On Food

Pan-Asian Sensation

This article appeared in the February 2, 2001, issue of the East Bay Express.

6317 College Avenue, Oakland

By Eve Kushner

With remarkable synchronicity, two trendy tapas venues, À Côté and Grasshopper, have just opened in Rockridge. Both make bold decor statements with dominant, curving bars backed by glittering arrays of mirrors and glass. Each restaurant pushes a regional cuisine past its usual boundaries, both by miniaturizing traditional dishes into tapas portions and by mixing and matching the foods of different countries according to the tastes of the well-traveled owners. Both regularly pack in crowds, probably because each serves terrific dishes that don’t exist elsewhere in the East Bay.

Geisha on Chawan Zaka ("Teacup Hill") in Kyoto, Japan
Geisha on Chawan Zaka ("Teacup Hill") in Kyoto, Japan, in April 2002.

Despite such similarities, you won’t confuse the two. With soaring ceilings, huge windows, a spacious floor plan, and ethereal Asian fare, Grasshopper has a light, airy feel. By contrast, the baroque look of À Côté’s dimly lit close quarters, along with its cheese-laden French-inspired food, seems earthy and material. It could be a new sort of Rorschach test to see which of the two venues you find more appealing. This week I’ll cover Grasshopper’s offerings, next week À Côté’s.

The Grasshopper owners have combined and utterly transformed the spaces on College at Alcatraz that used to house Magnani Poultry and the gift shop A Little Something. When you walk into Grasshopper, you might notice first how cleared out it feels, with only a massive cedar post in the center of the room, an exhibition kitchen in back, a grill right at the bar, a bamboo banquette along one side of the room, and about twenty tables, most made of rich, gleaming found wood and bamboo. Cobbled together by local artists, these tables have a “window” of resin over various objects ranging from leaves, sesame seeds, and seaweed to Japanese candies. The dried anchovies seem an unfortunate choice, but otherwise the tables are a marvel.

Artwork reflects the owners’ eclectic experiences and passions. Paintings of tumultuous water and feuding lobsters attest to a love of surfing and the sea. Also rendered by local artists, the paintings tend to be Japanese in style, but they don’t look like any Japanese art I’ve ever seen. The works are exuberant and wild, suggestive of manga but actually influenced by the fact that the painters double as tattoo artists. Clearly the Grasshopper owners have approached their venture with playfulness, down to the name they chose. (Incidentally, the drawing on the menu and the window is of a grasshopper, not a Japanese character as one might think.)

When I lunched there with my friend Chris, it was the first day Grasshopper started serving lunch in addition to dinner, so we were one of only a few parties. We enjoyed the low-key atmosphere and even appropriated a second table to hold some of the plates we ordered. Tapas places rarely supply large tables, which is regrettable, because having too little room creates ongoing stress. Since we were spared this logistic difficulty, we felt nothing but pleased as fantastic food kept arriving on lovely pottery.

We inhaled every morsel from each dish at Grasshopper, Rockridge’s ethereal new restaurant.

The twenty menu items (some of which change daily and almost all of which change seasonally) represented a broad survey of Asian fare, from the Thai-spiced mahi wrapped in a banana leaf to the lime sambal (an Indonesian sauce) served with the fried calamari to the Vietnamese-inspired green papaya salad and such Japanese offerings as pork gyoza and miso soup. The pan-Asian selection reflects that owner-chef Donald Dellis (formerly of Cafe Rouge and Aqua) has traveled throughout Asia and has borrowed from all parts of the continent. The extensive list of unusual sakes derives from his co-owner’s Asian expertise; Frank Frietis, fluent in Japanese, buys all the sake for the restaurant. Another note about the menu: although the word spicy crops up regularly (as in “12-spice pork ribs” and “spicy fried rice with rock shrimp”), none of our allegedly spicy food presented much of a punch.

We chose from the large tea selection: hot green Hojicha ($3.00) for me and delicious, iced red rooibos ($2.00) for Chris, a master of trivia who happened to know that this tea hails from South Africa. Then we started with bar snacks. I have a thing about cashews, and Chris has a thing about pickles, but neither item we chose was like any we’ve tasted before. The fried cashews ($1.25) came dusted with an intriguing, salty seasoning that we couldn’t identify. The chef insisted on keeping the recipe secret, but he did divulge that it includes garlic and a bit of syrup. The housemade pickles ($2.00) were a brilliant, original offering, not least because they came in a rainbow of colors. Pickled in curry, the cauliflower had become a shocking yellow. Salt-cured baby turnips were white. The natural red dye of the red onions had softened to a pink during pickling. Chris lamented that there weren’t more varieties of veggies, and I agreed, but I was also quite impressed with what we got for $2.00.

Speaking of price, I had reservations about a miso soup that cost $5.50, but when it arrived my doubts disappeared immediately. It turned out to be a big portion—probably too much for one person—so we requested an extra bowl. It turned out to be the best miso soup either of us had ever had. With three large chunks of fried tofu, spinach leaves, and a rich, zesty broth, the soup was eminently satisfying. Chris attributed the wonderful flavor to oil in the broth. The blend seemed mystically perfect to me, and I didn’t want to analyze it further.

The salmon and Atlantic cod croquettes ($6.00) came as three sizable fried cubes with a nicely blended mélange of fish and diced red and yellow peppers inside. The bright yellow curry aioli succeeded as an inventive, flavorful accompaniment. Although we liked the croquettes well enough, neither of us saw fit to finish them.

A soba noodle salad ($5.75) caught our attention more. Chris initially found the mass of noodles somewhat slimy, but he adored the sautéed oyster mushrooms and deep-fried shiitakes. I didn’t mind the noodles’ texture, but I disliked the sharp accompanying taste of wasabi. Chris apparently rethought his position and asked if he could finish off the noodles. I gladly passed them on.

What had captured my heart by then was the flatiron steak salad ($7.25). The name made me envision a tostada, but the steak strips actually had no contact with the vegetables. Instead, pinkish meat radiated from a mound of lettuce and carrots in the corner. Peanut sauce drizzled here and there served as a perfect complement to both the veggies and the meat, making for a wonderful and thoroughly satisfying dish.

Although we had noshed our way through much of the menu, we still had room for dessert and chose a green tea parfait ($5.50). I thought it might come in a sundae glass and was initially disappointed by the small mound of ice cream. No matter—it was a soft, light dream of a dessert, and tangy satsuma oranges on top made it all the more fantastic. A side of azuki, or sweet red beans, also sparked my interest. All in all, we enjoyed a lovely if expensive lunch, paying $48 including tip.

Eager to see how Grasshopper checked out at dinner, I soon returned with my husband, Arif. The restaurant was almost entirely full but still felt relaxing and peaceful, and the server struck us as exceptionally competent. He took our order immediately and brought delicious food right away. Who could ask for more?

We began with the cashews and pickles and enjoyed them just as much as Chris and I had. The green papaya salad ($5.25) served as another refreshing starter. Presented as a gleaming haystack of julienned papaya, pickled carrots, celery, and Japanese cucumbers, the salad included just enough mint to make the whole mixture utterly appealing.

The tantalizing flavor of the allegedly spicy fried calamari ($5.75) amazed us. We couldn’t figure out what made it so good, and though the owner-chef refused to say, he predicted that the popular dish would remain on the always-changing menu. The dark dipping sauce (a sweet-and-sour concoction with tamarind, lime, garlic, and chili) only made the seafood more intriguing.

We then tried another Grasshopper favorite, a gyoza platter ($5.75). The four translucent yellow wonton skins contained a delightful mixture of pork and veggies. We raved about the flavor, but I thought this was one dish we could have found elsewhere.

Not so for the grilled Japanese eggplant in black bean sauce ($4.25). Three skewers held slices of tender, smoky eggplant, perfectly matched by a dollop of fermented black beans. The grill also imparted a terrific charbroiled taste to the tender grilled rib eye ($6.75) topped with a tasty red miso glaze. I asked why the skewered chunks of meat looked nothing like the rib eye that’s stretched flat on a plate. It turns out that Grasshopper chooses a cut that includes no sinews, and therefore it becomes as tender as beef can possibly be.

Before we knew it, we had inhaled every morsel from each dish. Arif commented, “If we could have licked the plates, we would have,” and then noted that we were eating as eagerly as our dog. Were we being greedy, or was the food just that good? We decided on the latter and ordered a rooibos crème brûlée ($5.25), though we worried that the tea-based dessert contained caffeine. When we asked, our server unwaveringly informed us that rooibos is a naturally decaffeinated bark extract. That didn’t sound so great, but I remembered loving Chris’s rooibos iced tea, so we forged ahead. Good decision. The caramelized top of the creme brûlée reminded me of ice on a frozen pond. Pressing firmly, we broke through to a wonderful, creamy pudding underneath.

“This is my new favorite place,” Arif announced after we polished off the dessert. Then he qualified his statement: “After Gordo and Red Onion, of course.” I raised an eyebrow. “Well,” he shrugged, “those are the basic necessities of life.”