Octopus Is All Over East Bay Menus
Eaten worldwide for millenniums, the hard-to-cook octopus is arising everywhere on menus.
Photo by Pat Mazzera
Kenny Belov of Sausalito’s TwoXSea shows off a catch of the day, octopus.
If we’ve ever needed proof that our species will eat anything that moves, that proof is octopus. Cooked and served whole, it looks vaguely obscene. Even when its legs are diced into bits, those suckers still gape like desperate rubber mouths.
This sushi-bar staple, depicted on 4,000-year-old Minoan pottery, is popping up on more and more East Bay menus. Has prolonged exposure to diverse cuisines encouraged us to ecstatically embrace this oceangoing oddball as we’ve already done with bison, boar, and other former outliers? Or is it mainly that we’ve already overfished most of the less repulsive sea creatures?
Jack’s Oyster Bar in Jack London Square serves octopus charred and whole. Lakeshore’s Shakewell tops tentacles with saffron aioli and dubs them Octo-Dogs. Fruitvale’s Mariscos La Costa serves it as ceviche. Alameda’s Trabocco offers it two ways: grilled with potatoes as an antipasto, and long-simmered in Brodetto alla Vastese, an Abruzzo-style seafood stew.
Yet this hard-beaked, allegedly intelligent invertebrate is a love-it-or-hate-it lightning rod.
“If cooked correctly, octopus should have a delicate and tender texture as well as a rich and briny flavor,” says Fred Sassen, co-owner of Oakland’s Homestead, whose starters include octopus carpaccio. “There is nothing worse than tough octopus. That’s why there’s a very love/hate opinion.”
Octophobes have either been traumatized by ill-prepared octopus “or they have a textural problem with it,” explains Niko Eftimou, chef at Berkeley’s Pathos Organic Greek Kitchen, who serves it grilled with fried capers. Octopus, Eftimou asserts, should be as tender as scallops—“not rubbery as people have come to expect.”
Attaining such tenderness is—well, tough.
“Octopus can be a very intimidating product to work with because most people do not understand its anatomy,” Eftimou explains. “The goal is to penetrate the extremely tough artery within each tentacle by way of tenderization techniques. Octopus cannot be rushed.”
“Octopus is very difficult to work with in its original untreated raw state,” agrees Hopscotch co-owner/chef Kyle Itani, who serves it brick-grilled with seaweed, mizuna, and ponzu. To avoid jaw-busting rubberiness, he says, “the mantra is to cook it for two minutes or two hours.”
“I have perfected a method that delivers consistent results for me,” reveals A16 Rockridge chef Rocky Maselli. “I braise the octopus in olive oil with chili and garlic until tender and use the braised octopus in antipasti, pasta, and entrees. It is truly one of my favorites.
“I don’t run octopus on the A16 menu often as I’d like because it is quickly becoming unsustainable. The Mediterranean variety are becoming overfished, if not already overfished.”
Sourcing West Coast-caught octopus seasonally through Sausalito-based TwoXSea, Maselli says, “I can put them on the menu with a good conscience when they are available.”
Several East Bay stores, including the Berkeley Bowl and Rockridge’s Hapuku Fish Shop, sell pre-frozen octopus sourced mainly from India and Spain.
Many diners shun octopus “because of the squishy sea-creature horror look,” ventures Bob Klein, co-owner of Oakland’s Oliveto Restaurant and Café, whose executive chef Jonah Rhodehamel first slow-braises, then grills octopus, before serving it with chickpea-flour flatbread. “But it’s meaty, has great texture, and takes on flavor well.