The story: Iyasare took over the spot of O Chame restaurant in Berkeley’s Fourth Street shopping district, and is the personal project of Chef Shotaro Kamio, formerly of Yoshi’s. The sophisticated Japanese restaurant features the cooking style of Kamio’s native Tohoku in Japan.
Why I went: The spot was the latest gathering for our regular food bloggers’ dinner with the usual suspects: Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging, Christina of East Bay Dish, and Brenda of Bites and Bourbon. Christina and I were running late because of rush hour traffic, but when we finally arrived it was nice to sit in the large patio where Sandy and Brenda were already enjoying some drinks and the cool spring evening.
The vibe: Iyasare retains the lay out of O Chame, which was successful in that spot for many years. But while O Chame was warm and cozy, Iyasare is bright and sophisticated. The tiny dining room was bustling but with a calm that continued into the patio, where it was relaxing. The servers were all charming and personable, which added to the welcoming vibe.
The menu: The seasonal menu can seem intimidating with all the various ingredients used in various dishes, but it reflects the innovative and intricate details on the plate. And if you eat with your eyes like people say, then I felt full every time a plate came to the table. These were some of the most beautiful dishes I’ve had in a long time, all delicately plated to perfection and a mixture of colors and textures. While the menu has a lot of variety with some traditional Japanese favorites like tempura and raw fish, there’s a modern feel that makes the menu different than most Japanese restaurants.
The booze: There are specialty cocktails with a shochu (or soju) base, which is a distilled Japanese alcohol made from a variety of things such as barley, buckwheat or even sweet potatoes. I had a refreshing “Castle in the Sky” ($10), which was a shochu drink with cucumber, shiso, mint and sparkling sake. Brenda tried the Matsushima ($11) with mango puree while Christina had the “Sleepless in Sendai” ($11) with lime and yuzu juice, ginger and agave. Later in our dinner, Sandy convinced us all to try a sake flight, which offered up three distinctive tastes. Iyasare also offers beer and wine (by the glass and on tap).
My favorite dish: While all the dishes were beautiful, some were more successful than others. I really loved the spicy mentaiko spaghetti ($18) with reef squid, jidori egg, bottarga, kaiware, shiso and garlic-ginger butter. I think it was the bottarga shavings (salted fish roe popular in the Mediterranean) that gave it that umami flavor. The ocean trout crudo ($16) with compressed asparagus and English pea was also refreshing, and the sea urchin “uni” risotto with cauliflower puree ($22) is also worth ordering, although the portion size is so small it only allowed us to each taste only a couple of spoonfuls.
Insider tip: Portion sizes are small, with plates having that zen-like display of open air. While we were a table of four that shared everything, I felt the plates are best eaten by yourself or shared with only one other person. Otherwise, you lose out on the satisfaction of experience much of the complex flavors put into each plate.
The last bite: Iyasare matches the neighborhood, with its boutique stores and gourmet offerings, because it’s a high-end Japanese restaurant with prices to match. Still, Chef Kamio is doing something very original that I haven’t seen too often, and the meal is pleasing to both the eyes and the stomach.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Iyasare, 1830 Fourth St., Berkeley. PH: 510.845.8100. Open for lunch daily, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Wednesdays through Mondays from 5:30 to 9 p.m. (till 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday), closed Tuesday. Reservations with credit card information accepted, walk-ins at the bar and patio. Major credit cards accepted. iyasare-berkeley.com
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