The Hungry Palate
Pop art meets Eastern pub at cool O Izakaya
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
Izakayas – places for drinking that also serve food – are a long-established part of Japanese culture, and over the last few years more and more have been popping up on the Bay Area dining scene. O Izakaya opened several years ago as part of the remodeled Hotel Kabuki (formerly the Miyako). Executive chef Nick Balla has traveled extensively in Japan as well as worked at local Japanese restaurants including Ozumo. Balla uses traditional Japanese flavors as a jumping off point and integrates those flavors seamlessly with a California sensibility that utilizes local purveyors, farmers, foragers, and fishermen. The menu changes often, depending upon what’s in season and available, and though it is small, it is smartly crafted to include appealing dishes that I would happily eat every night and likely never tire of.
The interior, designed by Michael Guthrie (Tra Vigne, Spoon, Bix), is an odd mix of earth and pop, with dark cork floors, shimmering bamboo tables, ruby fabric-covered pendant lights, and Japanese sports memorabilia. Enormous Roy Lichtenstein-inspired cartoons depicting the faces of Japanese baseball players span floor to ceiling, traditional Japanese baseball cards are embedded in the custom wallpaper, and flat-screen televisions surround the centrally located bar, which is the focal point of the room. Black stairs spiral over the bar to the mezzanine that, in true hotel restaurant form, houses the hard-to-find, inconvenient bathroom. Two communal tables jut out from one of the room’s four sides; the others feature black leather banquettes with padded burgundy corduroy backings. The far wall is made of bamboo reeds sandwiched between Lucite panels. In front, tall windows starting at the top of the high, black ceilings and dipping to table level face Post Street and framed by industrial metal squares. The restaurant is subterranean, so passersby can look down at diners as if peering into a culinary terrarium.
As soon as the first dish arrived, I knew we were in for something special: pristine, peach-hued Tasmanian salmon sashimi with grated daikon radish, scallions, a sprinkle of salmon roe, and an egg yolk that had been torched crème brûlée-style to achieve a caramelized top ($12). A salad followed – exceptionally fresh soft-shell crab tempura atop little gem (petite Romaine lettuce), avocado, tangelo segments, and cucumber tossed in a light sesame dressing. Flash-fried bits of seaweed added a surprise crunch with each bite ($15).
Buttery Wagyu beef bavette (skirt steak) in a ramp ponzu sauce sat on a bed of duck fat-fried fingerling potatoes that weren’t as crunchy as I expected, but decadent nonetheless ($17). Wagyu refers to a number of Japanese cattle breeds genetically predisposed to high percentages of unsaturated fat and intense marbling, rendering the meat more healthful, as well as more tender and juicy, than other beef (it’s also tricky to cook – just a second too long and it can become tough as shoe leather). Several areas in Japan ship Wagyu bearing their names, Kobe being the most famous (and the priciest). American ranchers have bred Wagyu with Angus cattle; the meat is not quite as marbled and therefore not as flavorful or tender, but also not as expensive.
O Izakaya prides itself on Balla’s house-made udon – the noodles are as thick as your forefinger and non-uniform because they are hand rolled and knife cut. They are wonderfully chewy, swimming in a pleasantly sweet lobster broth with rock shrimp dumplings reminiscent of spongier matzo balls, pea tendrils, fresh English peas, and nutty sesame seeds. At $12, it’s a meal for two (and you may still have some left over). Also good are the buckwheat soba noodles swirled in tsuyu (soy broth) and topped with scallions, mizuna (a feathery, delicate green), shredded nori, and a poached egg ($9). The egg itself is actually a five-minute egg – cooked in the shell at a simmer, plunged in an ice bath to keep the yoke raw, then taken out of the shell and simmered again in the broth just prior to serving. The clean, smooth lines of the oval egg provide a surprising visual impact.
The selection of yakimono (charcoal-grilled bites), reasonably priced at $4 each (or a sampler of four for $15), is perfect for sharing. Skewers of velvety kurobuta pork belly (black pig, popular in Japan, that originated in the Shire of Berks, England, centuries ago) are doused with a house-made kimchee sauce and scattered with maiitake mushrooms; crispy chicken skins have the texture of pork cracklings with a smoky, charred exterior; skewered tsukune (chicken meatballs) contain scallions and cilantro and are juicier than any I’ve had. My favorite, though, was the honeycomb tripe. Growing up with an Italian grandfather and mother, I’ve had my share of reticulum (lining from the second stomach of a cow) cooked every which way, but even people who grimace at the thought of eating tripe will love O Izakaya’s rendition – slow braised in shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven spice) sauce with a fiery kick and then grilled until the edges are dark brown and crunchy. (I ordered the tripe without telling my sometimes-squeamish dining companion what it was, and he gobbled it up like candy.)
Desserts ($7), so often an afterthought at Asian restaurants, are more than satisfying here. There are only two, but I’d rather see two well executed than too many forgettable. The airy beignets, filled with cherry jam and amply covered with sugar, are some of the best I’ve had (recently a lot of restaurants seem to be serving mediocre, leaden beignets). With a dollop of black pepper crème fraîche for dipping, they are a symphony for the senses – warm, cool, sweet, tart, spicy. Only a culture as artful as Japan’s could make cakes of glutinous rice pounded into paste and molded into balls taste good, but the coconut mochi are also a winner, served with rich house-made chocolate ice cream, gooey banana caramel and chocolate nibs coated in sea salt.
Of course, in true izakaya fashion, there are plenty of beverages to wash it all down with, including over 20 sakes, wine, beer, Port, cocktails, cognacs, coffee, and tea. I was thrilled to find my favorite green tea, hand-rolled jasmine pearls, made from the top two leaves and the bud of new-season growth. In the precious iron diffuser pot, I watched as the leaves and bud unfurled, the heavenly scent of jasmine wafting up in the steam. It was the perfect end to a perfect meal.
O Izakaya Lounge: 1625 Post Street
(at Laguna); breakfast Monday–Friday 6:30–10:30 a.m. & Saturday–Sunday 7–11 a.m., dinner Wednesday–Sunday 5–10
p.m.; 415-614-5431, www.jdvhotels.com/dining/oizakaya
Pop Art meets hip eastern pub.
Relaxed but knowledgeable and attentive.
Earlier in the evening they keep the house music muted and it’s quiet enough to hold a conversation or hear yourself think; that gets a bit tougher the later and more crowded it gets.
Bring your Mini Maglite, but you may not need it – pendant lights centered over the tables make reading a tad easier than at most loungey spots.
NOT TO MISS DISHES
Knife-cut house-made udon, soft-shell crab tempura salad, mizuna and egg buckwheat soba, pork belly with kimchee sauce, honeycomb tripe, beignets.
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN
Yummy ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and style of the restaurant into consideration.
OUR REVIEW POLICY
We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.
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