The launch of a 100-seat, full-service restaurant can cause no small amount of consternation these days. Skulls and giant rib-bones from the corpses of all the ambitious projects that came and went still litter the landscape, and for all its occasional sterility, fast-casual has a big, upward-pointing green arrow next to it as the most viable path to profitability.
So the debut of the izakaya-and-ramen establishment Shinmai this summer on San Pablo Avenue in Uptown Oakland was already a dicey proposition — one made more so by the abrupt departure, only a few weeks in, of executive chef Jerrod Doss (previously of Aziza, The French Laundry, and Chez TJ) for August 1 Five. However, sous chef Vincent Bryant stepped in, retaining nearly all — if not all — of Doss’ menu and recipes. Whoever’s baby it might be, Shinmai is probably the best restaurant to debut in Oakland this year.
From the decor to the presentation, there are virtually no creases to iron out. On both visits, I had a strange feeling of déjà vu because Shinmai’s layout is similar to that of A Mano in Hayes Valley, from the size to the diagonal wall to the location of the restrooms. That’s where the likeness ends, though, as the wooden chopsticks, napkins, and even the business cards bespeak a Japanese aesthetic.
The only real issue we encountered was poor coursing: If you order a large number of small plates, they may arrive en masse, trucked over by multiple servers and runners. But barring a couple outliers, the quality of the plates ranges from great to outstanding. A sense of when to stay subtle and harmonic and when to run a little wild pervades, as does a flair for presenting common dishes — shishito peppers, say — in fresh ways.
It’s not a huge menu, roughly half izakaya and half robata (grilled bites). There are only two ramens, as well. But portions are fractionally larger and less expensive than they would be if Shinmai were in the West Bay. Two can eat very well for a little more than $100.
Begin with something found all over the place, like chicken karaage ($13). Fried fowl is nearly always good, but apart from being light and virtually oil-free, these bits benefited from an excellent barbecue dipping sauce made with umami-heavy tsuyu. It’s deep and smoky, with a hint of tang from mirin, that high-sugar, low-alcohol rice wine that’s a condiment in its own right. It’s only by starting with something a little bit greasy that you’ll fully appreciate the mizuna salad ($8). As I’ve said in many reviews, I’m ordinarily biased against salads I don’t make myself, which almost always feel like overdressed after-thoughts, but these greens come with enough bits of nori and well-toasted parsnip slices that they achieve what might be considered a lower order of perfection.
The higher order of perfection belongs to the $13 ribeye, which is simply stunning. It’s garlicky and gingery in just the right proportions to enhance the meat without overdoing it, and I’ve never had beef that pillowy, ever. It’s a steal. The second-most-impressive item was, oddly enough, the furikake-covered fried potato salad ($10). This isn no relation to the potato salad at the First Methodist Church picnic, and if tobiko could ever give you a come-hither stare, it would be in this instance. Tangy and sweet and savory all at once, nothing about it coated the inside of your mouth like most American goo bombs. The truffle oil wasn’t front-and-center, nor was it vinegar-centric like the German equivalent.
In spite of the presence of fish sauce caramel, a Southeast Asian wonder ingredient, the bacon ($11) was a bit out of whack. Too fatty and chewy, and without enough cilantro and apple to cut it, it couldn’t manage to be more than run-of-the-mill pork belly. The $11 broccolini, too, was merely OK. It was tasty enough, but the miso-honey mustard was very mild, and the ikura added nothing. A special of trumpet mushrooms in a dashi broth ($6) was the real palate cleanser. Like bonito-slathered elote with honey-butter in lieu of crema, the corn on the cob ($6 for two chunks) was the time I felt like the kitchen was guided by a desire to put out a novelty — but those simple flavors are hard to take issue with. And about those $6 shishitos: They weren’t properly blistered, but soft and gentle, like they’d almost marinated in yuzu before hitting the skillet. Nobody got a hot one (which is a shame).
Of the two ramens, I’m a little torn. The tonkotsu ($15) was exactly what I want most in a ramen: a creamy broth, al dente soba noodles, and chashu that retains taste and bite independent of the overall soup. But the vegetable ramen with lotus root and sun-dried tomatoes ($15) was the more creative. So many vegetable broths carry but a single note that this mushroom-y, forest-floor broth was quite unusual. The noodles were green because they’re made with spinach. Is that the Japanese equivalent of green flour tortillas? I’m not sure, but it works.
All three cocktails I tried were unique and well-crafted, particularly the $10 Old Fashioned, which tastes nothing like an Old Fashioned. (It’s got a lot of licorice to it, possibly owing to a reaction between the five-spice powder and the demerara sugar.) The mezcal-based Where’s Valdez? was also worthwhile, since it morphed over time, starting out heavy on the firewater bitters and ending in the lap of the toasted rice brown syrup. In a world full of too many flavorless matcha desserts — although only slightly less full of panna cotta, admittedly — this honey-fig panna cotta was really quite something. Up and down, Shinmai manages to make ordinary things remarkable, even if it does so quietly and with little flash.
Shinmai, 1825 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, 510-271-1888 or shinmaioakland.com