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Stimulating the Senses

Restaurateur Philip Yang awakens all five with Blue Gingko in Dublin.


Photography by Joe Budd

Philip Yang has opened his fourth restaurant, making him one of the Bay Area’s most successful and ambitious chefs. His latest, a third Blue Gingko, is also the most inviting.

The warm dining room is harmonized by the five elements contained in the Chinese philosophy of Wu Xing: Columns of reclaimed hardwood represent wood, the exposed brick wall stands in for earth, a pounded copper-topped bar reflects metal, and bright blue napkins evoke water. And a perfect rose, in a photo taken by Yang in San Francisco 30 years ago, symbolizes fire.

Yang’s Japanese-style small-plates menu is similarly balanced, with five categories ranging from “in the raw” to robatayaki (skewers). In the raw comes first, and on a recent visit, we chose to start with sashimi, the “adventurous selection.”

Treasures of sweet Tasmanian trout, chewy halibut fin, and buttery monkfish liver were paired with two cuts of blue fin tuna: one white and fatty, the other red and meaty.  

Our next small plate brought two scallops sliced horizontally, brushed with a tart miso aioli, and briefly torched (like crème brûlée). Appropriately, they’re known as “bites of joy.”

Photography by Joe Budd

Then came a quintet of sheer cucumber rounds over nigiri-sized slices of salmon, which had been gently poached in olive oil. When you factor in the yuzu crème fraîche, it’s a dish that seems impossibly rich, but it’s ethereal.

The menu’s second category, “from the farmers market,” brings dishes of surprising substance. Order the ice-cold spinach, rolled tight and portioned out into medallions, with the lightning-hot eggplant, its creaminess offset by scallion shavings.

This type of small-bites menu inspired by izakayas (Japanese tapas-style bars) has made Yang a bit of a pioneer. He started simply, with a nondescript restaurant opened with credit cards in Antioch almost 30 years ago. But Yang continued to elevate his craft, later taking culinary classes in Napa Valley, and cooking in Spain and France. Upon returning to the Bay Area, he turned an old coffee shop in Lafayette into the original Blue Gingko.

“We had a full house since day one, and we never looked back,” he says.

That success led to the $2.4 million Sasa, which opened to wide acclaim in Walnut Creek in 2010, followed by a larger and more glamorous Blue Gingko in Blackhawk Plaza.

Photography by Joe Budd

Three years later, when Yang was approached to open the Dublin Blue Ginkgo, he said, “No thanks.” But the landlord persisted, offering him a deal that was “very hard to pass up.” This restaurant, despite sharing names with the Lafayette and Blackhawk locations, has more in common with Sasa, evidenced by their chefs: brothers Jason and Jimmy Shimizu, who help execute Yang’s vision at Sasa and Dublin’s Blue Gingko, respectively.

Many dishes, meats in particular, reflect Yang’s Asian heritage, time spent cooking abroad, and American tastes.

The miso lamb rack chops are assertive and full of flavor. And the soy-braised short ribs are served in a sparkling stock with baby carrots and meltingly tender cipollini onions.

While the kitchen’s presentations are precise, the diners are generally relaxed, sipping the sake and beer for which an izakaya is designed. The curious should indulge in a sake flight: three two-ounce pours with aromas that vary from earthy to tropical.

The young staff members are well-trained, familiar with the menus, and confident with their descriptions. Their energy is a good fit with the music, which has a lively and clubby beat.

Photography by Joe Budd

Yang is deeply involved with all four restaurants and credits his upward trajectory in part to the “red book”: a repository of customer feedback. (It’s red, Yang says, as a reminder to stay in the black.)

Opening one more restaurant would make five, which seems appropriate considering the fivefold philosophy of Wu Xing and Yang’s tendency to “easily get bored.” So it wasn’t surprising when he qualified his assertion that Dublin will be his last restaurant.

“Of course,” he says. “I said the same thing when I opened Blue Gingko in Blackhawk.”

Contact: 3762 Fallon Rd., Dublin, (925) 248-2298, bluegingkosushi.com. Lunch and dinner daily.

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