Last week, after making a lovely purchase of Black Jack manga from Gosh!, I went to Abeno, an okonomiyaki restaurant I had heard about ages ago from one of the professors of Anthropology during the SOAS Anthropology post-grad party at The Lamb. She had said it was in front of the British Museum, and I originally didn’t see it because of construction on Museum Street. After confirmation from one of the Goshers that, yes, there was okonomiyaki to be had in the area, I continued my search and eventually stumbled upon Abeno on the other side of the construction area.
I entered the restaurant, and heard a cheerful “Irrashaimase!” from a young Japanese woman near the counter. I was ushered towards a table that had cooking space in the center and had a seat. For a rather gloomy Tuesday afternoon, the wooden decor and friendly service at Abeno was quite a nice respite. I was the sole customer aside from another gentleman who was just finishing up his meal as I was getting settled in. One may interpret this as a bad sign, but I was arriving at Abeno around four in the afternoon or shortly past. Most people were still in their offices or retail jobs, so I showed up at an off-time.
Okay, confession: Despite living in Japan for seven years, I don’t recall eating okonomiyaki. That isn’t to say I didn’t eat it, but, you know, I was like ten or whatever. All I wanted to eat when I was ten were Big Macs and ice cream. And when I was twelve, I became vegetarian, and began my diet of cheese pizza, french fries and candy bars that was my standard diet until I hit my twenties. I remember having yakitori before I became veg, I remember yakisoba, but okonomiyaki…. can’t recall. Maybe my pa can remember, but none of my food recollections in Japan include the dish that’s even more quintessentially Japanese than its sushi brethren.
So yeah, as far as I know, this was to be my first experience with okonomiyaki. I was quite excited.
After looking at the menu at Abeno, the okonomiyaki options for vegetarians who don’t eat meat or fish are pretty much limited to the tofu deluxe (£9.80), so that’s what I ordered. The components for the okonomiyaki were prepared in the kitchen, which involved lots of slicing-up veg. This did take some time, so if you’re planning on a quick dish to scarf down between classes or during lunch hour, you probably should pass on Abeno. I went through quite a bit of my first volume of Black Jack while waiting for the meal.
This doesn’t mean the service was slow, but it was thorough. When the fabulous okonomiyaki chef appeared, he explained every ingredient and vigorously whipped up the okonomiyaki mixture of egg and shredded veggies at the table. Now, this could have easily been done away from my gaze in the kitchen, but as a food nerd, I appreciated this presentation of watching the food being mixed (vigorously) and poured expertly onto the griddle plate on the table.
If you are an expert okonomiyaki cook, you can fiddle with the spatulas to cook your okonomiyaki to your discerning tastes. I, however, as a dilettante in the world of okonomiyakidom had to rely on the expert cook who came to my table periodically to check on the okonomiyaki underneath the lid it was under as it cooked on the griddle. He also provided an array of sauces and toppings for the okonomiyaki, including bonito flakes which I needed to nix, as bonito flakes are from fish. I tried all the sauces in little dabs on the side of my plate. I think okonomiyaki is the only context where I will willingly add mayonnaise to a dish, although not a heavy amount, and not to the whole thing. The other sauces included a sweetish brown sauce that was introduced to me as “Japanese HP sauce,” a chili sauce that was only slightly spicy and tamari sauce, which was my favourite sauce to use.
The tofu deluxe okonomiyaki was delicious, but my only critique would be that the chunks of tofu were left too big. I’d like to have a go at mixing in the tofu into the batter as opposed to having it placed in thick chunks sandwiched in the middle, as the okonomiyaki might not have fallen apart as much when squidged between two chopsticks.
After savouring my tofu deluxe, I was keen to try a dessert. Perusing the options, I went for an order of the wafu hot cake (£4.50), which featured adzuki beans and little mochi cakes cooked into the pancake, served with a side of green tea ice cream. Again, the preparation took place in front of me on the griddle, and I was very excited as the pancake sizzled joyfully in front of me. The pancake was delicious, and it was a wonderful ending to my little solo meal of okonomiyaki and Black Jack.
All in all, the experience at Abeno was quite lovely. The service was excellent, the food was tasty, and the anticipation for the okonomiyaki or the pancake to be ready to eat only added to the enjoyment. Not only is there an Abeno on Museum Street, but there’s an “Abeno Too” on Great Newport Street, and apparently an “Abeno San” to be opening on Heath Street in NW3. A pity I can’t spend £10 or so on a meal as much as I’d like; if I had the funds, Abeno would be a lovely little Tuesday ritual, complete with a visit to Gosh prior to pick up another volume of Black Jack to be read while okonomiyaki cheerfully sizzled before me.