Words and Images by Pelin Keskin
Breakfast has long been the stripped version of a country’s traditional cuisine. You bring in a staple from three categories - carb, protein, beverage - and you get creative with the flavours that are predominantly popular and neutral for that region and there you have a basic breakfast. In Japan, breakfast is usually split into traditional and Western style (the latter being self explanatory), so if you’re seeking traditional Japanese breakfast in New York, Okonomi is the best place to go.
Before we delve into this tiny place off of Lorimer St, let’s get this knowledge. Traditional Japanese breakfasts consist of rice, egg, miso soup, side dishes, pickled vegetables, and main of grilled fish. Traditional Japanese inns that give bed and breakfast (ryokans) offer this kind of breakfast to lodgers to ensure they are satisfied with their stay. Due to the soup + main dish + two side dishes formula, it follows the ichiju san-sai rule of planning and presentation. Everything is seasonal, regional and cooked in either hot water or grilled. The aim is to offer a balanced, nutritional meal. Following the practice of keeping waste at a minimum - mottainai - means you eat everything that is served to you. In true Japanese fashion, everything has been impeccably thought out in order to provide a clear purpose. And all of this you can find at Okonomi.
The main dish served is usually a grilled fish. You’re in trustworthy hands because co-owner Yuji Haraguchi worked in the fish distribution industry for a solid seven years and his fish comes from the same people he worked with. The morning we arrived, we were given our menu orally by our server which didn't take long as they had three set meal options available. For the grilled fish, they had an option of a dry white in the form of perch and an oilier option in mackerel. The third option was a sashimi don. We got a perch and a mackerel set meal with an onsen tamago (hot spring temperature poached egg) each and waited patiently.
There’s a certain calm in having so few options but so much trust in an establishment. I guess for someone who suffers from sensory overload every time they look at a menu, having a server calmly read it out to me and restrict me to only three options was somewhat freeing. But I digress.
When our meals arrived, we had a seven-grain rice that we were advised to make a little snug pit in for our poached egg to mix. We had our miso soup and then we had the beautiful plates of grilled fish, seasonal vegetables and a neat cube of a Spanish omelette. Like a new pen on a new pad of paper, or a sheet of plastic on a brand new TV, you don’t want to ruin its perfection but you want to do the irreversible so bad. In this context, instead of writing or peeling off, you don’t want to start eating your plate because it means the plating would diminish with each bite. But eat we did. Each part of the dish was different but each had its context that complimented the others gracefully. The mackerel was a bigger hit due to oilier fish generally packing more flavour but the perch held its own. Once every grain of rice was consumed, every last drop of miso soup was necked back and every little vegetable was engulfed, our plates were cleared to reveal a bill that states “No Tipping Accepted". In a city where tipping is a way of life, it’s refreshing to step into a place that unapologetically adheres to its cultural norms. Yes! It can be done!
Okonomi wonderfully turns into Yuji Ramen in the evenings. Stay tuned for our review on that, but in the meantime you can find Okonomi here and their site here. Just a tip - it’s a 12 seater so there may be waits depending on the time you go.