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Flipping Out

At Gaijin, Paul Virant celebrates the art of okonomiyaki —  savory Japanese pancakes.

Paul Virant making okonomiyaki
Photos: Jeff Marini

As an exchange student at Kansai University in Osaka, Japan, Jennifer Virant went completely bonkers — as many an American does — for okonomiyaki. Osakans describe their city’s gift to world deliciousness as a “Japanese pizza,” which isn’t exactly correct. Rather, it’s an enormously thick pancake crammed full of vegetables and meat, crisp on the outside, creamy within, painted with an exuberant flurry of sauces and crested with dried bonito flakes that shimmy from the heat. Later in life, Virant found a ready co-obsessive in her husband, Paul Virant, executive chef and owner of Vie in Western Springs. This winter, after several research trips to Japan, they opened Gaijin (the name means “foreigner”), a slip of a West Loop restaurant (950 W. Lake St.) that serves Osaka-style okonomiyaki.

Okonomiyaki

The pancake

The batter contains flour, eggs, and gobs of chopped cabbage, as well as dashi (fish broth) and gooey grated nagaimo (mountain yam). “That’s what gives it the custardy texture,” Virant says. “We did a lot of testing to get the ratio just right.”

The filling

Meat, seafood, or vegetables are mixed into the batter and then the fillings cook into it once flipped. The pork version (pictured above) has sausage and bacon, favorite options in Japan.

The toppings

Look for lavish stripes of crisscrossed sauces. Okonomiyaki sauce — a sweet, thick cousin to Worcestershire — streaks one direction; Kewpie mayonnaise, savory and super eggy, goes perpendicular. You’ll also find aonori (powdered green seaweed), and, of course, those freaky dancing flakes.

 

Three More Things to Try at Gaijin

Ujikintoki kakigori

1. The rival Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is a more complex assemblage: a thin pancake layered with stir-fried yakisoba noodles and an egg crêpe.

2. Pair your okonomiyaki with the refreshing draft whiskey highball, which combines Suntory Toki, soda water, and a strip of lemon peel over ice.

3. Finish with the ujikintoki kakigori —  among the desserts, this matcha ice cream and red bean treat (above) offers the truest taste of Japan.

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