It’s as if Bay Area diners have finally caught up with Shotaro Kamio’s imagination.
Kamio, chef and owner of 2-year-old Iyasare on Berkeley’s Fourth Street, wows diners nightly with his intricately plated and delicious food at the Japanese restaurant that has garnered three stars from the San Francisco Chronicle and raves from the NOSH team. Each plate is like a composed poem reflecting California, the season, and Kamio’s approach to cooking.
This wasn’t the case when the chef arrived in California almost 15 years ago from Tokyo to open Oakland’s Ozumo. In a recent interview, Kamio says he felt at the time that Japanese cuisine was still focused on sushi and teriyaki, and not much in between.
“I never ate a California roll in Japan. I’d never seen that,” Kamio says. “So that’s why it was just really a culture shock for me.”
Working at Ozumo and then the ambitious Yoshi’s in San Francisco, Kamio says he felt like he had to please diners with a variety of tastes and expectations about Japanese cuisine. Merging these expectations with California dining culture, he learned, required adaptation. “Living in California, there are so many cultures, so many food cultures, so many points of food. I needed to try to make everybody happy.”
But pleasing everyone sometimes meant his true philosophy of Japanese cuisine didn’t shine. He believes Japanese cuisine is reflected in clean, subtle flavors presented in a delicate way.
When he finally opened the 50-seat Iyasare, taking over the spot that was the longtime home to O Chamé, Kamio says he was able to stretch his wings. He also says diners today have a better appreciation of the diversity of Japanese cuisine than they did when got started. Today, Bay Area eaters are exposed to izakayas, ramen noodle shops and more refined places serving kaiseki (seasonal tasting menus).
Instead of preparing traditional Japanese cuisine at Iyasare, Kamio creates something new: a combination of Japanese flavors with a nod to California as reflected in the local ingredients and creative plating.
“My [culinary] philosophy’s bottom line is Japanese cuisine,” he says. “But the other muscle is my California experience.” How his philosophy translates on the plate is summarized by Kamio’s guiding principle of three S’s: seasonal, simple and surprise.
The last “S” is what makes his dishes works of art. Kamio says he always wants to add twists to his plates, whether it’s a rarely used ingredient like gobo or a touch of color. And he wants to make people happy when they eat his food. “For me, food supposed to … surprise, make you feel emotions. … Most people eating beautiful food feel happy, I think. Their hearts are warm.”
Kamio recently branched out next door and took over the kitchen of Zut restaurant. He recently re-opened it as Zut Tavern. The first few weeks have been a bit shaky if you believe early reviews, and some may wonder if this new restaurant may pull Kamio attention away from the quality at Iyasare.
However, Kamio says that he has brought in a new team at Zut Tavern, and continues to train them to produce quality dishes. And he believes he has a solid team at Iyasare, who continue to follow Kamio’s direction under his regular supervision. He’s hoping time will show that lightning can strike twice.
At Iyasare, Kamio adjusts the menu about twice a week. Two-thirds of the menu remains primarily the same, with just a few adjustments made for seasonal ingredients. For new items, Kamio and his team spend a week in the test kitchen developing and testing new concepts.
Kamio demonstrated how he composes one of the more popular dishes at Iyasare, beet-cured ocean trout. Follow along as he prepares the dish, step by step:
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.