“What is ramen?”
“Is this pho?”
Jake Freed still gets asked questions like this at Shiba Ramen, the two-year-old ramen kiosk in the Public Market Emeryville, which he owns and operates with his wife, Hiroko Nakamura. It might surprise you to hear that anyone in the Bay Area could not know what ramen is, but the audience that comes to the Public Market is a broad cross section of all types of people, from varying demographics and all walks of life. And varying degrees of ramen knowledge.
“People are getting more educated as we go along,” said Freed, who, with Nakamura, opened a second location of Shiba Ramen in downtown Oakland in February 2017. When they first had the idea to open a ramen restaurant, in 2011, the couple was well aware that they could be giving some of their customers an introduction to Japanese cuisine they had never experienced before. At the time, although instant ramen had been around for decades and high-end California-Japanese Ramen Shop was already a popular staple in Oakland, the fast, cheap but good ramen they both knew and loved from Japan had not yet arrived in the East Bay. Freed, feeling “mid-career blues” as a civil litigator and Nakamura, who was looking for a new calling, saw an opportunity to work for themselves and, possibly, build an empire.
When creating Shiba, they purposefully chose a non-Japanese name (the restaurant’s moniker is a reference to their two shiba inu, Toro and Momo); their menu items use English words to describe the dish’s ingredients, broth style or flavor profile (Soymilk, Clear Dark, Spicy); and they decided to use a very modern, graphic aesthetic for their branding.
“Our product is authentic [Japanese], but accessible to a western audience,” said Freed.
Now they’ve applied this same ethos to their new sake bar and taproom, The Periodic Table. The bar softly opened on Sept. 1, and the official grand opening will be on Friday, Sept. 15.
The idea for The Periodic Table came to them 14 months ago, while the couple was drinking sake at home. They were brainstorming how to bring more evening business to the Public Market — the food court is a lunchtime hotspot, but relatively quiet in the evening — when they realized the answer was what they were drinking. Over the last two years, they had gotten into sake themselves, and noticed that there was a growing interest and curiosity among their customers about the Japanese brewed beverage.
Shiba Ramen sells a few sake options at both of its locations and, Nakamura said, people are sometimes surprised to see it outside of the context of sushi restaurants and Japanese fine dining. Nakamura and Freed want to show people that sake can be affordable and accessible and that it pairs well with Western foods, but they realize that sake is still unfamiliar to many. So, just as with ramen, they returned to their idea of making something inaccessible more accessible with sake at The Periodic Table.
The couple worked with Oakland-based architecture firm Arcsine to design the space, a kiosk located next door to Shiba Ramen. The design mixes traditional Japanese graphics with a modern contemporary look and includes references to chemistry. Both Freed and Nakamura are former chemists, which is the inspiration for their bar’s name and logo (shaped like the chemical structure of ethanol, or alcohol). After designing the Emeryville kiosk, and the much bigger, more complicated Oakland restaurant, it seems like Freed and Nakamura have gotten building spaces down to a science.
The bigger challenge, Freed said, is getting people beyond the “Kanji brushstrokes, unmemorable Japanese names, and technical nomenclature” found on the labels of traditional Japanese sake. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a junmai or honjozo; those classifications just say how much the rice has been milled. It’s about the taste and texture characteristics. Taste and cost are more important,” said Freed.
To get people beyond the initial hurdle — to try the sake — Freed and Nakamura carry sakes with strong or fun graphic imagery on their labels, rather than ones with very traditional Japanese artwork. At both Shiba Ramen and The Periodic Table, they stock sakes like the Oyaji Gokuraku Sake Cup, which features a cartoon character from a popular Japanese manga, and comes in a small glass cup. But it’s not just otaku (comic nerds) who are drawn to the packaging, Freed and Nakamura are finding that aesthetically pleasing packaging is a kind of gateway for non-connoisseurs to get into sake. The eye-catching labels make it easy to remember what they’ve tasted, so they can order it again, or maybe it’ll inspire them to try another. Eventually, some of these customers will begin to get more familiar with the flavor profiles and start to build a more sophisticated palate.
The sake menu at The Periodic Table is written in a way that both first time sake drinkers and connoisseurs can understand and appreciate. Devoid of technical words and rice milling ratios, you’ll find descriptions like “fruity,” “dry,” “rich and sweet.” Sakes can be ordered in flights, which is a good way to highlight differences in taste and viscosity. There’s something for everyone. “We don’t want to be a snobbish sake bar,” Nakamura said.
Sake is only one of the offerings at The Periodic Table. There are also rotating taps of craft beer, mostly from local craft brewers (like Fieldwork, Novel and Faction), but with one to three pouring Japanese or non-local domestic craft varieties, too. And, there are cans and bottles of Japanese craft beers, like the popular Yo-ho Brewing Wednesday Cat white ale and Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale, as well as Japanese distilled spirits, like whisky, gin and shochu. The Periodic Table offers two shochu-based cocktails — the Shochu Highball and The Bloody Mariko.
As for eats, The Periodic Table does not have its own kitchen, so it mostly offers a small menu of pre-made bar snacks like pickles, cheese, charcuterie and other “salty, umami things,” said Freed. Guests can order off the Shiba Ramen menu to enjoy in the bar, as long as they order drinks from The Periodic Table. Menu director and kitchen manager, Danny Keiser (formerly of Camino) — who lived in Japan for a year — is in charge of menu development at both Shiba Ramen restaurant locations and now, The Periodic Table.
Keiser is excited about introducing sake to a new audience through his food. “I’m making food that will go well with sake that isn’t going to intimidate people. Things people recognize and that are approachable,” he said. One of those things is a burger, made with Marin Sun Farms ground beef, Firebrand sesame pain au lait buns, griddled onions and house slaw, but with a slightly Japanese twist — yuzu kosho mayo and fragrant shiso as a leafy topping.
Cheeses and cured meats also go really well with some sake. On my visit, Keiser suggested the Taiheikai sake to pair with the cheese and charcuterie plate, which featured two cheeses and a duck prosciutto and duck mousse. Nakamura said that the Taiheikai, which she compares to a white wine, pairs harmoniously with the duck, which is rich, but mild in spices. I enjoyed how the sake’s acidity balanced the fattiness of the duck and enriched its flavor.
Keiser makes the pickles for The Periodic Table, combining his personal passion for pickling with his past experience at Camino (a restaurant known for its preserved fare) and traditional Japanese techniques. The pickle plate feature vegetables that are made in many pickling styles — whatever tickles Keiser’s fancy at the moment. A recent pickle plate featured lacto-fermented carrot and fennel pickle; radish pickled in an amazake marinade with vinegar, chile and kombu (seaweed); a salt-pressed cucumber pickle with house-fermented hot sauce and ginger; and a cabbage pickle with fresh yuzu kosho.
If visitors to the Public Market are still confused about ramen, it’s likely the offerings at The Periodic Table will also be novel to many who happen upon the bar, but Freed and Nakamura are up for the challenge. It may be a while before sake really takes with a mainstream audience, but if the chemistry is just right, we’ll all be sipping sake like pros in no time.
The Periodic Table is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday. The grand opening event takes place from 4 to 9 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 15, and will feature all-night happy hour prices on draft beer and sake, plus food specials.