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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Nico’s: A Memorable Feast

I had the pleasure of having dinner at Nico’s 1508 in Berkeley a few months ago. With competing priorities, I hadn’t gotten a chance to write about that experience until now. However, I think it speaks volumes about a meal when many of the dishes I had a while back are still memorable. 

We started with a couple of appetizers including the Steamed Mediterranean Mussels that were cooked in a lovely red curry kaffir lime broth. The Asian flavors struck a perfect balance to the shellfish. It was a generous portion of mussels and we ate every mussel and soaked up every drop of broth. I remember it well because it was one of the best prepared mussels I have ever had.
My friend and I decided to order a combination surf and turf and some sides. When the food came out it was like eating family style, except it was just two of us. 

Our sides included the roasted root vegetables, the pork belly chipotle mac and cheese, and the maple glazed butternut squash. I would say the root vegetables were the least memorable. The mac and cheese was a bit overkill, in that the pasta was overdone and it was just way too heavy for my taste. Hands down the butternut squash was the star. We were like children in a candy store eating all the glazed goodness.
The fish was a roasted Hawaiian Walu which was complemented with braised fennel and potatoes, a Meyer lemon and thyme butter sauce and a balsamic reduction. I wonder if I should praise the chef or the saucier on this one.
Nico’s offers three cuts of steak – the filet mignon, a New York steak, or a bone-in rib eye. We selected the filet mignon cooked in a bourbon demi glaze. It was cooked a perfect medium rare providing a tender and buttery texture.  
With full tummies, we shared one dessert. After all, who could turn down warm bourbon pecan bread pudding with a dark chocolate sauce and a Grand Marnier cream. It was the perfect match to the end a fantastic meal. 
With the holiday season here, Nico’s is a great place to share a nice meal with friends or family. I also hear they offer an excellent brunch.  They are even open on Christmas and New Year’s Day!

Ippudo: In My Own Eyes

Ippudo Berkeley opened up in late July and I posted a blog about my friend’s experience on opening day. People waited three hours to get a bowl of ramen at Ippudo. After almost two months since opening, lines can still get quite long especially with school in session. Here’s my account of a recent visit with another friend to Ippudo. After waiting thirty five minutes in line outside, we were led inside and seated.

We started out with Ippudo buns. You can order the soft pillowy buns with either chicken, pork belly, or vegetables. Our buns were spread with mayonnaise and had a thick slice of tender pork belly in a tangy glaze. Biting into these were soft and heavenly.


We were debating whether to get the chicken kara-age or the fried chicken wings. The waitress recommended the chicken kara-age. The flavor was subtle and the chicken did not have much of a coating to give it a textural component. It fell flat and I was disappointed in my waitress.


The ramen came in three flavors and you have a choice of how firm you want your noodles. I was drawn to the description of the Akamaru Modern which is a more bold translation of the original pork broth with thin noodles topped with Ippudo’s secret “Umami Dama” miso paste, pork belly chashu, cabbage, and sesame kikurage mushrooms, scallions, and fragrant garlic oil. I added a soft boiled egg and requested my noodles to be bari kata, which means firm. The flavors of my ramen broth and noodle texture were very much prepared to my liking.


My friend loves spicy so she ordered the Karaka Spicy which has the original “Tonkotsu” (pork) broth with an added kick, thin noodles with Ippudo’s special blend of hot spices, topped with pork belly chashu, bean sprouts, sesame kikurage mushrooms, scallions, and fragrant garlic oil. She ordered hers kata which is al dente. The bowl suited her as well.

In our minds, we still thought we made a bad choice with the chicken kara-age, so we decided we would go ahead and order the fried chicken wings. The chicken wings are glazed in a black pepper sauce. Unfortunately, the wings didn’t meet our expectations either.

  
I would definitely return to Ippudo for the buns and ramen if the wait isn’t too long. The prices are a bit high for a bowl of ramen, but it’s worth it to satisfy a craving now and then.

Gio’s Pizza: A Revival of Giovanni’s

People may recall Giovanni’s as an old school Italian restaurant that had been in business in Downtown Berkeley since 1961. In 2015, it closed its doors after a major fire caused serious damage. Today the restaurant has reopened as Gio’s Pizza & Bocce, playing homage to the former restaurant.  
As you enter the front of Gio’s, the fun begins. The open bar space is to the left and an indoor bocce ball court is to the right. The dining area and kitchen are located towards the back half of the restaurant.  I was invited along with my friends to Gio’s to try out their new food and cocktail menu. The first item to come out was fried calamari with lemon aioli, fried parsley, and citrus slices. I thought it had a nice light batter. I liked the fact that it had both the rings as well as the tentacles because our party each had our preference.  

The mushroom bruschetta arrived next. The toasts were topped with lemon ricotta, wild mushrooms, garlic, and thyme. As much as I love mushrooms, it was the mushrooms that brought this dish down for me. The texture of the mushrooms were tough. It tasted as if dried mushrooms were used and not soaked long enough. I am hoping that this was a fluke.
Karen’s Cucumber Salad was brought to the table. I don’t know who Karen is, but I wouldn’t mind attaching my name to this salad. The freshness of the farmer’s market cucumbers was apparent in the crunch. The salad included a variety of cucumbers, roasted peppers, cherry tomatoes, croutons, and a champagne vinaigrette.
My friends and I really enjoyed the mushroom and squash ziti that we were presented with. The pasta dish was cooked in butter, thyme, and white wine. Soft and delicate, these mushrooms had no resemblance to the ones on the bruschetta.  
Gio’s also includes two pizzas on their menu and you can order them New York style or Sicilian style. We got to try the sausage and mushroom pizza and the Margherita pizzas as single Sicilian style. I normally prefer red pizza over white pizza, but in this case, I preferred the sausage and mushrooms toppings. To me Sicilian pizza resembles a focaccia bread. I enjoyed the occasional crispiness from the bubbles that form in the dough.

Dessert is a polenta cake with ricotta creme, summer fruit, and kettle corn. To offer one dessert is a huge risk. I found it to be worth going “all in” because it was a highlight for me.  
Another area of focus at Gio’s is their cocktail menu highlighting Italian amaro and vermouth. The bar manager, Nick Stolte, spent time in Italy immersed in the culture and building relationships with vermouth and amaro purveyors. He designed and created a cocktail menu that highlights Italy’s best.  
The most interesting aspect of Gio’s is the secret back room. Behind the olive oil can door, is a private dining space that hasn’t changed since it was Giovanni’s. It is a cool space that makes your imagination of who would hang out here go wild. 
With a short menu and simple Italian food in a playful setting, I think Gio’s Pizza & Bocce will bring in a UC Berkeley crowd looking for some fun. However, I found meat offerings at Gio’s hard to come by so carnivores might be challenged.  

Eating Vicariously at Ippudo Berkeley

Ippudo is the name of an International Japanese ramen chain. With two ramen shops in New York City, Ippudo opened its third U.S. location on Friday in Berkeley. My friend dined there on Saturday and gave me a play by play in real time so I figured I would share the details.

She strategically arrived at Ippudo at 3:50pm for a meal (not sure whether to call it a late lunch or an early dinner).  There were close to forty people waiting in line in front of her and she waited 45 minutes to get seated. This was not bad as other patrons had waited up to three hours to be one of the first people to eat at Ippudo.She started with the Ippudo chicken wings. They were well seasoned and had the perfect fried crispy skin. The black pepper honey glaze made them finger licking good. She claims them to be the best chicken wings she has ever eaten.
While she was thoroughly enjoying her wings, her bowl of ramen came out. She had let the bowl sit there and after seven minutes, the manager came over to take it away because he felt the quality was compromised. It wasn’t until she finished her chicken wings that her new bowl of ramen came out. The Shiromaru special was ramen noodles with a tasty pork belly cha sui, a soft boiled egg, and a rich and delicious Tonkotsu, pork based broth. She thought the egg was a little over done. 
She ended her meal with a double scoop of creamy black sesame ice cream.  
All in all, she enjoyed her meal. She does want to return at some point to try some other items, including the spicy ramen. Maybe at that time, I will be done with my thirty day no carb, no sugar diet and will join her. I love me a good bowl of ramen.

Lucia’s: A Pizzeria with Heart

It’s hard to imagine life without Neopolitan pizza. Lucky for me, this style of pizza is popular all over the Bay Area so I don’t have to travel to Naples, Italy to enjoy it. In my eyes, to master this pizza you would need a wood burning oven, authentic flour to produce a light chewy dough, and fresh ingredients including a high quality tomato sauce.  
Lucia’s Pizzeria in Downtown Berkeley opened late last year and serves Neopolitan pizza. I was invited to dine there a couple of months ago with a friend. We met with co-owner Alessandro Uccelli and his wife Elizabetha who were friendly and hospitable as soon as we walked through the door.  

We started with the Vegetarian Fritto Misto with lemon mint aioli. Fritto misto translates to mixed fry and is essentially the Italian version of Japanese tempura. Lucia’s version includes zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower, sweet potato, red pepper, and sage leaves. The batter was coated well to keep a solid crisp on the vegetables. The assortment of vegetables provided a fun way to start the meal.
My friend and I agreed to share the Kale Salad which had very few ingredients – kale, walnuts, and pecorino cheese. It was dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, and a hint of sriracha. I thought the salad was a nice companion with the fried vegetables. I enjoyed the simplicity and the nutty flavor.
The pasta of the day was Gnocchi Bolognese. Elizabetha made the pasta and Alessandro made the sauce bringing together a rich and hearty combination. These handmade potato dumplings were truly a family affair.  
Of course we had to order a pizza. We ordered the Lips of Fire, which is a basic Margherita pizza with added toppings of hot soppressata, ghost peppers, and maple syrup. Taking about 70 seconds to cook in the wood burning oven imported from Naples, the pizza came out with signature blistering bubbles. The flour and tomatoes they use are from Compania, Italy.  Biting into a slice, I enjoyed the flavors and heat. As I the neared the end of the slice, I was delighted with the soft chewy texture. That’s amore!
For dessert we got the housemade cannoli with ricotta and chocolate chips. It came out room temperature and I think if the filling was colder I would’ve enjoyed it much more.
Lucia’s offers Double 8 Dairy, a local buffalo milk gelato made in Petaluma. I asked if I could have a small taste of it and it was absolutely delicious. I visited their website and am impressed by their list of restaurants that serve their gelato.
Lucia’s is a pizzeria with heart. The owners are genuine and that shows in the food, service, and the overall experience.

Limewood’s New Dinner Series: Dining on the Deck

Limewood is the new restaurant located inside the Claremont Resort & Spa in Berkeley. The restaurant is introducing a new dinner series called “Dining on the Deck” which features a four course meal with drink pairings. Me and a guest were invited to attend the first of the series which was held last week. A four course meal prepared by Chef Joseph Humphrey would be paired with Pueblo Viejo Tequila, which is produced at San Matias, one of the oldest distilleries in Jalisco, Mexico.
It was a beautiful evening so we were able to dine on the deck. As we entered, we were offered a special cocktail made with tequila. It had a floating piece of jalapeño that represented the kick it would provide. I really enjoyed it. I actually felt like I was attending a party as we were meeting new people and socializing.  

We had a couple of passed hors d’oeuvres before dinner started. Of the two I tried, I really liked the shrimp toast. The flavor running through the shrimp was absorbed onto the buttered toast while remaining crispy. 
As dinner was approaching, I snatched a seat with one of the best sunset views overlooking the Bay Area. Actually there were no bad seats here. Carmen Villarreal, the owner of Pueblo Viejo Tequila was on-site to introduce us to the family tequila which has been around since 1886. Their tequilas are made from 100% Agave and aged in Oak barrels.  
The first course was grass fed lamb tartare with fried Hog Island oysters. This was an amazing start. I loved the complexity of this dish which included the raw minced lamb meat, the fried oysters and the fresh avocado. Course one was perfectly paired with Orgullo Anejo.  
The second course was roasted halibut with toasted pine nut mole and charred sugar snap peas. The halibut was delicious, but I felt overwhelmed by the mole. I thoroughly enjoyed the sugar snap peas which brought some additional lightness and brightness. This course was matched with San Matias Tahona Blanco.  
The third course was smoked duck breast with roasted parsnips in vanilla butter and black licorice. The duck was a perfect medium rare with a nice layer of crispy skin. The parsnips were a little sweet for my taste. This dish was paired with the San Matias Grand Reserve.
The final course was dessert which was a strawberry margarita mousse. We definitely ended on a high note here as I couldn’t get enough of this. Dessert was paired with Rey Sol.
The tequila from Pueblo Viejo were all very smooth and enjoyable. I was pleasantly surprised how well tequila could be paired with food.  
Limewood will continue its “Dining on the Deck” dinner series through the end of the year. For a fun evening of food and pairings, check it out. 

To see more of my food adventures, follow me on Instagram @510foodie.