O Chamé is a Japanese restaurant in approach, outlook, and the impeccable harmony of taste and texture in its delectable dishes. But there's a robust California-Mediterranean sensibility at work here as well. Platters are accented with portobello mushrooms, Spanish sherry, and balsamic vinegar; the ambience is more Andalusian bodega than Tokyo tea house. And the presentations, while beautifully balanced in the Japanese tradition, also brim with a certain spark often lacking at your neighborhood sushi joint.
The restaurant is one of a dozen or so elegant eateries that help make Berkeley's Fourth Street such a fashionable place to dispose of your disposable income. Neighbored by the likes of Cafe Rouge, Eccolo, and Cafe M, O Chamé boasts a handsome Tuscan-gold exterior complete with courtyard and cascading foliage. The interior is a pleasant chiaroscuro of dim shadows and muted lamplight, with Moorish curves and arches and the sort of heavy wooden furniture you'd expect to find in the Alhambra or maybe Hearst Castle. But there's a distinctly serene vibe emanating from the open kitchen, and the menu is all about eel, burdock root, grated daikon, and grilled mako.
"The technique is primarily Japanese," says chef/co-owner David Vardy. "I'm enchanted by Japanese cooking — I lived and trained there for five years — and the approach is based on simplicity, on using as much local fish and produce as possible, on letting the food speak for itself. Lots of chefs get too involved in the preparation and the sauces and overdo it. If you get decent ingredients and you know what to do with them — how to steam it or roast it or whatever — the flavors can really shine."
That's certainly true of the sashimi appetizer, slender filets of cool, creamy tuna with a slightly smoky seared crust and a bed of silky-sweet braised leeks that adds a lush, earthy dimension to the dish. Another starter, the crimini mushroom-green onion pancake, isn't as successful; it's just an unremarkable flour-egg pancake with a few shards of scallion and 'shroom thrown in (although its sake-soy sauce-rice vinegar-mayo dipping sauce jazzed things up nicely). A crunchy, latke-like approach might've worked better. The eel appetizer, though, was a pungent delight, the unagi's wonderfully odd oily-creamy texture showcased by superior grilling and a bed of braised Belgian endive, an unusual yet absolutely complementary accompaniment.
"Sometimes chefs put together dishes that sound good in the mind, but they don't work in the mouth or stomach," says Vardy. "After you eat them, they seem interesting, but they don't make you feel good. I like to create dishes that please the mouth and stomach, and I let the mind follow." There's nothing the least bit esoteric or cerebral about Vardy's skirt steak, a fine example of Western ingredients employed and enhanced by Japanese cooking techniques. Delicate slices of grilled beef, tender enough to pull apart with chopsticks, are served with medallions of meaty, aromatic portobello mushroom and a bed of pungent, velvety braised spinach ribboned with crunchy edamame. The Columbia River sturgeon is equally satisfying, but on a more subtle, delicate level; the fish is light and fresh, with a colorful cornucopia of chard, sweet peppers, and earthy, bittersweet shimeji mushrooms adding bright, feral accents.
O Chamé also serves a selection of fish-broth bowls with your choice of soba (buckwheat) or udon (wheat) noodles. The bowls' primary ingredients can range from smoked trout, roasted mackerel, and grilled shark to roasted pork, Gulf shrimp, and tofu skins; we opted for the roasted oyster variety. Like all of the restaurant's offerings, it's served in a strikingly attractive rustic vessel, billows of aromatic steam jump-starting the senses. The revivifying broth, bright with the flavors of daikon and seaweed and phosphoresence, is given heft and body by the huge, lush, briny oysters and a tangle of tender udon — it's one of the finer examples of comfort food extant.
O Chamé's two outstanding desserts embrace the restaurant's latent Mediterranean sensibilities. The sherry custard is lighter and more delicate than any conceivable flan or crema catalana, a puddle of silky-smooth oloroso infusing the whole with a giddy shot of pizzazz. The caramel-balsamic gelato, meanwhile, is a particularly thick and chewy example of the genre, with an intoxicating "sweet salt" character that lends this buttery, almost maple-like concoction a wonderfully bracing jolt of reduced-balsamic contrast.
Vegetarians can make do at O Chamé, although the ever-changing entrée menu is largely seafood-oriented. Focus instead on the starters and create a small-plates meal out of the mushroom-scallion pancake; arugula salad with golden beets; sautéed burdock root with grilled yellow peppers; chilled deep-fried Japanese eggplant with grated daikon; tofu dumplings with hijiki seaweed; that wonderful blanched spinach; vinegared cucumbers; and a steaming bowl of miso soup.
The thoughtfully assembled wine list features six vintages by the glass (including Huber & Bleger's crisp, fragrant Gewürztraminer, a fine foil for the menu's rich yet simple flavors) as well as an impressive selection of premium sakes and the marvelous Oremus late harvest Tokaji for dessert. Seven varieties of green and fermented teas are available in enormous green ceramic mugs.
Vardy, who opened O Chamé in 1990, says "a restaurant has to be a place where everything works together — the ambience has to work with the food, the servingware, the surroundings." It's no simple feat, but after nearly twenty years, O Chamé still makes it look easy.
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