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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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.  

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.

An Eggtraordinary Meal

“I Must Eat This” was the subject line of an email from a friend of mine in Los Angeles. It was referring to a meal inspired by the Sanrio character Gudetama at the Japanese restaurants called Curry House. According to Wikipedia, Gudetama was introduced by Sanrio in 2013 and is a gender neutral character that is the yolk of an unfertilized egg. The name Gudetama is derived from the Japanese word for lazy “gude gude” and egg “tamago”. Gudetama is known as the lazy egg.

I flew down to Los Angeles for a few days to visit and enjoy the Gudetama x Curry House meal. My friend and I had a late lunch this past Thursday at the Curry House located in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. The meal starts with soup and salad. The generous sized salad of lettuce, red cabbage, and shredded carrots was tossed with a light miso dressing. Gudetama’s cute face is imprinted on top of a warm cup of sweet creamy corn soup.  
The entree was Keema curry with rice topped with a sunny-side Gudetama. This version of Keema curry was cooked with ground beef, enoki mushrooms, potatoes, and carrots. I broke Gudetama and thoroughly mixed the egg into the curry and rice. I thought the curry was a bit too salty, so I was glad there was an abundance of rice.  It is the epitome of comfort food.
My friend ordered the vegetarian option which was tofu katsu. Tofu is breaded with panko and deep fried. These crispy tofu patties with brown curry gave it the perfect flavor balance and were delicious. I think I would have preferred the vegetarian entree.

The meal ends with a custard pudding. It is more gelatinous than it is creamy. I liked that it was not too sweet. I would never order this if it was not part of the menu, but it was definitely a nice treat to end the meal.  
For $29, you get all of the above plus you leave with a Gudetama X Curry House beanie as a souvenir.  
Altogether, I thought it was a very hearty meal and a fun promotional event. Eggs are awesome and I think it is a way to appreciate the protein. If you want to participate in Gudetama x Curry House, the promotion runs through January 20, 2018. There are several Curry House restaurants in the Los Angeles area. If you live in the Bay Area, there is one location in Cupertino.  

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.

I Dream of Sushi

I recently met my BFF at Angel Fish in Alameda for dinner. Sushi is always a good choice on a hot day and Alameda is usually a bit cooler as well. My BFF has been a regular at Angel Fish for almost two decades. Every time I have dined at Angel Fish, I have enjoyed it very much. Come to think of it, it is one of my favorite neighborhood sushi restaurants, even though it is not my neighborhood. The fish is always fresh and the prices are reasonable.

So first I have to admit I was late for dinner. My BFF had already gotten us seats at the sushi bar and ordered some nigiri at happy hour prices. From 5pm- 6pm, there are some specials, so she ordered the hamachi (yellowtail), sake (salmon), and maguro (red tuna). I was so delayed that she had to eat my portion. It was fine by me as I wouldn’t want raw fish sitting too long. When I arrived, I ordered my own serving of salmon. It was fresh and delicious as expected.
It was my first time having agemono. I loved everything about these deep fried tempura lobster bites. With a splash of lemon, I’m in heaven. One of the best things about Angel Fish is that it doesn’t always have to be about the raw items. They have a nice variety of cooked items that are unique and creative.
We ordered amaebi which I did not photograph. It’s not my favorite item, but I do like consuming the crispy fried shrimp head. Toro is one of the most expensive fish. When this fatty tuna belly is available at Angel Fish, you really should get it. It was so buttery, it melted in my mouth.  
Some other patrons ordered the cha soba so we decided we would share this as well. Cold noodles are a perfect choice on a hot evening. To enjoy this dish, you would dip soba noodles and seaweed into a sauce where you would first mix in minced daikon, green onions, and a quail egg.
One of my favorite things to eat is an unagi hand roll. With the added texture of cucumber and avocado, this is the perfect bite to me.  
Although Chef Taka still had a few pieces of uni out, he purposefully opened up a brand new box of uni for us. The opening of this box of imported uni from Japan really made our day.  
The uni was elegantly placed on top of a shiso leaf and rice and came with crispy roasted seaweed on the side.
In front of me in the sushi case was tamago that I had been eyeing throughout the course of the evening. I was relaying my limited experience and enjoyment of tamago. Typically, not a favorite of my BFF, we decided we would try it. We learned that Chef Taka makes this deliciousness every other day.

It was a great light dinner and we decided we would start dining at Angel Fish together once a month. I’m already dreaming about it.

Bluefin: When you can’t decide between Japanese and Thai food

Last week my family decided they wanted to go out to dinner. There was a lot of debate over what to eat. My mom had been in the mood for Japanese food lately and hadn’t gotten her fix. I was thinking Laotian or Thai food. My sister in law had suggested a restaurant in Alameda called Bluefin that serves both Japanese and Thai food. We all agreed to give it a try.
We ordered the fried chicken wings to share. They were cooked to a beautiful golden color and were crispy and flavorful. I enjoyed the fried herb that complemented it.  
I ordered the sake sashimi appetizer. When it came out there were some oohs and ahhs. It was very fresh and presentation was on point. I think I ate all five pieces in under sixty seconds.  
My brother and mother like cooked sushi, so they ordered a four sushi rolls: 1) The Dancing Roll is a California roll topped with BBQ eel. 2) The Lion King Roll is a California roll topped with salmon and baked with a special sauce. 3) The Bluefin Bomb has tuna, salmon, avocado, asparagus, scallions topped with a spicy sauce. 4) The Lobster Tempura roll has crusty fried lobster with avocado, masago, asparagus, and special sauce. These all were presented in a bamboo sushi boat.  
My sister in law wanted Thai food and ordered the Papaya Salad which has green papaya with prawns, tomatoes, peanuts, and a spicy lime dressing. I thought this was really fresh tasting.
I ordered the Tom Kha which is a Thai soup with coconut milk. My “bowl” runneth over with chicken, mushrooms, tomato, onion, lime leaves me galangal, and lemongrass. It was a large bowl that I couldn’t finish in one sitting. I ended up having it for lunch the next day and it was still delicious.  
One of my nieces ordered the Teriyaki Beef dinner. Bluefin knows their teriyaki. The beef was cooked a perfect medium rare and the flavor had the right amount of sweetness. It was laid on top of cabbage, carrots, and broccoli.  
My other niece wanted udon. We got her the tempura udon with the tempura on the side so that everyone could indulge in the fried goodness.
I definitely had a good overall experience at Bluefin. It’s easy to find parking, the staff are really nice, presentation is awesome, and their was a great variety of food that was quite enjoyable. I don’t know why the Yelp reviews are mediocre.  I would add an additional star.  I thought the chefs were able to conquer Japanese and Thai cuisines very well. I personally would go back to Bluefin to try more of both cuisines.