Friday, November 6, 2009

OZUMO - Slick Sushi & Japanese Lessons in the Restroom! Arigato!

If a restaurant can be the polar opposite of the homey and familiar diner, this would be it. Ozumo is a smooth, polished, fairly chic open space. The layout of the restaurant (which is bigger than huge) wraps around a fairly large open bar just left of center. The entire space is decorated in traditional Japanese modern decor--- loads of black, slick surfaces and paper walls. The place is beautiful, but I find it a bit cold. It's beauty is not a welcoming form of beauty. That said, I'm told the place is hopping at night, and I think that what may seem at lunchtime to lack warmth and appear too empty and holllow, is actually just the empty spaces crying out for people to fill them. If it was full of people, which I believe it is once happy hour kicks in, this place would be loads of fun. This is a place that was clearly designed for large crowds, and so feels a bit off when it isn't full of people.

That said, though, it's a really nice place. It's on the newish side, and thus still sort of finding a stride. Service is attentive enough, and the food is good. They serve pretty standard sushi and sashimi fare, with a few things like simple burgers thrown in.

When we ordered last week, I had two rolls. One was a Spicy Tuna Roll and the other a Rainbow Roll. Both were presented well, the fish was fresh and the seasoning was tasty. Nothing to complain about, but nothing to jump up and down about either. The BH had a Sashimi San Bento Box which consisted of a variety of sashimi, some edamame, miso and rice, all of which he found quite tasty. Our lunch companion ordered the Bento Box as well, his containing a broiled salmon filet. Along with our meals the BH and I ordered their non-alcoholic drink special for the day which was a Blackberry Lemonade Spritzer.

I have been here now several times and the food is consistent. The alcoholic drinks are well mixed and really excellent. I would bet that this place is a great time come an evening. They've got a d.j. station at the bar and a happy hour space that would accommodate quite a good crowd. It's a decent place for lunch, but nothing to travel all the way to Japan for. One of the flashy little touches that shows a real sense of humor can be found in the restrooms. They have Japanese lessons blaring on a closed-circuit speaker that pipes into the stalls.
WARNING: Japanese lessons in the ladies room should come with a disclaimer. I think I learned how to call for a taxi, but with the echo in there, I may have learned something more akin to "Your mother-in-law sleeps with the pigs..."

Check it out for yourself. If you like Japanese you won't be disappointed. If you're local, make it dinner. Bon Appetit!

OZUMO (Oakland)
2251 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612

Dining table size: Adequate
Noise: Probably pretty loud at night, daytime no problem
Dining time: should be in and out over lunch hour no problem
Cost: Pricy.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

OLE's WAFFLE SHOP (Alameda) - Snack to the Future

I am, and always will be, a product of the fifties. That changing decade that melted into the turbulent sixties and my childhood. When I was a kid, meals out consisted of things like juicy burgers at the Plaza Drive-In. They served a side of pan-fried canadian bacon there that was the only thing my Mom could get my baby sister to eat when we were kids.
Those meals were my first comfort food, the burgers and fries and sandwiches of youth, experienced when I was a child and all of them served among the sights and sounds of the various diners around town --- the only kind of restaurant a working single mother could take her kids for a special treat. Some foods can actually transport you back. Back to a simpler time when your biggest worry was would the ketchup come out of the bottle fast enough to land on your fries when they were still hot from the fryer.

So when I come upon a place like Ole's, I am transported back to the diners of a time long gone. To Biff's with my grandmother on a Sunday after church, to Merritt Bakery (which, delightfully, still stands) for a hot turkey club or to the Plaza Drive-In with my mother for an early dinner after piano lessons. It is a trip I willingly take, that journey back in time to the meals of my childhood.

Last week my husband and I needed to grab a quick lunch, and we were feeling like simple comfort food. We had business in Alameda, and so we picked Ole's Waffle Shop, a lovely little throw-back to another time and place, smack on Park Avenue. The few of these establishments that still exist are perfect little time machines. When we were seated, I half-expected Betty Draper and her kids to come in for an after-school sundae. While the Drapers didn't materialize, we did enjoy a solid meal.

I had my favorite, a Club Sandwich. Here the menu reads "Turkey Club" but I'm pretty sure that without turkey it's just a BLT, so the Turkey on the menu is a redundancy in the title. It was piled high with thick slices of fresh-roasted turkey and juicy bacon. These days diner food is a bit of an indulgence, so I nixed the fries and went with fruit. To my delight, it was fresh. Diners often serve partially canned fruits, but Ole's was fresh, seasonal and ripe. Delish~

My BH loves an omelette. He ordered his favorite, a ham and cheese omelette with a side of hash browns. Basic. Tasty. I took a bite and it was good. It came with this giant buttermilk biscuit that was also really good. Home-baked. yum.

Yes, this sort of meal is typical of what one can expect to get at a Denny's or other chain, but there is something special about the food in places like this one. Places that aren't a chain, that have been there for a very long time serving the same food for decades. It's just a little more authentic somehow. Maybe it's the love. Maybe it's the counters. They have a story.

The coffee here is good. Mine was fresh and not pot-burnt like it often can be. Ole's itself is small, but the kind of small that has charm. The servers are likewise charming. They all seem like "lifers" who took waitressing 101 from Flo. Everyone knows everyone else, the locals all have their special place to sit and a special hello from one or more of the staff.

All in all, like Alameda, this place is insular and welcoming at the same time. A safe little cubby of the comforting and familiar that any patron can pull out and nibble on when missing home or hearth. Check it out the next time you're in the mood for a little slice of the past. Or maybe pie.

Bon Appetit!

Ole's Waffle Shop
1507 Park Street
Alameda, CA 94501
Table size: adequate
Noise level: typical
Cost: inexpensive
Dining time: speedy!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

LUKA's TAPROOM & PUB - an Oakland Tradition re-imagined

When I was a kid, the corner of West Grand Avenue and Broadway contained an old Hofbrau. It was one of those places that seemed to have been there forever. Serving timeless things like turkey with gravy and jello. Okay, maybe jello isn't so timeless, but still. I remember there was a full bar and people smoked inside, including my father. Yeah, see, now you're getting just how old this place was. Anyone still remember when patrons would smoke inside a restaurant? It was an Oakland fixture, but like so many things in Oakland, it went the way of the DoDo. Extinct. Closed. Gone.

So a number of years ago (around 2003) Rick Mitchell opened Luka's Taproom where the Hofbrau used to be. It retained a lot of the feel of the space, and many of the fifties-era style fixtures still adorn the large salon / pool room in the back of the restaurant. But the jello was definitely gone. Rick is also the owner of Franklin Square Wine Bar and he is a master of his game. All of his establishments have both an identity and an attention to detail that I find extremely impressive. He's also a really nice guy.

Luka's was well-received on its opening, greeted with excellent reviews and rapidly full of returning patrons. Now, almost seven years later, it is going strong, without having lost a step. An Oakland fixture, it's the place to go for concerts, and a fun and happening place during happy hour (or so I'm told). Actually, the BH and I had to drop by one night while waiting for a flat tire to be repaired and we had a few drinks. Luka's was full and lively and the drinks were really amazing. They have a full bar at Luka's (as opposed to Franklin Square's Wine & Beer only setup) and the bartenders are good! I'm a big fan of the new "mixology" and they mixed up some delicious libations on the evening in question. Even their non-alcoholic beverages are special. Pictured are a Raspberry Lime Spritzer and a Pomegranate Lemonade, which are offered at lunch daily. Yum!

As for the food, we eat there a lot. (They serve ACME bread!) Last week we had lunch there and I decided it was time to include them in the blog. I sort of forgot them because they are such an obvious inclusion. But their number finally came up, so to speak.

We started with an order of their fries. When they first opened, Luka's rapidly got a name for their French Fries with a trio of sauces. They are served in a milkshake tin, with three dipping sauces. The first is a paprika ketchup, spicy and subtle. The next is an herb aioli, sort of a rich herby mayo, but not oily at all. The last is a chipotle aioli. Smoky and rich. All are tasty, but the herb aioli is usually gone long before the other two in my group.

I usually order a salad here and they are great. The beet salad with goat cheese is one of my faves. But today I ordered the Mac N' Cheese as a special treat. It is among the best I have ever had. It's a combination of four cheeses melted perfectly over pasta prepared al dente. Just enough chewiness to counteract the liquidity of the cheese. The top of the macaroni has a baked on crunchy 'crust' of breadcrumbs ~ the dish can be ordered with (or without) bacon, but I highly recommend adding the pig. They serve the dish with side of the most perfectly cooked green beans. Crunchy and layered with garlic. Yum! Seriously, if you like a good mac n' cheese, I dare you not to find theirs perfect. Just like mom used to make, only WAY better!!

My BH ordered Bourride, which was a special on that day's menu. He loved it. I'm not a big shellfish eater (other than scallops or lobster. Does lobster even count?) but I can tell a good sauce when I taste one. They do mussels here daily, and they do them well. Fresh seafood in a lovely clear broth flavored with garlic or onion or herbs or a mixture of several. Delish! The Bourride was chock-full of mussels, shrimp, all of his favorite crustacean goodies. I just gotta say they should invent a full body suit for some folks when they eat a good fish soup, ya know?

Our Partner in Food Crimes was not as lucky. He ordered a steak medium rare. It came medium well. I'm pretty sure the waitress put the order in wrong, they can sound the same, and I think she misheard the order to begin with. I would be just about anything it wasn't the kitchen. She was new, and a little cranky. Not rude or anything, but a bit defensive. I know most of the help and they know me. Usually my order is placed before I can sit down. I like that about a place, when you can feel like part of the family.

Rick came by and asked how the meal was, and our PFC let him know politely that his steak was over-cooked. Rick offered to bring out another steak done more to his liking, but we were out of time for lunch. So he offered us an apple tart with some cheddar melted into it, on the house. We gratefully took it back to the office with us, where we had a nice post-meal sweet bite.

While it's important for a restaurant to serve food well, I have to say it's just as important to be classy about making up for mistakes. Unless you are the French Laundry, no one is on their game every day, so when wires get crossed, the best a patron can hope for is that the establishment will take responsibility for their mistakes, as naturally as they take credit for their successes. I like an owner that's vested, and who tends to the clientele like extended family. Attentive, but honest, and willing to ride out the bumps. Rick is just such a guy.

Luka's serves great pub food and they do it really well. Hamburgers, Salads, Shellfood Soups of every kind. A side of fries. If you enjoy these things washed down by a beer or a great cocktail, then check it out. As always, Bon Appetit!

Luka's Taproom and Lounge
2221 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612
Table size: Adequate
Dining Time: If you let the wait staff know, easily out in a lunch hour.
Price: Moderate to Expensive (but worth it)
Noise level: really really hard to hear in the main room. If you want to have a conversation, see if they'll seat you in the lounge over lunch.