The owners of a new Japanese restaurant coming soon to Berkeley found a lot to relate to in Tom Waits’ song “Fish & Bird,” so much so that they decided to name their restaurant after it. In the ballad, the weathered, gravelly voiced crooner sings of a bird that fell in love with a whale:
He said, “You cannot live in the ocean”
And she said to him
“You never can live in the sky”
But the ocean is filled with tears
And the sea turns into a mirror
There’s a whale in the moon when it’s clear
And a bird on the tide
“I feel like the song is about longing, and I am a Japanese expat that loves to live here, but also longs for Japanese food,” said co-owner Yoshika Hedberg. She acknowledges it’s not a typical name for a Japanese restaurant, but Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya will not be your typical Japanese restaurant.
Fish & Bird is taking over the space of the recently closed Middle Eastern restaurant, Saha. Hedberg says she hopes to open in about two or three months.
Hedberg was 16 when her family moved to Salem, Oregon, from Nagoya, Japan. Her father was an English professor and a teaching job brought them to the U.S. Her parents eventually moved back to Japan, but Hedberg stayed behind and moved to the Bay Area for college, where she met her husband. The new couple lived in Nagoya for a few months after getting married, but returned to the Bay Area and eventually bought a home in Alameda, where they currently live today. Although Hedberg loves living in the East Bay, she sorely misses the variety of flavors and types of food from her years living in Japan.
“[Nagoya is] the fourth biggest city in Japan, and they have unique, amazing regional flavors and foods. I was born in the late 1960s and spent my time in Nagoya until the mid-1980s. I remember new foods coming in to Nagoya — a French bakery and restaurants, Spanish restaurants, Italian — and even McDonald’s was new.”
That constant inflow of new cultures and cooking styles influenced Japanese chefs to incorporate new flavors and techniques into their cuisine, a dynamism that Hedberg says is lacking in the Japanese food you find outside of Japan.
“A lot of Japanese food in the U.S. is kind of the same,” Hedberg said, “I feel like it’s stuck in the 1990s and it hasn’t really brought new things over from Japan.”
“A lot of Japanese food in the U.S. is kind of the same. I feel like it’s stuck in the 1990s and it hasn’t really brought new things over from Japan.” — Yoshika Hedberg, co-owner of Fish & Bird
But Hedberg saw a bright light of hope when she first ate at B-Dama, which at the time, was a small, homey izakaya restaurant on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, before it moved in 2014 to Swan’s Market in Old Oakland. The creativity and execution of the food there spoke to her deeply. This, to her, was like Japanese food she’d find in Japan. B-Dama quickly became her go-to.
“I would wonder, ‘Why is it that the food is so good here?’,” she said. “The kitchen was behind a wall, so I didn’t know who was cooking. When I read [B-Dama] was opening a restaurant in Old Oakland and they were looking for people, I decided to work there part-time to find out how they made the food.”
Working front of house and in the kitchen at B-Dama, Hedberg became acquainted with Asuka Uchida, who Hedberg credits with making the dishes that stood out most to her. Uchida grew up in Okayama, Japan, where her family owned a restaurant, but her first years as a professional chef were focused on French cuisine. She moved to Australia, where she was the executive chef at a restaurant called Medusa in Brisbane. Then, she moved to New York, where she staged at lauded Tribeca New French restaurant, Corton, before heading to the Bay Area, where she cooked at Spruce, Yuzuki, Urchin and then B-Dama. When B-Dama opened Utzutzu, a sister omakase restaurant in Alameda, Uchida was transferred there as the chef who prepared the non-sushi dishes. Hedberg also worked in the kitchen at Utzuzu for a time, but both left the restaurant last year.
When Uchida cooks Japanese food, she brings in techniques from her French training, but also a California ethos, as well. She uses local ingredients and produce, and likes to experiment outside the lines of what’s commonly thought of as “Japanese food.”
“She’s not afraid to bring a western flare to Japanese food,” Hedberg said. “It’s nothing like fusion — it’s fresh, vibrant.”
Uchida’s brand of “New Japanese” food, or sousaku youri (creative cuisine), will be the style at Fish & Bird. Uchida will be executive chef, bringing on another B-Dama alumnus, chef Shin Okamoto, to assist in the kitchen. Hedberg will handle the business side of the restaurant.
There will be no sushi at Fish & Bird or the familiar bento-style meals with goopy chicken teriyaki. Instead, expect small plates of elegant, finely executed dishes like shio-koji marinated duck breast, grilled miso-marinated Berkshire pork, clam and white bean soup, and homemade seasonal pickles marinated in Saikyo miso, a delicate white miso from Kyoto renowned for its sweet and mild flavor. While rolls and nigiri won’t be on the menu, there will likely be sashimi-style dishes. The food will be decidedly Japanese, but with influences and flavors from all over the world.
“We’re opening a different type of Japanese restaurant, more modern,” Hedberg said. “It’s something you would eat in Japan if you traveled to Tokyo and ate a restaurant there.”
In comparison to other East Bay izakayas, Hedberg says Fish & Bird will stand out. She sees Kiraku in South Berkeley as a more traditional Japanese izakaya, and Ippuku’s main focus is yakitori.
Hedberg and Uchida plan to use lots of locally and responsibly sourced ingredients, including produce from local farmers markets. Hedberg has a strong appreciation for high-quality produce and farmers markets — she once sold fruit for Lone Oak Ranch at Berkeley’s Ecology Center farmers market and currently still sells flowers for Sunrise Nursery in Watsonville at the Divisadero farmers market in San Francisco. (“I always loved vegetables, fruits and flowers, and love being involved with farmers markets,” she said.) As for proteins, they’ll source from local butchers and fishmongers, although sashimi-grade fish and some other key Japanese ingredients will be imported from Japan.
Fish & Bird will have a full liquor license, so sake, shochu, wine, as well as cocktails and spirits will be highlighted. Hedberg is working with master sommelier David Glancy of the San Francisco Wine School, for the restaurant’s wine list, which will include a variety of wines from Japan. One of those, she plans, will be a light, crisp wine from Yamanashi prefecture using Koshu grapes, which pairs well with Japanese cuisine.
The restaurant will seat about 70 diners, which Hedberg said will be arranged so the dining area feels more spacious, cozier and warmer than Saha was. She was drawn to the space’s open kitchen, where the chefs can interact with customers, and where diners can see who’s making their food.
I asked Hedberg, given that Saha was unable to succeed in the space, if she had any concerns about the large size of the restaurant or the location, which is just off the busier part of downtown Berkeley. Hedberg says she’s aware of the challenges, and that two other food businesses, Gio’s and Barclay’s, had recently closed, but she points to other Japanese restaurants in Berkeley, like Kirala and Musashi, that aren’t in ideal locations, but that still draw crowds.
“Japanese food and culture is deeply embedded in Berkeley. It’s one of the reasons we ultimately decided to open in Berkeley. We feel that people in Berkeley really love Japanese food and we hope that they will enjoy and appreciate more of a modern interpretation of Japanese food,” she said.
“Our restaurant is where fish meets a bird — we cannot be in Japan, we live and love U.S. and this is where it all comes together,” said Hedberg. “This is our oasis and where we want to convey who we are to our customers and community.”
Fish & Bird will be at 2451 Shattuck Ave. (at Haste), Berkeley. Stay tuned on Nosh for an opening date.