Sushi bars in the East Bay are like churches in the South: there’s one on almost every corner. I’ve always been perplexed by their quality—the sushi bars, not the churches—most mediocre at best, with little to distinguish them. There’s not much variety, sourcing isn’t typically transparent, raw fish preparations (nigiri, sashimi) are dashed out by rote, and “daily specials” are the fish the kitchen is trying to get rid of, i.e., not special at all.
So, I went on a search for exceptional sushi anywhere in the East Bay, and my meanderings turned up some wonderful surprises. In addition to the one neighborhood spot I’ve known for years (Kirala in South Berkeley), four other sushi bars I’d never visited before made the cut, and not just in the trendy parts of Oakland and Berkeley. One, Kiku, is a small corner spot on Gilman in north Berkeley; another, Geta, is on 41st Street near Piedmont Avenue in Oakland; Sushi Sho is a connoisseur’s destination on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito; and Yume Sushi, the most elusive of all, is upstairs in a non-descript building, barely marked, on Park Street in Alameda. The latter two offer omakase, meaning prix-fixe, menus. A la carte options are only available as add-ons at Yume Sushi, while Sushi Sho allows you to order entirely from the menu, if you prefer. And none of these spots takes reservations except for Sushi Sho, which requires them.
The best news of all? These places are more expensive than average, from about $7 to $18 for two pieces of nigiri sushi. Why is that a good sign? Where raw fish is concerned, you get what you pay for.
With only about 20 seats total and a no-reservations policy, Geta has a line out the door well before curtain time. And the moment the doors fling open, the sushi chefs start filling orders, such that everyone has begun eating within 15 minutes at most. This model of efficiency is executed by no fewer than five people in the tiny kitchen, two of them devoted solely to the fast-paced sushi bar.
Variety is the key to pleasure at Geta. Hand-written signs are hung across the top of the sushi bar and on the wall announcing the day’s lineup. Sit in one of the four seats at the counter and the sushi chefs will let you know what looks the best at that moment. I say “counter” and not sushi bar because this is the one place where the sushi chefs don’t take your order directly; all orders, whether cooked or raw, go through the servers. While this is a bit disconcerting (many people sit at the bar to chat with the sushi chefs), it doesn’t change the imagined experience all that much. You still have a great view of the sushi chefs doing their work, and they’re happy to talk with you about any of the fish.
We made our way through as much recommended nigiri sushi as we comfortably could, starting with ama ebi, sweet raw shrimp whose heads arrived deep-fried a few minutes later. We also had glistening hotate (scallop), aji (Japanese jack mackerel), tako (octopus, which was cooked), kanpachi (amberjack), and hamachi (yellowtail) belly. And we enjoyed Wagyu beef nigiri, a thin slice of marbled meat, flash-seared and draped over rice and topped with grated daikon and scallion. There were so many choices that we could’ve easily had an entirely different lineup of nigiri without repeating ourselves.
At Geta, nigiri sushi is served two per order with soy sauce and wasabi on the side, which is the setup most Americans know as customary, but is not the case with the most exclusive restaurants here, as you’ll see with Sushi Sho and Yume Sushi below, both of which are more traditional. And the prices at Geta are, comparatively speaking, the lowest among the five restaurants on this list.
Despite the fact that guests here dine elbow-to-elbow, it’s an unhurried experience, with one of the best quality-to-value ratios around.
161 41st Street [Map]
Oakland, CA 94611
Ph: (510) 653-4643
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11:30am-2pm and 5-8:30pm; closed Sun.
Facebook: Geta Japanese Restaurant
Price range: $$$ (around $40 per person for a sushi dinner)
Kiku is a friendly neighborhood spot that offers much more variety in terms of fish than your average low-profile sushi bar. When I walked in for lunch recently, I was warmly greeted and handed an enormous menu. After briefly perusing it, my eyes found their way to the small chalkboard menu hanging on the wall, the daily specials—meaning the special selections just in—written in colored chalk.
I ordered one dish off the printed menu, hamachi crudo, sliced thin in the Italian style and served with grapefruit, jalapeno, micro-cilantro and grapefruit-ginger vinaigrette. This is a great choice for someone looking for raw fish off the Japanese grid.
Next, I moved on to a selection of the aforementioned daily specials: chu-toro (medium-fatty tuna) nigiri, live scallop, a negi toro roll, and local abalone. The scallop and abalone were served sashimi-style with lemon wedges, and the shucked-to-order scallop came with its intestine fried up on the side, delicate and sweet.
Even a small meal here can run up a bill, but it’s worth it for the thoughtful sourcing and attentive preparation of each dish.
Both Kiku and Geta (above) are accessible, unpretentious restaurants with unflinching quality standards, the best of the “regular” or daily sushi bars: nothing fancy, but with careful, exacting food, nonetheless.
1316 Gilman Street [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94706
Ph: (510) 525-5458
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11:30am-2:30pm and 5-10:30pm; Sat, noon-11pm; Sun, noon-10:30pm
Facebook: Kiku Sushi
Price Range: $$$$ (around $65 per person for a sushi dinner)
Kirala Japanese Restaurant
Kirala, too, is accessible in terms of vibe and friendliness, but it’s bigger than both Geta and Kiku combined and has not only a full cooked-food menu as well as a sushi bar, but also a robata (wood-grilled) selection (only at dinner), which qualifies it as even more of a destination for solid Japanese cooking.
Kirala has been our neighborhood go-to place for sushi for many years, and the quality has never waned. But variety is not its strong suit; the kitchen sticks to mostly standard fish, with the occasional toro, but always offers high quality. Kirala is one of the few higher-end sushi places that offers a nigiri combo special, and while all the fish is imminently recognizable, the quality is well above average.
Sushi chefs here do a particularly good job with hotate (scallop) nigiri and ama ebi (sweet raw shrimp with fried heads). My robata favorite is miso butterfish, also known as black cod, marinated in miso paste and grilled until the skin is sweetly crisp. Hamachi collar is also good, but the kitchen tends to run out early every evening.
Kirala is another place where you won’t be frowned upon if you mix your wasabi into your soy sauce, but many diners there are Japanese and use proper etiquette (apply wasabi directly to the fish).
Kirala Japanese Restaurant
2100 Ward Street [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94705
Ph: (510) 549-0165
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11:30am-2pm and 5:30-9:30pm; Sat, 5:30-9:30pm; Sun, 5-9pm
Facebook: Kirala Restaurant
Price Range: $$$$ (around $45 per person for a sushi dinner)
Sushi Sho and Yume Sushi
The last two places on my East Bay tour de sushi deserve their own articles. But unless I swing from reportage into full-on poetic lyricism, it’s easier to discuss them together in the context of what makes them stand out even further in this already compelling list.
Both Sushi Sho and Yume Sushi, each in inauspicious spaces in El Cerrito and Alameda, respectively, are bona fide destinations for the best raw fish in all of northern California. One requires reservations (Sushi Sho) and the other (Yume Sushi) has a complicated system for signing up diners, which I’ll delineate below.
Both are no-nonsense, traditional sushi bars; they have rules, and you’re expected to follow them. The chefs at each place will tell you precisely how their food is intended to be eaten, and it’s not only polite to oblige, it’s really the best way to have a stellar experience. So, give in, and do what you’re told.
First, Sushi Sho. Master sushi chef Aki Kawata runs the sushi show (pun intended), and his wife (whose name I couldn’t elicit) does the cooking and serves beverages. She was immediately friendly, and quite formal, when we walked in, first confirming that we, indeed, had a reservation, and then seated us at the sushi bar, which is big, though it only had eight seats set up. In fact, the whole restaurant is quite large, with a dining room off to the side and a kitchen, but only a small part of it is regularly utilized.
Chef Aki, or Aki-san as he’s fondly known, didn’t even make an appearance for 10 or 15 minutes, and we felt a bit like we were waiting for Elvis to come onstage, perusing the menu though we’d already decided to do the omakase sushi, or chef’s selection. In a moment of excess, we also ordered the irresistible pickles and the chawan mushi, and we regretted neither.
When Chef Aki did take his place behind the sushi bar, he was as unprepossessing as can be, imperial without being imperious. We were happy for his instruction. “Pick up the sushi sideways and dip only the fish into the soy sauce, not the rice,” says Aki-san. Only one swipe through the soy sauce for this fish, two for that, if you like, he continued. And he applied the right amount of wasabi to each bite, though he offers extra, for certain fish only, if you especially like it.
The chef’s nigiri is designed to be eaten in one bite, as is traditional. Occasionally, he’ll tell you that two bites is OK, but never more. Although, remember: It’s fine to eat nigiri sushi with your hands.
We made our way slowly through 12 pieces of nigiri ($50), the highlights of which were the flavor-saturated sea eel, mild cold-smoked salmon, sweet tamago (omelet), and the silky sea urchin. And Aki-san told us where each piece was from as he graciously placed it before us.
There’s a range of sake and beer choices, including some exclusive bottles of sake from small producers.
A dinner at Sushi Sho will take at least two hours, but likely more, so don’t arrive in a hurry.
10749 San Pablo Avenue [Map]
El Cerrito, CA 94530
Ph: (510) 525-1800
Hours: Tues-Sat, 5:30-9pm
Facebook: Sushi Sho
Price Range: $$$$ ($60 per person for omakase sushi, plus drinks and add-ons)
Chef Hideki Aomizu is the magic behind Yume Sushi. Quiet and introspective, he only communicates with diners when he’s asked a direct question or introduces a new item. His wife, Yoriko, is no more talkative, but she fields customers’ questions and requests, which includes handing out some of the most elusive reservations in the Bay Area.
The restaurant is open for dinner only, from Tuesday through Saturday, with two seatings of eight people, at 5pm and 7pm, for omakase only. The way to secure a seat depends on the day. On Tuesdays, it’s possible to show up at 4:30pm and reserve a seat for 5pm. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, it’s sometimes possible to get in at 7pm if you arrive by 4:30pm, but noon is a better bet. But on Fridays and Saturdays, you’ll likely strike out if you don’t arrive at noon and put your name in for one of the evening slots. We tried twice to get two seats on weekend nights, to no avail, before my wife had a day off work and was able to drive to Alameda (from Berkeley) at noon to put our names in. And she wasn’t the first one there.
Once you’ve secured a spot, be on time, or your seat will be forfeited to a walk-in. Yoriko will make sure that your cell phone is turned off (there is a strict no-photography policy) and that you are seated according to plan. We got to sit on the short side of the sushi bar with a perfect view of the chef at work. There is no soy sauce or wasabi on the counter; the chef prepares the sushi exactly as he intends you to eat it.
Dinner is $75 per person, plus any add-ons or drinks. When we were there on a recent Saturday night, the meal consisted of 14 pieces of nigiri, the first half made by Chef Aomizu, the second by his son, Andy, who is as talkative as his father is quiet.
Bonito tuna was a highlight, as were large red shrimp, barely poached, with fried heads on the side; mebachi (big-eye tuna) from Tahiti; uni (sea urchin) from Maine, sweeter and more delicate than west-coast uni; and toro (bluefin belly) from Malta that melts in your mouth, as the cliché goes.
Andy is a walking encyclopedia of sourcing and preparation, as well as the sake and beer that go best with his family’s food. He’s even brought in his own pickled serrano chiles, which are in high demand among those who know about them, despite (or because of?) their inventiveness in such a traditional setting.
An evening at Yume is worlds away from the mainstream sushi experience in the U.S., and it’s an East Bay must for sushi lovers.
1428 Park Street [Map]
Alameda, CA 94501
Ph: (510) 865-7141
Hours: Tues-Sat, 5-9:30pm (2 seatings at 5pm and 7pm)
Facebook: Yume Sushi
Price Range: $$$$ ($75 per person for omakase sushi, plus drinks and add-ons)