KIRAKU BERKELEY - JAPANESE TAPAS review


Kiraku is one of the hidden gems in the east bay. I hardly ever see it on any best restaurant lists but it’s my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area. The food is creative modern Izakaya. It’s one of the few Bay Area restaurants that is consistently good. I’ve never had a less than stellar meal at Kiraku. The service is always warm, welcoming and complexly unpretentious.

We recently ate here with a visiting chef friend.

Here is what we ate:

TSUMAMI (starter) SAMPLER:

ABURI MENTAIKO Seared Spicy Cod Roe- complex zesty, salty, umami flavors. Excellent

Smoked pickles- perfectly pickled carrot and daikon. A light hint of smoke to enhances the sweetness of the pickles and elevates the dish.

TAKANA (mustard greens) PICKLES – very satisfying tangy bitter flavors. Addicting for a lover of mustard greens like me.

ROCK SHRIMP TEMPURA W/ MAYO Deep Fried Rock Shrimp w/ Mayonnaise. One of my favorite dishes here. A relatively simple dish is perfected and elevated. Easily the best shrimp tempura I have ever eaten.

10 piece Sashimi sampler special. Super fresh high quality sashimi. It’s worth coming here just for the sashimi.

GRILLED BEEF TONGUE skewers. very tender, full of flavor and perfectly grilled

Grilled Unagi skewer special. Served with Sansho powder. The Sansho they use is very high quality. Almost all the sansho I have purchased in the states has been meh. This dish reminded me how much high quality sansho can elevate a dish. The sweetness of the eel was elevated by the numbing Sansho. Out of this world.

Suzuki carpaccio- delicate slices of raw seabass elevated with a dressing of ginger, sesame oil, citrus and Shichimi pepper mix. Always excellent.

Spoons of uni, salmon roe over creamy Yuba skin. A dish that would fit in perfectly at a Michelin Stared restaurant. Easily the best bite in the Bay Area.

Desserts:

We ordered 3 of them.

HOMEMADE GRAPEFRUIT YOGURT ICE CREAM. This has always been my favorite dessert here. I love it. It’s completely unique. It has an interesting rustic texture-not ultra creamy, not super rich and it’s not overly sweet. Bits of grapefruit rind add a satisfying bitter edge. This is a dish that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The flavors and textures mingle and come together in something unique and deeply satisfying.

Back sesame BLANC-MANGER. Our friend’s favorite of the desserts. Very good.

Frozen cheesecake with marmalade - Cubes of frozen cheesecake with citrus preserves. The cheesecake has a very interesting dry texture. Very unique dish.

The food paired perfectly with a bottle of Sake we ordered.

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I like Kiraku a lot. Wide variety of dishes, mostly very good, some unusual items, modest prices for the quality. Only problem is that it’s very popular.

I posted about some of my favorite dishes on Chowhound, but I guess that got lost when they ran the site through the wood chipper. I believe the grilled tongue was one of them.

They have a fantastic barbecued eel skewer. Right now they are serving broiled eel liver. They also have some underrated sashimi and grilled fishes of great variety - blackthroat sea perch (nodoguro), filefish (kawahagi), etc. Grilled pike mackerel (sanma) has been great on several visits, especially its liver with a dill and cilantro sauce.

Recent standouts: grilled collar of mature yellowtail (kanburi), octopus carpaccio, unagi skewer.

The suzuki carpaccio and the ramen taste a bit Chinese - it’s the sesame oil - and are a nice twist. So many good items here, just wish I lived closer by.

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Chef owner of Kiraku, Daiki Saito is super respected amongst his peers in SF Bay Area JP restaurant community (it’s a small circle but they all know of him and his food). He used to cook French back in Japan, but turned to izakaya style fare for the restaurant. He’s from Ibaraki prefecture, and a certified sake sommelier, which explains the Ibaraki sake offering, Ippin of his restaurant.

You may have seen this restaurant showcase/infomercial that aired on KTSF Ch 26 weekend evenings a while ago (Hello Restaurant) which I think is now aired by “Tokyo TV”.

The umesuisho cappellini/angel hair with karasumi is absolutely mouthwatering, but that was an initial offering some years back.

They had a special when I went once sometime last year, marinated grilled bluefin cheek/jowl that was super good. Kind of like those Tokyo Tsukiji market /Osaka Kuromon market bluefin vendors that sell sashimi and BBQ toro (soy sauce marinated), but slightly different prep.

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Tsumami sampler - choose 3: chuka kurage (marinated Japanese jellyfish), takowasa (octopus-wasabi), and iburigakko (smoked pickle, a specialty of Akita). Great crunchy vs. slimy textures.

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Aburi saba sashimi - torched mackerel sashimi. Just the right oiliness; probably bite of the night!

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Suzuki carpaccio - sea bass carpaccio with sesame oil, chili, ginger, and onion. It has a Chinese taste because of the sesame-ginger combo, but the chili is just right.

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Sashimi sampler - kurodai (black snapper), sake (salmon), kinmedai (goldeneye snapper), madai no konbujime (kelp-cured sea bream), shimaaji (striped jack), hotategai (scallops, from Hokkaido), iwashi (sardine), honmaguro akami (bluefin lean tuna), toro (fatty tuna). Shimaaji was our favorite, followed by the silky kinmedai. Their sashimi is good quality especially for an izakaya.

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Ika maruyaki - whole grilled squid with tare sauce, spiced kewpie mayo. Quite tender.

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Bluefin tuna cheek with garlic sauce.

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Unagi shirayaki with yuzukosho, sansho powder, and narazuke. Freshwater eel broiled, but garnished with yuzukosho instead of the more common nitsume sauce. Pickled baby watermelon, a specialty of Nara - a bit alcoholic tasting. This was good, but their BBQ eel skewer is my favorite.

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American-wagyu beef sushi with uni and shiso.

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Thick-cut beef tongue skewer.

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Clam and cilantro ramen - excellent! The clam broth is potent but clean, and the cilantro is just right. The noodles had a firm bouncy chew, which was nice with the Manila clams and toothsome wakame. A perfect way to end.

Another very satisfying meal at Kiraku. In the past year, my favorites were the torched saba sashimi, BBQ eel skewer, octopus carpaccio, suzuki carpaccio, kanburi kama, and clam and cilantro ramen.

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In addition to sashimi moriawase, suzuki carpaccio, aburi saba, tsumami sampler, and ika maruyaki I already posted in a previous visit.

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