In Williamsburg, Japanese Culinary Traditions Adapt to the Local Environment

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Okonomi applies their culinary philosophy to what fish and vegetable are available on a given day day.

The Japanese restaurant landscape in Williamsburg has become increasingly eccentric and robust, filled with both traditional and fusion concepts. No two restaurants are the same: there’s grilled robata at Salt + Charcoal, matzoh ball ramen at Shalom Japan and udon at Samurai Mama. One spot that sets itself apart from the rest, adapting traditional Japanese principles to the New York ecosystem, is Okonomi, located on a quiet block off Lorimer Street.

Open since May 2014, Okonomi is the joint project of two chefs, Yuji Haraguchi and Tara Norvell. By day, the tiny 12-seat space specializes in Japanese set breakfast and lunch, or ichiju sansai. At night, it turns into Yuji Ramen, where it serves ramen on weeknights and a nine-course omakase tasting dinner on weekends. What makes Okonomi notable is not only the constituents of the daytime meal but the mottainai philosophy, a Buddhist term meaning “no waste,” which allows the kitchen to seamlessly transition between two restaurants every day.

The ichiju sansai set meal, ranging from $12 to $20 and available until 3 p.m. on weekdays and 4 p.m. on weekends, is a simple presentation of rice, miso soup, roasted fish, blanched vegetables with tofu sauce (shiraae), and pickled vegetables (tsukemono). There is also an option to add a poached egg. Known as “onsen tamago,” the egg is traditionally poached in hot springs and served at old-fashioned ryokan inns in Japan, where the price of stay includes an ichiju sansai meal. Haraguchi replicates the practice at Okonomi by cooking each egg at 149 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature close to that of Japanese hot springs, for 22 minutes.

“The city is surrounded by an ocean with amazing seafood,” Yuji Haraguchi says. “To us, New York is a seafood city.”

While the components of the set meal differ based on availability of ingredients, Okonomi’s commitment to a balanced meal and mottainai stays constant. “We apply the philosophy to what fish and vegetable are available that day, then decide how to serve them,” explains Haraguchi. “We try to get ingredients as a whole and utilize all of the parts.” This leave-no-trace style of cooking is what brings the day and night menus together.

Okonomi is also fairly unique among Japanese restaurants in the city because of its commitment to local ingredients. “I envisioned Okonomi to be Jizakana ryori-ya of New York City,” says Haraguchi. Jizakana ryori-ya are seafood restaurants found in small oceanside towns across Japan that serve daily fish native to their region. It makes sense that Haraguchi would want to apply the concept to New York. “The city is surrounded by an ocean with amazing seafood,” he says. “To us, New York is a seafood city.”

Most of the seafood served at Okonomi is caught along the East Coast and delivered to Fulton Market in the Bronx. “We’re here to support American fishermen, we never use any fish imported from other countries.” Haraguchi and Norvell craft their menu based on what’s available each day and go through more than 10 different kinds of fish during the week. The rest of the ingredients are sourced from the Union Square Greenmarket.

A typical example of how Okonomi applies its local-first and waste-free principles is its treatment of blue fish. Blue fish isn’t found in Japan but is plentiful along the Northeast coastline. Haraguchi cooks the entire fish by using its meat and collars for ichiju sansai, its head and bones for ramen broth and its liver for the ramen omakase tasting. It’s nose-to-tail eating—as in Japan, as in New York.

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