Pickled takana leaves. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Duck gyoza. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Rock shrimp tempura with mayo (oh yeah). Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Spicy hamachi kama (collar). Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Gomae (spinach) with bonito flakes. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Some of my favorite dinner excursions begin with a friend who knows food, telling me, “Hey, I’ve heard about this place that’s really good in X. Have you been? Wanna check it out?” And so that’s how I was off to ~KIRAKU~ in Berkeley one evening. It charmingly has a sandwich board out front explaining the origin of the word “izakaya”—fortunately I am well schooled on the whole eating and drinking at the same time thing.
I’ve heard the petite place can be bananas, so we called ahead for our two-top (they quote a $30-per-person minimum if you want a reservation, which is probably in place to keep the students in the area from eating more than just corn tempura for dinner). After being offered a hot towel (oshibori), it was time for business. We primed our palates with the takana pickles ($4), a finely chopped bowl of pickled takana leaves (mustard greens), and the menma ($4), spicy bamboo shoots that quickly disappeared from our table. You can also go a little more hard-core with aburi mentaiko (seared and spicy cod roe, $5) or salted bonito stomach ($5). I recommend the tsumami sampler deal, which lets you choose three of these starters for $10.
A must-order are the duck pot stickers ($6) with balsamic sauce. Chef Daiki Saito was French-trained in Japan (and cooked at a French restaurant in Tokyo), so you can guess where he got the inspiration to use duck in gyoza. The gyoza were golden brown and tender, and the flavor of this dish is out of the park (especially when you dunk them in the sauce).
At this point you’ve been drinking a bit (we were enjoying our sake and Echigo and Coedo beers, and they have Asahi on tap), so it’s time for some sluttier food, like the grilled beef tongue ($10.50), which came out piping hot and thinly sliced, and the spicy hamachi kama ($13), the juicy and smoky collar meat sprinkled with shichimi. Okay, fine, we ordered the rock shrimp tempura ($9) with mayo, okay?! We scarfed the juicy shrimp coated in thick and crunchy batter, topped with togarashi threads. So wrong yet so right. (We had to go there.) The fried octopus ($7) was less successful—the whole bodies were too chewy, and the wonton-style sweet chile sauce on the side was a clang. A nice foil to the richer dishes is the grilled rice ball ($3); be sure to nab one.
Look, this place is a gem. After one visit, I’m already plotting my return, and the extensive menu holds many delights. The servers score high on the adorable scale (chef Daiki’s wife, Sanae, runs the front of the house), and they take good care of the (mostly) Japanese crowd, which got a bit younger and more eclectic as the night went on. You’ll note some beautiful ceramic dishes—it ends up the chef makes most of them. The potter-chef, it makes sense. He also has a kikizake-shi license, which is the equivalent of a sake sommelier, so there are some good sake and shochu selections as well. Between Ippuku and now Kiraku, I now have two Berkeley izakayas that will be coaxing me across the bridge. Oiishi!