By his own account, chef Kyle Itani doesn’t consider himself as a sushi chef. He lived briefly in Japan and studied Japanese food for years — and understands Japanese foods, flavors, and traditions — but he identifies as yonsei, meaning fourth-generation Japanese American. His childhood was filled with both American and Japanese foods, “mixed together in different ways,” he says. For example, his Sicilian mom’s chicken cacciatore, which he ate over steamed rice rather than pasta. It’s this freedom, not being beholden to food traditions, that influences the way Itani’s approaching the menu at his new restaurant, Yonsei Handrolls, in Oakland. “This gave me kind of a pass to be able to do my thing, approach it in the way I like to do it,” Itani says, chuckling.
Expect some changes from what one may expect at a “traditional” hand roll bar, which, for what it’s worth was invented in Los Angeles, anyways. Yonsei Handrolls is on Telegraph Avenue, next door to Itani’s other restaurants Itani Ramen and Nikkei Sushi (which he runs along with Hopscotch), just across the street from the Fox Theater. Itani and his team were initially using the neighboring space to prep sushi, and while there were early plans to turn the space into a grab-and-go market, Itani says local offices have been slow to come back — so he shifted ideas. “I thought, ‘Well, let’s create some kind of destination restaurant, get some people down here,” he says.
The attraction for that new restaurant is the popular hand roll, done in Itani’s style. There are more familiar hand rolls and prepared fish, such as the zuke maguro, but with tweaks. Rather than marinating slices of ahi tuna for a brief time, Itani soy-cures blocks of tuna loin for 24 hours to get the marinade all the way into the center of the fish. For more creative options, Itani points to the seared albacore hand roll; while Itani acknowledges seared albacore is a common appetizer at sushi restaurants, his version uses a black garlic compound butter that he torches, then adds on pickled red onions, layering different flavors onto the seasoned sushi rice. A salmon hand roll, meanwhile, is topped with sesame seeds and lemon supremes, for a bright bite of citrus against the richness of the salmon, Itani says. It’s what you’d expect from a traditional sushi experience, but also with some “out there, big flavors.”
A brief list of starters pairs with the hand rolls but continue with Itani’s theme of delivering big flavor. The hiyashi tofu, for instance, is served cold but with pickled wasabi stems to give it “a really surprising punch of flavor.” The hamachi carpaccio uses fennel oil, black garlic salt, and a little bit of serrano chili for heat. “These dishes should all be pretty impactful to start off with, and this is setting the tone for what the hand rolls are about to be,” Itani says.
On the drink side, while sister restaurant Itani Ramen serves a number of cocktails — and shares a few drinks with Yonsei — the focus at the new spot will be takes on classic cocktails that lend themselves well to sushi, Itani shares. For example, the Roku Negroni uses Roku gin made in Japan, but adds in Campari, Montenegro, umeshu, and red vermouth. There will be Japanese whisky available, as well as sake selections by the glass, carafe, or a flight of three made for pairing with hand rolls.
The space was created as a contrast to Itani Ramen, with a darker interior; 1990s hip hop will play over the speakers, Itani promises, and neon signage hangs inside with red-hued photographs of Japan to match. And while there is no sushi counter to speak of — this will be more of a restaurant-style setup, as opposed to a bar with chefs preparing sushi at an open kitchen — this, like everything else at Yonsei, is how Itani prefers things. “I like sitting at a sushi bar, but you’re so tied into what’s going on at the sushi bar and Yonsei to me is, ‘Alright, we’re here with friends, let’s get a bottle of sake, let’s hang out,’” Itani says. “I like that vibe of having it more focused on the company you’re dining with.”
Yonsei Handrolls (1738 Telegraph Avenue) debuted Wednesday, October 12 and will be open 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.