KIRAKU BERKELEY - JAPANESE TAPAS review

Kiraku is one of the hidden gems in the east bay. I hardly ever see it on any best restaurant lists but it’s my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area. The food is creative modern Izakaya. It’s one of the few Bay Area restaurants that is consistently good. I’ve never had a less than stellar meal at Kiraku. The service is always warm, welcoming and complexly unpretentious.

We recently ate here with a visiting chef friend.

Here is what we ate:

TSUMAMI (starter) SAMPLER:

ABURI MENTAIKO Seared Spicy Cod Roe- complex zesty, salty, umami flavors. Excellent

Smoked pickles- perfectly pickled carrot and daikon. A light hint of smoke to enhances the sweetness of the pickles and elevates the dish.

TAKANA (mustard greens) PICKLES – very satisfying tangy bitter flavors. Addicting for a lover of mustard greens like me.

ROCK SHRIMP TEMPURA W/ MAYO Deep Fried Rock Shrimp w/ Mayonnaise. One of my favorite dishes here. A relatively simple dish is perfected and elevated. Easily the best shrimp tempura I have ever eaten.

10 piece Sashimi sampler special. Super fresh high quality sashimi. It’s worth coming here just for the sashimi.

GRILLED BEEF TONGUE skewers. very tender, full of flavor and perfectly grilled

Grilled Unagi skewer special. Served with Sansho powder. The Sansho they use is very high quality. Almost all the sansho I have purchased in the states has been meh. This dish reminded me how much high quality sansho can elevate a dish. The sweetness of the eel was elevated by the numbing Sansho. Out of this world.

Suzuki carpaccio- delicate slices of raw seabass elevated with a dressing of ginger, sesame oil, citrus and Shichimi pepper mix. Always excellent.

Spoons of uni, salmon roe over creamy Yuba skin. A dish that would fit in perfectly at a Michelin Stared restaurant. Easily the best bite in the Bay Area.

Desserts:

We ordered 3 of them.

HOMEMADE GRAPEFRUIT YOGURT ICE CREAM. This has always been my favorite dessert here. I love it. It’s completely unique. It has an interesting rustic texture-not ultra creamy, not super rich and it’s not overly sweet. Bits of grapefruit rind add a satisfying bitter edge. This is a dish that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The flavors and textures mingle and come together in something unique and deeply satisfying.

Back sesame BLANC-MANGER. Our friend’s favorite of the desserts. Very good.

Frozen cheesecake with marmalade - Cubes of frozen cheesecake with citrus preserves. The cheesecake has a very interesting dry texture. Very unique dish.

The food paired perfectly with a bottle of Sake we ordered.

http://www.kirakuberkeley.com/

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Thank you so much for this review-- their menu sounds a lot more interesting than I remembered, which was all quite good.

trying to upload pictures

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Great place! I’m a big fan of Kiraku.

The sashimi is indeed very good. I agree that the unagi skewer is out of this world! We reordered it because it has such a clean and delicious taste, and the smoking made it very reminiscent of “barbecue.” Not just your normal kabayaki. Just enough unctuousness from the unagi fat alongside the bright sansho pepper - wow.

I find the suzuki carpaccio really, really tasty, even if the suzuki doesn’t come through much and some might find the sauce a touch powerful. But, that (very Chinese tasting) sauce cuts the fat nicely and it’s a delicious combo regardless.

They are one of the rare places to serve iburrigako - one of my favorite smoked pickles. Takowasa and the other otsumami are excellent, too.

Their shoyu ramen is quite nice and it is a bit different due to the sesame oil (a nod to ramen’s Chinese origin, along with the Chinese bowl).

Check out the Hokkaido octopus carpaccio. Great acidity and textures here - you have the bouncy chew of the mizudako, the crunchiness of the fried suction cups, and that side salad is really key to balance things very harmoniously.

Recently had Buri kama - get it this if you can (off the menu, ~$26)! This is very meaty, with a surprising amount of meat that flakes off so nicely, and with the cold daikontsuri (and a lot of cold beer) it’s fantastic.

I don’t care much for the tongue with truffle oil - truffle oil always tastes too synthetic to me. The corn tempura is very good - reminiscent of funnel cake - but there are many other items worth mentioning. For example, they once did a confit sanma with a dill and shiso sauce. The olive oil over the sanma liver was AWESOME. Had grilled sanma this past time and it was good, but I was missing that fusiony twist to it which they do so well.

I went to Kiraku right after Gochi (Mountain View) and Ippuku (Berkeley), and while the menus are all a bit different, Kiraku is really on another level. Ippuku was $120p/p without alcohol, and quite good but overall not great (the liver skewer was awesome, though, but 80% of rest of the yakitori was a touch off in texture); Gochi was awful (I sent things back multiple times because they were just bad and they couldn’t correct it).

One of my favorite places in the Bay Area. IMO, 2-3 people could have a great meal like: tsumami sampler (takowasa, tsukemono, karasumi daikon), 6pc sashimi, 1 or 2 carpaccio (seabass and/or octopus, 1 buri kama to share, 2 unagi skewers, 1 corn tempura (2 pc), and maybe split an ochazuke or shoyu ramen. End with homemade mochi, blancmange, and hojicha. At least that’s what I’ll do.

Service is always great, too, and the food comes out at a nice pace even though they’re always packed. Would love to eat at Kiraku more often, if only parking were easier and it wasn’t quite so busy!

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Thank you both for the review of Kiraku.

@Bradford, Gochi seems to oversauce/ overseason (maybe its the fusion thing). I am curious though, what were the bad dishes you had to send back?

About Gochi:

At Gochi, I sent back the yuzu ceviche twice I believe and ended up not eating it (after I requested, they agreed to take it off the bill). It was sloppy leftover cuts and there was no leche de Tigre, no acidity. Just a few drops of fresh yuzu juice, but it wasn’t very good yuzu - a touch bitter. They brought it back with more yuzu juice, but it still wasn’t a ceviche. Basically just chopped up leftover sashimi with a few drops of yuzu sprinkled on top. Also the potato chips (which seemed store bought) didn’t jive at all.

The kanpachi carpaccio with yuzu umeshu sauce was off, too. They sear the kanpachi to render the fat and it came out grayish white. The yuzu umeshu sauce was too sweet and needed levity, but the mound of alfalfa sprouts made a bad funky mix with the sweet sauce. I don’t think alfalfa sprouts pair well with seared fish. Maybe they should’ve had some mitsuba instead to bring some spice and lift the dish a bit, because it was sweet, fatty, and funky, with no good discernible acidity or balance.

Daikon furofuki I didn’t send back but it wasn’t very good. The dashi was rather tepid, and with the very sweet miso it had an odd aftertaste - not the clean depth you want from such a comfort food dish.

Renkon no hasami age was fine, even if it didn’t taste all that much like the ones I’m used to. The shrimp tasted more like shrimp paste mixed with some filler batter.

Ippuku is a charming place but it’s overall good, not great, yet it’s very expensive - about $116p/p out the door and this is without shochu or sake. The liver skewer was excellent, but others were good yet I’ve had distinctly better elsewhere. I got the sense that some of the skewers were grilled at slightly too low heat. A bunch were a touch dead and lacking in texture (especially the skin skewer).

Anyway, that was Gochi and this thread is about Kiraku, which is far superior. Perhaps I ordered wrong at Gochi or they had re-opening jitters with not the regular chef. Sorry to derail.


Will post some pics from my next visit to Kiraku. I’d say Kiraku is one of my top 3 favorite Izakayas in the west US, along with Torihei (Torrance) and Rinka (Honolulu) (and a shoutout to the defunct Izakaya Bincho in Redondo Beach). They’re each a bit different. Kiraku does the best “fusion” or creativity.

But to OP - uni, ikura, and yuba spoon as “easily the best bite in the Bay Area?” That’s a very bold claim! I think there’s lots of contenders =)

Kiraku’s sashimi is indeed very good, though, and on some cuts, right up there with even the most expensive sushi restaurants in the Bay Area. Recently had some very good madai, chutoro, sawara, and surprisingly sweet aji.

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Their suzuki carpaccio is a must order whenever we go, along with the grilled octopus. The octopus has excellent texture and isnt rubbery but still maintains its meaty integrity.

We ate there this weekend based on the rec. It was a great rec. The friend who has eaten there did the ordering. We had:

Hokkaido wagasagi (surf smelt fish) tempura
corn tempura
octopus okra salad
baby scallop skewer
yuba (tofu skin, roe and sea urchin)
ika (cuttlefish)
karaage (fried chicken)
Roasted duck Kiraku style
shimesaba (salt- and vinegar-cured mackerel)
suzuki carpaccio
black pork belly skewer

That shimesaba (salt- and vinegar-cured mackerel) was a-maz-ing! My bite of the year so far. And its only ten bucks! I could easily finish a few of this on my own. We liked the suzuki carpaccio, the corn tempura and the duck as well. The wagasagi was somewhat bland. The cuttlefish could probably be a little more tender. The karaage was pretty average. The others were pretty good. Overall, it was a very, very good meal and would love to go back and try some more of their other offerings. I only pointed out the less fantastic (to me) dishes as data points, and I think its a matter of narrowing down to their strengths since they have a fairly large menu. Kiraku is certainly a great izakaya.

I also love their environment. Cozy, just enough lights for an izakaya, perfect izakaya vibe, efficient service.

Even though they are not directly comparable, has anyone done a comparison between Kiraku and Hina Yakitori?

Does it need to be on any best restaurant list though? As it is, they are already doing brisk business. Their regulars probably won’t care. If one shows up at opening time on a Saturday, they will have to wait for the second seating already. Putting Kiraku on some list like Bauer’s or Eater’s is just going to make it harder for people who appreciate izakayas to get into. One can reserve a table by committing $40 pp, which I thought its pretty easy for anyone ordering like they are going to an izakaya. What else are they going to order, udon and donburi?!

Unfortunately they didn’t have the unagi skewer.

Hokkaido wagasagi (surf smelt fish) tempura

corn tempura

octopus okra salad

baby scallop skewer

yuba (tofu skin, roe and sea urchin)

ika (cuttlefish)

karaage (fried chicken)

Roasted duck Kiraku style

shimesaba (salt- and vinegar-cured mackerel)

suzuki carpaccio

black pork belly skewer

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We recently tried the Shimesaba and agree it was amazing. We had this dish at various places in Japan on our last trip there and we thought the Kiraku version was on par with the better versions we had there. Great texture and very deeply and richly flavored.

One of my favorites is the grilled octopus, which looks (and may be) the same as the grilled cuttlefish in your pictures. I find theirs has the right texture: chewy enough to be identified as octopus but tender enough to eat. I haven’t liked other versions I have tried, and am curious whether there are other versions you like.

Totally agree on the shimesaba and suzuki carpaccio.

I went back to look at the menu. I used the wrong descriptor- should be grilled squid instead of cuttlefish. The texture may be a function of size of the squid since the squid at Kiraku was a little bit larger than others I recall. To be fair, they were not rubbery at all, its just a personal preference for slightly more tender ones.

They also have an excellent octopus carpaccio.

We always do the suzuki carpaccio - tasty, even if the sauce is a bit strong for suzuki. In winter, we had grilled buri collar, unagi skewers, octopus carpaccio, ramen, etc. Always a great spot, and I’m due for a revisit.

Is that seasonal? I think when we were there last time its not on the menu. We asked and they didn’t have it.

It probably is; sorry to hear they didn’t have it. Last time I had it was maybe January, and before that, November/December? They have lots of seasonal dishes that rotate in and out. Recently they had shime nishin sashimi (pickled herring). I’m due for a return visit soon, for grilled takenoko, soramame, and I’m hoping they have a dill confit grilled fish again.

Here’s the early April menu. Didn’t spot the dishes you mentioned, but would love to try them for sure.

Kiraku is a favorite of ours too. Three of us went Wed. night, and everything was as good as we remembered.

one of our favorite things are the black pork belly skewers - we loved them so much we ordered a 2nd round after dinner, before dessert.

also got the suzuki everyone raves about, which we loved. loved the spicy touch.

one of the best things of the night was a scallop skewer that tasted like the ocean. so sweet and delicate, and bit smoky!

a special that night was foie over crispy rice, with shitakes. completely wonderful tastes and contrasts in textures.

A long time ago, they served a foie over stewed daikon, with the daikon mimicking the texture of the foie. it was a brilliant dish, but it disappeared with CA’s foie ban. glad foie is back - here in CA and on Kiraku’s menu.

We also ordered steamed clams in butter - a bit bland, actually. the only dish i wouldn’t repeat.

another old favorite: roasted premium Angus beef tongue with truffle oil and smoked salt. divine. the tongue is so delicate, yet chewy. can’t imagine not having this.

and a very homey dish - sauteed pork with kimchi and poached egg. this really hit the spot for me.

we also had the corn tempura, which to me always needs a sauce or more green tea salt or something. but still pretty tasty. also had the grapefruit yogurt ice cream dessert. not my favorite, but my sister and her friend love it.

there’s so much more on this menu i want to try!

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