The Bay Area’s recent obsession with Japanese cuisine is alive and well, as evidenced by the number of izakaya, omakase, ramen and sushi spots that have opened in the past two years. Add one more to that list with the late-summer opening of Shinmai, an izakaya hot spot in Uptown Oakland, where traditional ingredients and familiar flavors mingle in innovative and often unexpected ways.
Literally translated as “new rice,” Shinmai is the name for the first rice crop harvest of the season. It differs from later crops by its nuanced variations in taste and texture, which make it highly sought after. It is, in a word, “fresh.” Much like the rice it is named for, Shinmai as a restaurant presents fresh variations of Japanese cuisine.
The menu, which is the collaborative effort of co-owners Yingji Huang and chef Andy Liu (Kakui) and former executive chef Jerrod Doss (as of publication of this article, Doss is no longer at Shinmai), features a modest selection of elegant raw dishes, savory small plates (izakaya), char-grilled meat and vegetables (robata), and two types of ramen (vegetable and tonkotsu).
Izakaya fare is Japanese bar food, dishes to be enjoyed while drinking. Robata is both the word for the charcoal grill itself, and the method of cooking on these grills. Traditionally, robata fare is often simple and small portions of grilled skewered meats and vegetables, like beef kebabs or corn on the cob, but with the addition of traditional Japanese ingredients — like dashi, miso, and yuzu. Between the two of us, my dining partner and I put down a beautiful plate of silky ocean trout, two izakaya dishes and two robata dishes before even getting to our ramen.
The menu descriptions at Shinmai are simple listings of key ingredients, which are useful but don’t always do justice to the gestalt of each plate. Take, for example, the fried potato salad, a savory warm dish of crunchy crisp potatoes seasoned with salty furikake (Japanese rice seasoning), smothered in earthy truffle aioli and topped with brilliant bright orange tobiko (flying fish roe). Had my server not suggested it, I might never have ordered what turned out to be one of the best and most surprising dishes of the evening.
The drink menu includes a short list of wines and Japanese beers, complemented by a handful of original cocktails that mix standard spirits with unexpected ingredients, such as five spice bitters, Dolin-infused peach tea, yuzu soda, and Szechuan-grapefruit cordial. While the shochu-based chu-hai is crisp and refreshing, the mezcal-based Where’s Valdez offers a boozier beverage that is smoky and creamy. Shinmai also boasts a hand-picked selection of whisky and sake.
The restaurant itself — which is tricky to identify on account of there being no outdoor signage — is modern yet casual, and features dark wood floors, a slatted drop ceiling, and larger open windows. An elegant bar, which sits at the front of the restaurant, is echoed by a row of high top chairs that directly look into a bright open kitchen, concealed from the dining room by a layer of glass. The interior’s dim tones and minimal natural lighting are a bit of a shame for maximum enjoyment of such beautiful food.
Servers are highly personable and quite knowledgeable of both the menu and its inspiration, which is a plus for any newcomers to Japanese ingredients. Pacing was off on the evening of our visit, with long gaps in between and the dishes coming at random, but perhaps that’s to be expected as the kitchen gets used to serving the expansive dining room.
The highlight of my visit was the luxurious ribeye skewers, which were cooked to tender perfection and seasoned with black garlic and ginger tare (the Japanese equivalent of barbecue sauce). The ocean trout, which is beautifully plated with bright orange streaks of a piquillo-based sauce, would have been more enjoyable had it not come in the middle of our izakaya and robata dishes, which felt out-of-place alongside those dishes. Exceptional additions, like fluffy cooked egg that crumbles to powder, spruced up simple dishes like sauteed broccolini, but even this showmanship didn’t seemed to warrant an $11 price tag. Large bowls of brimming hot ramen made for a more economical option, and I highly recommend adding the red glob of spicy himitsu (“secret” in Japanese) paste for an extra dollar. For dessert, do not miss the honey-fig panna cotta, which is remarkably thick and finished with smoky shiso oil and citrus.