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Ring in the New Year with Peko Peko's Bento Box

Plus Alameda's American Oak regroups after a suspected arson fire.

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For the homebody or the agoraphobe or anyone else who, quite sanely, abhors the idea of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of drunken strangers to watch some ball drop, Peko Peko, an Oakland-based Japanese catering company, offers an elegant alternative: a luxurious Japanese New Year's bento box you can enjoy in the peace and quiet of your own home, with or without a nice bottle of sake, in the company of a few friends and loved ones.

Priced at $300 for each handmade, three-layer cedar box that holds about fifteen different dishes (enough food to feed four or five people), the bento is, without question, a splurge — but an appealing one for Japanese food aficionados who want all the joyous extravagance of a fancy New Year's Eve dinner without any of the hassle.

Sylvan Mishima Brackett, Peko Peko's founder and chef, explained that traditionally in Japan the New Year's holiday was always the one time of the year when women weren't required to work. So in the days leading up to January 1, housewives would prepare a number of dishes and store them in beautiful lacquered boxes. (In Japan, unlike China, Korea, and many of other Asian countries, the New Year has been celebrated in accordance with the Gregorian calendar since the late 19th century.)

"Now, a lot of people buy their bento from the big department stores," Mishima Brackett said, pointing out that in Japan even 7-Eleven sells New Year's bento boxes.

Like the New Year's bentos in Japan, Peko Peko's bento boxes will come filled with osechi ryori — foods traditionally eaten to ring in the New Year, many of which have auspicious meanings. For instance, this year's box will include jikase ikura — plump, salt-and-dashi-cured steelhead roe — which is symbolic of fertility and will be presented, strikingly, in a cup made from a yuzu peel. Another dish, kuromame, consists of sweet black beans — imported from the Shiga prefecture of Japan — that take four days to cook (a process that includes soaking the beans with a nail to preserve their blackness); these are symbolic of health. Finally, the tetsukuri kamaboko, a fish cake, served with a tiny fresh wasabi root for grating, symbolizes the rising sun.

All of the dishes are meant to be eaten at room temperature.

Mishima Brackett said that a simple osechi bento box was one of the very first projects he undertook when he founded Peko Peko four years ago. This year's bento is the most sumptuous version yet, as many of the dishes include obscure imported ingredients and high-end local seafood. Probably the most luxurious dish of all: a Santa Barbara spiny lobster, served whole in the shell for a dramatic presentation.

In addition, Mishima Bracket worked with his father, an expert on Japanese carpentry and woodwork, to build all of the cedar boxes by hand.

Customers who order boxes will be able to pick them up on December 31 at specified locations in San Francisco and Oakland. The pickup spot in Oakland had yet to be finalized as of this printing.

This year Mishima Brackett is making fifty of the boxes, available for pre-order on a first-come, first-served basis. He expects to sell out early (last year, he sold his last box on Christmas Eve), so if you're interested, reserve your box (by sending an email to hello@eatpekopeko.com) as soon as possible.

Neighbors Support American Oak

A suspicious fire that took place early on Saturday, December 8, not only shut down Alameda's American Oak (2319 Santa Clara Ave.) indefinitely, it also put the gastropub and whiskey saloon's entire staff out of work just two weeks before Christmas — a tough break if there ever was one.

"Even if insurance covers [the staff's] wages, it can't replace their tips," co-owner Melanie Hartman noted.

Thank goodness, then, for the kindness of neighbors. According Hartman, ever since word about the fire got around last week, there has been an outpouring of support from bars and restaurants in the area. Several of them are even hosting events to help raise money for American Oak's employees: Swell Bar (1539 Lincoln Ave.) already donated 50 percent of its sales this past Saturday to the staff. Angela's Bistro and Bar (2301 Central Ave.) donated all of the cash tips from this week's "Mojito Monday" event, and will donate all proceeds from its Friday Night Flights ($10 for two glasses of wine) on December 21 as well. Finally, Pappo (2320 Central Ave.) will chip in by hosting a holiday dinner for the American Oak staff.

In the meantime, the Alameda Police Department continues its investigation into the fire, which firefighters on the scene had deemed "suspicious" due to the fact that the fire appeared to have started in two different locations — a likely sign of arson.

Alameda police did not immediately return What the Fork's request for further information. And while Hartman wasn't at liberty to discuss the details, she did go so far as to say, "It was absolutely deliberately set; there's no doubt about that."

She declined to comment on a possible motive for the alleged crime.

According to Hartman, the timeline for reopening the restaurant is still uncertain, pending further discussion with insurance companies and cleaning companies — she said most of the damage to the interior of the restaurant was caused by smoke. That said, she said she hopes to be able to reopen within a month or two.

The total cost of the necessary repairs is also still unclear, though the initial fire department assessment estimated $200,000 of damage inside the restaurant, plus another $250,000 to the building itself.

Perhaps the biggest loss: Hartman estimated that more than half of the restaurant's carefully-curated whiskey supply was destroyed.

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