For the last two months, I have been hammering home that Tokyo is far and away the gourmet capital of the whole wide world. The reason that I hold Tokyo in such high regard is this – They have all kinds of great food everywhere at any price point. You don’t get that variety anywhere else in the world. I can burn a hole in my wallet for an extravagant sushi omakase meal, or have an exquisite dining experience at one of the city’s three Michelin starred Western establishments. But then, I can have an equally good experience in one of the city’s hidden alleyways, where I get to munch on various wobbly bits of a chicken that have been chargrilled to absolute smokey perfection, or slurp up hearty bowls of ramen. These small restaurants, while budget friendly, are still serious, artisanal places with their own rustic charm, and in my opinion, there is none more charming than Sakura Tei in Harajuku, where you dine on authentic Japanese snacks in a quirky, artistic environment (I was told that the owner also runs an art gallery, and on the day that I visited the place, there was an exhibition event featuring peculiar pieces of work).
Sakura Tei is a restaurant that specialises in okonomiyaki and monjayaki. Both are items that are cooked on top of a hot teppanyaki plate, and are best served with copious amounts of alcohol, particularly ice cold beer. Okonomiyaki can be best described as a Japanese pancake/pizza, made of yam flour and cabbage, and drenched in a lovely tangy sauce, mayonnaise and bonito flakes. Monjayaki is the Tokyo version of the former; it has a much runnier consistency, and you eat the entire thing with a small spatula. Back when I was studying high school in Shanghai, I stayed in Gubei, an area predominantly occupied by Korean and Japanese expats. Living there, I felt like I was in little Tokyo, or little Seoul. There were Japanese supermarkets, small little expat-opened specialty stores that cater to these expat residents, as well as Japanese schools and tuition centres. But honestly, none of this mattered to me, save for the fact that these expatriates also brought their home cuisine to the area, for Gubei is probably the best place in Shanghai to enjoy homey, authentic Japanese and Korean food. You can feast on bibimbaps, delicate Japanese bentos sets and impeccable Japanese style Italian pastas. but the best of the lot was a tiny okonomiyaki joint, where they served up perfect okonomiyaki and monjayaki to Japanese businessmen that have just gotten off work (Seriously, the male to female ratio amongst the customers must be around 9:1 in favour of men. Not a surprise as both okonomiyaki and monjayaki are incredibly masculine foods). After I returned to Hong Kong, I have long sought for a place where I could once again indulge in some Japanese pancakes, but unfortunately, for the past four years, there was only one particular restaurant that could really satisfy my cravings. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kozy to death, but the small dining area, once frequented by Japanese clientele, is now unfortunately swamped with unbearable local customers who lack the respect and understanding to fully appreciate the meal that they are being served (Yes, hell is always other people). But never mind, here in Sakura Tei, I could enjoy my food in peace, even though this seemed to be a restaurant that was quite popular amongst the expats in the city. As portions were ridiculously large, we only ordered the Monjayaki and some Yakisoba (Teppanyaki-fried yellow noodles in a tangy sauce). Sakura-Tei operates on a strict do-it-yourself approach, but fear not, for they do provide instruction manuals on how to cook Okonomiyaki, Monjayaki and Yakisoba, so that wide-eyed foreigners like you and I won’t mess anything up.
Our Monjayaki came with three toppings of our choice. To begin, sear the pieces of pork on one side, and once they are nice and golden, set them aside for later use. Then pour the remaining dry ingredients, leaving only the batter mix inside the bowl, onto the teppanyaki plate, and use the grill spatulas to finely dice up the cabbage. After dicing and par-cooking the remaining ingredients, shape them into a nice little dome with a hole inside, much like an elongated donut, and pour the batter mix. Smoothen the whole thing out and watch it slowly cook on the grill until it’s golden brown and caramelised.
Monjayaki may not be the prettiest thing in the world; in fact, Japanese manga has commonly described Monjayaki as vomit, and vice versa. But my word is it delicious. You get big hits of salt, umami and richness, and the lovely charred bits provide a touch of textural contrast. You can top off your Monjayaki with some powdered nori or bonito flakes to provide a further umami boost, or in my case, add a dollop of lovely Japanese kewpie mayo onto it. Flush it all down with a glass of ice cold beer and all the stress accumulated from a busy day of work naturally disappears.
Yakisoba was a much simpler affair. Simply cook the noodles on one side while you stir fry the pieces of pork, cabbage and miscellaneous toppings on the other. Sakura-Tei provides each customer with a squeezy bottle of their own secret Yakisoba seasoning, so add according to your personal preferences. Cook the noodles until they are slightly charred for that alluring smokey flavour, then combine it with the toppings and give it a quick toss. It is so simple, so fast and yet absolutely delicious. This is humble, cheap food, but sometimes it is stuff like this that truly hits the spot.
With a belly full of good food and umeshu soda, my girlfriend and I exited Sakura-Tei completely exhausted and totally at bliss. Our meal, with plenty of drinks and a few starters, costed roughly around JPY2000 per person. This is a touch more than what you would pay for in a more traditional Okonomiyaki/Monjayaki joint, but the quality of the food and the charming environment made the experience worth it. Best of all, Sakura-Tei is very foreigner friendly – the staff speak a reasonable amount of English, and any questions can be easily answered with the various instruction guidelines that they provide. So if you are in Harajuku and you have an empty stomach, go have a turn at being a proper Teppanyaki chef, it’s all worth it.
Sakura-Tei: 3 Chome-20-1 Jingumae Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001, Japan
*They have a functional, fully-adequate English webpage! This is rarer than you think in Tokyo, where most restaurants refuse to offer an English website, and the ones that do often look like they are designed by a five year old toddler.