Iyasare Commands Attention

Charm, refinement, and elevation are the hallmarks of Sho Kamio’s West Berkeley venture.


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Iyasare's maguro taratare with quail egg

Lori Eanes

When Shotaro “Sho” Kamio took command of the kitchen at Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Japanese Restaurant in Oakland in 2006, the food took a dramatic turn for the better. Kamio, who had previously made his mark in San Francisco at Ozumo, expanded his sphere of influence with the opening of the much larger Yoshi’s in the Fillmore District. Last year, he left all that behind to strike out on his own in much more intimate digs, the West Berkeley space long inhabited by the beloved O Chamé.

After collaborating on the transition with O Chamé chef-owner David Vardy, Kamio debuted Iyasare in November and immediately proved that less—about 40 table seats (plus 10 at the bar and another 25 on the front patio) compared to the many hundreds at the two Yoshi’s combined, and a small staff versus a veritable army—is much, much more. Whatever gap was created in East Bay dining with the retirement of O Chamé, including the restaurant’s Zenlike tranquility and Vardy’s signature udon or soba with smoked trout, Iyasare has filled with charm, refinement, and elevated cuisine.

Kamio preserved the general contours of the dining room—its coved ceilings, indirect lighting, wooden tables, comfortable chairs and booths—but gave it a sleeker look with a bright coat of white paint. And he opened the kitchen and made the bar more prominent. The resulting hipper, livelier, and slightly louder qualities were in full force during our weekday dinner and weekend lunch. The small selection of original cocktails may have something to do with the looser spirit. Robin and I eased into the mood on our evening visit with a refreshing Tokyo Drifter (shochu [distilled, whereas sake is brewed], pomegranate juice, agave, and mint, $11) and a vibrant Spirited Away Martini (junmai sake, lemon, and agave, $11). Three women at a nearby table grew more animated after the first sips of their Castle in the Sky cocktails (shochu, cucumber, shiso, mint, and sparkling sake, $10). Other libations include wine (on tap, by the glass, and by the bottle), American and Japanese beers, bottled and draft, and a dozen or so sake selections.

When the food—any food—arrives, however, all attention turns to the plate. This complete hijacking of your focus is testament to the imagination and technical skill that go into the creation and presentation of Kamio’s dishes, from the simplest slice of sashimi and humblest lunchtime curry to the most sophisticated rendition of poached fish and elaborate preparation of tempura. Almost without exception, your concentration—on scent, mouthfeel, and flavors (which might explode, sneak up, harmonize, or do friendly battle)—will bring startling revelations as you proceed through what is best enjoyed as a shared and leisurely meal.

The Iyasare dinner menu has three sections: raw, cured, salad; roasted, tempura, steamed; and sumi grilled, sauté, pan roasted. We tried something from each section: maguro (big-eye tuna) carpaccio ($15); nasu (eggplant) miso ($15) and kakiage tempura ($9); and herb oil–poached cod ($26). The “carpaccio” chunks of purplish tuna were tucked into a lovely jumble of yama imo (mountain yam), upland cress, and julienned fresh wasabi, and sat in a pool of a light, sweet soy dashi broth. The nasu arrived in three timbales, the creaminess of the eggplant contrasting with the crunchy textures of puffed genmai (brown rice) and grated chestnuts, the flavors made complex with the addition of two misos, sweet saikyo and hachiyo. The kakiage-style tempura had burdock root, yellow onion, sweet potato, shungiku (chrysanthemum), and shiitake mushroom (plus chunks of black tiger shrimp, $6 extra) mixed together and shaped into six triangular wedges, lightly battered, fried to hash brown–like crispness, and served with a large bowl of bonito-soy dipping broth and tiny piles of seven-spice and matcha-tea salts.

Just from the ingredients listed above, you can deduce the delicate balancing acts required to make the dishes work. Nothing was more delicate or deftly balanced, however, than the cod. Two thick, browned pieces of the fish leaned against a salad of wilted savoy cabbage and shaved konbu (kelp, used to make dashi). Between them was nestled an oval of duxelles (chopped mushrooms, onions, herbs) for additional umami, and to one side, a tangle of nameko mushroom. Large, moist bites of cod could be separated with the touch of chopsticks or a fork; it was like eating a mildly savory cloud.

Iyasare’s lunch is a more down-home affair. It features familiar Japanese-restaurant offerings, such as edamame with Okinawan sea salt ($3), soba noodle soup ($9), grilled king salmon ($8), a sashimi sampler of maguro, salmon, and hamachi ($15), and a half dozen sushi rolls (including California, spider, spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, and unagi, $5–$9.50). But it also boasts what our dining partner, Shin Aoki, a native of Yokohama, called “everyday cooking and comfort food, presented beautifully.”

Shin and I shared orders of tonkatsu (panko-fried kurobuta pork loin with hot karashi mustard and tonkatsu sauce, $9), grilled jidori (sliced chicken thigh with teriyaki sauce, spicy miso, and broccolini with sesame dressing, $7), Tokyo curry rice (cauliflower, marble potato, baby carrot, and shimeji mushrooms in a rich gravy, $8), and a mini chirashi (sashimi, egg, and veggies over sushi rice, $16). Robin took several bites of our dishes, but largely stayed in her own heavenly realm with a bowl of Sendai miso soup ($3) and a lunch (four-piece) order of kakiage tempura ($7); the latter she first experienced at Yoshi’s San Francisco, and it is something of which she will never tire. Although the pork was a bit dry, and the teriyaki somewhat heavy with mirin (sweet rice wine), lunch was as satisfying in its earthiness as dinner had been in its elegance.

We (at least when Robin can look up from her kakiage) will no doubt spend many more evenings sampling such intriguing items as beet-cured ocean trout, oyster tartare, barbecued eel salad with dashi-cured egg yolk, Dungeness crab okonomi pancake, sake-steamed clams with smoked bacon, uni risotto, grilled salt-cured hamachi collar and cheek, and maybe even the 28-day dry-aged New York steak. Everything calls us back, including the smart service: Our dishes were explained in detail and, at dinner, delivered at a relaxed pace; used plates were exchanged for new when appropriate; and when we asked a server how chef Kamio’s cooking is influenced by his background (he’s from Japan’s rural northeastern Tohoku region, and his parents operated a ramen shop in Sendai) and manifests in his cooking, she immediately noted his unusual miso preparations.

Feeling well taken care of is an appropriate hallmark of Kamio’s solo venture. He named his restaurant in compassionate response to the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake. iyasare means “to be healed,” and Kamio’s culinary vision and genius are as much about nurturing as they are about innovation.

Iyasare. Japanese. 1830 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-845-8100, 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Sun.–Sat., 5:30 p.m.–9 p.m. Sun.–Thu., 5:30 p.m.–10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., CC Beer and/or Wine  $$–$$$ www.Iyasare-Berkeley.com

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