Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ozumo in Oakland

When San Francisco’s Ozumo opened a restaurant in Oakland’s Uptown district in 2008, the corner of Grand and Broadway avenues was hardly a gourmet destination. A couple years later, and much has changed with Oakland institution Bakesale Betty and other San Francisco transplants Plum by Daniel Patterson and Farley’s opening. Yet, despite the new kids on the block, Ozumo holds its own as one of the best places to grab fresh sushi or sample contemporary Japanese cuisine.

If you've yet to try Ozumo, a good start is happy hour or a special $35 4-course dinner prix fixe. Happy hour runs every weekday from 4 to 8 p.m., and Sundays from 4 p.m. to closing. Deals include $5 rolls, cocktails and sakes. On Sundays, select sake bottles are also 50% off.

Like many Japanese restaurants, seafood features prominently on Ozumo’s menu and it does not disappoint. While the menu offers the usual Spider and tempura rolls, I recommend being adventurous and ordering the chef’s selection, an assortment of the day's freshest nigiri, which, according to our server, Ozumo gets as a whole fish instead of precut fillets. Arriving in a sculptural white plate, the colorful nigiri stood out beautifully, and tasted amazingly fresh. If you enjoy savory fish, I recommend finishing with the toro (tuna belly), market price, or hard-to-find beni toro (salmon belly), $8, for something fattier, richer and heavier. Both are delicious and almost melt in your mouth. The carb-conscious can find a perfect buttery balance in the Hanabi plate of layered hamachi and avocado slices in a spicy moat of ginger and jalapeno ponzu sauce ($16).

Like the sushi, the same artful presentation and balance comes through in Ozumo's signature dishes. The Futago small plate combines East and West, a blend of carpaccio and sushi: Deep pink Washu beef sits atop sauteed spinach and eggplant with a spicy miso sauce ($13). A beautiful dish that tastes as good as it looks. The Gyu Kakuni ($24) of Niman Ranch short ribs slow braised in a red miso and wine sauce was tender enough to fall apart at the touch of a fork. The red miso sauce was a highlight in itself: a savory, complex gravy that I lapped up with rice. A perfect example of modern Japanese food, the Gyu Kakuni is what I imagine Japanese comfort food is.

Ozumo is also one of the few places in the East Bay with a robata grill. While the chicken ($6) and beef skewers ($7) were appetizing and tender, they were not as exciting as the rest of the menu and probably the safest choice for picky eaters. There's enough variety in the menu, though, for vegans, carnivores and kids to find something. Perhaps all can agree on the duo of green tea desserts. The matcha green tea panna cotta was inventive and delicious, while the chocolate flourless cake with green tea ice cream was more traditional.

As for drinks, there's wine, beer and a full bar, but the highlight is the extensive sake list. Unless you're familiar with sake, I recommend ordering a flight, or asking the advice of your server. From light with floral notes to more complex, dry versions, the sake choices are endless.

We paired each course with sake recommendations from the server and were not disappointed. The service was attentive, if a bit leisurely paced perhaps to let you enjoy the dining room's modernist, earthy take. Like the food, the dining room is a mindful jumble of East meets West with a sleak glass sushi bar near classic wooden tables and chairs. The pulsing music floats into the dining room from the front lounge that it almost sounds like a night club. But don't let the vibe fool you, as I've seen families with toddlers nomming on happy hour sushi and edamame.

That anyone from families to office workers and couples were spotted during my visit reflects Ozumo's wide appeal as a neighborhood joint. Whether grabbing a quick happy hour bite in the lounge or meeting a date at the sushi bar, Ozumo's accessible and excellently executed menu offers something for everyone.

2251 Broadway Avenue (at Grand), Oakland

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