David Liu’s face lights up when he talks about the differences between masago smelt roe and ikura, the marigold-hued salmon eggs that are considered a delicacy. He pours this passion for pristine fish and artful, modern presentations into Ebiko, the takeout-only sushi spot he opened in September on Piedmont Avenue, in the former Gaylord’s Coffee space.
After just a few weeks, Ebiko has already gained a following for its super-fresh, ever-changing selection of nigiri sushi, rolls, and bowls — all offered at modest prices. “There’s not a lot of grab-and-go places that are super fresh and affordable,” Liu says. On a typical day, the cold case features little cups of uni, or sea urchin, with Japanese cucumber, black masago, and orange salmon roe atop sushi rice; eel nigiri and pale pink seared salmon aburi nigiri topped with a sprinkle of black roe that glistens like tiny seed beads. The artfully composed kaisen don rice box topped with crab meat, sashimi slices, and ikura is always graced with an edible viola blossom.
The omakase nigiri is a seven-piece selection that varies through the week according to what’s fresh. The set often includes salmon, bluefin tuna, otoro bluefin tuna belly, hamachi with a dab of yuzu kosho, and sea scallop, along with wasabi and pickled ginger. Rolls include eel, spicy tuna, vegetarian futomaki, and salmon avocado, all tightly wrapped.
Each day brings a new special. One day it’s a spicy salmon roll, another time it’s a bowl with chutoro, or medium fatty tuna poke topped with scallions; sometimes it’s a deluxe kaisen don, a bowl of a sweet shrimp with heads included, bright orange salmon roe, sea urchin, red crab, and slices of salmon, sea scallop, and hamachi atop a bed of sushi rice.
If you have the impression that Ebiko’s salmon nigiri, tsukemono pickle sampler, or edamame, are the freshest you’ve tasted, it’s because Liu and his team make everything fresh daily onsite. “You’re not going to find a huge variety of fish here, but we go through everything we have pretty quickly,” Liu says. “We try to make the fish as fresh as possible.” In the coming weeks, he’ll be adding hot donburi curry to the menu, along with sushi party platters. Ebiko also stocks a range of snacks like wasabi peas, Pocky, savory and sweet Pretz, Mhapi Sriracha-flavored peas, Calbee shrimp chips, and white truffle potato chips to satisfy any Japanese snack craving. Liu also offers an eclectic selection of Japanese drinks including trendy Hojicha iced tea, iced coffee, soft drinks from Kimino and Ramune, plus Izumu MTN WTR, alkaline water from Mt. Fuji.
Liu grew up surrounded by raw fish at Kyoto Sushi, the traditional takeout sushi restaurant in Berkeley that his mother, Mei, has run for the past 25 years. And like a typical kid, he hated fish. “It was always in front of me,” he says. His go-tos then were nori rolls or maybe California rolls. But when he went to college to study economics at University of California, Davis, Liu realized that sushi was pretty cool. “I discovered sashimi when I was away from my family,” he says. “Getting older and you come back, then you try new things.”
Though his mom is still going strong at 71, Liu says the realization that she’ll retire relatively soon inspired him to continue the family’s sushi legacy. He appreciates the way his mother worked so hard to support his family. “I always knew I wanted to own my own business, but there was also fear of doing so because I’ve seen the amount of work my mom had to put into her business over the years,” he says. “But I’m doing this now because I’ve seen how a restaurant can create positive energy for everyone around it: our customers, my employees, my family and me.”
Ebiko (4150 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland) is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday.