For my good friend Laura's birthday we decided to try out the Berkeley sushi landmark that is Kirala. I'm not sure why we hadn't tried this place out earlier but we were finally able to check it off on the list of things to-do before graduation in spring '08.
Before I continue i should let the reader know that I am by no means a sushi expert. Novice would be an apt description of my case when it comes to Japanese style cuisine, and plenty of other topics to be honest. Alcohol also falls in the amateur category. Yet while I may not have a great deal of experience in these arenas, I still think I have good taste. But that's probably just my arrogance and the sake speaking.
We decided to try a tasting of three of their sakes. My favorite was the one on the left. It tasted very clean and fresh, with floral fruit flavors. Kind of like spring. The one in the middle I found to be rather bland. Not bad, but just not very interesting. I'm not really sure how to classify it but I just attributed it with what I guess to be a "sake" taste. The third one on the right was fun. It had sweet autumn tones that reminded me of pears and persimmons. Of the limited sampling of alcohols that I had tried up till that point in my post 21 career, I found sake to be one of my favorites. It just tasted crisp and clean and I liked how a variety of flavors shined through.
The meal began with the seemingly obligatory miso soup and spinach salad which was swimming in some sort of (perhaps soy? I don't really remember) vinaigrette. I have nothing against starting the meal like this, in fact I'm rather fond of the drinking soup without a spoon ritual, I just didn't really like drinking the salad too.
Next up came a round of appetizeresque selections starting with Shishito. While the description of grilled Japanese bell peppers topped with bonito flakes sounded tasty, the dish itself proved otherwise. I didn't find the bell peppers to be particularly yummy and thought they were actually a bit too charred. The super salty bonito flakes and minced ginger doused in soy sauce didn't help any either. Take it easy on the sodium, guys!
Grilled mushrooms were nothing fancy but quite good.
Here's where the meal began to gain a little momentum. The grilled scallops were topped with a creamy buerre blanc type sauce that had mild garlicky tones. The topiko added a nice splash of color, taste and texture variation. Overall this was one of my favorites of the evening and a definite must order in my book.
The sashimi was gorgeous. Thick, succulent slices of albacore and red tuna were delectable. The only fault one might be able to find with the dish if they were super nitpicky is that the cuts on a few of the pieces were a little jagged. Other than that, delicious.
We ordered some unagi as well since we are all big fans. It was good but the flesh seemed a little mushy and watery. But again, i don't eat Japanese food often enough to make a sound comparison to other times that I have had unagi and its texture.
This dish, the hamachi kama or yellowtail collar, was by far the star of the evening. It took a good 25 or 30 minutes to grill until the skin was perfectly crisp on the outside and the meat was moist and delicious. In an ideal world I would probably eat this at least once a day. Then again, in my ideal world I would have a voracious appetite, eat around 10 meals a day and manage not to become obese.
Having polished off the hamachi kama in half the time it took to make we decided we wanted more! We also sadly decided that unless they could prepare another one in about the same amount of time it took us to devour the first then we would probably have to go with something else. Alas we settled for the two dishes above. The first was a boring and unattractive spicy tuna and the second was a spicy octopus appetizer. The tuna was poor. There was hardly any fish in the roll and even if there had been it would have been impossible to taste due to the aggressiveness of the cayenne pepper. The octopus suffered from a similar problem. Although I am generally a big fan of spicy food, I thought they should have chosen a milder approach with both dishes. The heat was too much for the seafood to handle well.
We ended the meal properly with dessert. We had the mango pudding and the sweet potato pie. Both were very good. One bite of the mango pudding and you knew that it had to have been made with the real thing. It also lacked that eerie orange glow that's characteristic of out of the box mango puddings. The sweet potato pie was a lot of fun. It was like a pumpkin pie but denser and with a thinner crust. The spices were similar with cinnamon and possibly some nutmeg. I felt it was a perfect autumn dessert but I wouldn't be opposed in the least to having this pie in the spring or summer. I'm sure it would be a great way to end a summer evening BBQ.
The dinner at Kirala had its ups and downs. All things considered, including a price tag of around $130 for 3 (keep in mind that I'm a starving, err not so much after the meal I guess, college student) I felt that it was a good meal but nothing to rave about. Would I go again? Most likely yes. But I would be tempted to try other Japanese restaurants in the area before I made Kirala my go to. If you do go, consider sitting at the bar. You get to watch the chefs prepare the sushi and man the grill. Also definitely order the scallops, the hamachi kama and any of their sashimi.