Plan your BART/Muni ride from downtown Berkeley to Lower Pac Heights. Estimate that at least three things will go wrong. Factor in an extra 20 minutes.
Public transportation is flawless. Arrive to the restaurant 20 minutes early. Walk a big loop around a few blocks in fancy shoes. (Dress code: business casual. (Note: Remember what business casual is before the dinner.)) Get a couple of blisters.
Walk in the front door at exactly 6 p.m. Run into another writer who you've met several times but is nevertheless never friendly. Check in with the director of the public relations firm. Confirm your peanut and cashew allergy. Get assured that the staff has taken note of your allergy. Smile, say thank you, pretend that the director is now your BFF. (Later look at the menu and discover that, of course, there are neither peanuts nor cashews in the kitchen. (This is a Japanese dinner.))
Make your way to the private dining room, where a tasting of 30 or 40 high-end Japanese pantry items are set out for tasting. Do a quick scan and realize that you are going to destroy your palate in about 30 seconds. Decide not to care.
Shuffle awkwardly around the large table, in between a mix of Japanese business people and food writers. Ooh and ahh and the smoked shoyu. Chat with the product manager about how fancy their nori is. Taste the nori. It is, indeed, delicious. Try to figure out how to serve yourself tiny slivers of bonito without pouring the bag all over the table. Manage to get one whisper of a taste in your mouth. It is, indeed, delicious.
Continue to shuffle around awkwardly and make eye contact with a couple of people. Think about networking. Go to the restroom. Check email. Try to take an Instagram-worthy photo of the tasting room, but realize it is too dark and crowded. Try to peek in the kitchen and steal a glance at the (famous!) Top Chef contestant inside.
Make your way to your assigned seat in the dining room. Get informed that your seat has now changed and note your new location. Everyone else at your new table already knows each other and have been chatting for 15 minutes. "Shit," you definitely don't say out loud.
Give a quick nod to the one other person in the room you know (and like). She's at another table, so alas, you won't get to drink and bitch together.
Gulp down your first glass of (very) sweet sparkling sake. Introduce yourself to your table mates. Say something awkward. Drink more.
Watch a cheesy PR commercial for the Japanese pantry products. Listen to the chefs talk about their inspiration for the meal. Discreetly roll your eyes at every mention of the word "inspiration." Get hungry.
The first dish arrives. It's about half scallops and half avocado slivers plated with that nori and smoked shoyu. Edible flowers and very fancy chicharron on top. This is the dish cooked by the (famous!) Top Chef contestant. It is a nice dish, but you don't get much of that smoked shoyu. (The nori, however, is still quite delicious.) Everyone else at the table loves it so you agree, nod, continue to eat. The wine pairing is kinda meh but you drink it anyway.
Now you've had about three half-pours of wine, which is enough for you to become chattier. You talk about the East Bay a little, listen to another woman brag about her old NYC job. Brag a little about your old Boston job. Look around the room and twiddle your thumbs.
Ok, great, the second course arrives: a generous slab of braised daikon sits in a bowl with a rice-thickened broth and a large unidentified leaf. Spoonfuls of uni swim next to the daikon. Both the daikon and the broth are subtle, artful, cleansing. The bright, briny uni pop on top of this quiet background.
Everyone loves the uni. And the wine pairing (2012 Bluxome Viognier).
Everyone talks about the uni. And the wine.
Then you're served three giant slabs of avocado coated in sesame seeds and that nori. Popcorn on top, a crazy yuzu kosho milk on the bottom. Remark on how nice it is to be served giant slabs of avocado. Table nods in agreement. Only in California, bitches! You're now starting to get drunk.
More wine, more wine.
You start to open up to your neighbor. You bitch about online food writing and San Francisco bros. You talk yoga and dairy milk-induced stomaches. You learn that she is about to start a new job with one of your friends. She offers you a ride to your next rendezvous, saving you about an hour of Muni transfers between the restaurant and the Tenderloin.
The main course arrives, a confusing dish of sendai miso-slicked petrale sole, white beans (??), spinach, citrus, and crumbled rice crackers coated in intensely roasty soy kinako powder. Any delicate fish flavor was totally decimated by the salty (and admittedly delicious) miso and the nutty crackers. You don't finish your plate, not even the spinach. No one else likes the dish. Finally, something over which to bond with your table mates. (Note to self: Bad food brings even the least agreeable strangers together.)
Of course, you do drink the entire glass of wine. Feeling frisky.
Dessert is a stunner — flan thickened with that roasted soy kinako flour. It is served swimming in a subtle caramel made from sweet potato syrup, a magical concoction that tastes just like the tasty goo that oozes out of properly roasted yams. On top are bourbon-ed and candied almonds for crunchy punch. Lick your bowl clean. No shame.
The chefs are in the kitchen, about to take a post-service shot, when they are interrupted and forced to come up front and say a few incoherent words about their dishes. Everyone claps. You've been here for three and a half hours.
Make your way to the door with your new BFF/ride across town. The PR team hands you a very Japanese souvenir: a bamboo box filled with a selection of those pantry items from the tasting, each cradled in a nest of shredded paper. You've got a bottle of shoyu, dried shiitakes, kinako flour, yuzu koshu. Get excited about the yuzu.
Shake a few hands, walk out into the foggy chill of the city.