Playing with your food: Sakuratei gets creative with okonomiyaki
When I first came to Japan, nearly ten years ago, a very “in-the-know-friend” brought me to Sakuratei. It was my first time eating, and of course cooking, okonomiyaki. Over the next couple of years, I would return any time I had a friend or relative in town, to show them a side of the Tokyo food scene most tourists were unlikely to see.
At that time it seemed like one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Far away from the craziness of Takeshita Street, Sakuratei’s main entrance is hidden down one of Harajuku’s many twisting alleys. It was always better to go in the back way via a narrow path behind the elaborate facade of the Design Festa Gallery.
These days, the secret of Sakuratei is not so well-kept. There’s now a menu board in front of the path and a bright red arrow painted on the wall ensuring you don’t miss the “back entrance.” The main entrance still remains elusive, funnily enough.
But regardless of whether the secret’s out or not, a recent trip confirmed that this place remains my favorite okonomiyaki joint in the city. The food is great and the ambience is even better. The murals on the walls seem to have grown since my last visit, and every room is now covered floor to ceiling with bright, busy paintings. Don’t miss the three high school girls decorating the wall near the staircase with pregnant bellies poking out of their sailor uniforms (presumably food babies).
The funky setting creates the perfect atmosphere for DIY food. The menu at Sakuratei includes appetizers, monjayaki—we had the kaisen (seafood) monja—and other items designed to be cooked on the iron teppan griddle at each table. But the real star here is the okonomiyaki. The menu features a huge variety, with some unique takes on the dish that you won’t find anywhere else. Each comes with all ingredients uncooked in a single bowl. It’s then up to you to mix, grill and garnish your creations before digging in.
This is a fantastic group activity. Everyone wants a go at pouring and shaping the perfect okonomiyaki. Basting the savory, dark sauce and decorating with mayonnaise, powdered seaweed and bonito flakes became something of a competition. We sampled three bowls: the kurobota (pork) bowl, the three-cheese special, and the healthy special (an interesting mix of avocados and beans, among other things, with a side of salsa for dressing).
The pork was easily the best. Pretty much your classic okonomiyaki with big thick cuts of pork belly mixed in. Once it’s steaming hot and covered in sauce and mayo, it’s a little sweet, a little savory and as good as I’ve had.
The three-cheese was next. As crazy as cheese sounds paired with the cabbage in okonomiyaki, it worked surprisingly well. Everyone agreed it was a successful experiment. But be warned: you’re going to want to oil the grill well before melting cheese all over it.
While the hot, mushy avocado of the healthy special didn’t put me off as much as I expected it might, I’m afraid salsa as an okonomiyaki topping doesn’t really work. It wasn’t inedible, but I wouldn’t order it again.
Sakuratei also offers an interesting dessert, with an equally novel way to order it. The dish, called Banayan, can be ordered for ¥500. But you can choose to janken (rock, paper, scissors) with your waiter for a better deal. If you win, you get the dessert for free. If you lose, you’re out ¥700. Despite being more than full and sitting by a clean teppan after a final order of yakisoba, we just couldn’t pass up something that was so in keeping with the night’s theme of creativity and innocent competition.
We lost. So for ¥700, we received what looked like a banana split and a glass of milk. Our waiter told us to pour the banana split on the grill until it began to congeal, and then slowly add the milk in the center, little by little until it became thick enough to eat with the tiny monjayaki spatulas. In the end, it tasted like hot, condensed milk with bananas. But I’ll let you find out what grilling and mashing cornflakes, chocolate sauce, banana, ice cream and milk looks like on your own.