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Modern Club Japanese Restaurant
3446 Dunbar Street
okonomi = “as you like”
yaki = “cooked”
Probably to most, Modern Club is an unusual sounding name for a place that is supposed to be specializing in okonomiyaki, a centuries old Japanese creation that consists basically of a batter mixture of flour and water that is mixed with various ingredients all cooked together on a hot plate/grill and formed into a circular disc/pie-shape (incidentally, I always cringe when I hear okonomiyaki being described as a Japanese pancake, so let’s avoid that terminology here), and topped off with some sweet okonomiyaki sauce, shaved bonito (katsuo) flakes, even finer seaweed flakes (aonori), and Japanese mayonnaise.
Okonomiyaki took an interest route to its modern day state, with its origins reputed to have begun way back in the Edo Period (17~19th Century) of Japan, with a Japanese sweet known as funoyaki, which had a similar base batter made of flour and water, that was thinly spread out and cooked, then flavored with miso and sugar. It has undergone other transformations over time, including variations called dondonyaki, betayaki, choboyaki, and even one that still exists today in the Kanto region of Japan (eg. Tokyo) known as monjayaki (the more liquidy batter version of okonomiyaki), before finally coming to be known in present-day as okonomiyaki.
The various stages of this dish’s development over time have been impacted by the introduction/availability or lack there of, of ingredients – the Great Earthquake that ravaged Tokyo in 1923 that caused food rations, the introduction of western Worcestershire sauce, etc. being interesting contributing historical factors. Today, you can find okonomiyaki appearing in various ways, most due to the regional differences that have evolved through its long history – an interesting trait of many popular items in Japanese cuisine, which derives or is influenced by the cultural and traditional forced compartmentalization of geographic regions in pre-modern Japan by the rulers of the day, but alas that could be an entirely separate topic, and one that could probably be applied to many other parts of the world as well.
Back to the Modern Club. From the outside, it appears almost like a cafe of sorts, with its small sidewalk patio and open wooden framing tucked into the side of a continuous row of buildings on Dunbar Street. The space came across as bistro-like inside, so not sure if there was a previous tenant in this spot that the owners simply took over, or if it was designed this way. My visit here was a planned trip and luckily on this night, they were offering all of the okonomiyaki dishes for a special price of $9.95. I could see the prices on the menu were much higher, in the $16-$18 range, so was happy to receive the discount. I’m not sure why the prices were cut this night, but reading about complaints on other sites about the high prices, perhaps they were influenced somehow by this negative feedback. Or perhaps I am just deluding myself into assuming us online bloggers exert any power over restaurants’ operations.
In Japan, most single proprietor okonomiyaki places are really down to earth, a complete lack of a pretentious atmosphere, as after all this is very much home-style cuisine. And most importantly, they let you cook it yourself, which is a big part of the overall experience. Getting that bowl full of ingredients, mixing it around, layering on a fine coat of oil to the hot teppan (grill), gentling guiding the mixture onto it as it starts to sizzle, and then shaping it into a nice round shape – all takes some practice and talent, especially when it comes to the flipping over part of this DYI task! Alas, at Modern Club, the choice to cook at your own table it taken completely out of the picture, as all the tables had no such teppan on it to do your own cooking. There was a large central cordoned off teppan towards the side of the room, where the cook prepared it for you. I imagine most North Americans have grown to accept those cook-you-own-meal barbecue places, but have yet to be fully taught on the finer points of self-made okonomiyaki, and would probably have no idea what they are doing, so perhaps this setup is just fine. Though if this place really wants to be known for okonomiyaki, I think they should invest in the necessary tables and bring a fresh element to this dish and this place, I am sure the sizzle alone would be great for word-of-mouth!
For my meal, I chose the mixed okonomiyaki and added the choice of noodles – thereby changing the proper naming of this dish to modanyaki (hence the tie-in to the restaurant’s name) – although the choices were soba or udon noodles when traditionally it would be specific yakisoba noodles or chukamen (kind of crinkly, ramen style noodles). I went with the mixed edition mainly to see just how balanced the ingredients were inside. My dining partner did the same, though was right when they expressed some hesitation that perhaps we should have just gotten one and shared, as when it did come out, it was a pretty big pie! Throw in the fact that I had half downed a bottle of Sapporo beer (the very same one that appears on the header image for this month) and had nibbled away on some simple chicken karaage, and I was putting myself in trouble from the get-go before I had even a single bit of the okonomiyaki!
First impressions, it looked not bad, nice and thick, almost Hiroshima-style like in that it almost passed off as being layered since it was so puffed up, though it could have used some more sauce and was missing both the bonito and seaweed flakes! This easily filled the plate it came on. First bit, boy its dense! Loaded with the udon noodles, made it even more so. Amply filled with cabbage too, which was a disappointment, as it felt like that was the main ingredient in this supposedly mixed okonomiyaki. A few more bites and I realized that they were using way too much vegetable oil inside and to cook this on the hotplate, it began to sag badly and collapse as I cut it into quarters on my plate – shouldn’t do that. It did have a few nice juicy prawns and some cuts of bacon (I would have preferred whole strips of bacon as you get in Japan, and not the small one cm cuts of it), but other than that the added ingredients were lacking in number – “Where’s the Mix” I say! By the time I managed to finish half of it, mainly to prevent myself from possibly growing hungry later that night, I was done with this dish. My dining partner was even less enthused and finished just a quarter. To save face, we got them to wrap them up but soon found their way into the trash once we got home – they were even more soggy a short 20 minute car ride later.
Let’s be frank, if you are looking for a real authentic okonomiyaki, your best bet is to travel to Osaka (Kansai region) and find one of any of the restaurants serving this as their specialty. You’ll only know the true taste of okonomiyaki by doing so. Though giving credit where credit is due, you have to applaud Modern Club for making an attempt here, to bring to the table something from home kitchens in Japan, to Vancouver, which is overpopulated by bad grab-and-dash sushi, and even worse bastardized renditions of classic Japanese cuisine that seems to be assumed as the standard. So they do have a niche, and seeing the smattering of couples who were dining that same night, I guess they have some fans in the Dunbar area. I won’t be going back though. That is unless they take my idea of trying to hit a home run by introducing the teppan tables and letting us create our own!
P.S. Here is an image of an table-made seafood okonomiyaki that I had in Tokyo a short while ago. It was a very simple teppan place, and a lunch special for about $10. Interestingly, they even had some fine rice-shaped bits of cereal for some added crunch inside, which I thought was a great secret ingredient. As you can see, a much thinner package, not loaded up excessively with cabbage inside and filled with an assortment of seafood.