.Tasting the Sublime at Delage in Old Oakland

The omakase-style tasting menu might be the best meal our critic ate this year.

Sometime between the piece of salmon sashimi I slid into my mouth from its perch atop a thick slab of sea salt — “like doing an oyster shooter,” our server had explained — and the moment the sushi chef pulled out a blowtorch to start searing pieces of toro, I realized that my meal at Delage would probably wind up being my most enjoyable dining experience so far this year.

Those little moments of culinary theater lingered in my memory for days after a meal at Delage, the new omakase-style sushi restaurant in Old Oakland. But what stayed with me, too, was a sense of how comfortable — how overwhelmingly pleasant — the whole experience was.

When chefs talk about their platonic ideal of a restaurant, they’ll often describe a thirty- or forty-seat neighborhood spot where both food and ambience are intensely personal — where a meal feels less like a business transaction and more like you were lucky enough to have been invited to dine at your incredibly talented chef-friend’s home. Perhaps to a greater extent than any other high-end restaurant in Oakland, Delage is exactly that place.

The restaurant reminds me of one of those bars that the protagonists of Haruki Murakami novels are always wandering into: hidden behind an unmarked door, in an alley frequented by a strange cat, run by a quiet stranger with impeccable taste in jazz. Delage isn’t quite so obscure as that (it’s a packed house every night as far as I can tell), but it does have the jazz soundtrack and cozy atmosphere down pat. And there’s a warm, welcoming spirit to the place that extends beyond the weathered wood-panel walls and the collection of vintage vinyl and cassette players on the shelves.

Also, the food is really, really great.

Delage is the latest venture for Chikara Ono, whose other restaurant, AS B-Dama (located in the Swan’s Market food court next door), is a strong contender for the best casual Japanese restaurant in the whole East Bay. For Delage, he wanted to specialize in the Japanese tradition of omakase, or “chef’s choice” sushi — basically, a sushi-centric tasting menu in which customers simply put themselves in the chef’s hands.

In this regard, the restaurant is fairly unique: There are other sushi restaurants in the East Bay where you can order an omakase-style meal, but none where the omakase is the restaurant’s organizing principle and entire reason for being — where, aside from beer and sake, a $65 eight-course prix-fixe is literally the only thing on the menu.

At most sushi restaurants — Sushi Sho in El Cerrito, for instance — the omakase meal consists almost entirely of a few rounds of nigiri, which means, among other things, you might speed through an $80 sushi meal in about 45 minutes. Ono hired a real heavy hitter — Masa Sasaki, a legend among San Francisco sushi chefs — to make all the sushi at Delage, but you only wind up eating about eight pieces of nigiri over the course of your dinner. The rest of the meal consists of salads and cooked dishes, mostly prepared by the other chef, Keisuke Akabori, whose approach is to apply high-end French and Californian cooking techniques to home-style Japanese food. (Hence, I suppose, the restaurant’s French-sounding name, which I never really got an explanation for.)

As with any good tasting menu, there is an overall level of excellence to the food, punctuated by occasional bursts of the sublime. For me, that first “wow” moment came about two courses in. This was after the amuse-bouche of chopped raw tuna, which came with lightly pickled cucumber that had been fashioned into a flower (all one connected piece, the kind of “fuck you” of precise knifework I love about upscale Japanese cuisine). And after the gorgeous salad of Bing cherries and raw and confit-cooked cherry tomatoes — a bright, palate-opening showcase for so many varying levels of tartness and sweetness.

The first dish that really blew me away was a kind of elegant play on a surf ‘n’ turf theme: a thin slice of seared Miyazaki beef and the aforementioned piece of salmon sashimi presented side by side on a wooden board — the salmon on top of a block of pink Himalayan sea salt; the beef naked but for a scattering of sprouts and matchstick-cut radishes on top. We were told to eat the beef first, to give the salmon time to lightly cure. If you’ve ever felt skeptical toward the idea of wagyu beef, this stunningly well-marbled “A5”-grade beef from Japan’s Miyazaki prefecture will turn you into a believer, with its smoky, intensely concentrated beef flavor and its soft, velvety fat that quite literally melts on the tongue. Then came the salmon: There’s something almost profane about lifting the entire slab of salt up to your lips and allowing the fish to slide, slowly, in. Between the lush butteriness of the fish, the extra bit of salt that it picks up en route to your mouth, and the complementary flavors from the garnish of candied jalapeño and chopped nectarine: This was a perfect bite.

Then came the first of Sasaki’s two nigiri courses: halibut garnished with scallion and wasabi, Spanish mackerel with a bit of grated ginger; and scallop and tuna presented naked as God intended. Really, the sushi — the best I’ve had in Oakland — could merit a whole separate review on its own, but let me just say this: The chef’s knife skills were self-evident — not in the sense of, “Oh, that’s cut so prettily.” Rather, in the fact that I never encountered a false bite: no surprisingly chewy bit of connective tissue, nothing to distract from the sublime texture of the fish. The texture and flavor of the rice were second-to-none, too, thanks in part to Sasaki’s use of Koshihikari rice, a relatively short-grained variety, and a hard-to-find red rice vinegar. Eating this sushi, you notice each individual grain — not the sticky clump you get at lesser restaurants.

Western fine-dining tasting menus can be exhausting in the way that they stretch on for hours — one tiny, highly intellectualized dish after another. This, too, is a leisurely meal, clocking in at more than two hours from beginning to end. But if ever there was a long tasting menu that could be described as “light” or “refreshing,” this would be it.

What I loved was how the sushi courses were interspersed with seasonal salads and soups that made the most of California’s awe-inspiring early-summer bounty. There was a chilled asparagus soup dotted with tiny bay shrimp. There was what was probably the best baby corn preparation I’ve ever eaten — the corn smoked and served topped with spicy togarashi aioli and Cotija cheese, in the manner of Mexican street corn.

By the time the second nigiri course came and went — featuring another stunner, a rice bowl topped with a generous portion of lightly seared toro (aka fatty tuna) and garnished with tiny cubes of soy sauce “jello” — and I started digging into a bowl of house-made strawberry ice cream for dessert, I was pleasantly stuffed. Add to that the entertainment value of sitting at the sushi counter and watching the two chefs do their thing — Akabori the young, talented up-and-comer; Sasaki the grizzled veteran — and a meal at Delage is one of the best deals in town.

This particular version of Delage is fleeting by design: When Sasaki signed on to help Ono launch the restaurant, he already had a new sushi spot of his own in the works. Sasaki’s restaurant will likely be ready to open in San Francisco in early September. If so, his tenure at Delage will end at some point in August, and if you’re thinking about trying the restaurant, you’d be wise to do it before then. That said, Akabori is sticking around. And Ono himself is no slouch of a sushi chef, especially with Sasaki teaching him a handful of new tricks.

All of which is to say: For now, and perhaps for a long time to come, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a finer place in Oakland to treat yourself to a stunning sushi meal.


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