Torched black sea bream at Utzutzu in Alameda. Photo: Sarah Han

I regret that I never ate at Yume. The tiny family-owned sushi restaurant in Alameda was opened in 2003 by Hideki Aomizu and his wife Yoriko, where for 14 years, they built a reputation amongst Bay Area sushi enthusiasts for their impeccable fish and service, most specifically for their omakase (chef’s choice) dining experience. Yume, meaning “dream” in Japanese, shuttered in 2017, when chef Aomizu retired.

While the dream is over, the old Yume space has renewed life as a new eight-seat okimari (set meal) restaurant called Utzutzu. A playful response to its previous tenants, its name translates to “reality.” Chikara Ono, owner of AS B-Dama inside Swan’s Market and the owner-chef at modern omakase-style bistro Delage just outside of Swan’s, opened Utzutzu, but you will not find him here. Instead, he has placed the care of his new restaurant in the skilled hands of two others — sushi chef Joji Nonaka and chef Asuka Uchida who prepares the non-sushi offerings.

As Yume did in the last years before it closed, Utzutzu only offers two-seatings a day for eight people at a time, limiting guests to parties of one or two. But unlike Yume, which required diners to appear at the restaurant on the day of dining to claim a precious seat, Utzutzu offers the convenience of online reservations. I was grateful for this technological upgrade, as it took Riff Randell-like dedication to get a seat at Yume, and I just didn’t have it.

While reservations are more accessible at Utzutzu, finding the physical restaurant itself can be elusive for first-time diners. Located on busy Park Street in Alameda’s East End, the restaurant has no signage out front. The address above a narrow door is the only clue you’ve arrived at the right location. The door immediately opens to a flight of stairs that seems more likely to lead to someone’s studio apartment than a decadent coursed dinner.

Once upstairs, it still doesn’t look like you’re on your way to a restaurant, but an open door leads to a room with a sushi counter surrounded by wooden bar chairs. The space is moody, like a scene from an Edward Hopper painting, with mostly dark walls and dark wood accents. Behind the counter, though, the colors are light, with gleaming white tiles and a strip of fluorescent lighting illuminating the top of the counter, a cue to recognize that this is the stage for the night.

Past the dining area, further inside, there’s a separate space set to resemble a living room, with leather chairs and a funny shaped blue sofa surrounding a rug and a coffee table. A framed print of Picasso’s “A Bouquet of Peace” hangs on the wall. Jazz plays in the background. This is where you sit if you get to the restaurant before your reserved seating time. We arrived, with just a minute to spare for our 8 p.m. reservation, and found six others — three couples — waiting in this area.

Upon seating, Chef Nonaka introduced himself and asked us if we had any food restrictions or allergies before setting to work. From two wooden boxes set in front of him, he pulled out blocks of raw fish and began to slice them with precision using his sharp yanagi blade.

Sitting at a shared counter with six people you don’t know can be awkward, especially if you’re not the type who likes to mingle with strangers. At first, we diners were fairly quiet, talking in faint voices amongst couples, but eventually, some conversations opened up to the larger group. Nonaka was mostly reserved, keeping to himself as he worked, but he revealed that he was listening to our chatter like a fly on the wall. Sometimes, he’d stop what he was doing, look up and chime in, asking questions about our conversations — about dry-aged burgers and other area sushi spots worth trying. He often had a subtle, sly smile on his face as he spoke, like he was holding back a secret.

Nonaka, who’s originally from Japan, has lived in the Bay Area for only four years and has spent a total of 16 years working in sushi. Before Utzutzu, he was at ICHI in San Francisco, and before that he worked at Morimoto in New York and Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, where some of the best sushi-grade fish from the world is sourced, and from where some of what we ate that night had been flown.

After Nonaka sliced the fish and rhythmically grated fresh wasabi root on a sharkskin paddle, the first two courses arrived, one after the other. These were dishes prepared by chef Uchida, who works in the back, mostly unseen behind the noren (curtain) that separates the bar from the kitchen. Uchida, who was previously a chef at B-Dama, has a background in French cuisine and this past experience is apparent in her beautiful courses using fresh, locally sourced produce.

First, was a single poached Tokyo turnip set in a bowl, appearing like an island surrounded by a clear broth of dried baby anchovies. Then, there was a sunomono (vinegar-based salad), made with thin sheets of cucumber wrapped around a raw scallop, with seaweed, garnishes of nasturtium leaf and flower, grated daikon and seasoned egg crumbles. Both dishes were skillfully plated and arranged, but oh-so-subtlely flavored. I wish I could go back and eat them again, taking as much time and care that Uchida obviously did to craft them, to better parse the flavors.

But my memory of these first dishes is clouded by the parade of sushi that followed. We were served seven pieces of nigiri, made to order by Nonaka in the following sequence: two pieces of kurodai (black sea bream) — first, cured with kelp and shiso, then another piece, using the skin-side that was torched and topped with spicy daikon; bincho (albacore tuna) with ginger and ponzu; inada (baby yellowtail); okra with ginger and dried bonito shavings; akami (lean bluefin tuna) and, finally, otoro (fatty bluefin tuna).

My favorite nigiri from this first grouping was the seared sea bream that Nonaka fired with a blowtorch just before serving; the flame activates the flavors from the fat underneath the skin and gives the fish a delicious charred taste. Speaking of fat, I also loved the melt-in-your-mouth otoro, cut from the belly of the tuna — the oiliest, most flavorful and most expensive cut of the fish. I was surprised by the okra sushi. The smoky bonito went well with the just-cooked okra, which didn’t have any bit of the sliminess that gives this vegetable a bad name. Nonaka always offers two pieces of vegetable sushi at each meal.

Kelp-cured black sea bream with shiso, okra with bonito shavings and o-toro nigiri at Utzutzu in Alameda. Photo: Sarah Han

The best sushi chefs treat rice with just as much care as the fish, and at Utzutzu Nonaka goes an extra step by using a variety from Shiga prefecture that’s seasoned with akasu, an aged red vinegar. Akasu is made from fermented sake lees and takes five years to produce. Added to the rice, the vinegar gives the grains a light pink hue.

After forming the rice into small, oblong logs, Nonaka dressed each with a dab of wasabi, then topped with fish (or vegetable), and finally added garnishes or a brushing of soy sauce or ponzu. Diners are not given any soy sauce or wasabi to add at their own discretion; each piece is prepared as Nonaka wants you to experience it. Although we didn’t have access to condiments, we were served small bowls of gari (pickled ginger). Unlike the usual dyed pink and sugary slices of ginger, the ginger had a natural hue and was cut into small cubes and had just a slightly sweet flavor. Nonaka would frequently replenish our bowls throughout the meal.

Octopus karaage with shishito pepper and calamansi. Photo: Sarah Han

Two more non-sushi dishes were next, but this time, I paid more attention to the flavors and textures as I ate. Chewy, but tender octopus bits were battered and deep-fried as karaage, served with a single shishito pepper and half of a calamansi (a Filipino citrus that tastes like a hybrid of lemon and lime). The batter was lightly seasoned, so the octopus flavor came through, heightened by the squeeze of bright citrus that negates the heaviness from the oil. The pepper was not spicy but added a pleasant bitterness to the dish.

A refreshing watermelon granita. Photo: Sarah Han

Next, was a palate cleanser of watermelon granita, which resembled a little pile of pink snow. A delicate gold leaf shard sat atop the icy powder, making it the most luxe version of shave ice I’ve ever had. The snow tasted like sweet watermelon, but with a delicate, airy texture.

The second wave of sushi was as impressive as the first, with kisu (Japanese whiting) cured with kelp, lightly seared and topped with a dab of black nori paste; kasugo (baby sea bream) with egg crumbles; aji (horse mackeral); nasu (Japanese eggplant); uni (sea urchin, from Hokkaido); shimaaji (striped jack) and a temaki (handroll) made with toro and sea beans. For the handroll, Nonaka placed a strip of nori at the bottom before rolling into a tube to prevent the rice and tuna from spilling out with each bite. I will be copying this method for future temaki parties at home. This second round of sushi ended with two cubes of sweet tamago (Japanese omelet), which some diners mistook for dessert.

Braided and seared Japanese whiting with nori paste, sea urchin and striped jack nigiri. Photo: Sarah Han

Nonaka asked us all whether we were satisfied. Those who were still hungry could order additional pieces of sushi at an extra cost. Only when we were done with our sushi were we given the last savory course — a miso soup with a deep, rich, smoky flavor, made with kinoko (Japanese mushrooms), mitsuba (Japanese parsley) and yuzu kosho (a paste of yuzu peel and chili peppers). It was rich and comforting; as a fellow diner proclaimed upon sipping, you want to end every evening with this broth.

Dessert was served in a gold-rimmed fluted glass, a custard with strawberries, blueberries and a dusting of matcha powder. Most of us underestimated the dessert, listed simply as “flan” on the menu, but we all scraped our glasses clean with our spoons, and some of us, had we been in the privacy of our homes, would have wiped the glasses with our tongues for good measure.

Waking from a pleasant dream into reality (especially our current reality) can be difficult and disappointing, but a dinner at Utzutzu proves that experiencing a good thing in real life makes life worth living.

Dinner (without drinks) is $100 per person. Seatings are at 5:30 and 8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. Reservations can be made online at Resy.

Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...