Chikara Ono is no stranger to introducing relatively little-known Japanese foods to East Bay diners. He’s the co-owner of Masabaga, whose katsu-style tuna belly burger and yakisoba pan are dishes you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the East Bay. His Swan’s Market izakaya, B-Dama, was a pioneer in Oakland in terms of bringing creative takes on inexpensive Japanese comfort foods into the mainstream.
Now, Ono is planning another first: the Bay Area’s first restaurant specializing in Japanese black curry.
The restaurant will be called Dela Curo, which roughly translates as “super black” in Japanese, Ono says. The chef hopes to open the curry shop sometime in November at a yet-to-be-finalized location in Oakland.
What, then, is the difference between Japanese black curry and the more typical versions of Japanese curry that you can find around the Bay Area? Apart from its striking color, Ono’s black curry has a more velvety, sauce-like texture than your average curry. It’s also a little bit sweeter (from a preponderance of caramelized onions) and lighter on the palate, Ono says. And instead of the standard potatoes and carrots, Ono’s less starchy version features mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and, in the standard version, chunks of wagyu-style beef.
The result, Ono says, is a gravy that’s halfway between a standard Japanese curry and a demi-glace — one that’s delicious over plain white rice, as all Japanese curries are, but also especially well suited to be used as a sauce for other foods such as eggs and meat, since it’s less likely to overwhelm the other ingredients.
Case in point: The headliner will probably be Dela Curo’s omucurry, in which the jet-black curry gets ladled over omurice — a soft-cooked omelette that’s swaddled around a mound of white rice like a tender, eggy blanket. The black curry goes extraordinarily well with eggs, Ono says. It’s also a good complement for meat, so another highlight will be the katsu curry, in which the curry functions as a dipping sauce for panko-fried pork.
There will be seafood-based black curry, too, and a version that features fried chicken (dredged and spiced “American-style,” Ono says). A couple of salads will round out the menu.
Ono says he’s been wanting to open a Japanese curry restaurant for some time now, but the problem with the particular style of black curry that Ono wanted to serve is that it’s extremely time-consuming to prepare. The blackness of the curry comes from the many hours it takes to cook down each of the individual ingredient components until they take on that color — for the onions to get as dark and caramelized as Ono wants them to be, and for the flour roux and the spices to also develop that black hue.
The recipe was also difficult to scale up: Ono says it might take him six hours to make a batch that could feed 20 people — enough to run as a special at one of his other restaurants, but not nearly enough to supply a stand-alone curry shop.
The solution came when Ono found a supplier in Japan that makes black curry roux blocks — a version of those pre-made bricks that anyone who has made Japanese curry at home is familiar with. According to Ono, the company, called Heiwa, is the behind-the-scenes supplier for a number of hotels and restaurants in Japan that are famous for their black curry. And he says the curry he makes using the roux blocks — adding additional vegetables and spices to the mix — tastes even better, and more consistent, than the versions he’d been making from scratch. “I can make it good, but every time it tastes a little different,” Ono says. “It’s hard to keep the same quality.”
In terms of the restaurant’s actual storefront, one possibility, Ono says, is that Dela Curo could take over the Swan’s Market space currently occupied by B-Dama, which has been closed throughout the shelter in place. In addition, starting in November, Ono plans to add the curry to the menu at the Berkeley Bowl West Cafe, which he has been operating as a takeout and delivery hub for his various restaurants during the pandemic.
In the meantime, curry fans should keep their eyes peeled for a series of Dela Curo pop-ups that the chef is planning to host at Masabaga and Delage (Ono’s sushi restaurant in Old Oakland) toward the end of October. Check the Delage and Dela Curo Instagram pages for the latest updates.