Sugimoto moved to Seattle 10 years ago and has opened three restaurants in an area of Wallingford he calls ‘Little Japantown.’
OSAKA-STYLE OKONOMIYAKI is a savory pancake dense with chopped cabbage, glazed and covered with umami-rich toppings. After enjoying it in Japan, I started searching obsessively for it locally and finally found what I was looking for at Issian in Wallingford.
“We call this stretch of 45th ‘Little Japantown,’ ” says a smiling Yuta Sugimoto, after counting off all the Japanese restaurants nearby. But when he opened Issian 10 years ago, it was the only one. Today, Sugimoto says he hopes that when Seattleites want Japanese food, they’ll come to Wallingford.
As a teenager, Sugimoto lived in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. He moved back to his native Japan but always dreamed of returning to live in North America.
One night, he was having a drink with his friend Yuki Tanaka. The two men had met while working together in a restaurant in Osaka. Tanaka, who had gone on to open a number of restaurants of his own, shared that he’d always wanted to open one in the United States; a partnership was born.
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Sugimoto moved here in 2008, and he’s been introducing us to lesser-known Japanese specialties since. At Issian, they specialize in cooking on hot stone in the kitchen. In Japan, customers cook their own food at the table. “But there are too many rules in Seattle,” Sugimoto says with a chuckle.
Sugimoto notes the proliferation of ramen shops in Seattle, almost all of which serve tonkotsu (pork broth). So next he opened Ramen Man, specializing in tori paitan, a thick, collagen-rich chicken broth.
Then, last year, he opened Kokkaku, a Japanese-inspired steakhouse. A few months ago, he brought in chef Kazutoshi Nakasone, with his star-quality résumé from Osaka, and they completely revamped the menu. They still offer A5 Japanese Wagyu (the sashimi is perfect in its simplicity) as well as American beef (Sugimoto’s personal weakness), but they also serve a variety of proteins, and a hearty list of shareables at more neighborhood-friendly prices. And don’t miss Chef Kazu’s incredible shoyu ice cream (made with three kinds of soy sauce, it has a silky, luxurious texture and a rich, slightly salty, caramel flavor).
Makes 1 8-inch pancake (about 4 servings as a starter)
80g (scant 2/3 cup) all-purpose flour
120cc (about 4 ounces) water
150g (about 2 cups) chopped green cabbage (½-inch dice)
5g (about 1 tablespoon) finely chopped sweet pickled sushi ginger
½ teaspoon ground bonito flake
Vegetable oil for cooking
1 ounce thinly sliced pork belly (optional)
Okonomiyaki sauce (available at Uwajimaya, or substitute tonkatsu sauce)
Aonori (finely chopped dried seaweed)
Benishoga (pickled red ginger, optional)
1. Put the flour in a bowl; add the water, and whisk until smooth.
2. Add the cabbage, ginger, ground bonito and egg. Fold the mixture together, gently but efficiently, until the batter is very smooth and coats the cabbage thoroughly. (Some people like to mix vigorously and trap air bubbles, but Sugimoto and Nakasone like it light and creamy).
3. Preheat an 8-inch nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Add about 1 teaspoon oil.
4. If using the pork, place it in a single layer in the hot pan. Add the batter, and spread it in an even layer to the edges of the pan. Cover tightly with another 8-inch frying pan or lid, and let it fry and steam at the same time for about 5 minutes. You can check to make sure it isn’t cooking too quickly — it must cook for at least 5 minutes before turning to ensure that it cooks all the way through.
5. Flip the okonomiyaki. The bottom should be golden brown and the top set. Cover again, and cook another 4 minutes. The pancake is done when it feels firm and has reached an internal temperature of 175 degrees F.
6. Slide the okonomiyaki onto a serving plate. Generously brush the top with okonomiyaki sauce (about 2 full tablespoons). Squeeze stripes of Japanese mayonnaise on top. Sprinkle with about ¼ teaspoon aonori. Place about a tablespoon of bonito flakes in the middle. Serve cut into wedges with benishoga on the side.