Teppanyaki Kyoto delivers okonomiyaki in Highland Park
September 6, 2012 8:00 AM
Teppanyaki Kyoto chef and owner Kevin Chen at the griddle.
By Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sitting at the counter at Teppanyaki Kyoto, a ponytailed undergrad slouched at the bar perusing the menu with his friend. He was pleased to bring him to the Highland Park restaurant that opened in April, a neighborhood spot he visited several times since returning from Japan earlier this summer.
"Why aren't there more Japanese restaurants that don't serve sushi?" he asked.
Plate glass windows display exposed brick and a blond counter at this variation of a cozy izakaya, a Japanese-style pub that seats 24 in a front room, 50 when the back opens to accommodate groups. On this particular night, a four-top hosted friends, while tables of two tucked couples along the wall. A sign over the counter signaled things to come: A pair of crossed spatulas, the primary serving utensil for the evening's dish.
Summary: A neighborhood Japanese izakaya serving Asian comfort food that is suited for sharing.
Recommended dishes: Takoyaki octopus dumplings; bacon mochi; Osaka okonomiyaki stuffed with shrimp, squid and beef; Negiyaki made with scallions, beef and pork.
Drink: Beer, wine, sake.
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$10; okonomiyaki $9-$15.
Useful information: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; large group accommodation with reservations.
Noise level: Low.
Like others who visited Teppanyaki Kyoto, these diners are enticed by the restaurant's specialty: okonomiyaki. Okonomi ("What you like") and yaki ("grilled") offer translation for Japanese comfort food that's becoming more popular on these shores.
Sure, the Japanese flat-top grill is something seen before. Yet Teppanyaki Kyoto is a departure from the midcentury relic, Benihana, where servers supplement Americanized Japanese cuisine with goofy, knife-wielding, tableside performances. This restaurant has instead imported something more authentic: Japanese comfort food with the crowd-pleasing potential for infinite varieties.
For the uninitiated, okonomiyaki may seem strange. Behind the line of an open kitchen, a cook dressed in kimono cottons drizzles cabbage-ladened batter containing beef, pork or shrimp to sear in oil on a flat-top grill. Once it forms a crust, he flips it, then covers the pancake to ensure ingredients cook through. On the plate, he douses the round with condiments, like a heavy-handed Jackson Pollock. At the finish, he garnishes okonomiyaki with a handful of pink bonito flakes, translucent dried fish shavings that flutter like little fingers.
This is no comely Italian pizza pie. Instead, okonomiyaki looks like a drunken college student's after-hours experiment. But what makes okonomiyaki so delicious is the combination of textures and flavors: Crunchy cabbage, savory meats, an acid kick from ponzu, a spike of spicy mayonnaise.
How did an okonomiyaki restaurant arrive in Pittsburgh?
"It's our inspiration," said Kevin Chen, co-owner of Teppanyaki Kyoto with his wife, Shiho Jino. The Taiwanese native met Kyoto-born Ms. Jino during college at Point Park University. Mr. Chen moved here to attend school during the recession as an alternative to relocation in mainland China. Ms. Jino also aspired to an American education, since she sought opportunities not available to her in Japan. She is nearly blind.
In major metropolitan areas it seems okonomiyaki is becoming a thing. Chef Andrew Carmellini mainstreamed it last year during the opening of his New York restaurant The Dutch with a fusion dish that combined an okonomiyaki pancake with Mexican-style corn. And last spring, LA Weekly wrote a "brief history of okonomiyaki" in an informal online review. "It's not as hard to find good okonomiyaki as it once was," wrote Garrett Snyder. "Even a hardened cynic must admit that's some sort of civic progress."
Mr. Chen and Ms. Jino seem to be on trend, but their intentions have been more sincere. "We wanted to open a restaurant in Pittsburgh that would do well here," said Mr. Chen about their plans after graduation in 2003. While awaiting green cards, the couple lived in Japan, traveling and eating around as they honed their concept.
"We decided on this type of food because it's easy to make," said Mr. Chen. "It doesn't require expensive ingredients. It's all over Tokyo yet it's new here." While abroad, Mr. Chen eventually worked in a Japanese restaurant to learn his craft. "We did this so we could bring the equivalent of Japanese pizza to Pittsburgh."
The menu is brief, with a handful of first courses and a longer list of variations on okonomiyaki, such as Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo and Hokkaido, city-named mixes that feature combinations of shrimp, squid, beef, tofu, pork or scallops. Seasoned diners gravitate to the Hiroshima-style, stuffed with beef, pork and shrimp, yakisoba noodles and egg. Negiyaki-style offers a mound of diced scallions with beef and pork. The latter two are favorites for a rich yolk or a spring onion bite.
The 25 minutes it takes to make a pancake leaves ample time for a sip from the drink menu, which is more extensive than the food offerings. It includes a deep list of sake and a rotation of Japanese beers such as Hitachino. Students in Mind the Gap T-shirts with German Freitag bags seemed to prefer nonalcoholic exoticisms such as Calpico, the tangy milk drink in a can.
While line cooks assembled pancakes in full view, diners at the bar snacked on the Japanese version of devils on horseback. Bacon mochi displays a thick-cut bacon wrap around a glutinous rice square. Nori paper garnishes like a handful of cut grass.
A server told me the most popular first course is takoyaki, a diminutive relation to okonomiyaki. As delicious as an octopus dumpling covered in condiments may be, take note: Served piping hot, these fried balls of batter will burn a tongue for those who refuse to exercise patience.
Regardless of the dish, condiments are key. If a squirt bottle of what Mr. Chen calls "okonomiyaki sauce" or an orange cylinder of togarashi is not within reach, be sure to ask. The latter is coveted for its combination of black sesame, orange peel, dry chilis and "wild aromatics," observed a friend. "It's made of the most magical things in the world."
With a wedged spatula, diners serve each other okonomiyaki in a rather civilized manner. The round may not offer sashimi's beauty of gem-like iridescence. Yet it can inspire passion, as table mates clash chopsticks in a fight to the finish, provided there are plenty of sauces left to swirl on the plate.