Having an Oakland ZIP code is a big responsibility these days. If your restaurant is in Uptown or if it's downtown, it shares digits with Plum, District, Hawker Fare, and a host of other eateries that are producing some of the Bay Area's most exciting food.
Hopscotch, a new restaurant on San Pablo Avenue, is a welcome addition.
With its checkerboard floors and red leather bar stools, the upscale diner, which opened early this summer in a tiny space between William and 19th streets, pays homage to American cuisine with a Japanese brush stroke. The influences are so subtle you might miss them: A shishito pepper here, some tatsoi greens there. But, when executed in the right pairing, like the briny tsukemono, or pickled veggies, and Asahi black mustard that accompanied a garlicky pork and veal pate, I think they represent the best of this trendy spot.
Even with reservations, we had to wait 20 minutes for our table on a recent Saturday night. Hopscotch has only a half-dozen or so tables and fewer bar stools. To pass the time, we grabbed four of the latter and ordered some adult beverages, including a glass of the uber-limited production 2010 Darcie Kent Vineyards Gruner Veltliner ($10) from Monterey County, and a cocktail, Death in the Afternoon ($12), a spin on the classic Champagne cocktail with a splash of absinthe.
For munchies, we selected two appetizers from the seven starters. The description of Chips and Dip ($5) had us giddy. Who doesn't want their potato chips cooked in duck fat? But when the dish arrived, we were disappointed. I think we expected thick chips with a rich, gamy flavor. These were light, thin and oily. The yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit, in the accompanying aioli was too faint to leave an impression.
What did leave an impression were the Beer Steamed Clams ($14). They swam in a steaming, flavorful broth dotted with lumps of sweet lamb. We asked for seconds of the toasted bread to mop up every last drop.
Everyone at the table felt the same about my order of Sweet Potato Gnocchi ($14), a medley of hen of the woods, shiitake and oyster mushrooms in a brown-butter creme fraiche sauce. The bite-sized gnocchi were pillow-soft and perfect; I wished the portion was twice as big. Vegetarians, this is a gorgeous dish.
We'd read rave reviews on Yelp about Three Little Pigs ($19), but with every other restaurant butchering and using entire pigs these days, our expectations were high. The prosciutto meatballs were a bit stiff for my taste. The braised pork belly was rich yet lacked flavor. But the ham hock kale, which got a kick from a schmear of Japanese mustard, was divine.
A fish lover ordered the Arctic char ($19). The fish, a cousin to salmon, was cooked to flaky perfection. Still, it was outshined by the accompanying salt-cod-stuffed squash blossoms, which were so light and fluffy I could have eaten a dozen. I also wanted more of that cedar-aged miso to drizzle -- on everything.
Despite how busy Hopscotch was, the service never suffered. Our server was warm, informed and timely. One of my favorite experiences of the night was dessert, because the dishes were interesting and well-executed. The chef used kinako, or Japanese soybean flour, in his beignets ($7) as well as chicory-coffee crème anglaise. Together, the flavor was nutty and balanced.
Like the beignets, Hopscotch's Chocolate Mousse ($7) was just a little different from what you're used to getting. Instead of the super-sweet and whipped-cream smooth style, this mousse had a subtle and surprising crunch from crushed malt balls. The mousse, which was made from chocolate with 67 percent cacao, was covered with black beer caramel sauce made in-house using Asahi beer. They weren't my favorite desserts, but they really married American and Japanese sensibilities in a way I hadn't seen before.
In the coming weeks, Hopscotch is going to start jarring and selling its Asahi black mustard. We need to convince it to do the same with that caramel sauce.
* * *
FOOD: * * *
AMBIENCE: * * *
SERVICE: * * ½
WHERE: 1915 San Pablo Ave.
CONTACT: 510-788-6217; http://hopscotchoakland.com
HOURS: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays; until 11 p.m. Saturdays. Lunch starts at 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. Brunch is 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.
CUISINE: American with Japanese sensibility
VEGETARIAN: One, but it's excellent: Sweet Potato Gnocchi
BEVERAGES: 10 specialty cocktails, an impressive wine and beer program, and lemonades and seltzers
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: Try the Uptown Burger or Roasted Chicken Loin.
PLUSES: Focused menu with inventive dishes and great cocktails
MINUSES: Limited choices. Fish option was boring.
DATE OPENED: June 17
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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.
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