Kiraku Berkeley - A Restaurant Review

Kiraku Berkeley
2566B Telegraph Ave, Berkeley CA

I told myself I wouldn't use this blog for restaurant reviews. After all, that's what yelp is for. That's why I have a yelp account. But I am in love with a restaurant I only discovered a month ago (and as I am moving in the next week, will not be able to go to again). I felt compelled to share.

I also told myself I would never write restaurant reviews in this food blog because I am adamantly opposed to taking perfectly framed photos of food in a restaurant. Food is supposed to be served at a certain temperature. Your chef went through a lot of effort to make your food. You should eat it when it is served. For this reason, there are only pictures of a couple of the foods we tried at Kiraku. It's not even a fraction of what they have to offer. Because of my whole weird picture thing, this may be the only restaurant review I write. Just warning...

That being said, this place is a real deal izakaya, a Japanese version of a pub/tapas bar. They don't specialize in yakitori or sushi/sashimi. They really specialize in otsumami, small dishes that pair well with alcohol. When asked to describe this place, I can only describe their style as "funky". I hesitate to call it Japanese since it is not traditional. Yet I hesitate to call it "fusion" because it is not pretentious. In fact, it's decidedly Japanese in that many restaurants in Japan have this weird fusion element that they have been doing for years. It's totally Japanese.

The restaurant is small and nondescript. The interior decor does not have the amazing feel of Japan like some places. In fact, it feels more like home and it's open until 2am. As a cook, it's the kind of place you want to eat after a long day at work. The service is very friendly with a host that greets you with hot towels. The menus are printed in Japanese and English on plane paper. From the outset, there's really nothing fancy about it. It only really seems fancy if you're involved in the bottle collective, a program that allows you to purchase a bottle of shochu or sake and keep the undrunk portion at the restaurant until next time. We called ahead that we were coming in tonight. When we got there, our bottle of shochu was already on our table along with two classes and an ice bucket.

When the food came, everything changed. I forgot I was in a less than impressive space and focussed strictly on the beautiful presentation, the amazingly interesting flavors and how inventive everything seemed to be. Of all the dishes on the menu, I felt the oxtail with an asian style tomato salsa was the weakest dish. That's not saying much, as the oxtail was still quite good. It just wasn't as good as the fried ginko nuts, the agedashi indian eggplant, the french fries (yes, their french fries are that good) or the seared foie gras with stewed daikon (believe me, I'm sad I don't have a picture of that dish)
The first time I came, my coworkers had already been snacking before I got there. I did not order the spicy tuna tartare, but it was one of the first dishes to arrive at our table. This was a fun dish - served on tortilla chips with avocado slices and wasabi tobico. The flavor and texture of the tuna were both wonderful, but as everyone knows, spicy tuna tartare is no way to judge quality of a fish. For that, you need to try the sashimi, which I just tried tonight. The tuna was a leaner cut, but no sinew. It was sliced thick and came with a daiginjo shoyu that was so much better than normal soy sauce. It was cleaner, not as salty, more of a pure umami flavor.
We continued with hamachi collar (pictured right) and pickled octopus marinated in wasabi (the tiny bowl pictured left). The hamachi kama was well seasoned and no one was shy about attacking the best, fattiest parts with greed. The texture was wonderful (but fish cheeks are always the best anyway). The octopus was a standout dish and completely unnecessary to have more than that tiny bowl. The flavors were intense and the octopus was tender. It's a dish that goes perfectly with shochu or sake. However, if I was going to pick an octopus dish, I'd pick the boiled baby octopus instead.

The boiled baby octopus (pictured above) was so tender. They looked gorgeous coming to the table and did not have the chewy nature octopus can so easily have. It was a stellar dish.
We tried another dish called the buta-kim, a kurobuta pork belly with kim chi and a poached egg. it was an excellent dish, though I think Kiraku does a better job with the cold small plates than the hot, as a whole. I had tried these flavors before, and though the egg was perfectly poached and the kim chi had a great flavor and spice, it was something I could live without in the future.
But perhaps the greatest revelation of the evening was the shark cartilage in ume sauce (pictured above). I had never experienced a flavor and textural combination like that in my life. It was sour, salty and oh so crunchy at the same time. It is perfect with shochu and it is a tiny dish that can be shared between 4 people. This is a dish you absolutely have to try, and probably the most interesting thing on a kiraku menu.

Tonight we had a slew of other menu items. We tried their special of the evening: a miatake mushroom tempura with black salt. The tempura was a great texture and the black salt was unprocessed, still holding to it's natural sulfur flavor. This salt similarly went well with everything else on the table, including the boiled chilean sea bass with ponzu and red onions.

We also ordered the yaki udon with a basil pesto. The flavors are unique yet not overpowering, the udon still has its toothsome quality, and it's a filling end to the meal. I have not tried the other options of ramen or rice dishes in that section, but based on the description alone this sounds the most interesting.

Tonight was also the first time I had dessert. We ordered all 3 desserts, including a sweet potato creme brulee, green tea ice cream with warabi mochi and a red tea pana cotta. The sweet potato creme brulee was sweet, lighter than most custards, and did not have the same satisfyingly hard shell like most creme brulees. The green tea ice cream was just that, but the warabi mochi had a wonderful texture and was rolled in a matcha powder that had a great bitterness to combat the sweetness of the ice cream. Even though these desserts were good, the pana cotta was heads and shoulders above the other two. It was lighter than air, not too rich, subtle tea flavor, and topped with coarse anko, whipped cream and tapioca. It wasn't terribly sweet, but perhaps that was the reason I liked it best.

I am sad this place has only now opened just as I am leaving the bay area, but I hope it serves the community for years to come. Try the other dishes, relish their unique nature, and experience something different. Most of all, trust that those people who are in there until 2am work at other Japanese restaurants and they all know this place is damn good.