2566 Telegraph Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704.
I recently blogged about my day trip to Berkeley to visit the Takara Sake Factory; well, on the way home my friend Misa and I stopped at a wonderful little restaurant run by a Japanese couple (Daiki and Sanae Saito) called Kiraku. Kiraku (which means relaxed or comfortable) is not your typical Japanese restaurant like you'd find in Sacramento, it's an izakaya. I hear that term tossed about often but a true izakaya is an informal drinking establishment or tavern that serves small dishes called otsumami (snacks similar to tapas) to munch on while you knock back some (or a lot of) sake and beer. The drinking is supposed to be the main focus. The general vibe at an izakaya is casual, friendly and loud.
We were lucky that we showed up 15 minutes prior to when Kiraku opened for dinner. Even on a Sunday night, they filled up within 5 minutes and there was a lengthy line the entire time we were there. Once seated, we were given an oshibori (a hot, wet washcloth) to clean our hands with, which felt quite refreshing. To start, Misa ordered some shōchū and I went with a small bottle of sake. Then we explored the menu...there was such a wide variety of interesting sounding dishes that it was really hard to decide. (Don't go expecting giant sushi rolls stuffed with cream cheese and drenched in mayo-sauce or monster-sized bowls of uber-sweet teriyaki chicken.) You won't find that at Kiraku. They have a standard menu as well as a separate sheet with the seasonal items to choose from. Many of the dishes were salty, crunchy or savory- just like what you would expect bar food to be, whilst other dishes are quite adventurous. Izakaya portion sizes are generally small, so we decided to order several dishes and share. For someone like me who loves to take a little bite here and there of several dishes during a restaurant visit, izakayas are my Disneyland. We ordered our food in rounds, 2 dishes here, 3 dishes there and so on...giving us time to savor the flavors and catch up on our girl talk.
For our first round, we indulged in:
Lotus Root Chips with Celery Salt
Albacore Tataki with Ponzu Sauce- The albacore was lightly seared, sliced into thin strips and tossed with small bits of red onion, tomato and scallions. There were hints of citrus and ginger, giving the dish a nice, clean taste that woke up my taste buds.
Spicy Jellyfish Salad- I loved this dish. The jellyfish was crisp and there was just a hint of spiciness. I'm pretty sure I tasted some sesame oil in there too. (I really want to recreate this dish at home.)
Our second round choices were a bit heavier. We shared a pint of Asahi (on tap) along with a plate of deep fried chicken cartilage. This is the perfect bar food...little, dark brown, seasoned, fried poppers of cartilage. Mmm! They're quite addicting. Maybe I'll make some for Superbowl Sunday?
Then we sampled some smoked pickles (iburi gakko) imported from Akita, pickled Takana leaves (Japanese mustard greens) and tiny fermented firefly squids. The pickles (carrots and daikon) had a nice deep smoky taste to them and I loved the saltiness of the Takana leaves but both Misa and I were not fans of the fermented squid. To me it was extremely pungent and tasted...umm...inky and dank. That's the best that I can describe it.
To get the squid taste out of our mouths, we moved to the corn tempura sprinkled with green tea salt. I had heard a lot of raves about this fun dish and wanted to check it out. It was okay, it reminded me of a funnel cake made from sweet corn niblets. It also kind of looked a bit like a bumpy fritter.
For our final heavy dish, we shared a skewer of grilled beef tongue with a yuzu miso sauce. Although simple, I liked this one. It reminded me of the yakitori stands in Japan. The meat was velvety (heavy, but tender) and the sauce wasn't overly salty.
To cleanse our palate and balance out our meal, we ordered a plate of the snapper sashimi. It was delicious- cut perfectly, super fresh and delicate. A little dish of heaven.
At this point we were thinking of ordering dessert but a dish that was en route to another table caught Misa's eye, so we had a plate of tatami iwashi (sheets of dried baby sardines). It was unusual - crunchy, thin like paper and had a mildly fishy taste. A ramekin of Kewpie accompanied it for dipping.
We closed out with two of Kiraku's fantastic desserts. Misa ordered their green tea ice cream with warabi mochi. I wasn't familiar with warabi mochi and I later learned that it's made from bracken starch instead of glutinous rice like regular mochi is. Her warabi mochi was dusted with matcha powder. I had a bite, it had a soft, grassy taste to it that was pleasant. I opted for the roasted tea blanc-manger. Oh my goodness...I seriously think this is one of my all time favorite desserts. It's the perfect choice if you prefer savory over sweet. The roasted tea flavor is subtle and the creamy custard part is silky smooth like a panna cotta. There's also a dab of whipped cream, anko (red bean paste) and tapioca pearls on top to make the dish look pretty and add added flavor.
I'm totally in love with Kiraku. The food was presented so beautifully and there was such an array of amazing flavors and inventive dishes. Service at this gem was also fast and friendly, our waitress was zooming around like Mighty Mouse all night. It definitely exceeded my expectations and I'll be going back and bringing Mr.S. Oh! They even have a bottle keep system for sake and shōchū, where you can order a big bottle and they hang on to the unfinished amount for you until your next visit (one month for sake, shōchū for three months). I wish we had something like Kiraku in Sacramento. It's the perfect late night hangout- good food, good drink and a laid-back atmosphere. Maybe just a smidge cheaper would be nice.