When jonesing for a refreshing beverage, I don’t typically reach for sauerkraut. But that was before I sampled the Iced Kraut Spritzer ($4) at Café Umami’s new Uptown Oakland location, which opened last month. The fizzy magenta mocktail combines seltzer water and sauerkraut juice to yield a naturally sweet lilt. The impressively hued beverage is good for you, too. Sauerkraut is derived from fermented cabbage and packed with gut-friendly bacteria, called probiotics.
“Probiotic and prebiotic, minerals and umami flavor” capture the cooking philosophy of Sungsoon Burr-Park and Sang Lee, co-owners of Café Umami. At their new Uptown spot, which follows a location in Oakland’s Dimond District (2224 MacArthur Blvd.), Burr-Park and Lee emphasize Korean-inspired mind-body eating, with a goal of soothing digestion, Burr-Park recently told me. Think grain bowls ($8-12) that riff on bibimbap, except Burr-Park swaps out the traditional Korean dish’s white rice for the nutrient-dense brown version. Burr-Park and Lee also load their bowls with savory veggies, ferments and a ginger-tahini sauce. The flavor, in a word: umami.
You may have noticed that term, “umami,” elsewhere recently, including on other East Bay storefronts (for any folks wondering, there is no relation between Café Umami and Umami Mart). So what exactly is umami? The Japanese word translates to, essentially, “deliciousness,” and the taste is rich and meaty. Umami is produced by glutamic acid, which in molecular form, binds to tongue receptors and leaves you wanting more. Ingredients packed with umami, Hannah Goldfield explains in The New Yorker, include “kelp, bonito, dry mushroom, mirin, miso, soy sauce, rice vinegar.”
It’s no wonder, then, that miso-browned butter, seaweed salad and bonito fish flakes are incorporated into, or can be added to, its bowls and smashed avocado toast. The toasts, a menu mainstay at Café Umami’s Dimond location and its first-ever dish, start with Acme sourdough, which, don’t forget, is also fermented. Avocado price increases don’t appear to have impacted Café Umami’s portions: a recent poached chicken toast ($10) was loaded with the green fruit. Though a heavier hand with the miso-browned butter could brighten the dish, you may add DIY tang with gochujang, a Korean chili paste, which is available in large squeeze bottles at the back of the MacArthur Boulevard café.
Though the Uptown spot doesn’t offer toasts, yet, don’t fret: there’s a new item on the menu — jook. Also known as congee, jook is a rice porridge that is typically eaten for breakfast across East Asia. The warming dish is often associated with Cantonese cooking, but it’s popular in Korea, too. That’s where Burr-Park lived until he immigrated to the United States at age 30.
Burr-Park always appreciated the concept of jook, he told me, because it is easy to digest. Even so, he felt that the popular Korean formulation often lacked flavor. So Burr-Park and Lee rev up their savory jooks with umami-packed ‘shrooms and miso-browned butter. (As with the rice bowls, Café Umami uses brown rice for its jook.) For texture and a health boost, you’ll also notice roasted seeds, coconut chips, kale and nutritional yeast. When it comes to the yeast, Burr-Park is a devotee. It’s “one of my favorite things,” he said. Even if it’s not your current go-to remedy, the yeast, chock-full of vitamin B and thiamin, may cure whatever ails you, especially after a long night on the town.
If you’re looking for something warm, with zip, consider the Kimchi Jook. The rich kimchi falls on the sweeter side of tang, and perks up the porridge, which on its own, is a bit one-note. The Power Jook presents a hearty option, with a soft-boiled egg and two lightly-seasoned pieces of pork sausage. As far as optional additions, don’t shy away from the bonito flakes, which are derived from dried, fermented and smoked bonito, a petite, tuna-like predatory fish. Take a deep breath before you dive in, so that the briny fragrance of the flakes hits you first. It’s a unique perfume, and one worth savoring.
For those looking for something on the dulcet side, the Sweet Jook ($7) is balanced, with ripe berries and hints of honey and cinnamon. With fresh mint and roasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds, it’s well portioned for breakfast or an afternoon pick-me-up.
The prospect of food as nourishing fuel is, in part, why it’s easy to relax inside Café Umami. Your mind can rest, confident that you’re giving back to your body. (The minimalist interior and health-oriented cookbooks help, too.) But the gastrointestinal benefits aren’t all in your head; Burr-Park has a science and nutrition background that undergirds his cooking style. Burr-Park studied microbiology, which he finds useful “because food is also biochemistry,” he said.
After a stint in the biotechnology industry, Burr-Park focused on nutrition at Bauman College, in Berkeley. That’s where Burr-Park befriended “Chef Marie,” who taught at the school. Chef Marie has since joined Café Umami, where she is spearheading nutrition development. She’s also developing new menu items, including fruit and vegetable smoothies, and “some kind of Japanese concept” that’s under wraps, for now. In late September, Chef Marie will lead a hands-on workshops at the Uptown location, which will be part nutrition-education, part cooking lesson. Expect topics to rotate on a bi-weekly or monthly basis.
In taking on a second location, Burr-Park sought to provide additional opportunities for the current Café Umami staff, who Burr-Park refers to as his co-workers, not his employees. Burr-Park has long been inspired by worker-owned businesses, such as Arizmendi and the Cheese Board Collective. Though he found that the worker-owned model wasn’t viable at Café Umami, Burr-Park told me, he still hopes to “work with good people for a long time.” To that end, Burr-Park is “so grateful” to the Dimond neighborhood, where he met his now-wife, and his colleagues, who he said, inspire him.
He added, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
Café Umami is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday; and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday at both the Uptown and Dimond locations.