Fun isn’t always what comes to mind when you think of eating out, but it really should be. We should feel delighted more at meal times — by the food itself, by the ambience of the restaurant and by the people with whom we’re sharing our meals. It should be the experience of eating out that’s fun, more than the photo you post on Instagram to prove you were there.
To me, izakayas are the epitome of fun dining. They remind me of visiting my first Japanese tavern in Tokyo in the early 2000s. It was a dark, smoky, low-key place (yes, smoky with cigarettes) full of young, vibrant people chatting into the night over food and drinks. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly what I ate, but I do remember being thrilled to be there and being surprised at the endless array of bites that continued to be placed on the table in front of me. These appetizer-sized dishes, meant to be shared with friends, varied from salads to fried dumplings to plates of kimchi. What they all shared in common were they were best washed down with a glass of beer.
Thinking back on this experience, it doesn’t surprise me that this August, one-year-old Itani Ramen in Uptown Oakland launched a new dinner service menu that added a whole new offering of izakaya-style small plates. Previously, Itani was counter-service-only, but now, in the evenings, diners will get full table service. The change, owner Kyle Itani told us, was for two reasons: to give diners a more comfortable and enjoyable experience at his restaurant, and to make it more fun for him and the Itani Ramen staff, a new challenge to create new dishes and introduce them to their audience. In a nutshell, he was looking for ways to make Itani more fun.
Recently, Nosh was invited to try the new full-service dinner menu at Itani Ramen. Here’s a look at what we ate on our recent visit:
Fried foods are an izakaya classic offering. Itani still offers its housemade gyoza (potstickers) which are a good bet when you have a hankering for fried goodness, but we decided to try something we hadn’t had before, Itani’s famous Crispy Pig Ears ($7). Cut in thin strips and deep fried, the ears are served with a generous heaping of chopped green onions, a sprinkling of shichimi togarashi (Japanese spice mix made with hot pepper) and a wedge of lime. Be sure to give a good squeeze of that lime before digging in, because the acid helps neutralize some of the fat and adds a brightness that’s needed. This dish will not be for everyone — you gotta be OK with a variety of textures, from crunchy to chewy — and have some strong teeth. Some strips were more akin to tripe in texture than pork cracklings or jerky.
We also ordered the Cucumbers n’ Kimchi ($5), which was presented with the cucumber cut and stacked like Lincoln Logs — an edible cabin piled high with kimchi and daikon sprouts. We were expecting the cucumbers to be pickled or marinated, but as far as we could tell, they were just raw cucumbers. The kimchi also surprised us, with the addition of blanched mung bean sprouts. We would’ve liked the kimchi to be a little more ripe and funky (it seemed a tad too fresh for our taste), but we liked the freshness of this dish, especially after eating a good helping of of those pig ears.
There’s a lot going on in the Little Gem Salad ($7). We immediately tasted peppery, herbaceous mizuna (Japanese mustard greens) and slightly spicy daikon sprouts, which both stood out, even against the flavorful sesame dressing. We also liked the variety of crunchiness provided by julienned carrots and daikon, shredded red and napa cabbage and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. It was a miss for us to shred the little gems, though. We like our gem lettuce in larger pieces, or even as whole leaves.
One of our favorite dishes of the night was the albacore tataki ($13), thin coins of slightly seared white tuna topped with slices of red pepper, daikon sprouts and dotted with yuzu kosho aioli. The fish rests in a shallow pool of bright ponzu that gave us a nice hit of acidity. The red pepper, while not spicy at all, added freshness and texture. We love yuzu kosho (an aromatic paste made with fermented chili peppers and yuzu peel), so we wished the aioli had a bit more of that unique citrus taste. Still, this was a well-balanced, flavorful dish.
Perhaps even better was the shishito peppers with tomato and bonito shavings ($7). When asked about his favorite plates, Kyle Itani recommended this one. We almost passed it up, because we’ve had shishitos aplenty, but these peppers were unlike any version we’ve had before. First, we should mention, the dish comes out dancing. Dried bonito flakes are so thin that they wiggle and wave when placed atop hot foods. You may have seen this before if you’ve had okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake). Aside from adding a little entertainment, the bonito gives this dish a really nice deep, smoky flavor that melds well with the wrinkly, charred peppers. And the cherry tomatoes, which are slightly cooked to increase their sweetness and juiciness, pleasantly pop in your mouth as you bite down on them. Simple pleasures are the best. Be careful, though, if you’re sensitive to spice — one out of every 10 shishitos will burn your tongue, and plenty in this batch were packing heat.
The Spicy Tuna Handrolls ($11) are a playful dish. They come deconstructed, to “wrap yo self,” as the menu instructs diners. We liked the concept, especially because it reminds us of temaki (handrolls) dinner parties, where attendees make their own rolls to order, eating them as they’re made, while the nori is still crunchy. We also liked the addition of tobiko (flying fish eggs) and green onions on the marinated spicy tuna. What we didn’t love was the rice — a mix of white and brown rice, unseasoned, except for a dash of furikake (a dried Japanese rice seasoning). Call us traditionalists, but we’re not fans of brown rice for sushi, and this dish cemented our bias. The brown rice was perhaps a little undercooked, and didn’t have the tender give expected from sushi rice.
Of course, we couldn’t visit Itani Ramen without having a bowl of ramen. We noticed a couple of bowls on the menu that we’d never had before, including the Peking Duck Ramen ($20) and Scallop Fritter Ramen ($15). We opted for the latter, which comes in a well-seasoned dashi stock with springy noodles (the noodles were once made on site, but are now brought in from Yamachan in San Jose), loaded with fried scallop fritter, wakame seaweed, blanched spinach, half a soft boiled egg, chopped green onions and one bright pink slice of fish cake. The fritters were more like individual nuggets of fried batter, scallops and what I think were onion slices. Fortunately, the broth was fairly light, as the oil from the fritters seeps into the broth, adding a lot of richness. This was a hearty bowl of ramen that’s good to share, especially if you’re ordering other small plates, too.
Last but not least, was dessert, which are not listed on the menu. Instead, you’ll find sweets in a vending machine at the front of the restaurant. Choose from a box of Pocky, It’s It ice cream sandwiches, green tea filled ice cream wafer cookies and more. It was a last touch of fun to top off the night.