It’s the Next Big Thing in Oakland Dining
Any time a restaurant becomes “my favorite new restaurant,” I begin to worry. In the case of Hopscotch, a classy hole in the wall on the western boundary of Oakland’s meteoric Uptown district, my concerns set in after our first visit; they were in full swing after dinners two and three. My trepidations had little to do with the revamped diner’s location or its diminutive size; they had everything to do with its impending success. The haunting questions ran something like this: Will the Hopscotch buzz beget lines of hip trend-sniffers waiting for any of the two dozen table seats or seven stools at the bar? Will a boffo Michael Bauer review in the San Francisco Chronicle boost Hopscotch’s status as the next big thing in Oakland dining, necessitating reservations weeks in advance? Will chef Kyle Itani and general manager and co-owner Jenny Schwarz sustain their vision, focus and creative momentum when scale becomes an issue?
Maybe I’d fret less if we’d found flaws in Hopscotch’s ambience, cuisine, beverages, presentation or service, or if we’d had trouble parking or felt uneasy on the slightly dodgy block of San Pablo Avenue. But on each visit we parked less than a block away from the storefront former home of Chef Edward’s Bar-B-Que; and the biggest quibble we could come up with during three visits, over the course of a month, was that the footrest bar at the counter was mounted too low for the tall chairs—our legs dangled, so we moved to a table.
It’s easy to get comfortable in Hopscotch, a homey cubbyhole with a checkerboard floor and leatherette-upholstered dinette chairs tucked against bare-topped blond-wood tables. The wine list is posted on blackboards, the bar is installed behind what may once have been a soda fountain counter, and a couple of large, framed mirrors hang on opposite walls to create a faint illusion of spaciousness. Our servers, Stevey and Chauncey, were exceptionally friendly and thoroughly versed on the intricacies of the limited but nuanced menus. Stevey impressed us when she provided tastes of the two wines I was pondering. Chauncey earned kudos for suggesting that the beef tataki ($11) would go better with the glass of Aglianico ($12) and the Dungeness crab and smoked soba noodles ($12) that I’d already ordered than it would with the lardo-wrapped pork rillettes ($11) that also called my name. He stopped by later to ask, “How are those flavors working for you?” Extra points.
Indeed, Itani’s cooking is all about flavors. A veteran of both The Meatball Shop in New York City (hence the meatball pop-up night in December) and Yoshi’s here, Itani melds earthy and refined sensibilities in every dish. And every dish in some way reflects a novel take on American cuisine tweaked with Japanese ingredients and informed by the Japanese penchant for balanced and pleasing visual arrangements.
Itani had me from the first amuse-bouche—cubes of silken tofu, placed in dashi broth in small Japanese ceramic spoons, topped with bits of scallion and a sliver of ginger root. The spoons rested on a ribbon of cucumber. He roped me in tighter with the Yonsei oyster ($5), the raw mollusk sharing its shell with a generous dollop of uni (sea urchin), about a dozen salmon eggs and some citrus soy sauce; taken in one slurp it sent me to ocean heaven. Try once, repeat ad infinitum.
Against an unobtrusive soundtrack of blues, soul and jazz, those openers, plus our first cocktails—the Bourbon Red Hook ($10), made with Carpano Antica, maraschino and bitters and the Agricole Mule ($9), with rum, lime, ginger and mint—established lofty benchmarks, which everything else we tried either met or surpassed. We didn’t get to Hopscotch for weekday lunch or weekend brunch, but we did a pretty good job of plowing through Zach Miller’s cocktail list, Itani’s half-dozen starters and half-dozen mains offered at dinner and the desserts ($7).
All of the offerings are subject to change, but you can probably count on a few regulars: The Uptown burger ($13) is 7 ounces of house-ground chuck (with beef tongue trimmings mixed in) on a soft Semifreddi’s brioche bun with sesame aioli, pickled onions, lettuce and tomatoes (add house-cured smoked bacon for $4), served with house-made Kennebec potato chips and yuzu aioli. (At $14, the First Base Burger includes a slice of griddled beef tongue). The buttermilk fried chicken ($17) is a super crusty, super tender thigh and leg on a bed of chrysanthemum leaves with fried Shishito peppers on the side. When Robin had the thick seafood gumbo ($17), it featured soft-shell crab, shrimp, bacon, okra and a scallop fritter; at another dinner, her pillowy sweet potato gnocchi ($15) were bedecked with a tangle of three different kinds of wild mushrooms in brown butter and accented with crème fraîche; and when I ordered the pork chop ($23), it came as two perfectly pink slices bedded on lardo bamboo shoots with crispy garlic.
Itani’s transformative touch teases out the essential character of ingredients and highlights them in new syntheses. This was especially true with the most explicitly Japanese preparations, such as the aforementioned soba with crab (exquisitely subtle with garlic chives, chestnut and soy-crab dashi) and beef tataki (eight small slices of strip steak seared rare, in the style of the traditional bonito dish, kastuo no tataki).
My fears for my favorite new eatery were quickened in December when Michael Bauer awarded Hopscotch three stars. Next chance I get, I’ll just have to blunt my dread with a White Pumps cocktail (tequila, Aperol, bitters and lemon, $9), a Yonsei oyster (of course), a Little Green Salad (little gems, delicata squash, pomegranate seeds, cauliflower florets and spicy mustard vinaigrette, $9) and the intense butterscotch pudding (topped with an egg-shaped dollop of thick whipped cream and accompanied by a browned, soft macaroon), which Robin deemed best dessert ever. Success? Bring it on.
Hopscotch. American-Japanese. 1915 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, 510-788-6217. Serves dinner Tue.–Thu., Sun. 5:30–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5:30–11 p.m.; lunch Tue.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m.; brunch Sat.–Sun. 10:30 a.m.–3 p.m., www.hopscotchoakland.com