It's difficult enough to open one successful restaurant in New York City, let alone two – in a single space. On a quiet street in Williamsburg, chef-owner Yuji Haraguchi has done just that in a cozy 12-seat space. Known as Okonomi during the day when it serves a seafood-centric ichiju sansai set breakfast menu, the leftover fish and bones are used to make broth and flip the restaurant into Yuji Ramen at night. At the core of Okonomi is the Japanese concept of "mottainai" or "no waste", faciliating the kitchen to fluidly transform its menu and identity between the two restaurants each day. Head chef JT Vuong kindly invited us into the space (and the tea/pottery studio upstairs!) to chat more about the philosophies underlying Okonomi's cuisine, ingredients and tabletop aesthetic.
How did you come up with the concept for doing a breakfast-only Japanese restaurant?
We originally started off as a pop-up restaurant, Yuji Ramen, but eventually found this space to expand our ramen and omakase tasting menus in a more permanent setting. We were only using the space at night until we realized that was such a waste – there was an entire day that we could still serve food. Our chef-owner (Yuji Haraguchi) decided to start doing a Japanese-style breakfast ("ichiju sansai"), which traditionally consists of seven-grain rice served with miso soup, roasted fish, vegetables, and an egg. No one else really does a Japanese set breakfast around here, but at the same time we wanted it to be casual – in Japan, people don’t make Japanese breakfast a big deal the way people go out to brunch here. So now this space is Okonomi during the day, and Yuji Ramen at night.
Can you explain the Japanese philosophy of "mottainai" that drives your menu at Okonomi?
In Japanese, it basically translates into “don’t waste” or “what a waste!”. It comes from the idea of respecting everything as a whole. Most people only see the best parts of a fish, and will use 70% or less of it and throw the rest away. But the remaining 30% is useable in so many ways. We love to use the meat in fish cheeks for our family meals, along with meat behind the collar. Most people throw that away – I don’t know why, because I find it to be the best meat. After you filet a fish, you can also scrape off the remaining meat on the bones. Nakaochi for example, is where you scrape off the tuna back meat and use it for handrolls. We also roast the bones for our ramen broth – so the leftovers from our day menu at Okonomi transforms into whatever ramen we feature on our night menu. We use everything.
Other than not being wasteful, how else would you describe your cuisine?
Some people classify it as traditional Japanese, and others will say it's non-traditional – it doesn’t bother me either way. We just like really clean, light flavors – we don’t use a lot of fats or oils other than what comes from the fish. It's all clean and simple.
Your daily selection of fish is prepped in four different ways – can you walk us through those?
Shioyaki is when we salt-roast the fish; saikyo miso is a sweet miso marinade; kasazuke is a sake-kasu marinade; and kombu jime is a seaweed cure. The preparation depends on each fish. You can do a combinations of the marinades, but right now we keep most of the preparations pretty clean and separate.
Where does Okonomi source its ingredients from?
We source most of our seafood from the East Coast, between Maine and Washington, D.C.. We recently opened up our own fish shop, Osakana, just a few blocks away. There just aren't as many local fish purveyors who take advantage of our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. We also go to our local green markets for our vegetables, like in Union Square and Greenpoint.
As a chef, what drew you to Okonomi as a seafood-centric spot?
I kind of fell into it. My very first job was at a sushi bar, and I did that until the owner sold it. When you work in sushi, you have a finite skill set and I wasn't sure where I could go afterwards, but I knew I could do something seafood-related. A friend connected me with Yuji, and I've been working with him since.
Tell us about your beautiful plateware and the collaboration behind it!
Almost all of our plateware is from Jordan Colón, a chef-turned-potter in the Berkshires. It's pretty informal – we tell him what size and shape we need, and he'll play around with the glazes and textures. I like the handmade touch because no two plates are ever the same. We've gotten more into darker palettes lately because it contrasts better with the food. We definitely think about how the plates will look when we drop them off at your table - like if you're serving a small appetizer and soy sauce at the same time, you don't want those bowls to be the same size. It's good to mix and match, especially for a tasting menu, so the purpose of each style and size of plate often changes in terms of the food or sauces we use them for.
A collection of Jordan Colón's ceramic plates at the kitchen counter.
Do you have any cooking philosophies to culivate our readers?
For me, it all comes down to details, and just caring about every little thing. For instance, people think that making rice is the most basic thing. But you can taste a world of difference between rice that was just thrown in a rice cooker or on the stove, versus someone who took the time and effort to make it nicely. We have a ceramic rice pot cooker ("donabe"), and it's hard to go back to using anything else. You rinse the rice until it's really clean, drain the excess water, let it cook in the donabe for about 12-15 minutes, and then turn it off after it steams for a few minutes (depending on how crusty you want the bottom to be). You just leave it for about 20 minutes or so and it’s ready.
Kitchen Snapshot – JT Vuong
Go-to homemade meal: some kind of stir-fry, or homemade dumplings.
I can’t live without: my knife.
I never use: because we're in such a small space, we literally don’t have anything we don’t use.
Photography by Anne Z. Chen