Behind the bar, a chef stands over a dimpled cooking device with metal pokers, quickly rotating little balls of dough. A few feet away, another is swirling cracked eggs into thin pancakes on a flattop, then piling it high with cabbage and other fillings. Both are visibly enthralled by the process. That’s why you’d be wise to grab one of the twelve seats at the teppanyaki counter at Okiway (1006 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-417-1091) in Bushwick — if you grab a table you’re missing out on the show, a unique experience in a city that’s known for having it all. The recently opened spot offers old and new twists on Japanese street food, inspired by Tokyo’s Kabukicho District.
The interior is laid-back and somewhat industrial, a perfect fit for the neighborhood. Wood tables, flanked by brightly colored metal stools, fill the rest of the ash-gray dining room, and a bubblegum-pink neon Okiway sign hangs across from the open kitchen. Those balls of dough are takoyaki (six pieces for $8), filled with octopus, topped with sweet otafuku sauce, Kewpie mayonnaise, and pungent bonito flakes. The chef prepping the dish diligently rotates the dough throughout the night. When she plates an order, she watches the delicate bonito flakes sway on the hot dough balls. “I love watching it move,” she says.
The piles of egg and ingredients on the other end are okonomiyaki, a savory grilled pancake dish that has many regional variations throughout Japan. At Okiway, the chefs focus on two styles: traditional Osaka and Hiroshima with yakisoba noodles. Both are offered in multiple variations, some traditional, others folding in Western flavors and influences.
The classic Osaka okonomiyaki ($12) is layered with pork belly, otafuku sauce, red ginger, and Kewpie. The Mexican Osaka ($15) is killer. One of the most popular menu items, it blends chorizo, avocado, cilantro, chipotle mayo, and crema. The spicy Hiroshima ($15.50) is another favorite. It’s a not-too-hot mix of pork belly, crispy ramen noodles, and spicy otafuku sauce. Chef Atsushi Yokota, recently of 1 or 8 Sushi, is consulting. As of last week, you could see him working on okonomiyaki flipping techniques with executive chef Michael Arrington, who’s spent time in the kitchens of Bondst and Morimoto.
The training process began months before opening day. It’s still being taken seriously and the entire staff seems excited about the unique concept. Owner Vincent Minchelli greets guests, buses tables, and thanks customers for visiting. When my guest and I sat down to order, our server gushed about numerous dishes on the menu — we ordered just about everything she suggested. “We have a collective,” Minchelli tells the Voice. “Everyone is working as a team. I’m not into the idea of titles.”
The concept was inspired by Minchelli’s love affair with Japan. He started visiting as a kid, racking up a total of sixteen trips throughout his life. Coming from a restaurant family (they own beloved Parisian restaurant Le Duc), he’d sample multiple restaurants in a night, from small yakitori joints and izakaya to high-end restaurants. Now living in Bushwick, working as a hairdresser, Minchelli wants to bring some of the food he’s experienced to NYC. To put it together, Minchelli teamed up with fellow Japanophile Amanda Jenkins. “No one did okonomiyaki properly,” he says. “I remember the first time I went with a friend and sat at the long bar with them cooking right in front of you.”
An interesting selection of small and large plates fills out the menu. Guacamole ($7.50) gets a Japanese twist with the addition of wasabi and a side of freshly fried gyoza chips. Charred kuro edamame ($7) are finished with bright and lemony yuzu kosho. It’s completely unlike most variations, with a hint of smoke and nice citrus and light chile notes from the dressing. Not-at-all-fishy sweet anchovies and capers ($6) with watercress and ponzu is a refreshing palate-opener, a great introduction for those skeptical of the tiny aquatic creature. Handmade shrimp gyoza ($7) and cactus sashimi ($5) with ponzu and spicy daikon are other popular options. On the entrée side, there’s black squid ink fried rice ($11), squid shishito in soy butter ($12.50), pork and ginger with rice ($15), and more.
To wash it down, there’s a short selection of sakes, sochu, wine, and beer, including rare Japanese craft brews with unusual flavors like wasabi and oysters.