IS it time to say sayonara to sushi, the emperor of Japanese foods in America? Perhaps not; but it may have some competition. Enter okonomiyaki (oh-koh-noh-mee-yah-kee), a pancake-type dough mixed and grilled with the customers' choice of vegetables, fish, meat, and noodles. The dish is served with soy sauce, shaved fish, and a sprinkling of seaweed.
Here at Chibo, a new Japanese restaurant in midtown Manhattan, customers sit around a central grill that sizzles and pops as expert chefs slice, dice, toss, and turn this dish that is sometimes called ``Japanese pizza.'' True to Japanese-style cooking, each ingredient is cooked separately to preserve the flavor, until it's time to pour the flour-and-egg batter over the colorful mound of filling.
The restaurant's decor is authentic Japanese, with its pale pink walls, bare black chairs, and lone gray branches casting shadows in the corners. Customers at the counter agree that the aroma from the hot grill and the ever-present crackling of what's to come make waiting difficult. So we sample appetizers: grilled noodles with fish and vegetables; miso or clear suimono soup; crispy greens tossed with ginger-sesame oil dressing.
``It's delicious! Just like in Japan!'' says Tatsuo Sugai, a Tokyoite living in Manhattan. ``And it's much cheaper than sushi!'' An okonomiyaki pancake, enough for one hearty appetite, costs less than $10 here; a meal of raw fish can run $30 per person.
Two Japanese students seated at a table with a built-in grill agree that okonomiyaki is worth the trip uptown. Mayumi Kaneko says she always overcooked okonomiyaki in Niigata, her hometown north of Tokyo. She's glad they cook it just right here.
In Japan, okonomiyaki is popular in the Kansai district, and Chibo restaurant in New York is owned by and named for the famous okonomiyaki-ya (ya means shop) in Osaka.
The pancake batter is quite versatile: it's also used in tai-yaki (fish-shaped cakes filled with sweet red bean paste), and tako-yaki (small balls filled with bits of octopus). Street vendors sell these foods everywhere.
``I don't think you can compare the taste to anything else,'' says Alex Kirzhnev from Leningrad, one of the few non-Japanese here. ``It's a tasty combination of flavors. Very healthy.'' He and his wife plan to return.
BUT what about the rest of New York? Will the No. 1 Japanese fast food catch on in America?
Elizabeth Andoh, a cookbook author and executive director of the New York-based Associated Japan-America Societies, Inc., is doubtful. The dish is so different from what Americans are used to, she says. It might require ``teaching them what to like.''
Although the restaurant might serve some curious customers, most foreign foods are slow to catch on, she says. ``There are a lot of people going out of their way to try new things, but I don't see McDonald's offering McSushi.''
Ms. Andoh says new foods must be introduced slowly, and the restaurateurs have to be shrewd (and patient) marketers. She recommends good advertising, a catchy approach (like cooking in front of customers), and high enough prices to cover the exorbitant retail rents here - $10 is not enough, she says.
Akemi Tanno is editor of the U.S. Food Journal, a trade journal on American foods published for the Japanese food industry. He is more optimistic about domestic tastes. ``American people who are familiar with Japanese food seem to be interested in new and exotic food. ... They're not satisfied with just traditional Japanese food - sushi, tempura, sukiyaki,'' he says.
Last year Gary Goldberg, executive director of culinary arts at the New School in New York, toured Japan and singled out okonomiyaki as a candidate for American palates: ``It's convenient, cheap, relatively nourishing, and it's a whole meal on the plate.''
But it won't sweep America, he says. ``It needs a sophisticated market, almost a college market'' of adventurous appetites willing to try new, cheap foods.
Meanwhile back at the restaurant, green tea is served as Japanese waitresses whisk away the empty platters. As the guests leave, a typical Japanese chorus of ``Domo arigato gozaimasu!'' (thank you very much!) follows the guests out into the neon night.