For many years, the Claremont Diner, just over the Berkeley border into Oakland at the intersection of Claremont and College Avenues, was a friendly bastion of BLTs on white bread, iceberg-lettuce salads and massive breakfast omelets. The owners of Ding Japanese Restaurant, which opened without fanfare in the space last week after a big remodeling job, have transformed the dining room from white-walled brightness to sleek-wood coolness, earth-toned warmth, and all-around welcoming appeal.
There are a couple of other Japanese restaurants within walking distance, but they don’t have the energy of this place, right out of the gate. We went for lunch and whittled down the menu choices to just a few: a daily special appetizer, two combination lunches and a bowl of ramen.
There are a few important details that make this place stand out from the pack of Easy Bay Japanese spots, the first of which is the shiro on each table. Shiro is a soy sauce brewed with more wheat than soybeans, sweeter and more delicate than soy-centric sauces, usually reserved for sashimi. Here, it’s a harbinger of the kitchen’s predilection toward subtlety, in general.
This subtle approach to cooking is exemplified by the ramen, toothsome noodles in a miso-pork broth, seasoned simply with pepper, deeply sweet, and laden with grilled chicken, mushrooms, hardboiled egg, corn, cilantro and a surprising note of chopped cashews, which further deepens the sweetness of the whole. Our server brought togarishi, a spice mix with a hint of chili pepper, on the side.
We couldn’t resist one daily appetizer special of amaebi, raw shrimp served with the fried heads on the side. At Ding, this classic dish is slowly and carefully prepared, the raw flesh cool and crisp and the heads lightly fried and tender.
The raw fish dishes, in all their glory, were the highlight of the meal. We tried two lunch specials, both excellent values in a neighborhood where a noodle lunch will set you back $15, on average. The sushi/sashimi combo at $12.50 is a bargain anywhere in the Bay Area, and the quality of this fish selection is much higher than average in these parts, where quality can be variable and inconsistent. It came with four pieces of nigiri (the menu said five, but who’s counting?), large, but gracefully cut: tuna, shrimp, waru (Hawaiian whitefish) with tobiko, and salmon. Two big slices each of tuna and salmon sashimi were perched at the end of the long, narrow serving plate.
The combination lunch special comes with your choice of two dishes: one cooked entrée and one sushi roll or cooked appetizer. For $4, we added four slices of hamachi (yellowtail), so, for a grand total of $14.50, we got an ample serving of chicken teriyaki, a spicy tuna roll, and some of the most buttery hamachi around. The teriyaki, like the ramen, was subtly complex, with juicy-tender meat and a not-too-sweet sauce. The spicy tuna roll was of the minced variety, with mild heat. And there was a nice side salad with spicy miso dressing.
For a menu that has all the predictable dishes you’d expect to find in a neighborhood Japanese restaurant, Ding offers some artful complexity and sophistication to sauces and stocks—and, most importantly, beautifully sourced and prepared raw fish.
Ding Japanese Cuisine
6200 Claremont Ave.
Oakland, CA 94618 [Map]
Ph: (510) 879-7725
Hours: Tue-Thu 11:30am-2:30pm, 5pm-9pm; Fri-Sat 11:30am-2:30pm, 5pm-10pm; Sunday 5pm-9pm; Closed Monday
Price Range: $-$$$ ($10-$15, lunch specials; $16-$20, dinner entrées)