IN THE KITCHEN Ken Iwaoka opened Brookline’s much-acclaimed Ganko Ittetsu Ramen restaurant four years ago. Born and raised in Tokyo, Iwaoka has worked with chefs at a number of Japanese restaurants in Boston and the western suburbs, helping him hone his homeland’s cooking craft.
In September, Iwaoka augmented his ramen crown jewel with a second restaurant, Gantetsu-Ya. “We have a clientele who like Japanese cuisine, and we want to introduce them to something new and different,” said Iwaoka, who is chef-owner at both establishments.
THE LOCALE Gantetsu-Ya is located directly across from Ganko Ittetsu Ramen within Coolidge Corner’s Arcade building. “There are sometimes a lot of people waiting to be seated [for ramen], so I’m trying to provide something they can snack on,” he said. Gantetsu-Ya has only three small tables (with fairly brisk turnover — we quickly snagged one during our visit), but many diners order their food to-go, then sit and eat wherever they can find a spot in the Arcade — often on a nearby staircase.
Iwaoka and his contractor made an effort to build out the new space to evoke an old Japanese house, swathed in dark wood with wall art resembling Japanese folding screens, and featuring an open kitchen meant to showcase a traditional pushcart kiosk.
THE MENU Like its sister restaurant, which serves only a few select bowls of ramen (which are insanely good, by the way — the sesame-based tan is a personal favorite), the menu at Gantetsu-Ya is very brief, with variations on only a couple of dishes. Both rely on a teppan griddle and are popular street foods, Iwaoka said. “When I was a kid, we would buy things like this mostly at festivals from outdoor push carts,” he said. “But these days, all street food is becoming more restaurant-style.”
One of those is okonomiyaki, often referred to as a Japanese pancake. It typically uses a wheat-based batter mixed with cabbage, vegetables, and proteins such as seafood and sliced pork. Gantetsu-Ya serves the dish Hiroshima-style, layering the ingredients on top of one another rather than folding them into batter. “It takes some more skill than just mixing everything together on the griddle, and it’s fun to watch, too,” Iwaoka said.
Rather than use batter, the base of Gantetsu-Ya’s okonomiyaki is a twirling nest of yakisoba noodles. The regular version ($13.50) features sliced pork belly, cabbage, bean sprouts, and egg, all topped with a sweet, savory otafuku sauce, dried seaweed flakes, and a shower of slivered scallions. The seafood version ($16.50) adds a tower of grilled shrimp and squid rings. Both are enormous, savory, and oh so satisfying.
But don’t fill up on okonomiyaki! Takoyaki ($9.50), wheat batter gently tossed into a golf-ball-sized snack and strewn with pieces of octopus, scallions, and red ginger, is can’t-miss. “We focus on the dashi stock, because that is the key ingredient, the way most Japanese people judge if [the dish] is good or not,” Iwaoka said.
Takoyaki arrive in an oblong paper boat eight to an order, crisscrossed with stripes of sweet takoyaki sauce and seasoned Japanese mayonnaise, sprinkled with seaweed flakes, and topped with bonito flakes, flavorful wisps of dried fish shaved to precisely the right size. The golden crust yields to a mellifluous semi-solid interior, the octopus perfectly suspended within. They are marvelous; I would have requested another order if not already stuffed. Perhaps it’s a good thing the menu’s not currently any larger, although I welcome Iwaoka’s desire to add gyoza, or Japanese dumplings, in the future. (And the okonomiyaki with melted cheese calls my name.)
Ganko Ittetsu Ramen was already a must-visit-often destination for me, and Gantetsu-Ya is now its perfect complement.
Gantetsu-Ya, 318 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-505-6415, www.facebook.com/gantetsuyabrookline .