Restaurant Review: Craft Izakaya

Chef Jey Oh brings destination-worthy sushi to Krog Street

When I was in high school, Sushi Huku was my family's go-to Japanese restaurant because it reminded my parents of Tokyo, where they met. I learned about Japanese dining customs at Huku, and how beautiful raw fish could be when transformed by deft hands. I also learned how raucous the sushi bar experience could be as I watched my father jest with owner/chef Kimio Fukuya in Japanese. There was often beer and/or sake involved. When Fukuya sold his restaurant to a Korean family, the Ohs, in 2007, I was skeptical the restaurant would retain its magic and dependability. I was especially dubious considering the family's young son, Jerome (who goes by Jey), who had been working at Japanese restaurants in the Bay area, would be the chef. How could a Korean dude in his mid-twenties possibly compare to an old Japanese master like Fukuya?

Oh won over the existing customer base, of which many were Japanese expats, by showcasing how true his cooking was to classic Japanese technique. He largely stuck to Huku's tried-and-true formula. Every time I had his fish — especially omakase-style where the chef creates a custom, coursed-out meal at a fixed price — it was clear he had surpassed his predecessor. When the announcement came in March 2014 that Oh would open a hip izakaya at Krog Street Market, it felt like a natural next step.

At six-month-old Craft Izakaya, Oh and Richard Tang, who runs the front of the house, are doing things differently. The restaurant's concept is relatively true to that of a classic izakaya — a Japanese pub centered on food that goes well with lots of booze. But there are also marks of Oh's Korean background, such as the irreverent use of fermented red pepper paste gochujang in one of the dipping sauces for the yakitori (vegetables, meats, and other parts grilled on a skewer over binchotan charcoal). While the standard plates like chicken yakisoba noodles and tempura will appease the masses, Oh's sushi, omakase, and lighter dishes are what make the restaurant destination-worthy.

The menu's oversize, glossy black pages are crammed with a collage of generic-looking izakaya dishes. The format felt oddly permanent given how much Oh values seasonality and creativity. But Oh says he wanted the menu to seem approachable to everyone, even those who don't eat fish. And, it is.

The menu is filled with hot and cold izakaya standards served steamed, grilled, fried, and raw. There is chewy and crunchy geso karaage, a plate of fried squid legs you swipe through mayo. In an order of ika sugata, a whole squid is cut into rings and grilled just enough to maintain its tenderness. When Craft first opened, the yakitori was average, sometimes undercooked with no char. But a new yakitori chef started in the past month and he has the sear down.

Many of the dishes are both fun and light, such as the crispy rice topped with flying fish roe and spicy chopped tuna. Others, such as the quail egg and the chewy Korean rice cakes slathered in a gochujang-laced sauce, are just fun. Either way, both are just what you want when you're tossing back a bottle of sake. Oh is adept at layering soft flavors to create dishes that taste complex. The soul-soothing ikura umeshiso ochazuke — a clear broth of dashi- and green tea-based soup filled with rice, hunks of salmon, and ikura (roe) — showcases Oh's refined hand. The chawan mushi, a sexy silken egg custard steamed in a ceramic bowl with scallops, shrimp, and ginkgo nut, is pitch-perfect. Some items are less successful, such as the glutinous, gloppy duck and rice cake ball, and the hamachi kama that was tiny for the price ($14.95) and overwhelmingly fishy.

It may seem strange considering this is an izakaya, but sushi and omakase are what I eat most at Craft. It was Oh's omakase that converted me from a Fukuya fan to an Oh believer at Huku, after all. Oh may serve rolls, but he serves them with restraint. You won't find any sushi rolls covered in slabs of fish and sauces. It's also worth mentioning that the man has his sushi rice down. It is vinegary, creamy, and al dente enough to provide a sturdy foundation for the parade of magnificent fish he procures. Omakase is undoubtedly the best way to sample Oh's sushi skills.

The omakase is an off-the-menu order available whenever the restaurant is not too busy. Don't order it at 8 p.m. on a busy Saturday. The cost starts at $75 and can rise depending on how hungry you are, but the food and Oh's passionate interactions with diners borders on magical. If you are debating the cost, it can be a splurge you can save for a special occasion, but it is worth it.

I don't often dream about sashimi after the fact. It's more often a thing I eat when I am on a health-kick and trying to avoid rice. But the way Oh delicately crafted paper-thin slices of flounder into a rose dotted with pickled wasabi stems during one night of omakase was so simple and perfect, I dared not disrupt its delicateness with even a drop of soy sauce. The dish I can't stop thinking about, however, was one of our final omakase courses one night: a small bowl of his excellent rice, mountain yam, uni, salmon roe, sesame oil, fried garlic chili oil, crispy rice, and shredded nori. As you press the back of a small wooden spoon against the bright orange roe, the eggs pop, seasoning the rice already made creamy by the uni and sticky yam. It's a symphony of briny sweetness in your mouth, accented with crunches of crispy rice and slivered toasted nori. As the garlic chili oil sears the back of your throat, it's a reminder that you're eating Japanese food made by a confident Korean chef.

Cute is the only way to describe the preciousness of a small dark brown teapot filled with matsutake mushroom broth, tiny scallops, shrimp, chicken, and a ginkgoo nut that was served one night during the ever-changing omakase. To eat, you pour the broth into a tiny matching teacup and sip. Right away it overwhelms the senses with the aroma of pine needles, the traces of sea, and the decadence of the scallops and shrimp. When the broth is gone, fish the sweet seafood, chicken, and a lone ginkgo nut out of the pot with chopsticks.

The bar is a central part of an izakaya, but in my experience, the mixed drinks on Craft's extensive cocktail menu are either too strong or too sweet. If these unbalanced extremes don't bother you, the bar makes an electric blue drink called Gorilla Whale. It's a boozy boba (like the boba you get in bubble tea) concoction you see in the hands of many crowded around Craft's constantly packed bar that opens to the market's interior. My favorite drink is really not a drink at all, but a punchy uni shot. A tiny glass is filled with extra dry sake, house-cured ikura, ponzu sauce, and raw quail egg. The whole thing is crowned with a piece of uni on the rim. But when I go to an izakaya, I don't want a fancy cocktail. I want beer and sake, and there are plenty of well-sourced craft selections and imports.

Craft is a casual place that never fails to make me feel happy and relaxed. It doesn't take itself too seriously and it fills a void for intown Japanese. Depending on which path you take, your check can climb, but it is easy to spend less and feel satisfied with a couple of dishes, a little nigiri, and a pint of beer. Given a menu that seems almost too generic at first glance, it is easy to pass Craft off as just another intown Japanese restaurant with OK drinks, appealing to the California roll-loving masses. But if you know where to look and what to order, you'll find a passionate and innovative chef with commitment to his work and some of the best Japanese food — with a little Korean wink — our city has to offer. (3 out of 5 stars)

Editor's Note: This story has been updated. Jey Oh is chef at Craft Izakaya. Young and Eunice Oh are the owners.

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