After the buzz died down around Flora — the Uptown District's culinary shining star that opened in November — a look of longing began to creep into the faces of East Bay food hounds and night owls looking for a new diversion to flock to. So the news that four restaurants are opening in Oakland comes as a relief, especially when the financial crisis threatened to put us all into novelty withdrawal.
Two of the newcomers are San Francisco-born eateries that chose to move east, a direction that might help ease Oakland's shadow-complex. Ozumo, scheduled to open Dec. 1, is a slick Japanese restaurant and lounge that will share the ground floor of the Broadway Grand condo complex ("Live life on a Grand scale" is the motto) with the southern concept restaurant Pican. They will help fill out the area near the Paramount Theatre and Luka's Taproom, which first livened things up there several years ago.
Ozumo owner Jeremy Umland didn't know a recession was coming when he signed on in 2007 to open the 8,000-square-foot restaurant and lounge. But, as he put it, one of the principles of life is that people have to eat.
Anyway, he has survived worse: he opened the original location in San Francisco's South of Market district in May 2001, when the dotcom bust was intensified by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Although Umland said he isn't taking anything for granted these days. "Eating is the last thing people stop doing," he said, leaning against an unfinished wall that will eventually be covered in perforated carbon steel panels.
Gesturing outside to the bustling intersection where Broadway meets Grand Avenue, Umland said he wants Ozumo to be a regular neighborhood hangout for "people down the street."
Umland is betting the restaurant's success in the neighborhood bustling with apartments, condos, offices, galleries and an eclectic bookstore that specializes in military history on what he calls the "Ozumo effect," of which he names himself as the inventor. When he returned in 1994 to the U.S. after 15 years of playing college and pro baseball in Japan, he knew about Japanese food and what worked — or didn't work — for American tastes.
The former Morgan Stanley executive decided to make a Japanese grill that uses high-heat charcoal briquettes to quickly sear food — called a Robata — the centerpiece of the restaurant instead of sushi. That way, Umland said, people who object to eating sushi won't have to veto a Japanese restaurant.
"No one is afraid to come to Ozumo because they are afraid there will be nothing for them to eat."
The sake bar is another centerpiece of the concept that Umland carried over to Oakland along with the Zen chic design of the San Francisco location.
Ozumo will serve hot sake but emphasize cold sake, which like the grill has been catching on in the past few years. The lounge, he said, should be a place where people can relax, have a drink and nibble on Japanese-inspired appetizers. By the time that happens, the empty hull of plaster and drywall will be transformed by an aesthetic that mixes the angular, sparse aesthetic the Asian country is known for with warm colors and materials that take on an unpredictable patina with time.
Oakland's location will not be a copy of the rusted metal panels and polished granite flecked with pieces of oxidized metal in the San Francisco Ozumo, Umland assured me. But all he would reveal is that in the new location he is using copper and stucco and that handmade, parchment-based Washi art pieces will be displayed and incorporated into the infrastructure.
"It is an Oakland-style design," he said. "If this is the first big Japanese restaurant in Oakland, well that fits my personality."
But wait, there's more. Joining the newly opened Miss Pearl's Jam House in Jack London Square will be the refined but rustic Bracina, a 3,000-square-foot restaurant on the ground floor of the soon-to-be-complete Jack London Market in February. Bracina is the brainchild of San Francisco restaurant royalty, Daniel Patterson and Lauren Kiino.
Also coming to Jack London Square is a bakery by Meg Ray, co-founder of the S.F. Ferry Building patisserie, Miette. (Perhaps it will fill the storefront occupied briefly by MoNO, which just closed its location on Fourth Street less than a year after opening.)
Meanwhile, Oakland restaurant pioneers Thomas Schnetz and Dona Savitsky of Dona Tomas fame are reportedly opening in early 2009 a taqueria at 1912 Telegraph Ave., two doors from the duo's other jewel, Flora. It all comes back to Flora.