I should review this place because I’ve become a semi-regular customer. It’s a pseudo-Japanese restaurant on Francisco and Shattuck. Ominously, it’s next to an auto mechanic.
Not bad but nothing special. The decor is an outsider’s perception of Japanese styling, but the restaurant is clean and looks sharp. It’s not authentic or outstanding, but it doesn’t offend the senses either and looks pleasant. This would be considered a really nice place in LA, but in the Bay Area where people care about authenticity, it’s not so great.
There is one server (the owner) and one cook. As such, service is pretty slow and sometimes the server goes back to help cook the food. It’s pretty decent for a small establishment and a family owned restaurant, if you like the personal touch. But I knocked off a point because the server doesn’t have a strong command of the English or Japanese language. In fact, I saw him once talk to Chinese people and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese that well either. You might have pity because I think he’s still nervous when talking to customers, but you have to get over it if you’re in a service industry.
I was going to give the food a 6, but they serve one thing on the menu that’s actually pretty rare in foreign-owned Japanese restaurants, which is hamachi kama or yellowtail collar. If you aren’t familiar with this, then you don’t know the specials in sushi or Japanese food. The collar is the area on the fish between the head and the body, but grilled correctly contains some of the softest and richest meat in the fish. Most restaurants throw it away, but it’s good stuff if you like the strong taste. Other than that, the best part of the restaurant is again the personal touch of a small establishment – most food is cooked to order so the fried stuff tastes fresh (as opposed to Korean restaurants, who usually pre-cook and then re-fry when you order). However, their selection of sushi fish isn’t the best so the sushi is not good value for its medium price. It’s the same quality as you’d get buying the fish yourself from a grocery store – you aren’t going to get sick, but you could do far better.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere is stuck a bit in the middle. This place is in North Berkeley, but it can’t seem to bring itself to being the discount restaurant that it should be. But it doesn’t rise to the standards of the gourmet ghetto either, the server isn’t snobby enough and the cook isn’t skilled enough. The crowd is also quite mixed, mostly a lot of walk-ins from the street, so you see students, families, business people, and the occasional yuppie. It’s a place for casual dining, really just a Japanese diner.
Price: $15 per person (appetizer, entree or sushi roll)
Verdict: Go for the hamachi kama. It is otherwise a bit overpriced.
I enjoyed a dinner at House of Prime Rib with Jeff. It is on Van Ness and Washington in San Francisco, but be warned, this place is one of the most popular in the City. We couldn’t get dinner reservations until 930P.
The decor is exceptional, very Old World feeling. The bar is well stocked and comfortable, and booths are numerous enough to accommodate a lot of guests but far enough away that conversations can be lively without interrupting neighbors. The furniture and decorations perfectly match the feel of that the restaurant is going for and enhance the experience. This place would have gotten a 10 if it had a cell phone jammer.
The service was brilliant, everything had the personal touch. We were introduced by name to our waiter and the chef, who cut and served our meat at the table. Don’t bother looking at the menu because it is ultra simple – your choices are how thick you want the cut of your rib, and mashed or baked potato. One thing that detracted was that our server had a thick Russian accent, which I felt was inappropriate. If he had a thick New England or British accent, this would have brought them up to a 10. The dinner check also came out a bit early, a bad habit in California.
The food here is great. The rib was melt in your mouth soft, which is not easy since they cook entire racks at a time. The salad was refreshing and crunchy while still being saucy, another huge plus. The bread was hot and crusty and the cornbread was among the best I’ve ever had. If there is a minus, it would be the side dishes, which were disappointingly mediocre. The mashed potatoes were a bit gooey and the corn was nothing special. Also, the dessert we ordered had a LOT of rum on the bottom. That’s not the best way to end a meal, but maybe that’s the restaurant’s way of saying you should be so stuffed with meat that the dessert can be awful and get away with it.
The feel of the place is perfect. Conversations are lively, everyone seems very happy to be there, and the restaurant pulls no punches and isn’t apologetic about being anything other than the House of Prime Rib. This is where you go if you’re a baller and want to drop $40 on a slab of prime rib.
Price: $50 per person (drinks, meal, dessert)
Verdict: Easy to see why it’s a San Francisco institution. A well deserved reputation.
Mint Leaf is an Indian restaurant on Shattuck and Cedar, and is an extremely popular place among the Berkeley rich hippie crowd. I don’t know what difference it makes, but 90% of its patrons are older than 40, white, and housewives.
The place looks like a hipster bar and restaurant. There’s an open bar when you come in and a lot of tables. There’s also an option for sitting on the balcony outside, although be warned that hobos like to sit next to the balcony and beg for change from patrons. Most of them pay to be left alone, which doesn’t work, lolol. The tables are a bit too small and somehow someone is always walking around you, which speaks to a bad configuration. But they’re going for that busy look, so it kind of works.
Service was prompt for such a busy restaurant. The one thing I didn’t like is the delay in getting the entree, as though it were cooked to order. Look, it’s an Indian restaurant and they’re making curry. I know it’s made in big pots in the back and kept warm. One delight of Indian food is that you can get it extremely quickly because of this. But unlike the hippies of Berkeley, I don’t need to be lied to about the source of my food to be reassured.
I ordered samosas for appetizer and lamb tikki masala for entree. Those are two orders that are pretty hard to screw up, but this place delivered nicely. The quality is higher than you can find at cheaper Indian restaurants, although the prices are still a bit too high for what you get. The nan in particular is much better than you get typically, but it is outrageously priced at $5 per piece. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the best Indian food I’ve ever had, but it’s some of the better curry I’ve had in Berkeley for sure.
The place is jumping with activity, one of the few restaurants still open at 9 PM. It is crowded and popular, so it’s good if you like rubbing elbows with a lot of old housewives. It’s a place for a lively date, perhaps a fourth or fifth one when you’re past trying to get to know the date and just keeping the ball rolling. Or a place to go after you’re married with all your other shrew friends that hate their families.
Price: $20 per person (drinks, appetizers, entree)
Verdict: Try this place once. But unless you love old hippies, you won’t crave this place.
Thai Delight is a Thai restaurant on Shattuck and Virginia in Berkeley. It’s a typical Thai restaurant, except twice as expensive because it’s in the Gourmet Ghetto. You can find all the food here is done better and cheaper within two blocks of this place.
Actually, I’ll acknowledge that the inside of the restaurant looks great. Typical Thai restaurants use plastic chairs and crappy metal tables inside a place that used to be a tattoo parlor that was condemned for being unsanitary. This place has all wood furniture and the walls are decorated tastefully without being garish (another problem at Thai restaurants). It’s a bit darker than I would like, but it’s not too bad.
Service was slow and the waitress didn’t seem all that thrilled that we came in, in fact she seemed mildly disappointed. Our orders were slow at all points, the check came before we finished eating, and the waitress couldn’t wait for us to leave. But at least she didn’t drop our food or something.
The food was pretty mediocre for Thai. Other than the appetizers and the specials that I didn’t try, there was nothing here that distinguished it from any other Thai restaurant. The main servings were fried rice, curry, or a sizzling dish. I gave it one extra point because the appetizer was indeed good, but you can’t screw up shrimp wrapped in wonton skin and deep fried. Still, it’s not something you can find anywhere. The food is okay if you like Thai and don’t mind paying twice as much for the same thing. Which means, go somewhere else.
This place is brutally empty. It makes you wonder why nobody else has bothered to come in here. When you see the waitress’s attitude and the prices in the menu, you start to wonder if it’s impolite to stand up and leave, but you can’t because you’ve already taken three sips of water. You think you should try it and maybe you’ve found a hidden gem, then you become optimistic during the appetizer, only to be severely disappointed at the main course that this place is indeed like every other Thai restaurant in Berkeley. In fact, I’m pretty sure they all use the same recipe found on the internet, I’ll try to cook some to confirm.
Price: $20 per person (appetizer, drink, entree)
Verdict: Go to Thai Noodle down the street. It’s the same food but half the price.
Ohgane is a Korean restaurant in Oakland on Broadway and 31st. If you want good Korean food, then this is probably your best bet in the East Bay. It’s not transcendent like some of the other restaurants I’ve reviewed, but it’s quite good.
It has the appearance of an upscale Korean restaurant, with lacquered wooden chairs and stone tables. It also has grills in the middle of each table with wood chips for charcoal. The disappointing thing is that a lot of it is fake. The wood chips are only semi-authentic because they’re supported by a gas grill directly beneath them. The stone is just a veneer. Also, I took an additional point off because it gets very smoky in there. Just as a warning, you will walk out smelling like smoked beef.
The service was prompt and generous. As a point of trivia, class in Korea is determined by the number of plates that you are served per meal. Lower class restaurants have 3-5 plates, middle of the road have 6-15, and upper class have 15-25 (more and it gets difficult to find table space!). If you’re Kim Jong Il, you have 2000 plate dinners while 3 million people die of starvation outside your palace walls. This place has about 22 plates, firmly upper class. A nice bonus was that each table has an electronic bell on it to call the waitress if you have a problem, most likely that your table and your date are on fire. So the service is quite good. Biggest problem – the waitresses speak English very poorly. You need a Korean speaker to appreciate the full service.
If you like marinated beefs, this is the place for you. The bulgogi and kalbi are marinated and very tender without tasting too saucy, much better than most people can manage at home. They also have sliced radish and leaves of cabbage to maximize your carnivorous enjoyment without getting that sickly sweet and greasy aftertaste in your mouth from eating too much beef. The side dishes, as mentioned above, are plentiful and delicious, with great variety and a wide range. You will find some kind of kimchi to love because there are at least nine different kinds, of varying sweet, sour, and spicy combinations. You don’t get much rice, but frankly you don’t miss it because there are so many tastes to enjoy and so many ways to clean the palate. It won’t take you out of this world but it’s very very good.
It’s fun if you’re in a big rowdy Korean group or with a bunch of guys who eat beef by the pound. Girls can enjoy it too because of the wide variety of vegetables, but you go here by a guy’s choice, not a girl’s. Koreans are a loud, funny, communal culture, so this is your place if you plan on yelling that you’re going to fight everyone at the table and then settling your dispute by who can hold their hand over a fire the longest or with a disgusting eating challenge.
Price: $30 per person (appetizer, drink, .75 lb of meat per person)
Verdict: Very decent. Slightly overpriced, but worth going if you’re a big eater and have a good group.
Over the weekend, I went out to dinner at Aqua in San Francisco, on California and Battery. It is a two-star Michelin restaurant, which makes it supposedly one of the best restaurants in the Bay Area (only one Bay Area restaurant made three stars, which is considered good enough to travel to San Francisco just to eat there). I ordered the special seven course meal and two extra appetizers, and forgive me but I will have to rave about this place. It was sort of like watching a mile race – the food was excellent but not enough to blow me away, just like most runners in the pack stay roughly together for the first three and a half laps. Then like a miler in the last 200 meters, Aqua picked up the pace at dessert and ran away with it, leaping it from a pretty good restaurant to one of the best ever. I was half outraged that Aqua could have had it won at the very outset but half in admiration that it could just pick it up at any point and leave everyone else in the dust when it decided it was the right time. But be warned, this was the most expensive dinner I have ever paid for, so you’re paying for quality.
Like most Bay Area restaurants, Aqua has that yuppie mix of weird fancy furniture. It’s not really my style, but some of the glasswork was impressive enough for me to overlook it. I hate restaurants that try to mix in Ikea style with awkward shapes to make itself seem more important than it is, but there are two 18-foot square mirrors. That’s not something you see every day, especially in earthquake country. I’m impressed by the sheer waste that everyone in the restaurant will be killed by flying shards of broken mirror when that big earthquake hits San Francisco. If that doesn’t deserve a perfect score for decor, I don’t know what does. In all seriousness, I love the giant mirrors and consider it a minor engineering feat to build and install something like that. Bonus for the padded seats as well.
The service is typical of an upscale French restaurant, which I found delightful. One guy walked around carrying a platter of warmed bread, another guy with a platter of utensils to replace them for every course. We had presentations of every dish with some extra service to add sauces. However, a few mistakes were made. The waiter reached across the table to put silverware down. You may also want to note that if you get the seven course meal, dinner will not be a simple affair. I was there for three hours.
As I noted, the appetizers and savory courses were excellent but not significantly better than other “great” restaurants, until I hit the desserts which were magnificent. It’s a seafood restaurant, so expect some of the best ingredients you’ll see in the Bay Area, like lobster and varieties of sashimi. If you are a Japanese purist, you may be offended by the addition of spices and citrus flavors which distract from the taste of the fish. It’s a French restaurant, so it’s all about the sauces and the mix of textures, not accentuating the taste of the core food. Do not miss the dessert under any circumstances, that’s the final sprint which has you swooning as you walk out the door. It is creative and everything is hand made. To note how high quality the restaurant is and how it misses no details, the coffee is also excellent. That’s not something you see at other restaurants, even fancy ones.
This is definitely one of the best and most expensive restaurants in the Bay Area but you’ll see the crowd that comes with that. Not so many yuppies, but a lot of salt and pepper hair and self-important people. The tables were hilariously stereotypical – the wealthy Chinese family (one son, one daughter), the four Japanese businessmen, the old Jewish mothers, a rich black couple. But the atmosphere is warm and semi-intimate, sort of the way you imagine the ideal rich Western family – everyone fits in their place and never gets too close to each other. Good times.
Price: $170 per person (appetizer, drinks, seven course meal. Could be $90 per person if you get the three-course meal)
Verdict: Fully deserves its two-star rating. Keeps strong pace until dessert, where it runs away from the competition.
I will start including pictures of food and me at the restaurant from now on.
There’s a new suhi place in El Cerrito and I think it might have seized the title of best sushi in the Bay Area. It’s called Taki Sushi and it’s on the corner of San Pablo and Schmidt, across the street from the post office. You must take your next sushi date to this place, it is that much of a steal.
The first thing you’ll notice is the sushi bar, which is stocked with giant slabs of fish. This is good modern Japanese decor. There’s a big screen TV which presumably is supposed to have something like ESPN and such on it, but I knocked off a point because it had America’s Funniest Home Videos. The last thing you want to see as you put raw fish in your mouth is some dad taking a whiffle bat to the testicles or some guy flip over his bicycle. Other than that, the decor is a perfect fit for what the restaurant is, a humble but brilliant sushi house. There’s also an impromptu parking lot in front of it, which I don’t think is supposed to be a parking lot. I gave it a bonus point for reversing the Bay Area’s war on cars and convenient parking.
As a point of disclosure, I sat at the sushi bar so I have no idea how the “normal” food or the service is at regular tables. However, I found the sushi bar to be excellent. The chef was chatty and friendly, but politely quiet when I talked to Aki about our own thing. The chef was tolerant of questions and made his cuts promptly and skillfully. You may or may not appreciate that if you order shrimp, they will fry the head for you. I will note that a couple people looked at me strangely for happily chomping the heads. The tea was plentiful and the check didn’t come until we asked for it. All good things.
As I noted, probably the best sushi place in the Bay Area, or at least a serious contender. The portions of fish are extremely generous, such that the higher price for nigiri is a much better value than most places owned by Koreans. Especially good were the white tuna, yellowtail, and mackerel. You won’ t bother with finer cuts like toro because the normal sushi is so good. This is a place you must try.
Taki has a good feeling to it, but the crowd is still a bit mixed among the daring who want to try something new. In fact, you won’t even find this place on Google maps yet. So it’s good and bad that this place hasn’t been “discovered” yet. Good because you don’t get the Bay Area yuppies but bad because you get a bit of a hollow feeling that more people should be in there.
Price: $30 per person (9 orders of nigiri)
Verdict: Hidden gem. Go there before it’s found.
I’m bringing back the restaurant reviews! My first review is a vegetarian Japanese restaurant called Cha-Ya. It’s on Shattuck and Virginia in Berkeley, a small space that is frequently packed with people. Keep in mind that the restaurant is not just vegetarian but vegan, so don’t expect any of the usual Japanese fare like sushi or teriyaki. If you don’t like mushrooms, eggplants, or tofu, you’re in for a long and not so pleasant night. If you like those things, you’ll probably be delighted with what you find, although the concept could only work in the San Francisco Bay Area whose people pride themselves on paying more for less.
I liked the decor, which gives the impression of a lively and popular restaurant. There are tables of various sizes and a pretty long sushi bar. This was my big problem – the sushi bar is nice except for the fact that there’s no sushi and the chefs were uninterested in talking with the customers. So there was really no point to the bar. Other than that, things were great – dishes were served on pretty little dishes and the tea came in a moderately good teapot. Probably it all came from Ikea or Crate and Barrel, somewhere kind of nice but the best that mass production can do.
I’m probably giving them a little more credit than they deserve because we were fairly lucky. The bad thing about being a cramped but popular little restaurant is that the line is out the door during the dinner rush. When we walked out, there were several couples waiting for a table and it seemed like they had been waiting for quite some time. It was very reminiscent of Chicago – if you aren’t in the door and at a table by 700, you should just leave and come back at 9 because you aren’t getting a table until then (especially if there are three or four people ahead of you). Service was not particularly speedy, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – dishes were made to order and there were only two chefs. My biggest complaint here was that none of the workers were Japanese, which severely detracted from the experience.
The food was delicious, especially when you consider that they only use vegetables. The soup broths in the nabe and udon dishes are some of the best you’ll find in the Bay Area. I will say that if you order sushi in a vegan restaurant that has no fish, you are an idiot. The gyoza was a little disappointing because the filling was nowhere near as substantial as it would be with meat, but the skin was excellent. The desserts are also really good, especially the fried bananas with green tea and red bean sauces. One thing that might put you off is that none of the dishes are complex and I had the distinct feeling that I could easily cook the same meal at home, which might be the point because the inspiration was monasteries, not exactly the wellspring of cooking creativity and complexity. Still, the prices are low enough that I would pay someone to chop all those vegetables and put them together for me.
This is a great date night out, and the lack of meat guarantees that nobody will walk out with a greasy taste in their mouth. If anything, all the vegetables mean that you’ll walk out with a clean and refreshed feeling. My real complaint are the other people, which is a lot of yuppies and the typical white-haired rich hippies that frequently troll the gourmet ghetto. You’ll a lot of people acting like they know something of Japanese food even as they fumble their chopsticks and drench their retarded no-sushi with soy sauce. One guy next to me actually complained that his dish was too salty after he soaked a piece of sushi so thoroughly that the whole thing was black. So take that as you will. It’s still a great place to take a date.
Price: $25 per person
Verdict: A decidedly good date.
Note that the price is for appetizers, drinks, entrees, and desserts.