Features /September 8, 2015
Words: Alanna Hale
Collaborator Photos: Nora Lowinsky
A wood door, posted paper menus, and the painted number 82 quietly welcome you to Izakaya Rintaro. As you enter, what is most striking is its open kitchen, classic to izakaya restaurants, and a counter made of a single slab of cedar (hinoki) hugging the exposed kitchen. Guests are settled in at booths designed and built by owner and chef, Sylvan Mishima Brackett’s father, a former temple woodworker from Kyoto. I take my seat at the counter next to a looming arrangement of foraged magnolias.
Brackett’s love for cooking began early on when he started a pop-up restaurant in high school, serving up everything from curry to spaghetti. He is an alum of the Bay Area’s famed Chez Panisse, having worked as Alice Waters’ assistant for years and later handling creative direction for her legendary Berkeley restaurant. After years of travel to Japan, he ventured into Japanese cooking with his own catering business Peko Peko, whose success led him to open Rintaro.
The vibe is laid-back, airy. The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” plays as I sip a champagne cocktail with kumquat shu and watch Brackett and his Japanese cooks work the izakaya line.
The first food I try is a yakitori classic: skewered meatballs. The tsukune meatballs are juicy, grilled to perfection with sweet onion inside, seasoned with a savory spice mix and made with pasture-raised chicken from a local favorite, Riverdog Farm. Next up is the yosedofu, a dish that looks like fresh mozzarella but is actually freshly made silken tofu, topped with scallions and garnished with katsuo (bonito flakes), fresh ground ginger and soy sauce. The yosedofu is a perfect palate cleanser, but can also be considered a meal in and of itself. The gindara sunomono, which includes miso-cured black cod sourced from nearby Bolinas, is topped with chilled cucumber in sweet vinegar. The fresh cucumber, crunchy yet softened by the vinegar, pairs perfectly with the richness of the black cod.
Sipping my Asahi, I'm thinking the meal could not get any better when out comes the chiizu tori katsu, breaded fried chicken breast with a special surprise of Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel cheese melted inside. The crunchy, breaded, and moist katsu coupled with the slightly tart and buttery taste of the melted cheese form an indelible bond in your mouth that only strengthens with each bite, sided with a fresh and simple cabbage salad and thinly sliced radishes. The teuchi udon, a nourishing broth of hand-rolled noodles, egg, and perfectly cooked Liberty duck, concludes my last savory course. I watch Brackett handle the udon himself the entire evening, so it feels only right to end with noodles touched by the chef’s hands. My dessert is simple and flawless, a traditional confection of homemade walnut mochi served with kuromitsu syrup. The other guests, those sitting at the counter with me and others nestled in their traditional Japanese high-backed booths, appear both animated and relaxed, savoring the craftsman’s work and the cultural and culinary synthesis that Brackett has brought to life.