Veteran Chicago chef Paul Virant likens okonomiyaki — the disc-shaped Japanese comfort food crisped on a griddle and topped with items like proteins, sauces, and cabbage — to what pizza represents to most Americans. Virant, who today opens Gaijin in the West Loop — Chicago’s first restaurant dedicated to okonomiyaki — sees regional differences in how the Japanese dish is prepared. For him, it’s reminiscent of how New York-style pizza is different from Chicago style.
Thus, at Gaijin, Virant prepares two types of okonomiyaki: The original, from Osaka, features ingredients mixed into the batter, which is griddled on both sides. A variation from Hiroshima layers the toppings on top and uses more cabbage. Gaijin’s okonomiyaki are customizable. Customers can order them topped with yakisoba noodles from a favorite supplier of American ramen shops, Sun Noodle.
When Perennial Virant closed in 2016 in Lincoln Park, Virant began to brainstorm his return to running a Chicago restaurant. He owns a pair of popular suburban restaurants, Vie and Vistro, but the chef still wanted to be back working in the city. He’s now trying to bring Chicago something that the city’s never seen.
His wife, Dr. Jennifer Virant, spent a semester in Japan years ago, which introduced the family to the dish. “It’s been years of development, years of research,” Virant said of the road to opening Gaijin.
On the whole, Japanese food has found more of a foothold in American culture compared to other international cuisines. Four of the five newly minted Michelin-starred restaurants this year in Chicago are Japanese. Like in other big American cities, there’s been an obsession in Chicago with pricey omakase meals for “Sushi Bros.” But that’s not the type of Japanese restaurant Gaijin is, as Virant wants it to be more accessible.
Besides the “pancakes,” Gaijin serves a special beer from Moody Tongue Brewing made especially for Gaijin. It also offers desserts, such as mochi doughnuts, from Virant’s pastry chef at Vistro, Angelyne Canicosa.
Given the West Loop’s proximity to downtown Chicago, the chef sees his new restaurant as a way to give a Japanese traveler the opportunity to enjoy food that could cure homesickness. Virant wants to make the Japanese community proud: He’s excited that a Japanese woman who dined during a friends and family service complimented his batter. He said he makes it a point to find the right type of Japanese sweet potato to shred into that batter.
Home chefs have taken an increased interest in ramen in America; there are even locally produced cookbooks on the subject. But Virant doesn’t see the same interest in okonomiyaki — at least not yet.
“Outside of Japanese Americans, I don’t think there’s a lot of Americans doing okonomiyaki at home,” he said.
That brings up the subject of cultural appropriation, which white Chicago chefs like Stephanie Izard and Rick Bayless have addressed. Virant spent time researching on the website Okonomiyaki World, and he touts chef Yoshio Saito’s book, Okonomiyaki: Japanese Comfort Food, as inspiration. He’s befriended folks at Otafuku Sauce Co., a Japanese food company with a California office. A company official flew into town last week for some last-second troubleshooting, Virant said.
“We just want to do it as well as we can,” he said.
The West Loop and Fulton Market are intensely competitive for restaurants and food halls, and big hospitality groups fight for customers. Gaijin is a Japanese word that means “outsider,” and is sometimes used as a pejorative. Virant has embraced that perspective. His new restaurant is now officially open.
Gaijin, 950 W. Lake Street, (312) 265-1348, open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily; reservations via Resy.