A typical Korean breakfast for me growing up was rice, soup and grilled fish. The fish was usually something a little fishier than your typical salmon or cod–think mackerel or pike. And the line up of banchan side dishes would change from time to time, but I was always very partial to the jeon and jangjorim. It was clearly different from all the cereals and Pop Tarts that were advertised on TV, and while there were times I wanted to fit in and eat all that sugar, in hindsight I’m glad for my mom’s nourishing meals.
The popular Japanese breakfast at Okonomi in Williamsburg reminded me a lot of the Korean one from my childhood. Not a huge surprise since these countries aren’t too far from one another. Structurally they are pretty much the same. No meal is complete without a bowl of rice, accompanied by grilled fish and side dishes. Of course, the breakfast set at Okonomi is served on beautiful ceramics in a tranquil setting with good feng shui, which transforms one of the most hurried and neglected meals of the day into a small luxury.
I was pretty excited to see bluefish as one of the protein options, which is a fish you don’t normally see on the menu. It tastes like a very mild mackerel and a wonderfully fleshy hamachi collar. I asked Yuji Haraguchi, who runs the restaurant, where I could get this fish. Turns out Yuji himself is going to start selling it at his own store, pending funds from a Kickstarter campaign. I can’t wait to support his campaign, but I do wish I could get my blue fish a little sooner than that!
A lot of things come out in the Japanese breakfast, but the portions are pretty small. What it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty and nourishment. The bright green blanched collard greens, the earthy multi-grained bowl of rice, the roasted purple sweet potatoes, they were like little dabs of color on Yuji’s palate. They say you eat with your eyes, not your stomach, and I felt like this was very true at Okonomi.
On a side note, I forgot to mention that Okonomi only accepts walk-ins, so we had to wait about an hour for our table. Thank goodness for Blind Barber, a bar next door to Okonomi that sells $5 cocktails and some very decent bar food while you wait. It’s things like $5 cocktails that make me want to move out of Manhattan and drink in Brooklyn everyday.
While we were waiting, we stopped by a tea tasting pop-up run by Kettl, a NYC-based tea company that imports artisanal teas from Japan. Zach Mangan, one of the founders of Kettl, was brewing some complimentary samples of the company’s soba cha and a very interesting varietal of green tea.
His story is an interesting one. Mangan partnered with some Japanese entrepreneurs who had connections to the country’s best tea producers to bring this award-winning product to the States. He explained how the farming process is such where tea leaves can be farmed to a certain taste. If a customer wants something more earthy or bitter, the farmers can basically blend different harvests to achieve this, much like how a vineyard might resort to blends to make a consistent bottle of wine every year.
Kettl sells its highly sought after small batch teas to some very prestigious Michelin star restaurants, and as you might expect, the teas are on the pricier side. And the shelf life of the loose leaf teas is only a month, so best of luck if you open a bag and need to go on vacation soon after. But some tea varietals like the soba cha, which comes in tea bags, are very accessible in both taste and price point. The pop-up is taking place every weekend, so if you’re ever curious to know how a green tea can be spicy and unctuous and need to wait out a table at Okonomi, now is the time to learn.
Okonomi and Kettl Pop up
150 Ainslie St (between Leonard and Lorimer St)
New York, NY 11211
524 Lorimer St (between Ainslie and Powers St)
Brooklyn, NY 11211