Oh boy, Octoboy means yummy, modern Japanese dining!

CYBER PROUST - Jojo G. Silvestre () - March 3, 2011 - 12:00am

I never use chopsticks because I feel stupid grappling with these wooden implements. For sure, I find them beautiful, exquisite and even practical for those who master their use. But I am clumsy with my hands and in a hurry to push food into my mouth; so I reach for fork and spoon. After savoring the specialties of Octoboy, though, I intend to give the tapered sticks another try. The food is so good and so authentic, I feel like donning Japanese attire and relishing, Zen-like, each bite as I contemplate the meaning of life and its utmost pleasures.

Except that at Octoboy, your thoughts are limited to the food you’re eating, and how delicious it is, and you forget about anything else.

In my case, I soon reach nirvana as the owner, Giovanny (“Giov”) Cheng, tells me how he first vowed to bring authentic takoyaki or Japanese dumplings and okonomiyaki (Japanese sizzling pizza) to the Philippines after tasting them in Osaka. These two Japanese delicacies, he explains, were reason enough for him to open Octoboy, which has received glowing reviews thanks to its uncommon menu. I am thrilled not because of Giov, who one might mistake for a movie star, but because of the food, which he declares is always a masterpiece, its preparation an art. Take a look at the kitchen with its glass walls and you know that Giov speaks the truth: the white-aproned chefs and assistants are slicing, mixing, tossing, flipping, stirring, coating, dip-frying and grilling their specialties with smiles on their faces.

Turning Japanese: “I love to eat,” says Octoboy restaurant owner Giovanni Cheng (left). “Octoboy defines modern Japanese dining, which is comfortable and cozy with bright lights.” With Cheng is chef Dante Pacot Photos by Walter Bollozos

“I love to eat,” notes Giov. No surprise there. A frequent traveler, he samples the best culinary offerings in various part of Asia and when he returns to the Philippines, he tries them out in their family kitchen. “I have a strong passion and enthusiasm for cooking,” he explains.

The neat and soft-spoken Giov explains why he chose to put up a Japanese restaurant, instead of specializing in the more natural Chinese cuisine that he grew up savoring in their family home and in the famous and not-so-famous restaurants of Binondo: “Chinese food can be found everywhere. Going for the more uncommon Japanese food fueled my creativity.” His most unforgettable culinary adventures as a boy, he now recalls, happened in “pricey Kimpura.” He admits to loving Japanese food, even way back when. “I find it healthy and hearty at the same time.” To him, “Japanese culture is quite fascinating.”

Soups up: Seafood ramen is a Japanese noodle soup with Chinese origins.

Giov points out the reason for the full house when I visit the restaurant. “Octoboy, for me, defines modern Japanese dining, which is comfortable and cozy with bright lights. We bring to the table a variety of both conventional and a new generation of Japanese food. We serve ‘reasonably priced food in the heart of Quezon City,’ which is Tomas Morato Avenue, a restaurant row where only the best ones survive.” So, it’s about price, comfortable ambience, and a combination of comfort food and fare that the palate discovers for the first time. I agree, devouring the takoyakis or octopus dumplings, which are served in three varieties. As I take another bite, I know I am enjoying only the freshest ingredients.

“I think people like our food because it doesn’t taste mass-produced. We are not so commercial here, because we want our ingredients to be authentic,” emphasizes Giov, whose vocabulary always comes back to the word “authentic,” because that, as he explains, is exactly what honest-to-goodness Japanese food is all about.

Forgetting that I am supposed to be pondering the Zen-like bliss that comes from this special meal, I gobble down my takoyakis in its triple variation — shrimp, squid and pork. Giov explains that the Japanese dumplings I am falling in love first came from the Taisho-era Osaka in 1935. The dish was concocted by a street vendor named Endo Tomekichi. Next, he shares that okonomiyaki is a Japanese pizza that originated in Hiroshima or Kansai and is now available all over Japan. Okonomi means “what you want” and yaki means grilled.

Rock and roll: The Philadelphia roll is a healthy starter.

He points out that Octoboy serves eight versions of the okonomiyaki, a wide variety that is tailor-made for Filipino tastes and, just to make sure it comes out good and hot, served on a sizzling plate. “Our version of okonomiyaki also contains mozzarella which makes it tastier and creamier,” explains Giov. Yummy, I tell myself with my eyes closed.

For first-timers to Octoboy, Giov suggests “the mouthwatering sushi, especially the Philadelphia rolls, the jumbo shrimp tempuras, vinaigrette kani salad and, if one is in a hurry, the rice toppings.” I take a look at the sushi bar and, to the chef’s glee, I ask him to give me a sampler plate of California maki, California crunch, sashimi tuna, sashimi salmon, spicy tuna, unagi and tempura. There’s no point in coming to Octoboy without sampling their sushi, which stands out for its pure and heavenly taste, spiced by wasabi and soy sauce, of course.

Pizza-licious: Okonomiyaki mushroom Japanese pizza ia a bestseller in Octoboy.

I next dive into the yakiudon, a dish of thick noodles served with generous toppings of meat and vegetables. Mine is served with squid; it also comes with shrimp or pork. As though I hadn’t had my fill of noodles, Giov suggests that I try the ramen, the Japanese noodle soup with Chinese origins. It is served in a meat or fish-based broth flavored with kamaboko green onions and corn. While it is normally served with meat, fish or miso, I am told that I can now have it with beef, katsu or crabstick. I go for the crabstick. I pronounce it “excellent” to Giov’s delight. He insists that I try the pork charsiu ramen and the tempura yakiudon.

Sweet and spicy: Salmon belly teriyaki

He tells me Octoboy’s innovations add to its reputation as the home of new-generation Japanese food, making it a favorite among the teen and twenties crowd, many of whom come with their parents and siblings on Sundays, and on their own with other young people on Friday and Saturday nights when they take their beer out on the veranda overlooking bright and busy Morato Avenue.

Giov explains that Japanese meals are “enjoyed best when hot and fresh from the kitchen.” He attributes the distinct taste to the rich culinary traditions of Japan and claims that Japanese cuisine suits the Filipino taste, making it the third or fourth most accepted after Filipino, Chinese and American. I remind him that Hispanic food is somewhere in there as well, often overlapping with Filipino cuisine. He agrees and tells me to celebrate my birthday there next month, explaining it could be good luck. “Our food may be considered good luck fare, like our takoyaki and okonomiyaki which are round-shaped representing money and unending wealth and happiness. Our tempura and pork and beef yaki udon are excellent alternatives to the customary noodles for longevity.”

All good things come in threes: Takoyakis in their triple variation — shrimp, squid and pork.

Octoboy also serves all-time favorites like chicken teriyaki, salmon belly teriyaki, chicken karaage, tonkatsu and ebi tempura. Giov observes that Filipinos love donburi (katsudon, gyudon and unagidon), which literally means “bowl” and is also frequently abbreviated as “don.” “It is a Japanese rice bowl dish consisting of fish, meat, very fresh vegetables, or other ingredients simmered together and served over rice,” Giov explains.

With frequent customers ranging from professionals from nearby offices, the teen set and families with children who ogle the kitchen, Octoboy also gets showbiz personalities from the two nearby television stations dropping in. Celebrity sightings include Romnick and Harlene Sarmenta and family, Gerald Anderson and Kim Chiu, Maja Salvador with Mateo Gudicelli, Rochelle of the Sex Bomb Dancers, Jon Avila and Dr. Hayden Kho.  

Shrimply authentic: Ebi tempura

Finally, Giov insists that I sample the kasha maki, or sweet mini cakes in sushi texture, which come in chocolate and fruity flavors. These sweet maki are a fitting climax to a thoroughly delicious Japanese meal, as they remind me that life, if it is to be sweet, should be authentic. As an afterthought, I remind myself to practice with my chopsticks. As often as possible.

* * *

Octoboy is located at Unit-2C 186 Tomas Morato St. corner Scout de Guia St., Quezon City. For information call, 384-8506

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