Berkeley’s Iyasare: A game-changer for the East Bay

Ocean Umami at Iyasare. Photo: Kate Williams

Ocean Umami at Iyasare. Photo: Kate Williams

One bite of Ocean Umami and I was hooked.

This dish, a highlight on the stellar menu at the new Iyasare on Berkeley’s Fourth street, is indicative of chef Shotaro Kamio’s intricate Japanese-American cuisine. Its appearance alone is stunning—each colorful element comes together into a bold, oceanic painting. Yet nothing feels arbitrary or decorative. This plate is artistic “tweezer food” at its best: a single bite brings forth the scent of the ocean and the rich, lingering flavor of seaweed. Tart umeboshi plum gel and salty bursts of soy-marinated ikura salmon roe provide a drumbeat of brightness to the tender, fresh scallops. Slivers of rich uni are matched with brilliantly green chive and extra-virgin olive oils. Pickled wasabi leaf and nori-infused ponzu ground the dish. Even after finishing off each individual orb of roe, I wanted to lick the plate clean.

Uni Rissoto with Maitake Broth, Cauliflower Puree, and Smoked Oyster. Photo: Kate Williams

Uni Rissoto with Maitake Broth, Cauliflower Puree, and Smoked Oyster. Photo: Kate Williams

The effortlessly attentive servers probably wouldn’t have minded such a move. They were all smiles, even when my companion and I took our time eating through only a few dishes, and even as the evening grew late and we found ourselves the last ones in the restaurant on a quiet Sunday night.

Kamio, the former chef of beloved Yoshi’s, opened Iyasare last December, taking over the old O Chamé space at 4th and Hearst. Even with only 6 months under his belt, Kamio is clearly shining. The restaurant was just inducted into the new San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 – a sure sign it is hitting all the right marks.

Kamio’s cuisine aims to bring together the rustic Japanese cooking of his upbringing with a seasonal, modern California ethos. At Iyasare, classic techniques like pickling and curing hold court with modernist gels and sous vide circulator. This merger of old and new is common in trendier San Francisco restaurants, but had yet to gain a foothold in Berkeley. Consider Kamio a game-changer in our sliver of the East Bay.

Buta-Charsu Pork Belly with Pork Broth, Miso and Mustard. Photo: Kate Williams

Buta-Charsu Pork Belly with Pork Broth, Miso and Mustard. Photo: Kate Williams

Iyasare’s menu is divided into three sections that generally progress from smaller, lighter dishes to richer entrées. The Ocean Umami fell into the first — a selection of raw preparations, cured dishes, and salads. Sashimi and seaweed salad are familiar members of this group, and they’re joined by the likes of Ika-Tamago (squid noodles with a soft boiled egg), seasonal Chawan-Mushi egg custard, and Unagi (eel) salad.

Further down the menu is a mix of roasted, fried, and steamed dishes that combine heavier proteins like bacon and duck with elegant broths and silken tofu. The final portion of the menu offers a taste of cooked fish and seared meats. One could easily make a meal sampling dishes from any one of the sections, but I found it enjoyable to follow the progression laid out on the menu.

To transition from the raw Ocean Umami eaten as a starter, we dove into the Uni Risotto served atop maitake mushroom broth. The rich and salty tang of the urchin roe pulsing through the starchy rice is the perfect segue between briny seafood and the warm, earthy mushroom funk wafting through the broth. Crisp fried maitake slivers add appreciable textural contrast. A single smoked oyster, sliced impossibly thin, echoes both the uni and the broth. Cauliflower puree dolloped on top adds vegetal creaminess, and ribboned shiso leaf brightens each bite with a haunting shimmer of citrus.

Matcha sorbet with Mochi and Matcha Jellies at Iyasare. Photo: Kate Williams

Matcha sorbet with Mochi and Matcha Jellies at Iyasare. Photo: Kate Williams

A grilled branzino on special that evening was a temping entrée, but the slight chill in the air led us to the Buta-Charshu, five ounces of tamari-braised pork belly decked out with a tonkotsu-like creamy pork broth, delicate mushroom slivers, complex and spicy red Sendai miso, and fiery karashi mustard. The pork comes sliced into bite-sized slabs, primed for dunking in the broth and dragging through the mustard and miso. Slivered radishes, sesame seeds, and scallions are sprinkled on top, adding visual pop.

Castle in the Sky and Coconut and Strawberry cocktails at Iyasare. Photo: Molly Hunt

Castle in the Sky and Coconut and Strawberry cocktails at Iyasare. Photo: Molly Gore

Dessert offerings are limited and tend towards the familiar — think twists on chocolate cakes and the Chez Panisse-inspired berries in sparkling sake. Our choice, matcha sorbet served atop mochi and matcha jellies, was a well-balanced exploration of the essence of green tea. The flavors were spot-on; however, the chilled mochi was more sticky and taffy-like than pleasantly chewy.

The cocktail offerings could likewise use a bit of tweaking. A spritzer called Castle in the Sky was the better of the two cocktails we sampled that evening. Its fusion of sparkling sake, sochu, cucumber, shiso, and mint sounded great on paper, but it came off as slightly pedestrian. A smoothie-like special cocktail of unfiltered sake, strawberries, and coconut puree was simply too clunky and rich when sipped alongside the meal. It would have been better for us to stick to the beer list, which offers local brews in addition to an assortment of Japanese ales. Sake is also a decent choice, and the tea list features Berkeley’s own Téance.

These minor cocktail stumbles are easily forgiven and forgotten. The memory of those ingenious scallops, umami-filled mushroom broth, and silky-rich pork is what lingers and will surely draw me back, again and again.

Iyasare, 1830 4th Street, Berkeley, CA 94710, (510) 845-8100. Open 11:30am-2pm Monday, Wednesday-Sunday; 5:30pm-9:30pm Monday, Wednesday, Thursday; 5:30pm-10pm Friday-Saturday; 5:30pm-9pm Sunday.

Recommended dishes: Ocean Umami, Uni Risotto, Buta-Charshu.

Iyasare opened in the former O'Chame spot on Berkeley's Fourth Street. Photo: Kate Williams

Iyasare opened in the former O’Chame spot on Berkeley’s Fourth Street. Photo: Kate Williams

Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.

Read more of Kate William’s restaurant reviews for Nosh:

Kingston 11: Come for the chicken, stay for the party
Easy Creole: A fun, über-casual Cajun joint in Berkeley
China Village: Albany Szechuan restaurant is still firing on all cylinders
Homestead: Seasonal DIY cooking done right
Hutch: A hit and miss attempt at refined southern cooking

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  • Guest

    It’s good that one bite can hook you, because it looks like theres about 3 bites on each plate.

  • Name

    Generous portions for anorexic runway models.

  • lizabet

    might be nice to get the name of the chef right–it’s kamio, NOT KAMINO(a fantastic restaurant in oakland when spelled with a ‘c’)

  • http://berkeleyside.com Frances Dinkelspiel

    Thanks. We have corrected the name. A big oops on our part.

  • alixwall

    I’ve been wanting to try this place and you just made me want to even more. Thanks, Kate!

  • berkeleyan

    I miss O’Chame SO much ;_;

  • renapo

    How about some idea of the prices?

  • http://honestlyyum.com/ Todd @ HonestlyYUM

    Headed over this weekend. Can’t wait!!

  • MariaP

    If you have to ask…

  • Chris J

    I have biked past here on numerous occasions and have read all the stellar reviews, but I’ve seen their menu and its prices and now that I’ve seen the serving size (the risotto dish looks lonely on that bigass plate) I’ll have to rethink visiting there.

    I may be missing out on a wonderful culinary experience, but the prices and the portion-size give me pause.

    My wife and I ate at Chez Panisse a few times and were always impressed. Our last visit was wonderful, but at $270 for the two of us, we figured that we could visit three other fairly decent ‘fine dining’ locations and, while not having the ‘Je ne sais quoi’ feel of CP, could still have relatively decent meals three times over.

  • yum

    So good. Much $$$.