The photo that started it all.
Co-owners Niall (pronounced “Nile,” like the river) Cantwell and chef Shotaro Kamio (pictured above) don’t call their food “Fusion,” because, all too often, this term connotes “confusion” in the kitchen, when chefs combine too many ingredients and different ethnicities. And that doesn’t happen here.
The server who started it all -- Ava Mehrpour, presents her phone with a photo of Chilled Summer Ramen. We couldn’t resist her soft-sell… we fell for the dish on the basis of the photo alone.
Our server on this visit was a charming, young Iranian named Ava Mehrpour. When we asked if there were any daily specials, she performed one of the most original and inventive movements I have seen in 37 years of professionally reviewing restaurants: she pulled her iPhone out of her apron pocket, entered her passcode and showed us a photo of the daily special on her wallpaper.
“Yes, the special is a delicious chilled soup for this very hot day (102 F in Berkeley); you must try chef Sho’s Summer Ramen.”
My photo version of the chilled Summer Ramen
It was such a compelling visual, and Ava related such a sweet story about it that resistance was futile.
And it was at this moment that I realized servers in ALL restaurants could be enabled to take photos of the restaurant’s special dishes, or daily specials, and show them on their iPhone to hungry patrons.
Trust me, when you’re hungry and you see a full-color, full-frontal of a daily special, YOU WILL ORDER IT!
Niall says the trick will be to keep servers from also consulting their phones while on service – in most restaurants, phones are forbidden to be carried by staff into the dining room.
Ava described the chilled Summer Ramen so beautifully:
“Chef Sho says chilled soup originated 60 years ago in his hometown, Sendai, Japan. He says that it is now popular all over Japan during the warm summer months.”
Ava continues: “traditionally this soup consists of a chilled shoyu broth, noodles, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, a variety of seaweeds, and raw vegetables such as cucumbers and carrots.”
Sho's special touch is to add a large slice of lotus root, creating a dramatic visual center to the dish and fresh California sweet corn adds a crunchy finish.
Niall and Sho
Niall and chef Sho worked together for six years at Yoshi’s, in Oakland. Tired of working for others, they decided several years ago to set out on their own. When the space formerly occupied by one of my former favorite Berkeley restaurants closed (O Chame), the pair took over the lease.
“Chef Sho has a mantra which describes his style of cooking,” explains Niall.
“Seasonal. Simple, Surprise.”
“Sho likes to add an unusual ingredient for color, or crunch, or taste, without disparaging the traditional Japanese recipe. That’s the surprise element.”
I have eaten lunch here many times and will return for dinner because both owners insist that the dinner experience is a notch above lunch, which is hard to imagine, because they are doing everything right here at noon.
Dishes which I would not miss at lunch include:
Sashimi Salad – absolutely fresh slices of salmon and tuna sashimi, served with a delicious mizuna and cucumber salad.
The Kaiiage tempura comes with four large, tasty, quick-fried triangles of intertwined plants and roots, but we wolfed down two slices before I could even get my camera out!
Kakiage Tempura – a skein of perfectly crisped snippets of burdock root, yellow onion, sweet potato, shiitake mushrooms and black tiger shrimp is cut into thick triangles and served with a delicious bonito-soy dipping broth. Holy smokes! I am hankering for this dish again just writing about it.
Iyasare has a small, but well-chosen, list of Japanese craft beers and American draft beers. As well, there are wines by the glass or bottle, which would complement the dinner menu. The bartender makes appealing seasonal cocktails, which appear to keep regulars happy at the bar.
In Japanese, “Iyasare” means “the healing,” which is what Niall and chef Sho want their food to promote, a sense of wellness and comfort. Based on numerous lunches I’ve had here, I’d say they have achieved their ideal – well done!
Iyasare, 1830 Fourth St., Berkeley, CA 94710. Make reservations on Open Table, or call 510-845-8100.