Teppanyaki Kyoto blends traditional and modern Japanese cuisine
Teppanyaki Kyoto chef and co-owner Kevin Chen came to the Pittsburgh restaurant scene via a twisting odyssey that would have awed ancient Silk Road travelers.
Chen didn't start his working career as a chef, but as an engineer for a computer company in his native Taiwan, an island nation off the coast of mainland China, which is governed by the Republic of China.
Then, an Asian economic crisis prompted company officials to begin making plans to move to China.
But Chen balked at moving to the mainland. He thought the time was propitious for him to make a different kind of change: moving to the United States to study business. A friend of Chen's was already in Pittsburgh attending college, so he decided to follow his friend here, learn English and earn a degree at Point Park University.
The change was personally fateful: At Point Park, Chen met Shiho Jinno, a Japanese native whom he would marry.
While studying at Point Park, Chen worked in a restaurant, a stint he thought would be temporary. But the restaurant job turned into years, because Chen says he is not 100 percent fluent in English and could not get a job in his field.
“I worked there 10 years; then, I wanted to have my own business,” he says. He saw that there were many Chinese restaurants in the area, and many that offered Japanese sushi, so he decided against offering those cuisines.
Chen, now 41, traveled back to Asia, this time to Japan, where “finally, I found a food I really liked.” That was teppanyaki, a grilled, and often casual and contemporary, Japanese cuisine. Serious about his choice of restaurant type, Chen stayed for two years in Japan where he worked at a restaurant while attempting to try as many other spots as possible to refine his business choices.
He returned to Pittsburgh and received his green card. But then, Chen traveled back to Japan, where he stayed for six months to learn how to make okonomiyaki, an unusual but appealing, savory Japanese pancake that contains a bit of flour, plenty of vegetables and meat or seafood.
At the suggestion of his father-in-law, Chen researched the Roppunki neighborhood of Tokyo to see what dishes appealed to a wide variety of diners' palates. The neighborhood featured restaurants that served many international diners.
When he left Japan, Chen had full knowledge of the art of teppanyaki, in general, and okonomiyaki, in particular.
About 10 months ago, he and his wife opened Teppanyaki Kyoto, which serves grilled Japanese favorites in Zen-like serenity in Highland Park.
In the foyer, a white banner with crossed Japanese spatulas, the type Chen uses to flip the okonomiyaki, hangs on the wall.
“The Japanese pay more attention to healthy dishes,” Chen says. “Cabbage is a very good vegetable.”
In addition to okonomiyaki, Teppanyaki Kyoto features entrees such as Hannabagu Steak for $18, which includes a 6-ounce filet mignon with vegetables. The Unagi Donburi dish includes cooked rice with grilled eel for $12.
Chen is executive chef, but his wife keeps him on track with some of the traditional aspects of his chosen cuisine.
“She's a good cook,” he says. “She's Japanese, so she knows more than me.” Chen claims his wife can make dishes tastier.
Having opened Teppanyaki Kyoto, the couple plans to stay in Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh is a very nice city,” says this father of two young daughters. “The place is good for kids, with lots of museums, lots of arts. Growing up in this atmosphere, I feel is very, very nice.”
Asked whether the business knowledge gained at Point Park has helped in running the restaurant, Chen says, “You can try to think about the theory, but the timing is different.
“You really need experience more than knowledge.”
Sandra Fischione Donovan is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
For Americans accustomed to pancakes slathered with sweet maple syrup and butter, the idea of a savory pancake might seem unusual. But for diners who want to try an unusual meal in one large, tasty pancake, savory Shrimp Okonomiyaki fits the bill.
“Okonomiyaki” literally means “grilled as you like it,” and Teppanyaki Kyoto chef and co-owner Kevin Chen has varied some of the ingredients, sometimes using meat, at other times seafood, along with plenty of cabbage and green onions. The varied and layered ingredients produce an Asian symphony of flavor, with a grid of various sauces producing a visually pleasing presentation.
“It's healthy, not greasy,” Chen says of okonomiyaki.
Some of the Japanese ingredients not available in regular supermarkets can be obtained at Tokyo Japanese Store in Shadyside.
Tip: Chen uses an iced-tea spoon to stir ingredients to avoid soiling his hands and two pancake turners to flip the pancake and turn it out onto a serving plate.
For the okonomiyaki:
5 tablespoons okonomiyaki flour
1⁄3 cup water
1 large egg
Bonito fish flakes
1 tablespoon tempura bits
1⁄2 tablespoon green onions, chopped
1⁄2 tablespoon shredded ginger
5 pieces medium-size shrimp, peeled
1⁄2 cup roughly chopped cabbage
1 teaspoon seafood powder
For the toppings:
Seaweed powder, for garnish
Bonito fish flakes, for garnish
Pickled ginger, for garnish
Heat a grill or skillet to 400 degrees. Place the flour in a mixing bowl and add the water. Stir to mix until creamy. Put the egg in the flour mixture and stir until thoroughly combined (See Photo 1).In a large bowl, combine the flour mixture, bonito fish flakes, tempura bits, green onions, ginger and shrimp (Photo 2), and mix. Then add the cabbage (Photo 3) and combine thoroughly, but do not over-mix.
Place the mixture on the ungreased cooking surface (Photo 4), carefully molding it into a thick pancake shape. Sprinkle the upside with about ½ teaspoon seaweed powder. Grill for about 5 minutes and test with a large spatula or pancake turner to see whether the pancake is browning and holds together. Flip, then season with ½ teaspoon more of seafood powder. Grill for about 12 to 15 more minutes, until cooked through (Photo 5). Cooks can cut through the middle to see whether the pancake is done.
After it is cooked through, use two spatulas to place the pancake carefully on a plate.
Using squeeze bottles of the toppings, make a grid with the okonomiyaki sauce, then the kenko mayonnaise (Photo 6). Garnish with dried seaweed powder, bonito fish flakes and pickled ginger.
Makes 1 serving.