Iyasare: Modern Japanese Comfort Food

“Fourth Street” is a commercial district in Berkeley bustling with shops and restaurants. I have always considered it to be a cool and hidden shopping area in the East Bay. One of the restaurants located on Fourth Street is Iyasare serving modern Japanese comfort food. Although its been around for over five years, I recently dined there for the first time.

A friend and I had early reservations on a Friday at Iyasare. It was the first time for both of us so we spent some time thoroughly reviewing the menu. We ordered the bacon mochi, one of restaurant recommendations. The mochi is grilled and wrapped with smoked bacon and seasoned with housemade teriyaki sauce and served on crispy nori seaweed. It was four to an order so it was perfect for sharing. The texture of mochi softens as it’s grilled and offers a chewy texture that I find fun to eat. In addition, the sweetness of the mochi and the saltiness of the bacon is a winning flavor combination.  
For my main, I ordered the housemade squid ink pasta with a sea urchin or uni cream sauce. The plate was colorful and beautiful with the squid ink pasta drenched in uni cream with chanterelle mushrooms and topped with squid and uni. My friend who doesn’t like uni tried a bite and really enjoyed it. It was rich and delicious and gave me the feeling of a guilty pleasure.
My friend ordered the wagyu bavette steak cooked with a Japanese spice rub and chanterelle mushrooms. I had a bite of the steak and the Japanese flavoring was truly present and the texture was “like butter.” This dish was another home run.
For dessert, we shared the choco-peanut which is chocolate ice cream, shortbread cookies, peanut butter caramel, and brown butter milk powder. If you like chocolate and peanut butter like we do, you would enjoy this dessert that I can’t believe is influenced by the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
Dining at Iyasare was a treat and although there was something very comforting about the food, it had a modern twist. I do plan to return to Iyasare for lunch where I can try their take on Japanese comfort food that I’m more accustomed to like ramen and karaage. 

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Inside OMCA: Blue Oak Cafe

I spent the morning at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), a museum dedicated to California art, history, and natural sciences. As a child, I have had many memories and field trips to OMCA to view the large collection of California art. As an adult, I have visited OMCA to attend private events, Friday Nights at OMCA, and special exhibits.
Today I was there to catch the exhibit Respect: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom before it closes in another week, on August 12. From music, dance, fashion, and graffiti art, the exhibit explores the many facets of Hip-Hop culture. It was cool to see that the exhibit attracted an ethnically diverse group as well as young and old.  

I stopped to have an early lunch at the Blue Oak Cafe, OMCA’s dining option. Today, the cafe is run by Grace Street Catering. Blue Oak Cafe offers a variety of options including soups, salads, burgers, and sandwiches.  
I decided to order the BLT which is prepared with Niman Ranch Applewood smoked bacon, butter lettuce, tomato, harissa aioli on sliced sourdough bread. I was impressed by the generous sized BLT that also came with an organic mixed green salad topped with pickled vegetables. The harissa aioli spread elevated the sandwich and gave it a California twist. It was all very fresh as well.  
The Blue Oak Cafe appeared to be pretty popular. As I was heading out, the tables were filling up and the line to order was quite long. The cafe has some outdoor seating with umbrellas, so it’s definitely a nice place to enjoy lunch, an afternoon snack, or a glass of vino. The Blue Oak Cafe is open on museum days (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) and admission to OMCA is not required to eat there.

You Don’t Have to Be a Crazy Rich Asian to Eat at Dragon Beaux

I just got back from a very nice dinner in the City for my book club meeting. We read Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan and our meeting place was appropriately held at the fancy Chinese restaurant Dragon Beaux in the outer Richmond district of San Francisco.

Dim Sum is usually eaten during brunch, but with its popularity it seems that some high end Chinese restaurants have begun to offer it in the evenings.

We decided to start with a couple of dim sum plates as appetizers. I’ve been wanting to try out the basket of colorful xiao long bao or soup dumplings. Each order comprises of five dumplings made with different colored skin or wrappers. The green wrapper is made with spinach and has kale, the black wrapper is made with squid ink and has black truffle, the bright yellow wrapper is made with tumeric and has crab roe, the red wrapper is made and filled with beets, and the beige colored wrapper is the traditional one made with juicy pork. I tried the tumeric and squid ink ones. They were innovative and fun to try once. I would probably stick to tradition in the future.

We also ordered the wild mushroom and chicken buns. These soft bao are colored to appear to look like giant shiitake mushrooms. They were light, delicious, and so cute! I would definitely order these again.
The Peking duck was quite tasty, but I was a little disappointed that the skin was not crispy. It was nice that the plate included twelve buns so we could each make two sandwiches of duck skin, cucumber, scallion, and hoisin sauce.  
The pea sprouts with garlic was our vegetable of choice. If you have never tried the large ones, they taste a lot like spinach. This is always a safe vegetable to order.
The mapo tofu is a spicy dish made with soft tofu and ground pork. This was one of the best prepared versions of this dish that I have ever had. The gravy makes it go well with white rice.
The last dish we ordered were the spot prawns in rice noodles. It was nice that our waiter evenly plated this dish for us. Everything about this dish was fresh and I’m glad we noticed this on the special’s menu.
Finally, we selected the crispy organic milk roll. I didn’t plan to eat one of these because I was quite full, but it came with six. I would describe it as fried dough filled with milk pudding. It was much better than I expected.  
They provided us with a couple of complimentary desserts. One was the sesame mochi made with raspberry and the other were almond cookies. I enjoyed the mochi, but the cookies were a bit dry.
I was very satisfied with my meal at Dragon Beaux. Coming from Oakland, it is a bit of a trek to get there, but I would definitely come back.  The six of us paid $35 each including tip and two of us had beer. You don’t have to be a Crazy Rich Asian to eat here!

Nyum Bai: Making Fruitvale Station a Destination

I had dinner with friends at Nyum Bai, a new Cambodian restaurant in Oakland on Friday. Nyum Bai went from restaurant pop up to restaurant stall to creating permanent residency at this brick and mortar in the Fruitvale Public Market across from the Fruitvale BART station. I was super excited because I was one of almost 300 people to fund the Nyum Bai brick and mortar project early this year via Kickstarter.

My knowledge of Cambodian food is from my fifteen years experience eating at Phnom Penh House in Oakland, which has been around for over three decades. I’ve always enjoyed eating there and it was sad when their original location in Chinatown closed.

My friends and I decided to eat family style at Nyum Bai. With four of us, that would give us a good sampling of the menu. For starters, we ordered the prahok ktiss which is ground pork belly that is stir fried and slowly simmered in coconut milk, fish paste, kroeung (a blend of Cambodian spices and herbs), and sweet palm sugar. I liken it to the Cambodian version of dip and crudités, but so much better.  


The machoo kroeung soup is made up of pork spareribs marinated in kroeung paste, water spinach, eggplants, roasted bird eye chilies, curry leaves, fish paste, and tamarind in a beef broth. The ingredients and flavors married together so well that it produced an excellent broth. This bowl brought me joy by the spoonful.


One of my favorite vegetables is water spinach. It’s known to me as ong choy which are long leafy green vegetable with hollow stems. The cha tahona-kounl is the Cambodian version that is stir fried with fermented beans and garlic. It’s still one of my favorites!


We also shared the kuy teav Phnom Penh which is a noodle soup with minced pork, shrimp, herbs, and crispy garlic cooked in a 7 hour pork broth. This is Nyum Bai’s signature comfort dish. This was very mild in flavor compared to our other dishes. I also find it similar to many other Asian noodle soup dishes where it calls my name when I’m feeling under the weather.
The most unique dish was the amok which is a fish curry steamed in banana leaves. The spices added fragrance and the egg and coconut milk provides a rich custard texture. It was delicious.


In place of the fried catfish that was not available, we ordered the beef loc lok, which is similar to the Vietnamese version of shaking beef that has a strong onion and peppercorn flavor. It comes with a perfectly cooked boiled egg on a bed of arugula. It’s a beef eater’s dream.
As we came near the ending of our dinner, we were already discussing the dishes we would try the next time. Nyum Bai brings another dimension of Cambodian food to Oakland and will make Fruitvale Station a destination!

Chef Reem Assil Highlights Arab Food in Oakland 

If you haven’t heard of Chef Reem Assil, you really should as she is successfully putting Arab food on the map in Oakland. Her Arab street food started in the farmers markets before she opened her bakery, Reem’s in the Fruitvale Public Market over a year ago. She recently opened her second outpost, Dyafa, a full service restaurant in Jack London Square.

Chef Assil specializes in mana’eesh which is a middle eastern flatbread. My favorite is having it topped with oil and za’atar, a herb and spice mixture of wild thyme, sesame, sumac, and salt. I’ve noticed the growing popularity of za’atar all around the country. You can get the mana’eesh at either the bakery or the restaurant. The bread is more like pizza than pita, but much thinner and crispier. The brushed on oil keeps the herbs, spices, and flavors intact.

Reem’s offers a nice mezze combination platter which come with four spreads to dip the freshly baked pita bread. My top dips were the labneh, a thick tangy yogurt that tastes like the most delicious cream cheese and the muhammara, which is made with roasted red peppers and walnuts.  
Brunch is available on weekends at Reem’s and that provided me with the opportunity to try their shakshuka, eggs poached in spiced red pepper tomato sauce, topped with feta and parsley. The sauce was rich and smokey and I was happy it was served with pita bread.
Another special item they offer is cardamom ice coffee. I just love the flavor of cardamom. This is the perfect summer morning beverage that I should consider worthy of a short detour on my way to work.
I was really excited about the opening of Dyafa. I was a bit nervous about dining there because I was taking my best friend there for her birthday and I got some mixed reviews. Nonetheless I knew we had to form our own opinions.

We ordered some dips to go with our order of mana’eesh. The cold one was the muttabbal which is charred eggplant, lemon, and tahini. It was a nice simple starter.
The warm dip we selected was the hummus kawarma which is hummus with spiced lamb, dried lime, and cured sumac. The unique flavors and the warmth of it made this hummus stand out.
We also shared a fresh salad of arugula, little gem lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and radish. This tasted fine, but we probably could have done without it.
We shared the maklouba as our main course which was layered rice, roasted eggplant, cauliflower, charred tomato, and topped with potato chips. I enjoyed this vegetarian dish very much. Each ingredient is formed and packed tightly and together the components offered wonderful rich bites.  
For dessert, we wanted something light so we shared the booza, which is an orange blossom ice cream with crispy phyllo and candied orange. The orange flavor was nice to end a meal with and the phyllo nest provided a fun crispy texture.  
My opinion is that Chef Reem Assil makes Oakland a better place by bringing delicious Arab food to the community. I would recommend Reem’s for a casual lunch and Dyafa if you are looking to enjoy a nice dinner. 

Soba Ichi: The Soba Experience

If ramen, udon, and soba noodles were siblings, soba would be the middle child. Soba noodles don’t get a lot of attention in the United States. I can’t count the number of bowls of ramen and udon that I have consumed in my lifetime because it is too many. I can count with one hand the number of times I have eaten soba and it was probably dried soba produced in Japan. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat and there are no restaurants in the Bay Area that specializes in fresh soba until now. Soba Ichi recently opened in West Oakland giving “The Town” another thing to brag about.  

Chef Koichi Ishii is the man behind the soba. The soba is freshly prepared everyday from scratch in house, by hand by grinding buckwheat flour in a stone mill. They get their supply of buckwheat from Kitawase in Washington State. The demand has been exceeding the soba production as it seems they are consistency selling out before lunch ends.

My colleague and I went to Soba Ichi last week and we arrived twenty five minutes before they opened to ensure we were part of the first seating. I wanted to start with one of their small plates and chose the nameko oroshi-ae which was a mushroom and daikon dish. It was definitely small, but size was not an indication of flavor. The mushrooms were rich and earthy and combined well with the finely grated daikon.
Soba Ichi offers both hot and cold soba. My colleague and I both opted for the Jyuwari soba which is 100% buckwheat versus the Nihachi soba which is 80% buckwheat and 20% wheat flour. Our noodles are available cold and we ordered it with tempura. I was excited when my tray came out as it instantly transplanted me to Japan. (I haven’t been but this is what I imagine it to be like).  

I prepared my dipping sauce by adding the daikon and green onions to the soy based sauce. I opted out of the wasabi but added some chili powder instead. Using my chopsticks, I picked up a few noodles and plunged them into the sauce. The soba was light, clean, earthy, and slightly chewy. 

The shrimp and vegetable tempura came with what looked like a matcha salt to season. This was the best tempura I have ever had, especially the shrimp. I kept alternating between the soba and the tempura. It was a perfect match.  
When we were done, the server brought out a teapot filled with broth that we were supposed to add to the remaining dipping sauce to drink. It was warm and good for the soul. This actually helped fill me up.
I didn’t want my lunch to end so I ordered the dessert which was sobacha mousse. The tea flavor was nice and it had both jelly and custard topped with rice crispies.  
What appears and tastes like a simple meal at Soba Ichi is quite complicated. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and the experience. Although I was treating myself to a pretty expensive lunch, I knew I was paying for a labor of love.  

Gangnam Tofu in El Cerrito has lots of Style

I just got back from a fabulous dinner. I had Korean food with my BFF in El Cerrito. She was introducing me to Gangnam Tofu for the first time. We went for an early dinner after spending the day hiking and geocaching in the area.

We were lucky that we didn’t have a wait since there was room for the two of us at the counter. I consider my BFF my food twin as we typically like the same things and can easily agree on menu items.

Like other Korean restaurants, we received a series of banchan. Unlike other Korean restaurants, I’ve never had one with eggplant. It was also the most delicious one! If we didn’t order so much food, I would’ve requested another serving of the eggplant.

We ordered the Soon-Doo-Boo which is the soft tofu stew. This dish comes in nine varieties. We ordered the original Soon-Doo-Boo with pork. It comes with a raw egg to crack into the bubbling stew. I enjoyed the medium spiced tofu stew and consider it one of the Korean dishes that defines comfort especially when you add a little white rice.


I can never resist fried chicken and wanted to give it a shot. They have nine types of fried chicken and we agreed to have the original which is the dry kind. It was crispy and finger licking good. Our half order was cut up into seven similarly sized pieces. This makes perfect sense so the fry time is the same and makes for juicy pieces including the white meat.

We also ordered the Beef Dol Sop Bop which is marinated beef and vegetables over rice that is cooked in a hot stone bowl. The veggies included carrots, spinach, zucchini, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and green onions. It was also topped with a fried egg. As I mixed everything together, I could hear the sizzling. I was impressed by the cook of the rice in the stone bowl as it left a full even layer of crispy rice on the bottom.

I was also impressed with the customer service at Gangnam Tofu. The staff are extremely friendly and we were asked on several occasions whether we needed anything, a first time for me at any Asian restaurant. Even with all the Korean food options in Oakland, I left the restaurant thinking about my next meal here.