A touch of Hiroshima, fried up on a hot plateThe Japanese community here wastes no time rallying to support all things Japanese in Korea, which, after all, is a pretty Japanese thing to do. Seemingly having inherited genes that command meticulousness in detail and nuance, experts of all things Japanese are often too humble to seek overt advertisement of their already-proven premise, whether it concerns building world-class architecture or decorating a dessert pudding.
When my Japanese friends gingerly mentioned the newly-open Japanese restaurant that churns out fresh okonomiyaki, I knew I had to join Japanese forces. Note here: I’m certainly not a holder of a Japanese passport, but I feel that my endearing childhood spent in Tokyo and connections ― emotional and physical ― to Japan make me a rightful member, or even a fringe supporter at best, of the community in Seoul.
To the Japanese-at-heart, the restaurant No Side can offer a number of comfort factors, which stand out in the typically cluttered neighborhood near Hongik University, northwest of Seoul. My visit there with a colleague immediately gave me a good impression, with perfectly aligned signs and Japanese shochu bottles to the spic-and-span teppan (stainless steel plate), the central feature of No Side.
The restaurant is basically a rectangular counter that can seat up to 20 persons. The owner is Choi Sun-myeong, a third-generation Korean-Japanese, who with his mother whips up, among other things, two types of traditional Japanese dishes: okonomiyaki and teppan-yaki.
The method of cooking teppan-yaki at No Side can’t be compared to the “culinary circus” staged by masters in toque hats (those tall white hats worn by chefs), but a simplified, homey version by Mr. Choi, who used to be a rugby player in his home town in Hiroshima before becoming a food-related wholesaler and then a chef. Thus the unusual name of his restaurant, “No side,” the term for the end of a rugby match, as signaled by the referee’s whistle.
Born and raised in Hiroshima, Mr. Choi first came to Seoul to learn Korean two years ago and then moved here last October; he opened No Side in late 2005. The specialities at No Side are considered novelties in the capital’s dining scene, which is being increasingly diversified, as Mr. Choi’s okonomiyaki is made in a distinctively Hiroshima-style, not the Osaka-style found all over Seoul (more on that later).
The sight of neatly displayed Japanese shochu bottles on one wall was tempting enough, but the jaw-dropping price (66,000 won, equal to $68) of one of the most popular brands of barley shochu in Japan, Iichiko, wiped out our hopes of sampling it. “I can’t help it, it’s the import tariff,” Mr. Choi said apologetically. So instead we got reasonably-priced Asahi beers for 6,000 won, which came out perfectly chilled, golden and lip-smacking good.
We got to watch the cooking in front of us while we guzzled down our beer. As he poured, skillfully, a thin flour batter onto the hot plate, Mr. Choi explained in Japanese, “Osaka-style okonomiyaki is [made by putting] all the ingredients into a bowl and mixing and pouring it onto the pan, but, look, Hiroshima-style is grilling one fresh ingredient at a time.” He quickly placed two handfuls of sliced cabbage and bean sprouts on top of the round, paper-thin batter, followed by spoonfuls of tempura bits. He then put down four slices of bacon, sprayed mayonnaise in zig-zags across it and sprinkled salt. When he began frying a batch of fresh noodles next to the patty, I thought he was going to make us yaki-soba, or pan-fried noodles, which I had ordered on the side, as Mr. Choi said Hiroshima-style yaki-soba is slightly different too.
He said one thing that makes Hiroshima okonomiyaki unique is that the fresh noodles are cooked separately and added to the patty. He also fried an egg, which eventually became the bottom-most layer ― because he flipped the patty upside down ― of what was by now a fat and large patty.
The final step was to glaze the top with his secret brown sauce and to liberally sprinkle aonori (dried green seaweed), a real Japanese touch. Wielding a large cutter, he sliced the patty in half and slid the two halves to the very edge of the hot plate. The okonomiyaki stayed warm the entire time we were eating it, and with the specialized mini-cutter that looked something like a miniature half-knife, half-shovel that was given to us, we got down to the much-anticipated business of chomping down on the patty. The Hiroshima okonomiyaki, devoid of greasy egg-and-flour batter, was ideal for weight-watchers as well as diners who plan on trying more dishes over drinks. The raw taste of cabbage was prominent, but the rest of the ingredients mingled very nicely in the mouth. I personally liked it with the optional dipping sauce.
To accompany this large but light patty (10,000 won), we ordered teppan-yaki that added the colorfully sizzling sound to our meal. We also ordered prawn, cuttlefish and mushroom (each extra ingredient cost between 5,000 won and 9,000 won). Mr. Choi’s mother, attentively and diligently, made our cuttlefish and prawns spicy, and after stir-frying on the hot plate next to Mr. Choi, each ingredient was served separately on aluminum foil. They were not the best teppan-yaki I’ve ever tasted, mainly because the seafood was the frozen variety, but the steaming hot teppan-yaki and the on-going live cooking there made the festive and zesty cove into a Little Hiroshima.
English: Not spoken, not on the menu.
Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight daily; call for Sunday opening.
Location: 403-9 Seogyo-dong, near the Hongdae parking lot; the nearest subway station Sangsu station, line no. 6, exit 1.
Parking: Limited to one or two; nearby paid parking.
Dress code: Come as you are.
by Ines Cho