Saturday I decided to treat myself to lunch at my favorite restaurant in the whole world, O Chamé. “Japanese-inspired cuisine” says the website but O Chamé is much, much more.
Twenty years ago I worked at a medical software start-up three blocks down the street, before Berkeley’s Fourth Street became trendy. I celebrated triumphs with a hearty bowl of tofu skins or roasted calamari and soba (buckwheat noodles) in a smoky fish broth. Maybe a glass of dry French white wine.
Over the years, I’ve taken friends and clients and family and investors to O Chamé at least a hundred times. I would explain how the fresco of the Buddha on the wall and ceiling of the front room was executed with a fork, ironic since chopsticks are the usual implements here. We’d begin with the cucumbers with radishes and shiso leaf and usually go for soba with oysters or smoked trout or maybe duck.
The place was hopping when I arrived at high noon. All the outside seats were taken; several dogs were tied up in front. Inside was full as well. I took the last available seat at the bar.
I ordered squid with soba and a glass of Côtes du Rhone white. Delish! It doesn’t get much better than this. And then the woman sitting next to me says to the bartender, “I hear this is O Chamé’s last day.”
“Yeah, we’re closing for good this evening.”
OMG. No more vinagared cucumbers and radishes, no more scallops with udon, and no more caramel balsamic ice cream. Sob.
David and Hiromi Vardy, the founders of O Chamé, have gotten tired. A new restaurant will take its place. The waitress and bartender could not say what was coming or when.
I recall dozens of fantastic meals with friends. This one’s going to be impossible to replace.
I fear O Chamé’s site will go dead, so I’m going to copy and paste some reviews, the dinner menu, and the restaurant’s story here.
“For 18 years, David Vardy has been a pioneer in fusing east and west. His food has a fresh, light Japanese sensibility with a gentle California vibe. The interior of the restaurant evokes a serene oasis, a sharp contrast to its location on the increasingly bustling Fourth Street shopping area in Berkeley. The stucco walls, rustic chairs and large communal table in the middle of the dining room feels like it could be someone’s home. The udon noodle dishes are pure comfort.”
San Francisco Chronicle – food & dining
“Anyone who loves Japanese food will warm to David Vardy’s menu at O Chame in Berkeley. His combinations are fusion, but with a gentle California twist.
When the air picks up a damp chill, as it inevitably does this time of year, I hanker for the udon noodle soup at O Chamé in Berkeley. Lots of places in the Bay Area offer this bracing elixir, but David Vardy’s version tops them all.
Even after 16 years, Vardy continues to cook with passion – and restraint. O Chamé illustrates everything that’s right about “fusion” cuisine.”
Michael Bauer – Chronicle Food Critic
“David Vardy takes the awkwardness out of Asian fusion cuisine, assembling dishes that look Californian but taste more Japanese.”
East Bay Express
“Completely original. It never disappoints. The giant bowls of soba with tofu skins or smoked trouts or whatever… dreamy.”
“We’ve been coming here for years — O Chame is consistent in both service and quality of food. There is a reason O Chame has stayed on the San Francisco Chronicle’s top 100 restaurants list for all these years — best bowl of udon noodles you can find in the San Francisco Bay Area. Monterey Bay squid is my favorite flavor, with smoked trout and simmered pork shoulder being close seconds.”
“Unagi appetizer is simply divine.”
“Chef-owner David Vardy brings a high aesthetic and considerable prowess to everything he prepares.”
“Spare and plain in its decor, this spot has a meditative air to complement the traditional, experimental, and extremely fresh Japanese-inspired cuisine.”
“Absolute highlight, aside from the appetizers, are the desserts, particularly the sherry custard and my favorite, the caramel balsamic gelato–a must-try.”
“Their main entree selection always includes delicious roasted salmon, but you can also easily fill up on a bowl of soba or udon noodles with fresh, wholesome fixings (think roasted oysters, sea bass, and tofu skins).”
“Wonderful place to eat outdoors on a warm day or night. Incredible sashimi, and very laid back.”
“The ingredients are perfectly prepared and cooked, then assembled so that the pork retains its flavorful tenderness and each element preserves its fresh flavors and character. The noodles are springy and chewy, the broth is full flavored with the essence of the sea – the dish is frankly sublime.”
“This restaurant never ceases to amaze me. The purest broth and simplest dishes taste sublime.”
“Come here when you’re craving a bowl of fresh, delicate noodles.”
- Appetizers & Salads
- 8.5Roasted Oysters with Artichokes
- 10.5Grilled Fresh Water Eel with Belgium Endive
- 7Seasonal Vegetable Tempura
- 14.5Seared Yellowtail Sashimi with Braised Leeks and Horseradish Sauce
- 9.5Wild Arugula Salad with Golden Beets and Salted Egg
- 4.5Pickled Napa Cabbage with Preserved Kombu
- 8.5Yukon Gold Potato and Snow Crab Croquette
- 9.5Braised Karubi Pork Ribs with with Ginger and Lemon
- 7Fried Tofu with Hijiki Seaweed in Clear Fish Broth (Agedashi Tofu)
- 😯 Chamé’s Signature Pancake with Seasonal Vegetables
- 7Blanched Spinach with Sesame Dressing
- 7Vinegared Japanese Cucumbers with Red Radishes and Shiso Leaf
- 7.5Mixed Baby Salad Greens
… with Yellowtail (Hamachi) Sashimi14.5
- 4.5Miso Soup with Wakame Seaweed and Green Onions
- Soba or Udon Noodles in Clear Fish Broth with …
- 16.5Grilled Breast of Duck, Spinach and Takuan
- 13.5Tofu Skins (Aburage), Shiitake Mushrooms and Spinach
- 15.5Shrimp Tempura, Wakame Seaweed and Daikon Sprouts
- 13.5Roasted Chicken Breast, Spinach and Enoki Mushrooms
- 15.5Roasted Oysters, Wakame Seaweed and Daikon Sprouts
- 15.5Seasonal Grilled Fish, Wakame Seaweed and Daikon Sprouts
- 15.5Smoked Trout, Spinach and Enoki Mushrooms
- 15.5Braised Beef, Spinach and Takuan
- 14.5Simmered Pork Shoulder, Spinach and Takuan
- Main Courses
- 29.5Grilled Wagyu Bavette Steak with Green Chard, Edamame Beans and Trumpet Mushrooms
- 26.5Grilled Salmon with Broccoli-Rabe, Wakame Seaweed and Enoki Mushrooms
- Please Call for Specialty Items of the Day
Not all vegetable dishes are Vegan. Some dishes contain fish broth.
David and Hiromi Vardy, owners of O Chamé, met in Tokyo, Japan, in 1982. David had just arrived in Japan after spending time in Taiwan studying Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, cooking, foraging and practicing martial arts at 18 Lohan Temple, just outside of Taipei. A three-year commitment at the temple was shortened to six months due to visa issues, resulting in deportation by way of boat to Okinawa. Island-hopping by ferries eventually led him to Tokyo, where he met a few Israeli soldiers studying the martial art of Ninjitsu with Hatsumi Sensei in Noda City. Two months playing the part of punching bag for the Japanese and Israeli forces persuaded him that returning to the ‘softer’ martial art of Tai Chi Chuan was imperative. His friends referred David to Hiromi, who, at the time, was teaching Tai Chi Chuan and practicing Shiatsu in Tokyo while working as a performance artist. She had recently returned to Japan after studying theatre design in London.
David became Hiromi’s Tai Chi student and close friend. Each was also interested in traditional Japanese tea cuisine, Eastern medicine, philosophy and aesthetics. Within a year they married and for the next five years lived in Tokyo with Hiromi’s extended family, while raising their two sons, Daniel and Oscar. Hiromi continued her practice of shiatsu massage. David taught English and hotel management courses at the Tokyo International Hotel School and in 1987 spent the winter in the northern city of Morioka learning to bake Nambu teacakes, a delicate wheat-based cracker baked with an assortment of nuts and seeds, both savory and sweet. The Vardys hoped that Americans would appreciate these ‘sembei’ because they were made of wheat, not rice, and tasted richer than the typical rice cracker due to the high quantity of nuts and seeds in them. They decided to open a teacake bakery and tea-import business in June of 1987 in Berkeley, California.
The Vardys created Daruma Teashop, a temple-like oasis in the midst of a tilt-up structure at the corner of 6th and Gilman streets. Daruma Teashop became a respite for locals of Berkeley, attracting those interested in tea and Asian cuisine with their Nambu Teacakes, Japanese Teas, and Bento Box lunches. Soon enough, people from all over the Bay Area came to enjoy the exotic and balancing Nambu Sembei.
In 1990 Denny Abrams, the developer of Fourth Street Shops, invited the Vardys to create O Chamé at 1830 Fourth Street. The Vardys and Mr. Abrams designed O Chamé, essentially an offshoot of Daruma Teashop, into an elegant, comfortable full-service restaurant, much like a Meiji-period Tokyo cafe. It was adorned with plastered walls etched by Mayumi Oda and craftsman-style furniture designed and constructed by Lewis Meyers. O Chamé, literally translated, means ‘eyes of tea’, but colloquially it means ‘playful little one’, a reference to their newborn daughter, Lia. Once precocious, O Chamé has, after 21 years in business, become a magical oasis for locals and travelers of the world.