The Japanese eat one of the world’s most distinctive breakfasts — in that it's based on the laudable idea of eating small morsels of many things which also occur at other Japanese meals, though not in the same precise combination. So to outsiders, it may not even look like breakfast the way, say, grits and eggs or a cheese-stuffed Danish look like breakfast and nothing else. The irreducible elements include fish, rice, miso soup, pickles, and a bit of the omelet called tamagoyaki familiar from sushi and sashimi assortments. Other side dishes also occur with some frequency, such as burdock root and natto, the gooey fermented soybeans that you’ll either love or hate.
Located in a tiny frame house in Williamsburg more suited for the countryside than its current street with buildings pressing in around it, Okonomi means "what you like," and serves a single breakfast meal between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. In the evening the place becomes a ramen-ya. There are only a few seats — along the prep counter and at a pair of four-seat tables — so be prepared to snuggle up to your fellow diners. Being seated with strangers is half the fun of this convivial place, where the cooks are likely to start up a conversation as soon as you sit down.
The breakfast includes a choice of three fish for a base price of $18 to $21, including tip. The selection often features seaweed-cured ocean perch, a broiled king mackerel, and a salt-baked horse mackerel, aimed at those who love the strongest tasting fish. Other meal components include five-grain rice (to which a runny egg may be added for a surcharge), cubes of super-smooth tamagoyaki, a strange assortment of house-pickled vegetables, miso soup with purple radish, and broccoli rabe with whipped tofu on top. Sea urchin is also available for an additional cost. While this rendition of Japanese breakfast contains some modern chefly flourishes, it is delicious, satisfying, and totally within the spirit of the meal as eaten in Japan. 150 Ainslie St, Brooklyn, (718) 302-0598
Little Tokyo’s premiere bakery, Panya, undercuts Okonomi price-wise when it comes to breakfast. The premises are functional in the extreme, and you’ll dine at tables and chairs provided amidst racks of groceries. After ordering from the register in front ($11.50), make yourself comfortable as you wait and watch the neighborhood wander in for pastries.
Despite the lower price, the breakfast at Panya is actually significantly larger than the one at Okonomi, so if you want to bring a friend along and share, be my guest. Included in the meal are a bowl of rice, a scatter of pickles, a plank of salmon or tilapia (the oilier salmon is better), a bowl of pickled burdock, plastic-wrapped nori, choice of fruit salad or lettuce salad, sliced and steamed mushrooms, and a bowl of miso with plenty of tofu and kelp swimming around.
Really, at the price there’s no more broad-ranging or more filling breakfast in the East Village. Or one with more rich and intense flavors. 8 Stuyvesant St, (212) 777-1930