Ah, the fleeting pleasures of summer! The slower pace, the longer light, the ability to get a table in Oakland without jostling with hordes of hungry students! It's not that we resent them. Not at all. They're just like us, only without the wrinkles, the dark circles, the balding and the graying. Small differences, imperceptible really. It's just that there are so many more of them than there are of us, and we like to be on a waiting list that's shorter than the wine list. But in the end, we're all out looking for the same thing: good food at a good price.
Enter Oishii Bento, Oakland's newest spot for when your appetite is turning Japanese. (If you know this reference, we've successfully dated ourselves.) "Oishii" means "delicious," so we were optimistic as we took in our surroundings. The freshly painted storefront and the first floor, featuring a tiny sushi counter and a couple tables, are pleasant enough. But upstairs is where Oishii sets itself apart from its quick-food neighbors. Here bamboo floors and pistachio- and sunflower-colored walls reflect the light in exotic ways. A windowsill-height built-in turns out to be not a bench, but a low counter with colorful cloth cubes for seating, an enticing reference to Japanese-style dining.
The menu concentrates on the familiar favorites of Japanese cuisine in America -- teriyaki, tempura, sushi -- plus a few Korean dishes for variety and spice. Since Japanese food tends to be mildly seasoned (with the crucial exception of sinus-searing wasabi), those who crave a little heat might consider Oishii's Korean bulgogi (grilled meat) or bibimbab (rice bowl with meat and/or veggies).
We spiced up our meal with pork bulgogi from the "bento" section of the menu. A bento is the quintessential Japanese lunch, served in a box divided into tiny compartments to contain and separate its myriad components. At Oishii, this bento concept is extended to one of our favorite Korean dishes, which arrived accompanied by Japanese pickles, a pair of fried dumplings and a delightful little salad of cold translucent noodles mixed with grated carrot in a mildly sweet-and-sour dressing. We would love to see this tasty salad offered a la carte on the "sides" list of the menu. The bulgogi itself was excellent: Tender strips of pork mingled with onions, mushrooms and scallions in a spicy but not overwhelming sauce. The rice -- in its own compartment, of course -- was the ideal sticky texture for picking up with chopsticks and, like the noodle salad, sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Our tempura side dish was substantial, with three big shrimp and four vegetables, all lightly battered and fried. The shrimp looked as if some panko -- Japanese breadcrumbs -- had been added to the batter, a nice, crunchy touch, which helped the tempura hold up in its traditional dipping sauce. The veggies -- onion ring, zucchini, carrot and broccoli -- were each cooked to their individual thresholds of tender-crisp. We were especially impressed by the broccoli, which in our experience is a temperamental tempura subject, frequently too firm or too soft in its batter coating. Oishii got it just right.
The same, unfortunately, could not be said of the gyoza (fried shrimp and vegetable dumplings), which were offered without any dipping sauce save a packet of soy. Deep-frying rather than pan-frying resulted in light, crunchy wrappers not unlike fried-chicken skin. The shrimp-vegetable interior was overly processed into a bland, fluffy stuffing.
Finally, we tried the handiwork of sushi chef Sihyuk Choi. Although not a sushi bar as such, Oishii offers more than a dozen types and combinations. We picked the sushi plate, which consists of six nigiri -- slices of raw fish on rice balls -- selected from seven options. The rice itself was excellent, subtly sweet and sticky, but not too dense. The fish, including salmon, tuna, yellowtail and eel, was fresh-tasting and tender yet firm. The tuna was on the pale side -- neither maguro-red nor toro-pink -- but tasted fine, especially considering the price, which worked out to just over a dollar per piece.
On our next visit we'll try the Oishii Roll, which consists of spicy shrimp tempura and smoked salmon with "house special sauce." We have reason to believe that, like the restaurant itself, it will live up to its name.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars