What's next for a restaurateur who, having already opened a successful sushi joint, wants to introduce something new? Something that capitalizes on the popularity of izakaya, but takes it in a more all-ages direction?

If you are Kousuke Muranaka, the man behind Oakland's Geta Japanese Restaurant, the answer is clear: the 1960s shokudo.

Shokudo means "diner" in Japanese, and a 1960s version refers to a place that serves a variety of wholesome and authentic foods in a traditional but casual atmosphere. B-Dama, which means "marbles" in Japanese, is also a nostalgic nod to the popular children's game of the '60s.

Based on the menu, B-Dama could very easily be taken for an izakaya, with its familiar categories of skewers, grilled items, pickles, fried foods and "finishers" -- starchy items such as grilled rice balls to fill out the meal. (This being the U.S., B-Dama also has sushi and sashimi to placate expectations.) In fact, the restaurant goes to some effort to embrace its izakaya side.

The kitchen turns out kushiyaki -- skewers -- at lightning-fast speed, which is optimal for izakaya dining, in which diners imbibe and nosh in rounds. If anything, the grillmaster may be too fast; our first item, a stick of three perfectly cooked scallops ($3.50), arrived less than two minutes after we handed our server our kushiyaki order sheet. The sweet, smoke-scented scallops were not unwelcome, but it would have been nice had our beverages arrived first.


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Other kushiyaki choices ($2.50-$3.50) included tender beef tongue and rare-grilled duck, the deep gaminess of which was heightened with a squeeze of lemon. The short rib and quail egg skewer delivered on the short rib portion, which had the taste and texture of a good bulgogi; however, we were a little disappointed to find that the egg had been simply boiled, depriving it of any smokiness the robata grill could have imparted.

There are also a wide selection of yakitori (chicken skewers, $2.50-$3.25), including meatballs and chicken skin. The narrow ribbons of skin, which were scrunched onto the skewer, were predictably rich but could have been crisper. One standout was the satisfyingly crunchy chicken cartilage, which had a surprisingly robust chicken flavor, even though it was finished with just a sprinkle of salt.

In the traditional manner, the kushiyaki dishes at B-Dama are very simply seasoned with salt or tare, a soy-based sauce. Too often, restaurant food -- particularly Japanese fare -- is overly salty, and the restaurant's restraint in this regard showed some finesse.

Other graze-able items included Japanese peppers, which were flame-blistered and topped with a fine flurry of bonito and grated ginger; and light, greaseless tempura ($6-$7.50) featuring interesting vegetables, such as bitter melon strips and corn on the cob, quartered lengthwise. A wakamesu salad ($5) was bathed in a delicate dashi and accompanied by an accordion-style cucumber chiffonade that was positively gauzy, a display of deft knifework.

The menu included a few "gotta have" items, including buta kakuni ($9), a simmered dish of pork belly with soft boiled egg, and hard-to-find Inaniwa udon ($9). This type of thin, glossy udon is prized for its sublimely silky texture, and is best enjoyed cold and dipped in nothing more than a little broth. Though B-Dama doesn't serve the area's top rendition of this item -- a bit more body and springiness would have made it perfect -- it's hard to pass up nonetheless.

We also could not resist ordering a few of the local sushi offerings: sea urchin caught off the Mendocino coast, and clean, mild-tasting California mackerel. These items (two pieces per order, $4.50-$7) were fine, with generous portions of fish, but the rice was on the gummy side; for our money, we would stick with the cooked stuff.

If the menu's composition and the kitchen's quick pacing mark B-Dama as an izakaya, a couple of aspects hit on the shokudo concept. First, although B-Dama has a passable selection of adult beverages (a few Asian lagers, nine kinds of sochu and 18 sakes, including a sake flight, three for $11), it is definitely not as alcohol-centric as an izakaya. This means that the feel of the place -- lively and warm, with caramel-colored walls, touches of wood and natural Japanese textiles -- is less bar scene and more family-friendly, especially early in the evening. We saw kids happily slurping bowls of udon and gnawing on chicken skewers.

That won't prevent you from settling in for a few rounds, though. On the night we went, a few diners were definitely doing it up izakaya-style at the six-seat sushi bar, laughing and drinking with the itamae-san. And it seemed that the chef was sharing the love; he sent a nice gift to our table: two pieces of white tuna sashimi rolled in shiso and a strip of sweet daikon. It was a beautiful balance of flavors and textures.

The main floor tightly packs eight tables (along with a couple of others squeezed in along a side wall), and the tiny space is saved from claustrophobia by large banks of windows, an open kitchen and nimble servers who helpfully identify dishes as they deliver them to you in a steady stream.

All in all, the close quarters, the convivial atmosphere and the eminently graze-able menu make B-Dama the kind of place you would love to have in your neighborhood. Like with most small-plates formats, it's not the least expensive way to dine, but it is certainly one of the most fun.

B-Dama

* * ½

FOOD: * * ½
AMBIENCE: * * *
SERVICE: * * *
WHERE: 4301A Piedmont Ave., Oakland
CONTACT: 510-420-1578, www.b-dama-geta.com
HOURS: 5-10 p.m.
Wednesdays-Sundays
CUISINE: Japanese
PRICES: $ for primarily small plates
VEGETARIAN: Several options, including soba, udon and kakiage, which are battered, chopped vegetables
BEVERAGES: Tea and several kinds of beer, sake and soju
RESERVATIONS: Accepted
NOISE LEVEL:
Medium-loud
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: No children's menu, but kids will enjoy the udon and chicken skewers
PLUSES: Wide variety of tempting small plates
MINUSES: The bill can add up quickly when dining izakaya-style.
DATE OPENED: July 2011

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Price code

$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40

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