Okonomi, the tiny, five-month-old Japanese restaurant in Williamsburg, discards only one bag of trash per day. That's because partners Yuji Haraguchi and Tara Norvell embrace mottainai, a Japanese saying connected to the practice of "no waste." The restaurant's meal system is intentionally engineered to adhere to this philosophy between its $12 seafood-centered set breakfast and lunch menu and the seafood-based ramen it serves in the evening. Every morning Haraguchi receives a delivery of locally caught fish. He breaks down the animals, serving the meat as part of the daily prix fixe, and then he simmers the head and bones for ramen stock at night.
There's good reason that Okonomi is almost always packed, and it's not just because the restaurant is equipped with only 12 seats. Haraguchi, who worked in the fish distribution business for seven years selling seafood to high-end restaurants, is the ramen pro who popped up at Kinfolk Studios, earned epically long lines at Smorgasbord, and then settled at two Whole Foods counters. After two and a half years of cooking without a real home, Haraguchi decided he wanted a brick and mortar of his own. Through a friend, he found a tiny bakery just steps from the L train at Lorimer Street in Brooklyn, and opened it as Okonomi on May 1.
Back during his fish distribution days, Haraguchi realized the value in not just importing Japanese seafood, but exporting Japanese culture and the Japanese approach to food to the US. New York has sushi, ramen, and izakayas galore, but there aren't many places that proffer Japanese breakfast. Missing the set menu style of breakfasting found at ryokans (traditional Japanese inns that offer lodging plus breakfast) in Japan, Haraguchi decided his place would push ramen in the evening, but during the day offer ichiju san-sai, an older form of set menu dining that involves one soup, one main dish, and two sides, plus rice and pickled vegetables. Ryokans traditionally offer this type of breakfast as a way to not only serve a healthy balanced meal, but also to showcase regional vegetables and seafood in hopes of tempting the hotel-goer to return to the given region. Ingredients are all seasonal and local, and dishes are light on salt.
At Okonomi, there's no extra fat added to any plates outside of the fat naturally occurring in the ingredients. Therefore, Haraguchi notes, it's important to source good ingredients. Throughout the day all food is cooked in either hot water or in the oven. So, what you're getting at Okonomi follows ichiju san-sai, but in place of regional Japanese ingredients, meals are composed of local New York ingredients.
Okonomi sources 90 percent of its seafood from the East Coast, roughly the stretch between Maine and DC. Haraguchi does not serve fish imported from Japan, and the farthest he's gone to procure seafood is to Seattle for wild salmon. Likewise, he hits the Union Square Green Market and the Greenpoint Greenmarket for whole, locally-grown vegetables.
The same crew that Haraguchi once worked with during his fish distribution days at Nishimaru in Greenpoint now delivers fish daily to Okonomi. The order changes based on what they're bringing in every day, which means that depending on the time a patron drops in, his/her fish dish will vary. You could get trout or mackerel, or if luck is on your side maybe you'll score fatty tuna belly or one of the four fish collars of the day. Haraguchi cuts up just a handful of fish and prepares each in one of four ways. Shioyaki is salt-grilled fish, and Haraguchi adds only salt then blasts the fish in a 500°F convection oven. Another preparation is miso-marinated fish. There's also sake kasu or fish marinated in sake lees (a byproduct from brewing sake), and kobujime, which involves rinsing a piece of fish in sake and then curing the fish with kelp. The salt in the kelp naturally seasons the fish. Depending on the species of fish, Haraguchi also sometimes ages the animals. Oilier fish like mackerels and bluefish are aged for about two to three days, while flaky white fish is aged just one day.
While Okonomi's set menu always involves a bowl of rice and miso soup, the veggie accompaniments vary seasonally. There are always blanched veggies with a tofu sauce (shira-ae) made from dashi and white soy, and right now Haraguchi is serving radish and turnip tops. There are also always Japanese pickles (oshinko) made with rice vinegar and yuzu, and a Japanese-style baked egg omelette. During breakfast and lunch the only extra dish on offer is onsen tamago, an egg poached at the temperature of a hot spring (onsen means hot spring). The egg by itself is $1, with uni from Maine is $5, or with uni and (seasonal) salmon roe the bowl is $7 total. The move here is to pour that egg plus its goodies over the rice.
During the evening, service flips to ramen. Not only had Haraguchi never made ramen before those early pop-up days at Kinfolk, he also didn't even like the noodle soup growing up. However, he noticed the ramen boom taking place in New York and across the country, and saw the possibility to push the boundaries of ramen outside the usual chicken and pork-based broths. So, his broths are bolstered with fish bones from the day, plus chicken and pork bones he picks up from the nearby Meat Hook. Sometimes Haraguchi also spikes his base broth with uni, and now he's got a miso ramen fattened with monkfish liver (ankimo) from New England. He mixes the liver into a paste, adds miso, and incorporates both into the base broth for an extra rich and creamy soup. Also on the menu now is a seasonal Japanese specialty of mazemen ramen with cod sperm (shirako).
Unlike lunch, dinner is a la carte, and in addition to ramen there are a bunch of appetizers that incorporate under-utilized seafood, like a Maine sea cucumber dish that Haraguchi serves in a vinegar dashi. During the week, Haraguchi usually serves about five to six different bowls, including three or four mazemans, and two regular shoyus. On weekends Haraguchi serves a ramen omakase starting at 8 p.m. that must be reserved in advance.
In keeping with Okonomi's no waste, less is more virtue, there are just two alcoholic beverages on offer: Orion, a Japanese lager from the Okinawa Islands and a light and dry junmai sake. Why? "Because I don't think people need options," says Haraguchi matter of factly.
"Okonomi" translates to "as you like it," which is funny because dining at the restaurant isn't as you like it. It's as Haraguchi likes it. But the chef says he watches every plate that goes back to the kitchen and 99 percent of what he serves diners is finished. So, perhaps "as you like it" is fair after all.
Photos By Nick Solares