Umami Mart Brings Japanese Food Culture to Old Oakland 

Plus the return of Sketch Ice Cream to Fourth Street.

Things you can buy at Umami Mart include: a Japanese pickle press, a paring knife encased in a handsome wooden sheath, a packet of shiso seeds, and shiny jiggers and cocktail shakers (some gold-plated) that can only be described as "baller."

Every item in the shop is carefully curated and a potential conversation piece thanks to the impeccable taste of the owners, Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano, who on August 4 officially turned a food and drink blog — and a shared passion for Japanese food culture — into a brick-and-mortar shop at 815 Broadway in Old Oakland. The genesis of the store dates back to 2007, when Akabori founded Umamimart, a food and drink blog with a particular emphasis on Japan. Kumano would file stories from Tokyo, where she was living at the time; others would write from New York, the Bay Area, Copenhagen, and beyond. "It just grew into this community," Akabori explained.

In 2010, Akabori and Kumano started selling a handful of items online and eventually started thinking it would be nice to have a brick-and-mortar store. That opportunity came when Alfonso Dominguez, cofounder of Popuphood, offered them a space in his urban renewal experiment, which has filled empty storefronts in Old Oakland by negotiating six months of free rent for promising local businesses. For Akabori and Kumano, it was a dream come true.

You can't talk about Umami Mart without talking about the beautiful space, which was designed by Anders Arhoøj, a Danish art director. A cross between Scandinavian minimalism and Shinto-inspired elements, the overall aesthetic is clean and spare, with decidedly Japanese touches rooted in Shinto spiritualism: white noren (traditional Japanese curtains) in the windows and hamaya arrows mounted on the wall to ward off evil spirits.

The store has an understated elegance, but Akabori stressed that the last thing she wants is for the shop to feel overly precious. She wants customers to pick things up and, above all, to ask questions. One of her favorite items is a red plastic gadget with a twirly handle — a sesame seed grinder, the "quintessential Japanese kitchen tool," Akabori said. Apparently, everyone who visits the store asks about it.

Most of the products in the store are Japanese imports, and many of the kitchen gadgets in particular are unfamiliar to American home cooks — but for Akabori and Kumano, they're things they grew up with.

"There's a functionality behind everything that we can stand behind," Akabori said. "These things aren't just pretty; they're easy to use."

Akabori and Kumano also hope to sponsor a variety of events at Umami Mart. A couple of weeks ago, they hosted a macaroon night. And this Thursday, August 30, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Umami Mart will host a free sake tasting, during which several kinds of sake will be served at different temperatures. To attend, RSVP to Hello@UmamiMart.com.

Sketch Ice Cream Reopens

Three years ago, fans of Berkeley's Sketch Ice Cream were heartbroken to hear that the shop had closed, as husband-and-wife owners Eric Shelton and Ruthie Planar-Shelton shut down their retail operation to focus on raising their soon-to-be-born daughter, Audrey.

Now Audrey's off to preschool, and the Sheltons have decided that they're ready to turn their attention back to their "first baby": Sketch reopened last Friday in a larger location at 2080 Fourth Street.

Shelton explained that this is actually the third iteration of the ice cream shop. He and his wife opened Sketch in 2004 and were among the region's early trailblazers in terms of making small batches of organic ice cream fresh daily. Then, in 2007, feeling that the texture of their product was too inconsistent, the Sheltons started serving their ice cream out of soft-serve machines. They also rolled out a line of house-made toppings such as cocoa nibs and candied almonds.

The latest incarnation of Sketch offers a bit more seating, and while the new location is farther away from Fourth Street's major foot traffic, it's close to a number of architectural and design firms — so they'll have a bigger focus on coffee and baked goods, as well as grab-and-go savory items.

Particularly noteworthy are their Filipino-style empanadas, which have a firmer, flakier dough than some of the Latin-American versions; Sketch will offer one with a traditional filling of chicken, potatoes, and currants; an al pastor version with pork and pineapple; and a vegetarian version with wild mushrooms.

As for the ice cream: As noted, it's soft-serve, with a base that's made from scratch using organic Straus milk. Because it's made from milk (not cream) and contains no egg yolks, the ice cream is very light even compared to other soft-serves — Shelton describes the texture as "velvety smooth" and "elasticky." The flavors are meant to be bright and clean, like a sketch: "the purest form of any idea."

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