Kinda Izakaya wouldn’t be out of place in one of Haruki Murakami’s books. When the Japanese novelist constructs a scene that takes place in a bar or restaurant, his settings often become portals for the characters. When one of his protagonists is about to transition into or out of an existential crisis, any ordinary room can temporarily transport them into a parallel universe, one in which banal façades burn away to reveal the uncanny. Murakami reshapes familiar meeting places, packing them with menace or long-sought-after feelings of solace. If Franz Kafka was a hunger artist, Murakami is an artist of interludes.
After walking through noren curtains at the entryway, Kinda’s interior instantly casts a similar, transportive spell. One wall is covered with advertising and other arty posters of Japanese culture, high and low and in between. Advertisements for beer and saké nudge against Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Because it’s the Halloween season, a ghoul with spidery gray legs greets new customers at the bar. Propulsive music with a high-pitched soprano’s drone defeats most of the diner’s conversations. But the younger crowd effortlessly tuned out the stimulation of sound and color, eating and drinking late into the night.
The menu, really a booklet, is filled with perfunctory descriptions of the dishes. Featuring full-color photographs, it’s divided into eight categories: appetizers, salad and soup, fried, sashimi, grilled, noodle, rice and skewers. From the fried category, we tried Kinda tofu ($8). Four rectangles of soft tofu were lightly battered and faintly glazed with teriyaki sauce. The kitchen planted a tiny Japanese flag in the corner of one rectangle and covered the lot with diced green onion stems. It was an ethereal dish, made for vegans, vegetarians, phantoms and pixies.
Pickled in a sunomono dressing, a small bowl of kyuri, or cucumber salad ($6), turned a wicked shade of translucent green. They were a perfect foil to pair with a bite of hamachi kama ($17), the grilled collar of a yellowtail fish. After delivering our plate of flakey yellowtail, one of the servers returned to the table and smiled. She mouthed something into the din of thrash metal playing over our heads before handing us a second plate of the same dish. We were grateful for the bonus fish, but the reason for our good fortune remained a mystery.
Many years ago, I ordered a Japanese skewer for the first time at a restaurant off of Union Street in San Francisco. I still remember my student’s sense of budget shock when one very expensive asparagus stalk showed up on a plate the size of a dime. The portion was meager and shriveled; it looked like an afterthought or a mistake. To their credit, Kinda adds a reasonable and clarifying note at the top of its skewers page—two per order. With that codicil in place, I was willing to revisit an early culinary trauma and was happily rewarded for the venture. Each asparagus stalk ($7) was charred and tender, and nicely seasoned.
One grilled rice ball ($5) wasn’t big enough to share. Because it was so delicious, I recommend ordering one per person. The rice ball was grilled, and flattened, until it had acquired a golden hue and the slightly crunchy texture of a hash brown. It was served on a sheet of dried seaweed that was meant to enfold the rice ball in a salty wrapper. An irresistible appetizer, it was the first item I’d reorder on a future visit. I also had an excellent bowl of miso soup ($3.50). The broth was comforting and contained small sheets of seaweed, miniature cubes of fine and white tofu, along with finely diced slivers of green onion.
Kinda’s beverage service includes specialty cocktails like a sky-high nigori lychee ($12), with saké, shochu, lychee and yuzu, and a $13 drink called a Japanese Hogwarts. Served in a mug, the cocktail is made with saké, yuzu, ginger and a large shisho leaf planted on top. Three types of plum wine range from $6 up to $65 for a bottle of Kinsen, which is made in Berkeley. Each saké choice comes with a comprehensive description. Bottles range in price from $9 up to $85.
Kinda Izakaya, open Tue-Thu 5:30-11pm, Fri-Sat 5:30pm-midnight, 1941A University Ave., Berkeley. 510.647.9226. instagram.com/kinda.izakaya