Abeno brings Japan to Bloomsbury and the kitchen to your table with its unique okonomiyaki menu.
Bloomsbury’s Abeno is the original in what is now a mini-chain of three okonomiyaki restaurants in London (the others are in Covent Garden and Hampstead). Though still relatively unknown in this country, okonomiyaki is a way of eating that the Japanese hold close to their hearts – in fact, many of Abeno’s diners are Japanese students from the nearby School of Oriental and African Studies seeking a taste of home. Okonomiyaki is translated as Japanese pancakes (though their high egg content makes them more like omelets) but what is more important is the way in which they are cooked – on a large hotplate in the centre of the table in front of you.
Despite now being a three restaurant chain, Abeno retains all of its small, intimate restaurant charm. Staff welcome on entrance, thank on exit and patiently guide first-timers through the menu, revelling in their curiosity and excitement. Close tables add to the intimacy and create conversation between groups without being too close as to be awkward. Meanwhile, Japanese paintings, wall coverings and elaborately decorated crockery ensure that diners are given the complete Oriental experience.
Though Abeno’s menu is long and includes a lot of Japanese sushi, noodle and rice dishes, it is the okonomyaki which they are all about and for which the majority visit. This section of the menu lists approximately ten different versions all containing different combinations of ingredients, as well as offering the chance to create your own mix. Ingredients include the familiar bacon, spring onion, sweetcorn, prawn and mushroom alongside less familiar Japanese specialties such as konnyaku (a jelly flavoured food made from yam) and the Korean kimchi (a spicy pickled cabbage). Depending on ingredients, prices vary from around £8 to £15 at the deluxe end. Upon ordering, bowls of the chosen ingredients mixed with an eggy batter are brought to the table and thoroughly and ceremoniously mixed before being tipped onto the hotplate in the centre of the table to cook.
The Tokyo mix (£9) comes with prawn, squid and pork and is topped with streaky bacon after being cooked on one side. As with the pancakes themselves, the staff cook the bacon on the hotplate at the table until crisp. The Spicy Tsuruhashi mix (£9) gets similar treatment but with an extra egg replacing the bacon. After some expert flipping and a short simmer under some domed covers the okinomiyaki are almost ready to eat but first, in true Japanese style, they need decorating.
Depending on the blend staff will recommend different sauces to top them with, be it Japanese sweet mayonnaise, a soy and rice wine blend, chilli sauce, or special okonomiyaki sauce which isn’t dissimilar to British brown sauce – all from gloriously retro squeezy bottles. After the sauce comes a sprinkling of Nori and then the ‘dancing fish flakes’ – a name conceived due to the movements dried bonito flakes make when sprinkled onto the hot food. Finally ready to eat, the okinomiyaki can be scraped from the central hotplate onto individual dishes and eaten with more of the sauces and Japanese pickles including plenty of extra kimchi (£3.80 as a side).
Puddings include green tea ice cream (£3.20) which is pleasantly subtle and arashiyama-an (£4.50) which is a mountain of a pudding including green tea ice cream, aduki beans, kiwi, rice dumplings and cream - perhaps something to follow a lighter dish than the substantial okonomiyaki.
The drinks list spans the whole Japanese spectrum from beers (several at £3.50 a bottle) to umeshu (plum wine, £2.50 for a 50ml glass), sake (a large range starting at £4.50 for 140ml), sake cocktails and unusual Japanese delicacies such as the cultured soya milk based Calpico (£2.50 a glass). There are also a large range of green teas available for either during or after the meal, including Hoji-Cha (£0.60) a deep flavoured roasted green tea traditionally drunk after the meal, and Mugi-Cha (£1.80) a stocky tasting roasted barley tea. Most are available either hot or cold, as are the sakes.
The Last Word
With its unique okonomiyaki menu, friendly Abeno offers a different and exciting dining experience that couldn’t be any more Japanese - and does so at a very reasonable price.