If pinot noir were food, it would taste like Shotaro Kamio's cuisine, like broth spun from maitakes that were plucked from the base of oak trees, like bacon and bonito dusted across fried Brussels sprouts. Rustic, refined and rustic again.
Kamio has gone from making great sushi and izakaya-style eats to becoming something of an umami master. After six years at Ozumo and seven at Yoshi's in Oakland and San Francisco, he has launched a solo venture, Iyasare, on Fourth Street in Berkeley. It's a smaller restaurant than he's used to cooking in -- 36 seats and another dozen at the bar -- and the focus is on artistic, thoughtfully constructed Japanese-California dishes highlighting local ingredients from small organic farms and butchers.
On our visit, thin, pinkish slivers of duck ($17) were prepared and presented on a magnolia leaf with enoki mushrooms carefully tucked under each slice and a toss of spicy miso, negi (spring onion) and pickled cucumbers on top. Such glorious detail, both for the taste buds and the eyes. Very pretty.
So was the hamachi carpaccio ($15), yellowtail squares swimming in a cooled, yuzu-citrus dashi and dressed up with matchsticks of Asian pear, baby asparagus and ginger bulb. As usual, Kamio's sushi was pristine and top-notch, hailing from local sources as well as Tokyo's renowned Tsukiji fish market.
Even tempura ($13) was elevated. Kamio makes his by stripping burdock root, yellow onion, sweet potato and shiitake mushrooms and frying them into a rustic fritter, or kakiage, alongside slurp-worthy bonito soy dipping broth. They looked like 3-D Jackson Pollocks: wild and boldly colorful.
Despite the pinot metaphor, I wouldn't drink wine with this food. It's much too delicate for tannins. Instead, pluck a light-as-rain daiginjo ($10) from Iyasare's hyper-focused sake program or stick to light Japanese beer or the effervescent Buzzerkeley ($7), a thirst-quenching ale from Calicraft in Walnut Creek.
And that ethereal broth? It carried the earthy, uni risotto ($19) and whisked us straight into Kamio's parents' noodle shop in the northeastern countryside of Tohoku, Japan, where he grew up. Talk about a sense of place. Toward the end of that dish, my husband and I sat there, silent, mouths agape, looking into the ceramic bowl at the lone smoked oyster and remaining morsels of sticky rice cloaked in sweet cauliflower puree. My husband finally said, "It's OK, babe. You can have the last bite." That's love.
An equally coveted dish at our table was the herb-oil-poached cod ($26), cured in miso and poached in olive and coconut oils with shredded savoy cabbage, shaved konbu (an edible kelp) and the tiniest, amber-colored nameko mushrooms. The fish was so infused with moisture that individual slats fell off with just a tap of my fork.
Texture was such a big part of this formidable meal, right down to dessert, which on our visit featured ginger syrup berries with sparkling sake and blackberry-cabernet sorbet ($7) as well as a sesame and yuzu semifreddo with winter citrus and a meringue wafer ($8). We went with the flourless chocolate cake ($9), a round, pillowy-warm beauty with vanilla gelato, charred strawberries and a dreamy miso caramel.
Speaking of dreamy, it was a pleasure to dine at Iyasare, to be handled by the expert staff, to enjoy the organic, oceanic interior and take in the activity of an open kitchen without the typically high volume. All of this makes a four-star rating natural, as natural a fit as the restaurant's name, which means "be healed" in Japanese.
WHERE: 1830 Fourth St., Berkeley
HOURS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; until 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; open daily for dinner, 5:30 p.m. until close; closed Tuesdays
VEGETARIAN: Kakiage tempura. You'll never go back to the doughy stuff.
BEVERAGES: Selective sake menu featuring premium daiginjo, artisanal Japanese beer alongside locally brewed craft beer and wine on tap, plus five specialty sake and shochu cocktails
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: I wouldn't bring them, but if you do, order the kakiage tempura. It's like shredded veggie fries.
MINUSES: Nothing. It's pricey but worth it.
DATE OPENED: December 2013
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Under $20
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$$$$ Under $40