki was finished with a sprinkle of dried seaweed and a dash of Mirin soy sauce.
Using the small metal spatulas we'd been armed with, we split the final product into thirds. There was just enough heat to the pancake to make it really interesting, but not so much that would have left GW crying in the corner, so I think it struck exactly the right balance. After looking at the price differentials, we'd decided to get the larger Super Deluxe-sized serving, which seemed a little too much on the plate, especially given the other dishes we'd ordered. With all the cabbage involved though, the Okonomiyaki was delightfully light, and even fried on the grilled I still felt really healthy while eating it.
The serving suggestions were that we eat the pancake as is, and I had my first slice as recommended. But nothing says Okonomiyaki quite like a generous dollop of Okonomi sauce, which tastes something like Worcestershire sauce, just sweeter and more. A full bottle of Okonomi sauce was brought to our table without us even having to ask for it, and I drizzled what I felt was an appropriate amount over my second slice. It was very satisfying.
Our last dish was the vegetable Om-Soba, where fried soba noodles are wrapped in a delicately thin omelette and then decorated with ketchup, Okonomi sauce and Japanese Mayonnaise. This involved no cooking at the table, and the dish came to us fully-formed from the kitchen. I felt like I was destroying a thing of beauty when I stabbed my chopsticks in to cut out my third of the soba. It was different enough to make a nice contrast to what we'd previously eaten, and filling enough that for a while all we could do was just sit there and stare glassily into space.
It's a good alternative to the other tourist-trap restaurants in the Theatreland area, and close enough to school that we'll probably go again for lunch before the year's out.