Shinmai is sleek, sexy, and ambitious — and settling in.
Shinmai brings izakaya and ramen to Uptown. This array includes tonkotsu ramen, broccolini, and an old fashioned.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
Fair warning: You’ll have to look extra hard to find Shinmai.
It turns out that the entrance is completely unmarked—as in no sign—making it effectively camouflaged along a nondescript stretch of San Pablo Avenue a couple of blocks off the main action of Uptown Oakland.
A little pretentious? Perhaps, but this hallmark of hipness can be forgiven when you take a step inside and experience the unmistakable buzz that’s only given off by a hot new restaurant. And this impressive second Oakland project from the duo behind Kakui in Montclair Village certainly seems to be that since opening in July.
Diners are greeted with a dark, sleek, and lively interior, which when contrasted with that incognito exterior, gives it the feel of a secret underground supper club. An elegant little bar anchors the entrance, while a low, beautifully slatted wood ceiling frames a long dining room that stretches past the hopping open kitchen and culminates in a semiprivate dining room dominated by a striking oversized painting.
The artwork, a contemporary take on traditional Japanese woodblock print, can be seen as a metaphor for the food, which is a contemporary take on a traditional Japanese izakaya fare and includes raw fish, grilled robata, and creative small plates. But the real centerpiece of Shinmai’s menu, and probably what about 75 percent of the diners around me were eating, is the ramen. And that makes sense. Modern Japanese cuisine is certainly a hot trend these days in the Bay Area, but ramen is the Asian equivalent of the burger: It’s comforting, it’s filling, and it gets butts in seats.
And in that respect, Shinmai mostly delivers. Unlike several other ramen-specific spots to open in the East Bay recently, such as Shiba and the nearby Itani, Shinmai offers just two versions: tonkotsu and vegetable. Tonkotsu is probably the most sought-after among ramen aficionados, but I should admit that it’s never been my favorite, because I often find the pork-based broth too rich and heavy. Shinmai’s was no different: The creamy broth was deep and flavorful and included an incredibly delicious slice of marinated chashu pork belly and just-right soft-marinated half egg, but I found it too weighty, unctuous to the point that I couldn’t finish the whole bowl. That being said, I didn’t see too many other disappointed faces in the dining room, and we overheard our next-door dining neighbors raving about it.
Lucky for me then that I found the vegetable ramen to be excellent. The broth was clean and light while retaining an appealing brawniness from a mushroom base. I also found the square-cut noodles to be bouncier and more toothsome than their rounder tonkotsu counterpart, and it was packed with tasty additions, including roasted tomatoes for a nice acidic burst, always-welcome stewed bamboo shoots, meaty king trumpet mushrooms, a half egg, and a slice of deep-fried lotus root. If you don’t mind a little spice, fork over an extra $1 for the spicy himitsu paste, which lent a delicious undercurrent of savory spice throughout.
That dish, along with the cool atmosphere and good drinks, would bring me back. Which is important because, the rest of the Shinmai experience needs some practice. Let’s start with the nonramen fare, which was pretty good, but included a worrying number of missteps—especially given the restaurant’s fairly steep prices.
The menu is divided into three sections—raw, izakaya, and robata—amounting to around 10 items total. The results were all over the map, ranging from very good to meh to disappointing. In the very good category, I’d place the ocean trout, broccolini, and fried potato salad.
The beautifully presented ocean trout consisted of four substantial cuts of sashimi dappled with toasted sesame seeds, fresh sprigs of micro shiso, bright orange piquillo pepper purée, tangy sumac, and preserved lemon. Very similar in appearance to salmon, the trout was ultra buttery while exhibiting a milder, less fishy taste. The added elements on the plate—in particular the micro shiso greens, mellower than the intensely flavored full leaf—served as a pleasant complement to that delicious fish.
Broccolini was another winner, the small florets and stems broiled to concentrated green goodness and decked with chopped hard-boiled egg to add some muscle, ikura eggs for briny freshness, and a sweet miso honey mustard that reminded me of a high-end version of the McDonald’s chicken nugget dipping sauce (a good association, at least in my mind).
My favorite item was the potato salad. Shinmai’s version is a far cry from the ubiquitous mayonnaise-drenched picnic side dish, instead coming off as sort of a deconstructed interpretation of an okonomiyaki Japanese savory pancake. Instead of flour batter, however, the base consisted of absolutely perfectly fried potatoes (they are par cooked first). These buttery, smashed small potatoes are seasoned with Japanese furikake and served atop a swirl of truffled, yuzu aioli (which I’d sub for mayo every day of the week) and spiked with clusters of briny fish roe and katsuobushi, dried shaved tuna flakes that basically melt on the top for a layer of briny umami.
Other dishes were less successful. The misleadingly named bacon was in fact a much thicker cut of pork that fell somewhere between pork chop and pork belly, but exhibited neither the tenderness of a good chop nor the decadent fattiness of pork belly. Big, impressively butterflied gulf shrimp were fresh and bouncy but completely overwhelmed by a brown butter ponzu sauce. A beef rib-eye robata was quite good and cooked to perfect medium-rare tenderness, but the fairly large chunks of meat were crying out for more salt.
There were also some obvious kitchen missteps. The shishito peppers were clearly undercooked, while the chicken karaage, an all-time crowd pleaser that should be a slam-dunk, had a tooth-chippingly hard crust and gave off the stale scent of having been fried in not-fresh oil.
Perhaps the kitchen should be cut some slack given that the opening-night executive chef, French Laundry-alum Jerrod Doss, left the restaurant shortly after it opened (the nonramen portion of the menu remains mostly unchanged as Doss was replaced by former sous chef Vincent Bryant). But what gives me cause for concern is when you combine kitchen sloppiness with careless service. Dishes come out fast and furious stacked on top of each other, while empty plates took too long to be cleared, and one member of the wait staff seemed bored. Granted, it is the early days, and the restaurant was slammed, but it added up to an impersonal, assembly-line atmosphere that left me feeling a little cold.
And let’s face it: With all the competition in the Oakland dining scene these days, that personal connection is something that Shinmai will need to keep customers coming back after the initial buzz fades. Or they might just have to put a sign up after all.