Get Yourself to Shinmai While You Still Can

Happy New Year! I will begin my first blog of 2018 writing about one of the hippest restaurants in Oakland today. Shinmai opened about six months ago by partners Yingji Huang and Andy Liu. This is their second project together after Kakui, a sushi restaurant in Montclair. Shinmai is touted as bringing the Izakaya experience to the area. Izakaya is the Japanese version of an Irish pub or tapas bar where you go for food and drinks. Sound good already, doesn’t it?

I dined at Shinmai twice last year and have enjoyed the experience both times. My love for Japanese food is a good match at Shinmai because the menu allows me to sample a variety of differently prepared foods.

Their are five categories to their menu — raw, izakaya, robota, ramen, and sweets. The menu itself only changed slightly from my first visit in August to my latest visit last month.

The Raw category appears to stay consistent with two options —ocean trout or hamachi. I had the ocean trout which came with arima sansho, piquillo, and shiso. It was a beautifully presented dish and was quite tasty, but when it comes to raw fish, I may have to consider myself a purist. All I need is a little soy.

The Izakaya options were more extensive. The items on this list are like small plates meant to be shared. We were accidentally served the hand cut potato chips flavored with furikake, hon-dashi, and umami and I was so happy for the mistake. If you know me, you know I’m a sucker for potato chips and these were definitely umami.

The chicken karaage came with two sauces, but again the purist in me just needed a squirt of lemon to balance the crispy delicious fried chicken pieces.

The ebi okura is simply translated as shrimp with okra. It was prepared with brown butter ponzu, onion, and paprika oil. The ebi okura was in many ways a fusion of flavors.

We also ordered the PEI mussels which was prepared in a Thai coconut curry and red peppercorns. This curry was so amazing that my friend didn’t ask for more bread, but requested a side of noodles to soak up every last drop of sauce.

I tried a few options on the Robata or grill menu. Although not available at this time of year, I was able to try the corn with yuzu, dashi honey-butter, and bonito. This is like the Japanese version of elote or Mexican street corn. Note to self to come back to Shinmai in the summer for more corn.

The king trumpet mushrooms were prepared with house-made ponzu and peppercorns. This came on top of a bed of arugula and could have been classified as a warm mushroom salad. This was a hearty dish that I would rank as one of my favorites.

I was not that impressed with the beef ribeye which was grilled with ginger, black garlic, and charred leek. I felt like it was missing something. Maybe this could have been placed on a bed of arugula as well.

Shinmai also serves ramen which is a nice option to have. Typically when you eat ramen it is at a ramen shop and you have your own bowl of ramen and maybe you share an appetizer with it. At Shinmai you can share a bowl of warm deliciousness and still have room for much more interesting food. I shared a bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen with pork chashu, shoyu egg, wood ear mushrooms, onions, and bamboo shoots at both visits and each time it brought me comfort and a smile.
There is a limited Sweet menu. I didn’t have dessert on my first visit, but I did try the panna cotta with vanilla-green tea and candied lotus root on my second visit. It had a perfectly creamy consistency and the flavor profile was wonderful.  

Shinmai has everything going for it. The food is both creative and delicious, the space is hip and trendy, and they carry my favorite Japanese beer with the cat on it. Located in the neighborhood called San Pablo Gateway, Shinmai is West of Downtown Oakland near the Oakland Ice Center. It’s actually hard to find. Make sure you have the address, 1825-3 San Pablo Avenue, and look for an unmarked black door.

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Double Belly is Double Trouble

First came Belly and then came Sweet Belly. In Uptown Oakland, you can find this pair of playful eateries to fill your belly.
Belly is located at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and 19th Street and serves up what I consider a fusion grill. There is a focus on Mexican, Korean, and Japanese cuisine. With an ordinary menu of items like tacos, burritos, burgers, salads, and sides, it’s what they do with it that makes them interesting.  

So I grabbed lunch “to go” with a friend recently. I ordered the popular steak and egg taco which is filled with house marinated sirloin steak, French fries, chipotle aioli, garlic aioli, and topped with a fried egg. Yes, I said French fries and a fried egg. You might call this fusion on steroids. I actually found it to be quite simplistic and enjoyed the flavors and textures.
I also ordered a side of classic fries with chipotle ketchup. These fries were shoestring fries, thin and crisp. They stayed crispy even with the ten minute ride back to the office, so it passed that test. The chipotle ketchup was a great complement to the fries.  
My friend ordered the Korean fried chicken bowl which is a rice bowl topped with spicy fried chicken, slaw, pickled cucumbers, red onions, jalapeños, and of course a fried egg. The chicken had a thick gooey batter, but was somewhat soggy in texture. To me it felt like an unsuccessful bibimbap. Neither of us would recommend this dish.
I went back to Belly with another friend last week to try something else. We both wanted burgers. I ordered the Belly Burger which is a house marinated patty, red onion tempura, sautéed mushrooms, house pickled cucumbers, cheddar cheese, garlic and kimchi aioli, on a brioche bun. The burger was super juicy and tasted amazing. Every ingredient was on point and melded together perfectly. The tempura onion made my burger sing.
My friend got the West Coast Burger combo which came with fries and a drink. Her burger had bacon, avocado, tomato, cheddar cheese, mixed field greens, garlic aioli, and chipotle ketchup. She enjoyed her burger just as much as I did. No doubt Belly knows how to grill up burgers and fries. I am now tempted to try their Belly Cali Fries or their Korean Cali Fries. I’ll let you look that up yourself. 
If you travel about three blocks east on 19th Street, you can find dessert at the recently opened Sweet Belly by the same owners of Belly.  I am sure lots of people were unhappy when Lanas, a long time operating fast food Chinese take out closed, but the opening of Sweet Belly in its place is sure to fill some void.  

On my first visit, the soft serve flavor being served was strawberry. I topped my strawberry soft serve with fruity crunch cereal and an earl grey Valrhona dark chocolate fudge donut. All three items were great. The soft serve was thick like custard and had a subtle strawberry flavor. The cereal was a homemade version of Fruity Pebbles and was light and crispy. The donut was warm and texturally tasted like an old fashioned.  
On another visit, Sweet Belly was serving Matcha green tea flavored soft serve. This time I chose chocolate drizzled popcorn as my topping and a Matcha green tea donut. I actually enjoyed the strawberry soft serve slightly better, but would order either of them again or some variation of them. About a five minute walk from my office, I feel an addiction coming on.

Fusebox: Thinking Outside the Box

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Located in an Industrial area in West Oakland, Fusebox is a small Fusion restaurant with a blend of mostly Korean and Japanese foods. Fusebox is one of my BFF’s new favorite places and I found out why when I took her for a belated birthday dinner on Friday.

We were first offered a couple of free items: a small bowl of Asian flavored popcorn and a small cup of mushroom consommé. It was a nice way to start our meal.
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Our first real bite was the bacon mochi which is what I was looking forward to having seen some photos. The crisp salty bacon is wrapped around the slightly sweet chewy mochi. It was delightful.
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We ordered several skewers. The first two were grilled eggplant and miso flavored green beans. These tiny skewers were simple and delicious.
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The grilled shishito peppers came out next. These were a little bitter and not my favorite.
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We ordered two of the corns. They were grilled and flavored with butter and peppers. These were outstanding and reminded me of eating Mexican street corn.
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We were debating over the FuseBOX KFC (Korean fried chicken) or the Chicken Karaage (Japanese fried chicken). The waitress recommended the KFC so went ahead and ordered those. The chicken wings had a perfectly crisp coating and the flavor had an amazing spice.
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We shared the fish entree which was an air dried boneless Rainbow Trout. This beautiful filet tasted as good as it looked. It came with some seaweed which added a nice touch of salt to each bite.
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Their entrees come with a bowl of rice as well as Banchans, little Korean side dishes including homemade kimchi. I enjoyed them and did not feel overwhelmed like at many other Korean restaurants.
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We orders two desserts. The first one was the Tang Granita Creamsicle. The flavor brought back wonderful childhood memories of eating Creamsicles. This was quite light as well.
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We also shared the beignets. We aren’t in New Orleans, but their kitchen put up a good fight. Their beignets are made to order so they were piping hot. I rate these fried bread balls fairly high because they were not oily.
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Most of the food at Fusebox is small, but packs simple tasty flavors. It is also a fun place to enjoy a variety of different foods. I can’t wait to go back.

Revel in Seattle

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My last meal on this trip to the Pacific Northwest was brunch at a trendy place called Revel in Seattle. It’s about three miles away from Downtown in an area called Fremont. Revel serves Korean fusion food. My friend and I sat at the kitchen counter where food was also being plated. This gave us a great view of the chefs in action.

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I wasn’t planning to have a cocktail, but the Kimchi Bloody Mary was calling to me. I asked the waitress what she thought of it and she said it was really good. Why not? It was my last day of vacation. It was a pretty drink that came with an olive and Chinese long beans. The drink was lined with Korean chili powder as well. I’m glad I had it because it was really tasty and packed a punch.

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My friend and I decided to share two dishes. I ordered the Revel ramen with pork belly and kimchi. The ramen had a good consistency, the pork belly was sliced thin and melts in your mouth, the kimchi was a good balance of spice, and the broth was flavorful and comforting. It also came with a perfect soft boiled egg.

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My friend ordered the short ribs and eggs, arugula, chimichurri, and rice. I was watching the chefs throw marinated short ribs on the grill and slice them. I also had a great view of them constantly fry up perfect pairs of eggs in pans. I was anxiously awaiting this rice bowl. The flavor of the beef was spot on and the runny yolk mixed with the rice sent me home. I thought the chimichurri sauce gave it a pretty green color as well as a hint of tartness. It also had me thinking rice and beef make for a good breakfast.

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After traveling for a week, this was such a great meal to end my vacation. Revel transcends Asian comfort food into hip and cool.