Of the plethora of new places that have opened in Oakland, Hopscotch, a small personal restaurant in Uptown, is one of the best. In a former barbecue joint gently converted in a retro-stylish way to feel welcoming and homey, chef/owner Kyle Itani prepares a compact menu of dishes that conflate comfort and adventure. He worked under the brilliant chef Sho Kamio at Yoshi’s, learning technique and how to use seasonal ingredients, but his cooking at Hopscotch is all his own. Eat there once and you’ll yearn to go back, especially if you have a plate of Itani’s remarkable buttermilk fried chicken ($18).
Itani makes the most wonderful fried chicken I’ve ever devoured, owing to its incredibly juicy texture and ease in eating. The brined, boned breast and thigh have a definitively seasoned, super-crunchy crust and magically moist flesh. You can use a knife and fork on it so crunch comes with every bite of velvety meat. So luxurious. The golden-crusted chicken sits atop a refreshing apple slaw lightly scented with the anise-y fragrance of chrysanthemum. The bright herbal slaw contrasts with the tonkatsu-like richness of the chicken. Frankly, this is one of the best plates of food in the Bay Area.
And, so much else shines at Hopscotch. I love the cocktails, so precisely made and uncannily balanced. You have to stop yourself from throwing them down, especially if there’s a plate of thick, duck fat-fried potato chips with lemony yuzu aioli at your elbow ($5), because you do want to have a glass of wine. The peripatetic selection adheres to the credo scrawled on the chalkboard: I will not drink bad wine. The wines are delicious–different, interesting, of surprising quality in a place that feels so casual. You realize that everything you consume here is of the highest order, so smartly and personally chosen. There is an ethos here.
Meals begin with a treat–a flat ceramic spoon of sweet Japanese pickles. Your table might continue with a nice little green salad with cubes of Kabocha squash, walnuts, and threads of radish in sherry vinaigrette ($9) to balance a rich terrine of duck confit topped with strips of crackling duck skin ($10). Delicately smoked, but still raw Kona Kampachi ($12), a Hawaiian yellowtail, in an Asian-style vinaigrette is light and juicy.
On one visit, I adored a succulent Porterhouse pork chop ($30) cooked over charcoal, then sliced and served family style, the charred bone a bonus. Japanese slaw, pickles, and grilled fresh bamboo shoots set it off. A plate of piquant, saucy long beans and spot prawns in Fresno chili paste ($10) works as a starter or side dish. The tantalizing possibility of sidling up to the marble bar for a First Base Burger ($14) with griddled beef tongue and pickled onions, a side of house-made chips and a perfect cocktail pulls at me.
Desserts can be multi-faceted, such as the spicy, savory and sweet dark ginger cake on pumpkin mouse with crisp candied ginger, toasted pumpkin seeds, and al dente pear slices. Or they can be simple: a butterscotch pots de crème–you and I call it pudding–partnered with a soft macaroon with deliciously charred edges; or flan in a jar with caramel at the bottom; or house-made coffee and vanilla ice milk.
Actually, Hopscotch is a diner, but an arty one, the joined vision of a disciplined chef with an interesting and grounded personal voice and a front-of-the-house partner, Jenny Schwarz, who elevates all the rest. Its location, in a seemingly barren expanse of San Pablo, is really just two blocks from the 19th Street BART station and the Fox and Paramount theaters. The parking is easy, and I guess the rent must be cheap, which allows the food and drink to be so surprisingly good and reasonable. You’d pay twice as much in San Francisco and you wouldn’t feel that frisson of culinary discovery.
1915 San Pablo Avenue, Oakland; 510-788-6217; www.hopscotchoakland.com; Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m., brunch Saturday and Sunday 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m.-midnight.