Monday, February 26, 2018

Umami Mart Now Stocks Shōchū and Japanese Whisky in Old Oakland

by Janelle Bitker
Mon, Feb 26, 2018 at 11:02 AM

Yoko Kumano surrounded by sake at Umami Mart. - BERT JOHNSON/FILE PHOTO
  • Bert Johnson/File Photo
  • Yoko Kumano surrounded by sake at Umami Mart.

Umami Mart (815 Broadway) has become the go-to bottle shop in Oakland for Japanese beer and sake, but thanks to a recently upgraded liquor license, Japanese whisky and shōchū can now be added to that list.

“We always wanted to be the first shōchū shop in America,” said Yoko Kumano, who owns the shop with Kayoko Akabori.

While sake has become fairly easy to find in the Bay Area, shōchū has required more effort. To folks in the United States, it still feels like a new alcohol, even though it’s been made in Japan since at least the 16th century. Shōchū can be distilled with all sort of ingredients — the most common are rice, barley, and sweet potato, but Umami Mart already carries versions distilled with sugar cane and green tea.

According to Kumano, the rice shōchūs taste the most like sake, while barley shōchūs have a whiskey-like flavor profile. The sweet potato versions are more earthy and funky — great for lovers of natural wine, Kumano said. Prices will range $25-$100 for a bottle. (Umami Mart’s liquor license allows for to-go purchases only.)

So far, Umami is just carrying whiskies from Suntory and Nikka, but the plan is to expand the selection in the future. In two weeks, folks will be able to purchase shōchū and whisky on Umami Mart’s website, too.

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Oakland's Authentic Bagel Company Faces Uncertain Future

by Janelle Bitker
Mon, Feb 19, 2018 at 8:27 AM

  • Janelle Bitker
After seven years of boiling, baking, and slinging bagels, Authentic Bagel Company founder Jason Scott is taking a break. And it might be permanent.

Scott launched the Oakland business with his brother Mark, but Mark left three years ago, leaving Scott the sole proprietor — and on some days, the barista, line cook, and delivery driver, too.

“I’m at the point of needing help. The company’s gotten too big for me to do it by myself,” he said. “I have no quality of life.”

Scott closed the Jack London district bagel shop and wholesale business earlier this month. Now, he’s reevaluating and looking for investors. Ideally, he’d find new partners to help out with management and remain the majority owner, but he’s staying open-minded.

Changing Authentic Bagel into a full-fledged delicatessen is one idea to stay competitive. Another is to take the wholesale business to another city — expanding with multiple locations has always been the plan, and Scott isn’t so sure the Jack London area is the best fit. “There’s no foot traffic. No one is really around,” he said, echoing restaurant owners who have left in recent years.

Construction hasn’t helped matters, nor has the arrival of a flashy Starbucks across the street. He worries a Noah’s Bagels might be next as surrounding storefronts remain empty, and that more chains will drive up rents further. “I’m not feeling that vibe,” he said.

While certainly not his goal, Scott could close Authentic Bagel entirely. It’ll all depend on how meetings with potential investors pan out in the coming weeks.

“I’d love to stay here,” he said, sitting at the quiet shop counter. “It’s been like my home.”

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Friday, February 16, 2018

Chow Oakland Brings Restaurant, Market, and More to Piedmont Avenue

by Janelle Bitker
Fri, Feb 16, 2018 at 3:16 PM

  • Janelle Bitker

This week marked the debut of Chow Oakland Cafe, Bakery, & Market, a sprawling grocery store and all-day dining destination all rolled up into one.

This is the first Chow to open in the inner East Bay, although Tony Gulisano has opened versions in San Francisco, Lafayette, and Danville dating back to 1997. Chow Oakland (3770 Piedmont Ave.), however, takes his gourmet comfort food concept further into the grocery realm. After dining at the Chow restaurant, you can pick up produce, meat, and pantry goods to cook at home the rest of the week — or opt for some pre-made meals, such as chicken Parmesan or mac ‘n’ cheese, to heat up later.

There’s also a robust grab-and-go area with basic sandwiches and salads. Organic kale with oranges, goat cheese, almonds, and farro goes for $5.50. The grocery area features mostly high-end and organic products, including local brands such as Baia Pasta and Cafe Fanny Granola.

The lodge-like restaurant serves brunch all day as well as lunch and dinner starting at 11 a.m. There are sandwiches, salads, pizzas, pastas, and mains — primarily American and Italian dishes, although the menu dabbles in Thai, French, and Mexican flavors as well. Most items cost $10-$15. After dinner, you can explore the bakery, ice cream selection, or full bar, with a decent wine list, six beers on tap, and simple cocktails.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

James Beard Award Semifinalists Include Four East Bay Nominees

by Janelle Bitker
Thu, Feb 15, 2018 at 12:16 PM

Reem Assil is a first-time James Beard Award semifinalist. - MELATI CITRAWIREJA/FILE PHOTO
  • Melati Citrawireja/File Photo
  • Reem Assil is a first-time James Beard Award semifinalist.

The James Beard Foundation released its list of award semifinalists today, and the East Bay is unusually well represented.

In the coming weeks, more than 600 judges will pare down the list to a group of finalists, and then, on May 7, the winners will be announced at a gala that functions as the Oscars of the food world.

Chez Panisse is the lone East Bay restaurant to have taken home James Beard awards, including for outstanding restaurant, outstanding chef, and outstanding pastry chef.

This year, Berkeley's Great China is a contender for its  wine program. Lance Winters of St. George Spirits in Alameda is once again a semifinalist for outstanding spirits professional. And Oakland's Reem Assil (Reem's) and Preeti Mistry (Juhu Beach Club) were both nominated for best chef in the west, covering California, Hawaii, and Nevada. The award goes to a chef who has "set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions."

In the past couple of years, East Bay semifinalists have included Winters, Mistry, James Syhabout (Commis), and Christian Geideman (Ippuku), but none have advanced to the next round.

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Nyum Bai Opens in Fruitvale with Traditional Cambodian Food and Tunes

by Janelle Bitker
Thu, Feb 15, 2018 at 10:04 AM

Fish amok at Nyum Bai. - JANELLE BITKER
  • Janelle Bitker
  • Fish amok at Nyum Bai.

From pop-up to Emeryville kiosk to full brick-and-mortar, the ascent of Nyum Bai has been swift. Nite Yun’s Cambodian restaurant softly opens today, with an official debut Saturday, Feb. 17, in the former Half Orange space (3340 E. 12th St., Suite 11) in Oakland’s Fruitvale Village.

Yun was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after her parents fled the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that killed an estimated quarter of the population in Cambodia. Eight years ago, she returned to the country for the first time and realized that exposing the Bay Area to Cambodia’s rich food and music history needed to be her future.

While there are a few Cambodian restaurants in the East Bay already, most of them round out their menus with Thai food or generic stir-fries and leave off many of Cambodia's most popular dishes. Nyum Bai’s menu is unusually expansive, traditional, and completely Cambodian — much more so than even her own past pop-ups and year-long stand at Public Market Emeryville.

While lunch will focus on simple one-plate meals, dinner will emphasize family-style feasts — Yun is aiming for a price point of $11 to $15 per person. The menu features a mix of dishes you’re likely to see at sit-down restaurants, street stands, family homes, and even weddings in Cambodia. The country’s most famous dish, fish amok, comes soft, custardy, and aromatic, with coconut cream and kroeung, the Cambodian spice paste used to flavor just about everything.

Other staples include prahok kitss, a funky pork dip with coconut milk and prahok, Cambodia's fermented fish paste; koh, caramelized pork belly with hardboiled egg and palm sugar; and kuri saramann, a velvety Muslim-Cambodian curry featuring braised short ribs, peanuts, and cardamom. There will also be weekly specials, house-made desserts, and drinking snacks to pair with local beers on tap.

The cozy space has been completely renovated and now wears a contemporary yet retro look with pops of pastel pink and blue. Surfy Khmer rock tunes from the '60s blare on the speakers. There’s also a lot of outdoor seating, though you’d be remiss to not stare at a wall displaying original Khmer album covers — an homage to the artists who were targeted and killed during the genocide.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Lucky Food: Oakland Chefs Share Lunar New Year Traditions

by Janelle Bitker
Tue, Feb 13, 2018 at 10:39 AM

Monster Pho's Tee Tran with his mom Dung Le. - JANELLE BITKER
  • Janelle Bitker
  • Monster Pho's Tee Tran with his mom Dung Le.

While you can depend on your favorite Chinese restaurants to stay open on Christmas and Thanksgiving, they will most likely be closed this Friday, Feb. 16 — and potentially through Sunday — for Lunar New Year. The holiday is celebrated in a number of East and Southeast Asian countries and represents a time to come together over a lavish, often highly symbolic meal.

Traditions vary by region. My own Chinese roots are in Hong Kong, so I have strong memories of going to grandma’s house for nine course dinners that would always end with tea, oranges, and the unveiling of a plastic red-and-gold candy box.

Vietnamese families also pay attention to that lucky number nine. Tee Tran, owner of Monster Pho in Oakland and Emeryville, described his mom Dung Le’s weeklong ritual involving nine bowls of fruit, lighting incense, and burning items for dead ancestors. On New Year’s Day, the whole family descends for a full day of eating. Le usually prepares bitter melon stuffed with pork; shrimp and bamboo salad; crab bamboo soup; chicken curry; pickled cabbage; and sweet rice dyed in a series of colors for dessert. As with Chinese families, the Trans always wear red.

Born in Ho Chi Minh City, Tran moved to East Oakland as a kid and fondly remembers the audible presence of other Asian families celebrating at the stroke of midnight. “You’d hear fireworks in every neighborhood,” he said.

Angie Lin, Stacey Tang, and Tony Tung, the three Taiwanese women behind the Good to Eat Dumplings pop-up, throw a big Lunar New Year party every year in Oakland. “Because we all grew up in different cities in Taiwan, we have slightly different traditions,” Lin explained.

There are a few common mainstays, though, which all carry distinct meanings. A whole, uncut chicken symbolizes a stable home. Two identical fish dishes on separate plates demonstrate an abundance of resources. Dumplings, containing both meat and seafood, indicate good fortune. “It has to be very luxurious and you need to have the best possible ingredients,” Lin said, emphasizing that these are not your everyday dumplings.

There’s also always soup served in a round pot — and other dishes shaped into lucky circles — as well as rice cakes for dessert, which are believed to help eaters progress in their careers.

For immigrant families, these traditions keep them rooted to
their cultures.

“My mom always tries to remind us, ‘Don’t forget where you came
from,’” Tran said. “It lets us know who we are.”

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Augie's Montreal Deli to Bring Smoke Meat to Berkeley

by Janelle Bitker
Mon, Feb 12, 2018 at 2:17 PM

That's a lot of smoke meat. - PHOTO COURTESY OF AUGIE'S MONTREAL DELI
  • Photo courtesy of Augie's Montreal Deli
  • That's a lot of smoke meat.

The Bay Area’s first Montreal-style deli is set to open Wednesday, Feb. 14, in Berkeley.

Augie’s Montreal Deli (875 Potter St.) owner Lex Gopnik-Lewinski grew up on smoke meat sandwiches, a staple Jewish deli food unique to Quebec. A musician and audio engineer by trade, he talked his way into staging at Smoke Meat Pete just outside Montreal. For three weeks, he learned techniques and recipes that he’ll carry over to his Berkeley spot.

The signature sandwich will star beef brisket that’s been rubbed, cured, smoked, and baked, in true Montreal fashion. “It’s like pastrami and corned beef had a baby,” Gopnik-Lewinski said.

Other highlights include traditional and vegetarian poutine; meat platters with pickles, mustard, and a vinegar-based coleslaw; and latkes bound together with rye breadcrumbs. From Smoke Meat Pete, Gopnik-Lewinksi learned how to triple-fry red potatoes at a low temperature — a Quebec style that he said results in a crispier, fluffier French fry.

Augie’s promises to have an old-school, Jewish deli feel with lots of subway tile, mosaic work, and photos of beloved Montreal delis on the walls. Eventually, it will serve beer and wine in the hopes of becoming the official hockey bar of the East Bay.

For Gopnik-Lewinski, it’s important to provide value in this kind of setting. His 8 oz. brisket sandwich will go for $14.

“I hate the fact that when you go to some delis you can’t afford to bring your family. You’re paying $16 for a 4 oz. sandwich,” he said. “That’s not what this food is for. It was made for working-class people.”

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Friday, February 9, 2018

Oakland Native Rahanna Bisseret Martinez Nearly Wins Top Chef Jr.

by Janelle Bitker
Fri, Feb 9, 2018 at 10:02 AM

Rahanna Bisseret Martinez rolling out her black pepper pie crust. - NBC/UNIVERSAL KIDS
  • NBC/Universal Kids
  • Rahanna Bisseret Martinez rolling out her black pepper pie crust.

Culinary competition show Top Chef recently launched a spin-off for kids, and Oakland's 13-year-old Rahanna Bisseret Martinez almost snagged the title.

Top Chef Jr., which aired on Universal Kids, pitted 12 young chefs ages 11 to 14 against each other in a range of challenges with head judge Curtis Stone, the celebrity chef and restaurateur. Martinez finished second in a neck-and-neck finale to 14-year-old Owen Pereira of Maryland, who took home a cool $50,000. While judges adored Martinez's pecan sweet potato pie with thyme ice cream, cajeta (goat milk caramel), and a black pepper crust, they ultimately found her first course, a lobster-butternut squash soup, a bit muddled.

Still, the praise was impressive. Gail Simmons, who is also a Top Chef judge, called Martinez’s dessert “totally unique.” For her second course, Martinez prepared fried quail with pickled quail eggs and remoulade, which Stone called “impeccable” and “so clever.” Guest judge Josiah Citrin, a two-star Michelin chef, said her quail was “so technically perfect.”

What was most remarkable about watching Martinez calmly execute her meal — with tweezers for plating — was knowing that she’s entirely self-taught.

“I never took cooking classes, so I thought it was really cool I got this far on the show,” she said. “I always just did the research myself.”

Martinez said she has been helping her mom cook since as far back as she can remember, although she distinctly recalls roasting butternut squash at 8 years old and watching the color change. With family roots in Louisiana and Mexico, Martinez prepared a unique mix of Creole and Mexican food on Top Chef Jr. Now, she is enrolled in culinary school while continuing her home school education and still finding time to cook two to five hours every day.

“I try to be a well-rounded chef,” she said. “I like to cook most things I don’t know about.”

Martinez said she loves the diversity of food and cultures in Oakland, which influences her cooking as well as the proliferation of farmers’ markets and fresh produce. Two of her favorite local restaurants are Brown Sugar Kitchen and Souley Vegan. “It’s really cool here because a lot of people eat plant-based things,” she said, adding that she was vegetarian for three years.

“I don’t know why I stopped, but I did,” she said with a laugh.

After culinary school, Martinez wants to write a book, open a restaurant, and continue to inspire children that they, too, can interpret food like a fine dining chef.

“It’s not about how difficult it is,” she said. “It’s about time and effort.”

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

In the Wood to Bring Pizza and Drinks to the Elmwood

by Janelle Bitker
Tue, Feb 6, 2018 at 10:20 AM

  • Janelle Bitker

The name of Elmwood’s upcoming gastropub has a few layers. In the Wood (2930 College Ave., Berkeley) general manager Ben Maniatis explained it’s a riff on “in the hood,” but also refers to the Elmwood and the restaurant’s wood-fired pizza oven.

The oven is a carryover the location’s previous restaurant, Cugini Manzone, and its former chef Gustavo Golindo has stayed on for In the Wood as well. Naturally, the interior is getting a healthy dose of wood accents as well.

The plan is to create a comfortable, lively spot — with a beer garden — to enjoy local brews, sustainable wine, and good food. The team hopes to open by next week.

“We feel like the neighborhood is starved for a little watering hole,” said Maniatis, who was most recently serving at Trabocco Kitchen and Cocktails in Alameda.

Open daily, In the Wood will specialize in “inventive, farmers’ market-driven pizza” with a thin crust, according to Maniatis. He’s tinkering with ideas like brunch pizza and salad pizza — something he tried in Los Angeles and swears by — as well as classics. The menu will also offer salads, sandwiches, and bar bites with gluten-free and vegan options. “With a gastropub, we can be very eclectic and basically have something for everyone,” Maniatis said.

The rest of the project team includes owners Richard Tapp and Michael Schwarzbart; bar program manager Travis Burns, also most recently at Trabocco; and pizza chef Phil Taddei, last seen at Alameda’s 1400 Bar & Grill.

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Monday, February 5, 2018

New Puerto Rican Restaurant La Perla to Debut with Fundraiser for Relief Efforts

by Janelle Bitker
Mon, Feb 5, 2018 at 1:21 PM

Garlic chicken, sweet plantains, and rice at La Perla. - JANELLE BITKER
  • Janelle Bitker
  • Garlic chicken, sweet plantains, and rice at La Perla.

Five days after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, Jose Ortiz flew back to the place he was born to find his family had lost everything.

At that point, the chef had already decided to take a break from Borinquen Soul, which was for many years Oakland’s only Puerto Rican eatery. He stayed in Puerto Rico for a month, feeding hundreds of families and soon plotting a return visit. But when he got back to Oakland, he found out Borinquen Soul owner Eric Rivera was closing up shop. The landlord reached out to Ortiz, and he decided that location — inside a liquor store in the Dimond district — needed to keep serving Puerto Rican eats. In December, he unveiled La Perla (2020 MacArthur Blvd.).

“My son would have wanted me to own my own restaurant,” he said. “The menu is totally more exciting than before.”

While Borinquen Soul kept things simple with grilled chicken, pasteles, and Puerto Rican rice, Ortiz has amped up the offerings with La Perla — namely, there’s now lobster tail crowning the mofongo, a fried plantain mash. He also added whole fried red snapper and changed the empanadillas, but he left Borinquen’s prized chicharrón recipe untouched. Apart from the menu, Ortiz said he’s focusing on consistency in flavors, presentation, and service.

But Puerto Rico continues to loom large in his mind.

“I still need to go back and continue helping my people,” he said. “That’s a promise I made to them.”

Ortiz has big goals in Puerto Rico. With his nonprofit COPA Inc., he’ll return for one week at the end of the month. He’s bringing a generator because everyone in his sister’s community lost electricity. He wants to build a community kitchen where folks can cook food for themselves or for others who are struggling. And he plans to open a small laundromat so Puerto Ricans can easily wash their clothes.

That’s why he’s turning his grand opening party on Saturday, Feb. 24, into a fundraiser for his relief efforts in Puerto Rico. Cash donations are most appreciated, though he welcomes canned food as well. At the party, there will be live Puerto Rican music, a whole roasted pig, and pincho, Puerto Rican kabobs.

“Seeing the suffering and seeing the hunger and desperation and mosquitos eating you alive,” he said, trailing off. “It’s so very important.”

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