Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ozumo Restaurant in Oakland

Sushi, Sake and Robata Grill on a Grand Scale
2251 Broadway Ave. (at Grand), Oakland
Uptown neighborhood
PH: 510.286.9866
Open for weekday lunch and dinner nightly (except Sunday)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Ozumo was one of the major restaurants that were supposed to revitalize the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland when it opened last year. In a high-profile corner of Grand and Broadway and on the ground level of a new condominium building, this is the East Bay location of the popular Japanese sushi restaurant in San Francisco.

Despite it being close to my offices, I never had the inclination to check it out. Then I read a post from my food blogging friend — the always-hungry, camera-snapping Foodhoe — who recently visited Ozumo (read past the natto to get to the Oakland restaurant) and it just enticed me to plan a visit.

Around the same time, my friend Psyche suggested getting together for lunch. Since I hadn’t seen her for years, I thought it would be good to have a lunch in a nice setting. Ozumo, here we come!

The restaurant is expansive, and I’ve seen several references to Las Vegas. This is the type of restaurant that will do well in Sin City, where everything is grand and liquor flows freely. When you walk in, there’s a large bar to the left, and then past the bar you walk into the main dining area, anchored by a large sushi bar and off to the side a small robata grill. (There’s also a private dining room surrounded by sake bottles backlit by natural sunlight.)

For my lunch, I started with the Tuna Tataki salad ($9), which was seared albacore tuna served with baby greens and a tamanegi dressing. The salad would work for a light lunch (but of course I ordered more) and everything tasted fine, but nothing amazing. I felt my tuna pieces were a bit more cooked than I preferred.

Psyche ordered an assortment from the sushi bar, including a Rainbow Roll ($11) and Negi Hamachi ($9). She enjoyed them, although I didn’t press her for specifics so you’ll just have to look at the pretty picture.

I also ordered a donburi, which are the rice bowls that I always feel is a great lunch option. The version I got was the Grilled Spicy Seafood Don ($13), which was basically a bowl of steamed rice with an assortment of seafood on a stick. There were tiger prawns, Hokkaido scallops and Atlantic salmon served with a spicy sauce. The scallops were great (it’s hard to go wrong with the flavors of seared scallops) but I felt the shrimp and salmon seemed a bit off, the flavors a bit flat for some reason.

Despite a lackluster meal, I thought it wouldn’t be fair to base a review on just lunch. So I returned another night for dinner.

Side note: Before returning for dinner, I also went to Ozumo on another night during its happy hour to meet a friend, but didn’t take photos because the bar was so dark. I felt Ozumo’s happy hour isn’t quite a value compared to other places, partly because the prices for the food seemed like the normal prices. The only discount came in the form of $5 sake and happy hour wine. I had the sake and it wasn’t that great. Also, the service is a bit inattentive with only a couple of bartenders serving everyone. But I did try the pork belly skewers and they were nice and tender, with some flavors reminiscent of Chinese BBQ pork.

For dinner, Ozumo turns into a nightclub with the pulsing club sound that invades all corners of the restaurant. The bar is definitely hopping early in the evening, but I wanted to sit somewhere with more light. Most of the dining room is also in the dark (it’s a very lounge-like scene) so the best spot was at the robata grill, which is a bit more intimate than the sushi bar.

At the robata grill, you can see the chefs grilling skewers over charcoal or prepping salad dishes. On this night, the grill chef was friendly and chatty, like what you would expect from a sushi bar. The waitress was also friendly and helpful with my selections.

Dinner started with an amuse bouche from the chef — a spoonful of tuna poke, which was nice and fresh and a bit spicy (it had a real kick).

Then my first order arrived, Abara ($9) from the small plates section of the menu. This was a plate of Kurobuta pork spare ribs marinated in a spicy red miso. The flavor was very similar to the pork belly I had at the bar the other night, but I had to use my fingers to eat these ribs to make sure I got all the meat.

Everything was tender, and the cuts were all different, so I had to really maneuver around figuring out the meat, the fat, and the bone (the grilling makes it dark so you can’t tell right away what you’re picking up). Although it was a lot of work, it was really enjoyable. (Thankfully they provide lots of warm wet towels.)

Next came my selections from the robata grill, including the Negima ($6), which where the chicken breast skewers, and the Ebi Shio-Yaki ($7) or salt-grilled blue prawns with the head still on.

The chicken was what you’d expect from yakitori chicken — nice cubes of chicken with the familiar sweet-savory teriyaki sauce. The prawns were great with the juices from the head, but also a bit messy peeling off the skin. (Again, they brought more warm wet towels.)

Also from the small plate section was the Yamabuki ($9), which was brown rice risotto with shimeji and shiitake mushrooms and topped off with a fresh piece of uni (sea urchin) from Mendocino. This was one of my favorite dishes because I loved the comfort of the rice and liked the idea that it was healthy since it was made with genmai brown rice. The woodsy flavors of the mushrooms were topped off by the flimsy, jiggly uni that basically melted in my mouth. How I wished there were more of the uni, but just that one bite of the locally grown sea urchin was quite satisfying.

Then I ordered a few pieces of nigiri sushi from the sushi bar. They all came on one long plate, which I couldn’t figure out the best camera angle to perfectly capture the three selections I ordered. So I’m showing them off one by one. Here’s the sushi porn:

First we have the kinmedai ($12), which was a special fish that night. It’s similar to hamachi but has this interesting searing or scaling on one side of the slices. It was quite buttery in texture but not much in flavor. I liked the slivers of fresh ginger on top.

Next was the hamachi ($8) or yellowtail, which was good but I felt the slices seemed a bit thick. While you get more, I think the way you slice the fish does affect the eating experience and because it was thick it did give the nigiri a more chewy experience.

Finally there’s the ika ($6) or raw squid, nicely sliced and with a slight crunch to it. The texture wasn’t rubbery, but this isn’t the easiest of fish to eat by nature. Still, it was all enjoyable. (I did feel the rice in all three nigiri preparation was well-rounded and full, but there were a few bits of what seemed like uncooked rice that affected the overall experience.)

As you might have guessed, I really didn’t have room for dessert after my tour of the small plates, robata grill and sushi bar. (I didn’t even take a peek at the dessert menu because I was so full.) But that was a good sign I guess because it meant the assortment of food I had was a lot of fun to try, and there were a few standouts that made the experience quite memorable.

It does seem like the food gets overshadowed by the bar scene at Ozumo, and the experience can be different depending on whether you’re there for lunch, dinner or happy hour. It’s definitely a heavy hitter for the neighborhood, offering a bit of something for everyone.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (Japanese small bites)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Ozumo on Urbanspoon

More Japanese chow:
Nombe: Japanese Pub Blends Traditional with Modern
Tanpopo: Where the Ramen is Fast and Furious
Bushi-Tei Bistro: Does French-Japanese Fusion Work Watered Down?


agent713 said...

LOL Sushi Porn? I love that :)

I'm craving sushi right now though and this isn't helping!!!

Carolyn Jung said...

Why do so many sushi bars feel the need to turn up the volume like a night club? My friend and I walked into Blowfish Sushi to Die for One Night and immediately walked out when we nearly went deaf. Not a real conducive environment to hold a conversation of any type. Sheesh.