Lately, handrolls have gone from occasional sushi menu extras to featured players. At Uptown Oakland’s Yonsei Handrolls, they’re the star of the show.
Handrolls aren’t traditionally Japanese. Instead they’re a mashup of Japanese heritage and American innovation—just like fourth-generation chef Kyle Itani, who blasted onto the East Bay culinary scene in 2012 with his upscale American-Japanese diner, Hopscotch. The restaurant’s name, Yonsei, the term used for the fourth generation of Japanese immigrants, says it all.
Next door to Itani’s eponymous ramen spot, Yonsei sports a minimalist design. Two dozen seats fill the small space, bare concrete below, bamboo-slats and naked bulbs above. A sleek neon sign casts blue and red light on walls hung with photos of curious restaurant moments Itani encountered on his many visits to Japan.
The minimalist vibe at Yonsei Handrolls.(Ed Anderson)
On a Wednesday night, every seat in the restaurant is taken, despite the fact that they’re taking only reservations at the moment. A friend’s last-minute cancellation has me flying solo but I can tell immediately that I won’t be fielding any side-eyes at this friendly neighborhood joint.
By offering three different “omaka sets” of five handrolls each, Yonsei makes it exceptionally easy to order. Even better, they’re more than happy to switch out an item or two, whether you have a food allergy or just have your eye on one of the a la carte rolls. I settle on the mid-range Yonsei ($31)—though the Baller ($52), which comes with top-shelf ingredients like lobster and wagyu, is awfully tempting.
On my server’s recommendation, I kick things off with the hamachi carpaccio, three thinly sliced pieces of fish drizzled in fennel oil, ponzu, and black garlic salt. It’s just the right balance of salt and sour with a touch of mouth-puckering zing. I’m not joking when I ask her if it would be inappropriate to sip the leftover ponzu from my plate (spoiler: it would be).
One after another, the rolls make their way to my table. Wrapped in broad rectangles of seaweed, they look as much like tacos as they do sushi. I devour them to the rhythm of the ‘90s hip hop that fills the space, starting with a soy-cured ahi tuna.
A selection of starters and rolls at Yonsei Handrolls.(Ed Anderson)
It’s hard to choose a favorite from the spread. The albacore and black garlic roll is meaty and deeply seared, almost nutty in its medley. The spicy tuna roll kicks subtly with a satisfying, briney tempura crunch. The crab roll is delicately dressed with zippy mayo. I pipe drops of the housemade, shitake-infused soy sauce on each, sprinkling them with wasabi and ginger.
A full bar accompanies the food menu. Six accessible sakes run the gamut from earth-toned to juicy, and there are both affordable options like Suntory Toki and fancy-pants bottles like Yamazaki 18 among the half-dozen Japanese whiskies. Cocktails veer towards the classic—highballs, G&Ts, negronis, and the like.
I can’t leave without trying dessert and, once again, Itani’s made it easy. There’s just one choice: olive oil cake with yuzu curd and candied almonds. It’s moist and tangy and really, really good, like a lemon cupcake that’s fallen in love with the flavors of Japan.
The relative simplicity and efficiency of the meal have me in and out the doors within about an hour, just right for a mid-week dinner by myself. It’s a good thing, too. With the stream of reservations showing no sign of slowing, they need the table.
// Yonsei Handrolls is open 5pm to 9:30pm, Wednesday through Sunday;1738 Telegraph Ave. (Oakland), yonseihandrolls.com.