When the question “What should we eat?” crops up, my first response is usually izakaya.
Some people refer to izakaya food as Japanese tapas, but I think of tapas as “Spanish izakaya” because izakaya includes a wider range of dishes, from the small appetizers that serve as drinking snacks to the filling rice and noodle dishes to be had after drinks. Izakaya plates are also designed for sharing, which sets the perfect atmosphere for get-togethers, and the restaurants should be casual and affordable, with more emphasis on taste than artistry of the food. In the Berkeley izakaya scene, not only does Kiraku fit that bill, but it is also conveniently located on Telegraph Avenue to cater to the student community on the Southside.
In an izakaya, it’s a good idea to start off with something cold and adventurous, knowing that you can always return to the warmth of fried chicken and potstickers if all else fails. Although the fermented firefly squid, with its strong sea flavor, will not appeal to everyone (it wasn’t for me), “spicy” jellyfish and “spicy” boiled baby octopus (iidako), which looks fiery red, are not spicy at all but mildly sweet, springy and fun to eat.
Some of the starters are best enjoyed as nibblers throughout the meal. On one end of the spectrum, there’s takowasabi — raw octopus chopped and marinated in a light wasabi sauce, which appears slimy but tastes clean — to refresh your palate between heavier plates, like barbecued spare ribs and grilled beef tongue. And on the other end, there’s renkon chips, thinly sliced lotus root deep fried and sprinkled with celery salt, a light snack to be enjoyed while waiting for the seared albacore tataki, which is a whole different kind of delight dressed in ponzu and onion sauce.
The fried dishes at Kiraku are always sure bets. Corn tempura with green tea salt and kisu tempura (whiting fish) with umeboshi salt is airy enough to make you forget that it is deep-fried. Karaage (fried chicken) comes piping hot, and deep fried rock shrimp with spicy mayo is both visually inviting and texturally addicting, as the shrimp is still moist and firm inside the light, crispy batter.
After indulging in tempura, I always choose the omelet salad to give myself the illusion of healthy eating — shredded cabbage with sauteed pork belly blanketed with a thin omelet, topped with katsuobushi (bonito flakes), Japanese mayo and soy sauce. The salad looks big and fluffy but not too filling, and it leaves enough room for an “after-sake” (shushoku) dish.
Actually, by the time you get to the after-sake, you’re typically a bit inebriated (izakaya are Japanese drinking establishments, and Kiraku has more than 40 choices of sake, shochu, chuhai and beer). That means your palates are either dulled or totally dead, so the shushoku just has to be filling. Kiraku’s shushoku does just that. Literally. While filling, the oyako don, rice with simmered chicken and onion omelet, was a little too mushy, and the yaki udon did not leave a strong impression despite featuring many flavors — small bits of octopus, hearty noodle and salty katsuobushi with a sweet basil pesto twist.
What the shushoku lacked, the spare ribs made up for perfectly with tender, fall-of-the-bone meat in a savory orange marmalade barbecue sauce. It’s a dish that I can always recommend, for it is not an acquired taste and would please every palate (except vegetarian ones) — just like Kiraku is the perfect middle-range restaurant that everyone would like, regardless of your preference to stay in the pork-belly zone or venture into the fermented-squid zone.
And if, by some miracle, you still have room after the shushoku (there’s always room for ice cream, right?), there’s grapefruit yogurt with fresh blueberries and green grapes. The tartness woke me right up from my food coma, a bright note that kept me smiling all the way home in the crisp air of the Berkeley night.
Kiraku is located at 2566 Telegraph Ave. Call 510-848-2758 to make reservations.