Wednesday, August 4, 2010

O Chame' Berkeley - still simply sublime

In a world where it seems every last restaurateur is opening a new Salumeria, Pizzeria or some permutation of the Italian way, it is refreshing to experience original, unique, and downright delectable flavor combinations that one can't find on every other corner of the SF Bay Area.   Not to lead you down the wrong gastronomical path here, O Chame' in Berkeley couldn't be further from Mediterranean in style. Instead,  has it's own unique brand of Japanese going on, one that can ONLY be found at 4th and Hearst Streets, in the midst of upscale shopping, where unique boutiques shoulder up against some tried and true Bay Area natives:  Rabat, Molly B's, Erica Tanov; and incidentally, where the latest gigantic MAC store is now putting down its roots.

David Vardy, O Chame's Owner and Chef,  planted his roots there back in 1990, when "4th Street" was developer Denny Abrams' dream, and the shopping district was only a block long, starting with the lighting store on one end, and Kona Kai farms at the other (some of you may remember those days long past).  In fact, somehow, some way, back in 1992, while studying at U.C. Berkeley, I wandered by and landed a job as "Bento Girl" on Saturdays in an old Kiosk that used to grace their patio (incidentally, that same kiosk now lives behind Sea Salt over on San Pablo and Dwight and I think is now used as an employee changing room).  After just a few months weighing fine tea, selling Nambu (a light as air cookie/cracker concoction) and lunchtime bentos, I weasled my way inside, and stayed there for almost 10 years, working every front of the house job with gusto.  Now it's almost 20 years later and O Chame' is still hands down one of my very favorite restaurants, with a consistency that can be practically measured.  And you didn't hear it from me first, by the way, as Michael Bauer (a critic most love to hate) is also a huge fan, keeping David in the Top 100 despite the explosion of new happening restaurants springing up practically every week in Berkeley, Oakland and SF. 

What is it about O Chame and can you get to the food already???  Okay, okay, just trying to set the stage here.  If the walls adorned with artist Mayumi Oda's scraffito (drawings in wet plaster), could talk, they would tell you tales of lifelong friendships made, marriages had, and babies galore oozing out its pores.  In fact, on my last visit I went with my best friend E, and her son M, a bonified O Chame' baby.   E & J met while working the floor there, soon became a couple, and although J defected to the IT industry and later became a nurse, E stayed on for an additional 8 years.  Many of my other co-workers also have held long tenures, a few of them in the teens now.  And guess what, we are all still regulars, O Chame' being a must-have-once-a-month  sort of place.  You get the picture.  A dedicated group.  Perhaps David's food is addicting.  I once had Bonnie Raitt tell me that the grilled shitake mushrooms were so ethereal she felt as if she "had just smoked opium" (yes, that is exactly what she said). 

Oh yeah, the food.  Well, for a "Japanese" restaurant, you may be in for a bit of a shock, as one won't find sushi, teriyaki or shumai on the menu.  Tempura just barely made it on after years of resistance.  Crispy, light, and served with daikon laced dipping sauce, sweet potatoes sit alongside juliennes of asparagus and earthy burdock root.   A beautiful snow crab and kabocha pumpkin croquette is also one of the more traditional items you may find - served with a bonito flake infused ponzu sauce, the portion of two left me wanting for more, but that is the problem with O Chame', it is hard not to gobble up the entire menu, especially since as I scan the list, I know intimately the flavors of each dish before they hit my tongue, like an old lover whose scent still lingers in my limbic memory...

Hamachi Sashimi with Braised Leeks and Horseradish Sauce - a standard favorite of mine,  was perfectly fresh and slightly seared, the horseradish sauce an unusual twist when you would probably expect wasabi (which they have in the back if you must).  I am embarrassed that we couldn't pull the camera out fast enough to snap a photo before half of it was gobbled up.

The seasonal Corn and Green Onion Pancake, seemingly light, yet suspiciously crispy on the outside, the perfect vehicle for dipping in the drizzle-on-everything vinegar-ey mayonnaise sauce, and is something I can't visit without ordering, as is the Blanched Spinach with Sesame Dressing - a very traditional gomae.  This dish has no added oil save for the rich, ground sesame seeds that provide a textural and nutty component.  Rounded out with soy sauce, vinegar (and a few secret ingredients), it is perfectly balanced.
 Vinegared Cucumbers with Shiso Leaf and Radishes has that refreshing crunch complimented with the herbaceous shiso. 

Grilled River Eel with Belgian Endive is one that we ended up order two of, as E's son, only 3 years old, eats like an adult and I just couldn't get enough of the smokey, sweet and salty eel atop lightly dressed, slightly bittersweet endive leaves. 

Since the Hamachi was so great, I opted for the Sashimi salad, where it is sliced thinly, marinated for a quick second in seasoning, and served simply with lightly dressed greens.

Although we couldn't manage to make it past the appetizers,  O Chame' also has a broad selection of deliciously light, yet satisfying dashi based soups that come with a choice of Soba or Udon noodles boasting toppings you won't find at most Japanese places:  Grilled Sardines, Pork Tenderloin, Smoked Trout, Simmered Beef Shoulder...  Yes, they do have Shrimp Tempura Udon for the traditionalists out there...  These soups are a favorite among the die-hards, like an elixir to warm one's bones on a cold winter day.  David also offers 3 -4 entrees per day, varying from Salmon, Yellowtail, California Bass, Grilled Flank Steak or Braised Beef Shoulder all atop magical vegetables that swim delightfully in variously flavored dashi based sauces.  His wine, sake and tea list is simple yet well selected, often with a few french varietals by the glass to compliment the delicate flavors of his food.

As we sat with our sakes, trying our best not to fight over the last precious morsels, we were delighted to see regular faces filter in through the door, including a couple of O Chame' alumni who, after many hugs and kisses, shuffled up to eat at the bar.  A couple were seated near us, ordered their usual pancakes, eel and sobas, and smiled wide when they looked over and saw E and myself, familiar faces like fixtures still in place after all those years.  The sweet lady "texted" her niece and said it was "like an O Chame' reunion." These folks clearly feel the same about the place as we do, as eating at O Chame' and the entirety of its smells, seats, lights, feelings and delectable, consistent flavors has a certain magic to it, like coming home.

O Chame'
1830 4th Street