Get Outta Town East Bay
East meets west, refined meets rustic, at Oakland’s spectacular Ozumo
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
My favorite sushi restaurant in the Bay Area is Sushi Sam’s. I discovered the brightly lit, diminutive eatery nearly a decade ago while working a freelance job in San Mateo. I am also a fan of Ebisu in the Inner Sunset – though it is currently closed for remodeling, their sister restaurant across the street, Hotei, which serves the same fresh fish, remains somewhat of a secret. The Northside’s Sushi on North Beach, Kiss, and hidden gem Sushi Zone (near the Safeway on Market Street), along with Rohnert Park’s Hana, also rate up there.
The two most important things to me in a sushi bar are that the seafood be pristine, and that they not have more than 10 maki rolls named after insects, states or mythical creatures.
On the next level are Japanese restaurants that offer spectacular sushi and sashimi but also elevate other dishes; places like the impeccably creative Sebo in Hayes Valley, classy Yoshi’s in the revitalized Fillmore jazz district, classics Maki and Kappa in Japantown, and stunning Ozumo on the Embarcadero.
Jeremy Umland, a former professional baseball player in Japan, opened Ozumo in 2001 to rave reviews. Recently, he opened another Ozumo, in Oakland at Broadway and Grand, an area experiencing a renaissance with new restaurants popping up, the Paramount nearby, and the grandly refurbished Fox Theater, closed for 43 years, reopened in February. The striking and impressive corner exterior of Ozumo serves as a welcoming anchor. On a recent Wednesday night, the place was buzzing.
The interior, by AGE Design, one of Japan’s top interior design firms, features a subtle theme of air, water and earth. A large blackened-metal bar greets patrons; soft lighting highlights stunning poured washi paperworks by renowned Japanese print artist Sarah Brayer; and a large fountain embodies backlit waterfalls decorated with stylized leaping koi fish.
While the lounge, with tatami mat bench seating and comfy overstuffed pillows, can be raucous (think three birthday parties and sumo wrestling on flat screen TVs), the main dining room feels as if you’ve stepped into upscale Vegas, with a high industrial ceiling that houses recessed lighting as well as exposed ducts and pipes painted matte black like the ceiling, and two more large, stunning washi pieces by Brayer – one in ethereal swirls of blue and green behind a glass panel that serves as a wall between the dining room and the lounge, and the other awash in vibrant red, yellow and orange. Custom oak tables and chairs and banquettes along the walls covered with traditional Japanese fabrics provide the seating, while earth-toned slate tiles dramatically extend from the floor up to the columns and walls (but they also add to the din, which emanates mostly from the lounge).
Along with the slate tiling, rich copper helps tie together the room’s real focal points: a sushi bar topped with salt and pepper granite and a robata bar with a sustainably harvested ramon wood counter. Both offer exhibition seating with the service area cleverly sunken so that diners are eye level with the chefs. The sushi bar sits behind illumintaed glass cases filled with seafood and bottles of beer on ice, while a tiny opening in the tiled wall at the back of the robata bar gives diners just a peak inside the busy kitchen.
An amuse bouche of a briny, tender manila clam on the half shell steamed in yuzu with the rinds and presented on a stone plate foreshadowed the wondrous meal to come.
A selection of sashimi (various prices) on a bed of ice with a small dollop of fresh wasabi (a rare treat) included house-cured mackerel with grated ginger to offset its strong flavor; a shooter of sake, velvety uni (sea urchin) and a raw quail egg; a plump, briny oyster in its shell; sweet, juicy house-made tamago (egg omelet); and translucent tai (red snapper).
Thick slices of hamachi (also known as yellowtail or amberjack) were the best I’ve had in a long time. Like tuna, hamachi is usually filleted into blocks (called cho). With the fatty, more flavorful parts closest to the belly, the meat is often bland. A few places actually offer the bloodline (chiai), which, unlike that of tuna, is edible. This ruby-red dark meat imparts intense flavor, as does the strip of oily under-skin that the chefs at Ozumo leave on, enhancing the flavor even more.
Tako was the only thing I didn’t like on the sashimi platter – I am not a fan of octopus to start with (I’ve enjoyed it only twice – at Café Majestic and at Sebo – and both times it was grilled), and this did nothing to change my mind. It was dense, chewy and gritty.
Moving on to sushi (various prices), the salmon belly – seared off, marinated in dashi-ponzu and topped with grated ginger – redeemed the experience quickly. It was the best I’ve ever had. Don’t even bother with soy sauce – it’s perfect as it is.
I also loved the anago (conger eel), the less common saltwater cousin of freshwater unagi, which has a delicate white flesh that I prefer to the Chinese-imported unagi found at most Japanese restaurants. (One exception is the “special unagi” at Sushi Sam’s, sent fresh from a retired eel farmer in Japan.)
Executive chef Jennifer Nguyen is a bright star on the rise – an eloquent, focused pro who most recently helped to open Aja Steak in Chicago and prior to that worked with lauded “Iron Chef” Mashaharu Morimoto. Along with chef de cuisine Christian Geideman, an East Bay native returning home after seven years at the acclaimed Kasasoba in Santa Fe, Nguyen has taken the robata grill to a higher echelon.
Her warm lettuce salad ($8) made my eyes roll back in my head – blanched iceberg lettuce and pickled shallots topped with Kurobuta pork belly braised in a mirin-shoyu-sake sauce. The warm braising sauce oozes down into the crisp greens and when you chase the delectable droplets you find a surprise at the bottom of the bowl – a cool buttermilk-shiso dressing.
Equally swoon-worthy, Ozumo’s signature saikyo miso and sake kasu- marinated grilled black cod ($28) is firm and moist and fatty with a caramelized crust, breaking into big flaky pieces with a gentle nudge of the chopstick. It arrives with a pickled ginger sprout wrapped in eggplant in yet another beautiful presentation. The sustainable black cod in this dish comes the closest in taste and texture to the severely endangered (and therefore avoidable) Chilean sea bass of any fish I’ve had.
Robata skewers ($4 to $9 each) are izakaya style, named for the Japanese pubs that feature savory snacks washed down with sake or cold beer. My “shovel” (my term for a man with a large appetite who accompanies me to help eat my way through a menu) that night, Steve, reveled in the nicely charred, medium-rare New York strip with shishito peppers and the tsukune (chicken and pork meat ball). I enjoyed them as well, but the succulent square of spicy miso pork belly and the salt-grilled spot prawn, served head-on for sucking out the juices, were my favorites.
Wonderful on a cold winter’s night, a pot of sukiyaki ($33) bubbled over red-hot charcoals, the sweet broth simmering thin shaved rib eye steak, chrysanthemum leaves, silken tofu, shiitake mushrooms, Napa cabbage and an onsen (cooked in the broth) egg.
Desserts, usually a weak point at most Japanese restaurants, hold their own here, especially azuki bean bread pudding drizzled with crème anglais ($9) and shokora ke-ki ($10), a flourless cake with chocolate mousse and crushed hazelnut, with a silky banana milkshake shot and sliced bruleed bananas on the side.
Sake sommelier Jessica Furui presides over one of the country’s largest sake lists – it features nearly 100 brands, many of them rare, high-end selections from small producers. Charming and well versed, Furui confidently guides you through successful pairing after successful pairing. (There is also a full bar serving cocktails, wines from around the world, and Sapporo and Kirin beer on tap.)
The Kotatsu Room, with its 12-foot oak table and bench seating, has room for 24 and is available for private functions (or, when available, for large groups nightly). There is also a private dining room with sliding shoji doors that can hold up to 50 guests.
I’ve heard more than a few people say that Ozumo is the best thing to happen to Oakland since the return of the Raiders. Having been to a few Raiders games, I beg to differ. It’s a whole lot better. As much as I love a good stadium hot dog, it can’t compare to a chunk of pork belly on the grill; unlike Al Davis, Jeremy Umland knows how to field a winning team; and best of all, you don’t have to fight your way through silver and black spray-painted Neanderthals to get to the bathroom. If you visit the restrooms at Ozumo often enough, you might even learn a new language: the speakers play the soft voices of a man and a woman speaking a phrase first in English, and then in Japanese.
Ozumo Oakland: 2251 Broadway (at Grand), lunch Mon.–Fri.
11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., dinner Mon.–Thu. 5–10 p.m.. Fri.–Sat. 5-10:30p.m.; reservations recommended, 510-286-9866, www.ozumo.com
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To read more of Susan’s restaurant reviews and chef profiles, subscribe to “the Yummy letter,” a weekly food and wine e-letter that also features GraceAnn Walden on SCOOP, master sommelier Catherine Fallis on SIP, and Bill Knutson on COOK; www.yummyletter.com.