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Thursday, April 8, 1999

TOKYO FOOD FILE

An old street favorite makes good


Okonomiyaki: It's the ultimate street food, stomach-filling, easy to prepare and just as fast to consume. Born amid the rubble of postwar Osaka (according to one version of the legend) but rapidly embraced by the entire nation, no other style of Japanese cooking comes close in terms of being so cheap, hearty and fun.

In fact, those Frisbee-sized savory pancakes of "fried whatever-you-like" are so basic and uncomplicated anyone can make them -- or that at least is the thinking behind the 50 percent of the nation's okonomiyaki joints where they make you sit around your own griddle and pretend you're playing with mud pies.

Hiroshi Ebihara, the genial master of Otafuku, takes the opposite position. No less than any form of cooking, okonomiyaki requires the skill born from experience to ensure that everything comes together perfectly. After more than two decades behind the grill, Ebihara has accrued such an easy expertise in his humble craft, that his friendly little eatery in Shimokitazawa is now considered by many in Tokyo as a classic example of the genre.

Otafuku is a modest place, essentially a glorified yatai enclosed by a low ceiling and four shabby walls, which advertises its presence with a couple of lanterns and a nondescript noren. Inside, there's just enough space for a dozen people to squeeze in at a battered wooden counter that hugs the oil-encrusted L-shaped teppan grill, plus a small table by the window. The decor is minimal: a poster or two, some signed testimonials and the cheerful, chubby Okame mask from which the shop's name derives.

Ebihara, a large, genial man who wears a white T-shirt, a blue denim apron and a stars-and-stripes bandanna, hails from Hiroshima. He prepares his okonomiyaki according to the style of his hometown which, as any devotee will tell you, is altogether more complex and satisfying than the more widespread Kansai version.

Instead of premixing all the ingredients along with the batter, Hiroshima okonomiyaki sandwiches them between two separate pancakes. The basic filling is a generous mound of shredded cabbage. As flavorings, Ebihara offers a choice of pork (two fatty rashers), shrimp, octopus, crumbled squid crackers (ikaten), green shiso herb, garlic or cheese. Or you can go the whole hog and order the house special, which will include any or all of the above, according to your whim. All are served with a slathering of sweet-savory usuta sosu (not to be confused with Worcestershire Sauce). There is a bowl of tangy red ginger pickles on the counter, which help to cut the oil.

For a couple of hundred yen more, you can ask for a portion of yakisoba fried noodles (soba, which confusingly in fact is ramen, or udon) to further bulk out the pancake. As a further alternative there is modan-yaki, which features a top layer of omelet, and which arrives in front of you artistically adorned with a garish decoration of ketchup, mayo and bright green ao-nori flakes, like the jaunty flag of some carefree Caribbean nation.

One such pancake, washed down with a couple of flagons of draft beer (or tumblers of chuhai), will be entirely adequate for all but the largest of appetites. But should you need further nourishment, Ebihara also keeps a simmering tray of oden hotpot (which is dispensed into plastic bags for take-out customers). It would be possible to spend more than 3,000 yen a head here, but only at serious risk of permanent damage to your digestive system.

Where Otafuku gives off the homely gleam of a blue-collar shack, Jinroku emanates the thousand-carat sparkle of an upmarket Minato-ku penthouse. Designer okonomiyaki may sound like a contradiction in terms, but here in Shirokane it seems to make perfect sense. Where else can you go to drink Pouilly-Fuisse with your pancakes?

Not only is it big, bright and bustling, the whole operation is as efficient as a well-oiled machine. The grills are divided into four separate work stations, each with its own perfectly groomed chef: two devoted to okonomiyaki, one to the excellent teppanyaki fry-ups, and another who spends the entire time twiddling his takoyaki balls.

It's all action and sizzle, and the best place to enjoy the show is from one of the ring-side seats along the counter. There is not a whiff of oil or ancillary odors, and barely any sensation of heat, either. All fumes are sucked into the steel hood overhead which, like everything else, is kept gleamingly clean.

The English menu assumes that you are familiar with the basic vocabulary. Order up a couple of teppanyaki side dishes to keep you going while waiting for your pancakes, which can take a while. Be aware that portions can be generous. The delectable ebi-shio (lightly grilled, salted tiger prawns) is just a couple of morsels, but the tofu steak (accompanied by a healthy topping of grated daikon radish) is substantial. And the fried kimchi and vegetables would serve as a main course for one, or a side dish for three.

Even better than the regular okonomiyaki (in Osaka style) is the negiyaki, which substitutes green leek in place of the usual chopped cabbage. Everything is cooked with great care. Throughout they use quality fresh ingredients and keep a commendably light hand on the oil and the sauce.

Two further recommendations that are easy to overlook in the menu: the gyoza-yakiand the Jinroku Original. The former is a pancake formed from a mixture of minced pork and chives (as you would find inside a gyoza pot-burner) and served with a ponzu sauce; the latter is a heaped serving of fried rice inconporating yakisoba noodles and kimchi.

Diehards would insist that the only drink to go with all the above would be beer (draft Asahi or the hoppy microbrewed Doppo). But does it equally go with wine? Of course it does, although it seems excessive to splash out on a chablis or a claret. The Valpolicella Classico is perfectly adequate, and so is the very quaffable Chilean red.

Jinroku is not expensive: but even a light evening snack there will be more of a budget-breaker than a grand pig-out at Otafuku. Is it worth it? Undoubtedly. Is it better than Otafuku? That is something you will have to decide for yourself.



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