Friday night? Hour and a half wait, at least.
It was First Friday. Still, there wasn't likely much overlap from the Art Murmur throng milling 23rd Street in the dark — in hoodies and skinny-leg denim, smell of weed in the cold air, munching burritos and Peoples Donuts. The Ozumo crowd was so much more expensively dressed. Like the woman with a minaret of ringleted hair sheathed in a vaguely Aretha-inaugural kind of thing, the guy in a Coogi sweater circa 1988 Cosby, and businessmen in jackets who'd no doubt ditched their neckties in the car. We didn't stick around for the wait.
Monday at 6:30 it was possible to sit right down, though the vast lounge was filling up quickly. My husband and I did the kitty-corner thing at an angle of the granite sushi bar. A round-faced Jerry Brown lumbered in, black parka over his shoulder. The former mayor, current AG, and once-and-future governor peered around the murky room before joining a party at the back: Two big guys and a wiry, nervous-looking one — the lords of O Town, if not Sacramento — talking shop over (I'm guessing) Kobe steaks and Sapporo Lites.
Who could've predicted it? Oakland's ultimate smoke-filled room is a soaring, lavish sushi bar, with actual smoke rising from the robata, or charcoal-fired grill. Turns out all that palaver about Uptown finally arriving, power-dining-wise, when Luka's opened in 2004, or when Flora launched three years later was, well, palaver. In just two months, Ozumo has become the East Bay's de facto power center, the anti-Art Murmur.
All that power doesn't come cheap. Founder Jeremy Umland believes in bringing it, big-money style. The former Japan-leagues baseball pro and one-time Morgan Stanley exec opened the original Ozumo just off the Embarcadero in San Francisco in 2001. The Ozumo concept, Umland told Angela Woodall of the Oakland Tribune last year, is to do Japanese for American sensibilities: sushi, of course, but also pointedly meaty robata dishes for the uni-phobic, sukiyaki, yosenabe, and mega-protein mains like lamb chops, short ribs, and at least three steak options. The emphasis here in Uptown is on small plates, especially izakaya, the tapas-scale nibbles that characterize certain sake bars in Japan. "No one is afraid to come to Ozumo because they are afraid there will be nothing for them to eat," Umland — somewhat elliptically — told the Trib.
Judging by the crowds, Ozumo's flesh-and-izakaya strategy is red meat to East Bay diners. (And Umland must believe the concept has legs beyond the Bay: In The Yummy Letter, GraceAnn Walden reported recently that the ex-slugger plans to open Ozumo number three in Santa Monica next year.)
Sitting at the bar one night, I listened as a guy in full-on Kangol gushed to a buddy through his Sidekick. "They got the shit here, dude. You gotta see this. I'm watchin' sumo wrestlers on the TV. Ha-ha!"
The 8,000-square-foot space seduces with scale far beyond the prodigious girth of loincloth-wearing behemoths on endless DVD loop. To wit: the slab-like front door, a Nakashima knockoff in whorled, honey-gold wood; the ninety-bottle sake menu; enough slate on the floors (and creeping up selected walls) to upset our balance of trade with Brazil; a wall of falling water, splashed with renderings of koi; the semi-private Kotatsu dining room semi-screened off by ginormous sake bottles.
It all comes at a price, of course — $36 for those lamb chops, $38 for a dry-aged New York strip with black pepper sauce and sweet potato fries. Not sayin' they aren't worth the cost; just a tad steep when wringing that home equity loan of a few extra dining dollars is suddenly no option.
Luckily, it's possible to deploy a couple of budget strategies here. Strategy number one? Plant yourself in the lounge and stick to the izakaya. Happy hour starts at 4:30 and, well, never ends. That means three-buck Sapporo drafts, among other drink specials, and a roster of mostly meaty noshes that, while small, are rich enough to satisfy.
You can sample a quartet of robata items for only four bucks each. Tsukune (meatballs of mixed pork and chicken) were tasty; Buta, finger-sized cylinders of ground, incomparably moist Kurobuta pork (a Japanese heritage breed), ranked even better. The cubes of beef called Gyu, had a slightly buttery richness. They alternated on their bamboo skewers with lengths of shishito pepper, small piquillo-like chiles with a deliciously grassy taste, vegetal ballast for all that exuberant meatiness. Chewy and satisfying Teba Yaki — skinned and skewered chicken wings, their bones intact — successfully picked up the taste of the charcoal.
Meat reached its apotheosis in Abara, three plush Kurobuta spare ribs: soft, chewy, and just about silken. A mini Kobe burger (topped with pickled shallots) only looked small; the thick patty of coarse-ground beef had just the right amount of fat to make it luxuriously filling. The tab for two, with beer refills, tax, and tip? Just under $60. Not bad for a meal composed of prime ingredients, and with the heft of dinner.
A second, somewhat spendier option is to sit at the sushi bar and show a bit of restraint. Again, mine the small plates menu for gems like Hanabi, overlapping slices of hamachi and avocado, bracketed between slivers of jalapeño and drizzled with ponzu. Gyoza, Japanese pot stickers, can be lackluster grease bombs, but not here. Filled with pale, coarse-ground Kurobuta pork, they were moist and deliciously piggy. (A meatless version filled with tofu, shiitakes, and cabbage is available.) Negi Toro concealed refreshing morsels of scallion-perfumed fatty tuna within its nori-bound, sushi-rice heart.
Sipping a three-glass flight of ginjo sakes that ranged from nutty to anisey, plowing through spanking-fresh nigiri sushi, I eavesdropped again, this time on a fiftyish couple from San Leandro talking up the sushi-maker. They said they'd long been among the faithful at Angelfish in Alameda.
"We even go to Ozumo in the City," the bushy-mustached sushi aficionado said. "But this place is just as nice, maybe nicer. And so close." He looked around.
"This could be very dangerous."