Utzutzu Offers Transcendental Sushi
Yume’s successor offers a transformative experience with Japanese cuisine.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
We climbed the stairs on the presumption we were in the right place. There was an address at the door on Park Street, but no business-name signage. Utzutzu’s limited accessibility has many aspects: No elevator or lift to the sushi bar’s second floor location; only seven seats and two nightly seatings; online reservations limited to one or two people (we made two 8 p.m. bookings to accommodate our party of three); a fixed price of $100 per person, before drinks or tip; and an abundance of raw fish, which, to paraphrase Bob Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn,” ain’t everybody’s “cup of meat,” and which is why you won’t find Robin in this review.
Shin Aoki (my Shintaido martial arts instructor, born in Yokohama, Japan), Robert Friedman (Shin’s husband and a branding consultant), and I settled into a parlor-like waiting area resembling that of a therapist’s office, simply furnished with antique tables, lamps, couch, and chairs. As the seven folks from the early seating finished their desserts, Anna — the only person we would engage directly other than sushi chef Joji Nonaka — brought us our order of bright, crisp Aokelan (“Oakland”) California rice beer, something none of us had ever drunk. The cold, lager-like brew added to our buzz of anticipation.
Once seated on tall, chair-back stools at the counter that boxes in the sushi chef’s white-tiled-walled prep area, we found ourselves flanked by two eager couples from Alameda. Two hours later, we all felt like friends. Our evening included a few glasses of sake, about 19 individually presented food items, and lots of oohing and aahing and exclamations of “amazing!” and “oishi!” (delicious). The night was also marked by obsessive smartphone photography, ping-ponging conversations about visits to Japan, and familiarity (or lack thereof) with Yume, the seven-seat sushi bar that Utzutzu replaced when its chef/owner, Hideki Aomizu, retired.
Utzutzu is the latest project of restaurateur Chikara Ono, the chef mastermind behind two popular Japanese dining spots in Old Oakland: the izakaya-style counter AS B-Dama (in the Swan’s Market food court) and the more elaborate omakase (chef’s choice) restaurant Delage, next door. Utzutzu’s name is a play on the Japanese word for reality, which plays off yume, or dream. Its okimari (set menu) dinners are a collaborative effort between chef Asuka Uchida, from AS B-Dama, who works unseen in the kitchen, turning out appetizers, salads, soups, cooked items, and dessert, and chef Nonaka, who commands center stage as he prepares elegant nigiri in two rounds of the “chef’s sushi selection,” about a dozen pieces.
When we sat down, Nonaka had set up his area with the tools and raw materials of his trade: a rectangular wooden cutting board, a pair of long-blade knives, a few other utensils (chopsticks, spatula, brush), a bowl holding two halves of yuzu citrus, another with a fresh wasabi stem and a grater. There were also smaller dishes holding small amounts of condiments, garnishes, and sauces he would apply judiciously, a circular box to hold sushi rice, and the pièce de résistance, a low wooden box through the glass top of which we could gaze upon the glistening chunks of fish that would eventually be delicately sculpted and perched upon oblong bricks of sticky rice. The minimalist décor, which Robert dubbed “moody gray,” the stark white light from the soffit above the bar, and the unobtrusive acid jazz on the stereo seemed intended to keep our focus on Nonaka’s graceful movements and the food’s subtle nuances.
Before we got to the first round of Nonaka’s sushi, we were treated to a velvety soup of puréed asparagus with bits of Japanese anchovy and a mustard flower floating at the center. Then came a spring salad arrangement of small lettuce leaves, frisée, cress, and white asparagus, dressed with umeboshi (Japanese salt plum) vinaigrette. The salad had a bit of crunch from finely chopped toasted almonds and pine nuts and an unctuous contrast from half a soft-cooked quail egg. Those were the first two steps on our stairway to heaven.
Things we learned during the first sushi set: Nonaka’s sushi rice gets its pink tinge from red vinegar, which adds some tang and perhaps some binding to the pearly grains. Nonaka’s fish selections — most from Japan, some from local supplier Water2Table — eclipse the typical yellowtail, salmon, shrimp, and eel choices. We ate black sea bream cured in kelp, black sea bream with skin on and torched, sayori (needlefish) topped with onion, blue fin tuna in both lean, deep-red akami form and the paler, medium-fatty, melt-in-the-mouth chutoro variety. And we discovered that both okra (al dente) and deep-fried (but not battered) Japanese eggplant (creamy, with skin like a dolma grape leaf) make superb veggie sushi. In the care of a masterful sushi chef, who meticulously slits the top of the fish and brushes or drizzles on accenting flavors, there’s no need for your own soy or wasabi, and none is offered. Small nuggets of intense, palate-cleansing pickled ginger were presented in tiny bowls.
After two more refined dishes from the kitchen — saikyozuke (crisp, crunchy pickled vegetables, including radish and rainbow carrot) and a large, mind-altering Asian hard clam (hamaguri) on the shell — we learned more about the humble but twinkly and conversational Joji during the second sushi presentation: He pays close attention not only to pacing, but also to the order of delivery, counterclockwise around the bar on the first round, clockwise on the second. He was drawn to his profession by watching the original Iron Chef when he was a teen in Japan. And he worked at Kyubey, in Ginza, the No. 1 sushi restaurant in Tokyo at the time (he said Sushi Saito in Akasaka holds that title now), Morimoto in New York, and ICHI Sushi in San Francisco. We were introduced to even more exotic fish: ayu, freshwater sweetfish from Shizuoka, near Mount Fuji, cured in salt and vinegar and torched; flying fish; nodoguro, black-throat perch, slightly aged (some chefs in Japan age their sashimi fish for several months, Joji told us); shima aji, striped jack; creamy, un-fishy bafun (“horse dung”) uni, taken from Hokkaido urchin, smaller than our West Coast varieties. A hand roll of tuna, rice, and sea bean — commonplace but for Nonaka’s ingenious folding method — wrapped up the course.
The meal ended with anything but an anticlimax: an umami-driven five-mushroom soup with pepper and parsley; a rectangular chunk of slightly sweet tamagoyaki (omelet); and a very California dessert of strawberry ricotta ice cream with fresh berries and chopped pistachio.
Partly because of its scarcity and partly because his father’s family hails from the region where it’s made, Shin had chosen our sake from the limited menu of two junmai, two ginjo, and four daiginjo varieties—a 500 ml bottle ($58) of Koshinokanbai Tokusen. The dry, clean, delicately fruity ginjo rice wine from the renowned terroir of Niigata Prefecture was both food-friendly and sophisticated, made even classier by the vintage cut-glass stemware chosen for it. As we parted company with Nonaka, Anna, and our impromptu dining companions, the consensus seemed to be that we had shared a truly transportive evening in the form of a spectacular Japanese meal that transcended geography, one I wish everyone could experience.
1428 B Park St., Alameda, 510-263-8122. Okimari (set menu) dinner $100 per person; sake by the glass $10-$35, carafe $30-$97, or bottle $59-$180; beer $8; corkage $30. Serves dinner Wed.-Sat. with seatings at 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Call for reservations.