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Ozumo

Uptown Oakland’s new, big, hip Japanese spot.


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Jessica Furui first discovered sake while working at a sushi restaurant in Truckee. Cold nights led to a bittersweet affair with sake served hot—a taste memory she relays with a dry choke. Then, she tasted a high-grade chilled sake and thought, “How can hot sake and this beautiful elixir be made from the same thing?” Now, after years of learning the floral notes and fruity overtones of the finest daiginjos, she is the sake sommelier at Oakland’s new Ozumo, where the staff call her “Sake Mama.”

More than 80 bottles of sake are served in Ozumo’s swank sake lounge, where moody plush pillows line tatami-covered benches and televisions broadcast sumo wrestling. Along with Furui’s sake list is a menu just as extensive and unique. At the bar and in the cavernous slate-tiled dining room, patrons can choose not just the familiar sushi but a series of tapas-style small plates, salads, and robata-grilled meats and vegetables.

Ozumo founder Jeremy Umland, a Bronx native, fell for Japanese culinary culture as an exchange student and athlete—which led to professional baseball and investment banking careers in Tokyo. In 2001, he launched Ozumo in San Francisco’s financial district, in homage to his beloved izakaya, Japanese country pubs that serve small dishes with sake. “In Japan, people always eat when they drink,” he says.

Umland spent nine years developing the San Francisco Ozumo from an idea to a multimillion dollar business. His main role with the new Oakland location, however, is delegating. He lives in Los Angeles, spending his free time golfing, playing baseball, and flying planes. When he’s on-site at the restaurant, the staff call him shacho, or president, and bow when he says good morning.

“The fact that you’re not Japanese means you have more to prove,” he tells a group of 10 employees at a predinner lineup. He bids them to brush up on their Japanese terminology and study the menu. “This is a restaurant run by a white dude and white people,” he says. “It’s very important that our knowledge is on par with, if not better than, other Japanese restaurants.”

Because no server gets hired before passing a written sake and food test, descriptions and recommendations are spot-on. If not, servers will replace your glass or dish with something you like, no charge, no guilt.

Liz Bunker, our earnest twentysomething server with a Wisconsin accent, was ready for every question. On her advice, we started with the Ozumo roll: grilled unagi and cucumber, with a pocket of snow crab tucked under thinly sliced tuna and avocado, drizzled with a spicy aioli sauce. The roll still tasted light and simple, as though each item rolled over the palate individually instead of mixed together. Next came the warm lettuce salad, a wedge of blanched iceberg in a shallow pool of shiso buttermilk dressing. Draped over the lettuce were several hearty slices of pork belly, a lean, meaty, gourmet version of bacon. The salad was a nice complement to the uni risotto: brown rice stewed in dashi, a fish stock, with shimeji and shitake mushrooms, and a generous pat of sea urchin roe on top.

Next, we moved on to Ozumo’s signature kushiyaki, the robata-grilled items, an often overlooked feature of classic Japanese cuisine. Marinated lightly and grilled over imported Japanese charcoal that burns hotter and cleaner than American briquettes, the meats, fish, and vegetables were simple and approachable. Gindara, black cod, was by far the most succulent. Nasu, Japanese eggplant, breathed the smoke from the grill.

Dessert is when the chemist in Ozumo’s kitchen truly goes mad, presenting dazzling combinations of flavors. White chocolate matcha, or green powdered tea, mousse is encircled by a vanilla wafer tuile, sliced mango, and pomegranate granita. Creamy white sesame panna cotta is complemented by a melon ball scoop of savory sesame gelato and a few wedges of mandarin orange. Layer all into one bite for a revelatory trio of flavor, texture, and temperature.

This is what Umland calls contemporary authentic cuisine. Although the ingredients are combined to suit California palates, he cringes at the word fusion. Whether they’re old-fashioned Japanese staples or contemporary innovations, all of the dishes are legit, Umland says. “They’re uniquely Ozumo but absolutely created with authentic Japanese flavors.”

 


CONTACT: 2251 Broadway Ave., Oakland, (510) 286-9866, ozumo.com.
HOURS: Dinner Mon.–Sat., lunch Mon.–Fri.
PRICE: Salads and small plates $4–$16, robata grill $4–$12, entrées $23–$31.
ALCOHOL: Full bar.

 

at a glance

WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL: Authentic Japanese cuisine prepared for a contemporary California clientele.
THE SPACE: High ceilings and slate floors divided into a pillowy sake lounge, cavernous dining room, and two classic Japanese rooms for private functions. At the sushi bar and robata grill, sunken floors put chefs at eye level with diners.
WHEN TO GO: After work for drinks and small plates; business lunch or dinner; or a solo meal at the sushi bar or grill.
WHAT TO ORDER: A bit of everything: Start with a sushi roll or a few pieces of nigiri, try a salad such as the tuna tataki and a small plate, then move on to grilled fish, meat, and veggies.
BONUS: Valet parking ($10–$12).