Let the chef cooks for you at Delage, which is defined by an elevated dining experience and a stress-free environment.
The food court was packed with diners loudly enjoying their orders from one of the many specialty purveyors that have turned Swan’s Market into an Old Oakland hotspot. If you were hungry for Cosecha’s shrimp tacos, AS B-Dama’s chicken kara age, or a Hen House pizza with a glass of Periscope Cellars Deep 6 red, plus the frantic energy and close quarters of a clown car, this was the place to be on a mild, intermittently rainy October Friday night.
Our destination, one door west, was full, too. But in this case, that meant about 18 people seated at a half-dozen tables and a short sushi counter. One empty table for two awaited us next to the window. From the outside, Delage looked like a haven of tranquility, not just by comparison with the bustling market, but by just about any standard. That impression was reinforced as we entered, and it was sustained throughout the 2 1⁄2 hours we spent savoring that evening’s eight-course omakase (chef’s choice) meal.
Delage—pronounced duh-lahj (as in the early 20th-century French luxury automobile) or del-ah-gay (from a Japanese nickname)—is many things: the high-end spin-off of AS B-Dama, owner Chikara Ono’s standard-setting izakaya-style counter next door; an upscale destination that doesn’t charge you an arm and a leg to accept whatever the chef has decided to send your way on a given evening, unless you think a pair of your appendages is worth only 65 bucks; a virtual trip to a Tokyo or Kyoto hideaway where the obsessive proprietor decorates the dark, stressed-wood walls with vintage LP covers and plays old jazz, blues, and R&B from a cassette player; and the new restaurant that offers the most elevated dining experience in the most stress-free environment in town.
Ono, his chefs—Mikiko Ando, Kaoru Ishii (sushi), and Siew-Chinn Chin (pastry)—and his servers pull this off by turning a one-trick pony—the same set-price dinner for everybody in the house—into a beautifully choreographed team effort. It is refreshingly devoid of the hallmarks of all-too-many chef-centric tasting-menu restaurants, such as over-the-top formality that makes you feel like they’re doing you the favor by granting you a place at their table, pretentious ingredient deconstruction and presentation that make the pleasures of eating seem secondary to deciphering the art, and pricing that excludes 99 percent of the dining public.
Granted, a flat rate of $65, which, with the addition of a glass or two of beer, wine, or sake, can easily balloon to $90 or more per person, before gratuity, is still beyond the means of many. But given the extraordinary dish-to-dish-to-dish quality, given the setting, and given that you can pay $150 to $200 or more for a similarly formatted meal at several places in San Francisco, to paraphrase Pete Townshend, I’d call Delage a bargain.
Because she is less than enamored with raw fish and certain other delicacies of the sea, Robin ceded her accompanying role to our friend Carolyn, an attorney who knows something about fine dining, as her clients include a half dozen Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurants. Although we oohed and aahed over the gorgeous arrangements on unique dinnerware crafted by local ceramicists Bradley Holmes and Marisa Burman, Carolyn and I were most blown away by the range of clean, defined, subtle, and complex flavors and textures of each dish.
The meal started with a tiny amuse bouche of maguro (bluefin tuna) sashimi with three dime-size slivers of cucumber and a thick whisper of sesame. The eight formal courses began with a small salad composed with end-of-the-season cherry tomatoes and plums, willowy greens, bright blossoms, crisp radishes, shiso pesto, and honey-yuzu foam. Like everything that followed, its prettiness made it look not “too good to eat” but rather irresistibly appetizing. That was especially true of the next course, a stunning “surf and turf” presentation: On one side of the platter, a square of salmon was laid atop a rectangular block of Himalayan salt; on the side, a square of seared Miyazaki beef rested on a charred wooden plank. The raw salmon absorbed some saltiness as it cured on the block (our server cautioned us against letting sit too long) and it gained a hint of sweetness from small triangles of fruit and a trace of heat from dots of candied jalapeno. The beef was richly marbled and topped with sprouts and slivers of onion. It was all the meat I needed.
Courses three and six were sushi sets. The first round brought four nigiri—expertly sliced toro (fatty tuna), barracuda, pompano, and mackerel; the second set included leaner maguro, scallop, and Hamachi, again impeccably prepared, plus a little sushi rice bowl with more toro, green onion, and soy geleé—a kind super-miniature chirashi. The fish was all breathtakingly fresh, served on perfectly pearly cushions of rice that held together without being clumpy or pasty. Each piece of nigiri was delicately garnished with various bits that added hints of spicy, savory, herbal, and umami flavors—the only accompaniment on the plate being folds of ginger; no separate soy or wasabi needed.
Between the sushi sets, an “intermezzo” yuzu-pomegranate granite cleansed our palates in advance of two more seafood courses. First was a duo of local sardine, adorned by microgreens and lime, and fresh squid stuffed with squid ink rice and accented with a sweet-tart goji berry. Then came one of the two best scallops I’ve ever eaten (the other was in San Sebastian, Spain). This one, a plump mollusk from Hokkaido, was seared, sliced into three sections, lightly dressed with toasted nori-herbed breadcrumbs, and plated with vivid, al dente broccolini and kabu (turnip).
In traditional fashion, the meal’s final savory dish was soup, but instead of miso, this bowl was filled with mushroom broth, a slice of halibut, scallions, and matsutake and other mushrooms. While the fish courses offered myriad flavors of the sea, the soup, like the salad and the small slice of beef, showed off the innumerable tastes that arise one way or another from the loamy earth. The Delage kitchen teased them out, balanced, enhanced, and showcased them in profoundly satisfying ways.
Liberty Duck Tsukemen.
Our server provided spot-on descriptions of the Scribe Sylvaner wine and the three sakes—one each of daiginjo, ginjo, and junmai—that we tried, and helped us pair them with the first and second halves of the dinner. The selection is limited but the pours were generous and the quality superb.
I can take or leave most desserts, but I’d look forward to finishing another Delage meal with the same scoop of matcha–honey yogurt sherbet in a pool of strawberry coulis next to a ribbon of poached apple, with a ginger snap balanced between. It was the kind of unfussy but ingeniously harmonized medley of flavors and mouth-feel that characterized everything that had been brought to our table. And things had come our way with relaxed but almost Swiss-watch-precision timing, the only glitches were the simultaneously delivery of the amuse bouche and the first course and the presentation of the check before we’d finished. On this last note, I admit we were the only dawdling diners remaining, and the kitchen was already cleaning up, but in our defense, the meal was the kind of transcendent experience you never want to end.
Japanese. 536 Ninth St., Oakland, 510-823-2050. Fixed-price omakase dinner $65 (variable). Beer $6-$9, wine by the glass $10-$13, sake by the glass $8-$11.50, by the bottle $25 (375 ml)-$95 (750 ml). Serves dinner Tue.–Sat. 5:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m., www.DelageOakland.com CC☎$$$$
Published online on Dec. 2, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.