By Jackie BurrellBay Area News Group

Posted: 09/22/2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Updated: 09/23/2010 05:03:16 PM PDT

Chef Sylvan Mishima Brackett, a former Chez Panisse chef, works on keeping the orders going to the crowded restaurant during the Peko-Peko at Bar Jules on Sunday September 19, 2010 in San Francisco, CA. Peko-Peko is an izakaya, small plates Japanese food. (Gregory Urquiaga/ Freelance)

Chef Sylvan Mishima Brackett, a former Chez Panisse chef, works on keeping the orders going to the crowded restaurant during the Peko-Peko at Bar Jules on Sunday September 19, 2010 in San Francisco, CA. Peko-Peko is an izakaya, small plates Japanese food. (Gregory Urquiaga/ Freelance)

The botan ebi are grilled and steamed moro bay spot prawns during the Peko-Peko at Bar Jules on Sunday September 19, 2010 in San Francisco, CA. Peko-Peko is an izakaya, small plates of Japanese food. (Gregory Urquiaga/ Freelance)

The botan ebi are grilled and steamed moro bay spot prawns during the Peko-Peko at Bar Jules on Sunday September 19, 2010 in San Francisco, CA. Peko-Peko is an izakaya, small plates of Japanese food. (Gregory Urquiaga/ Freelance)

The tomato sarada are tomatoes, shisho and mayonnaise during the Peko-Peko at Bar Jules on Sunday September 19, 2010 in San Francisco, CA. Peko-Peko is an izakaya, small plates of Japanese food. (Gregory Urquiaga/ Freelance)

The tomato sarada are tomatoes, shisho and mayonnaise during the Peko-Peko at Bar Jules on Sunday September 19, 2010 in San Francisco, CA. Peko-Peko is an izakaya, small plates of Japanese food. (Gregory Urquiaga/ Freelance)

Seared Albacore Tuna at his Sasa in Walnut Creek , Calif. on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010. First came tapas. Then mezes. Now, the Bay Area's love affair with small plate cuisine has added a Japanese twist, and izakayas are popping up all over. Not quite a restaurant, not quite a bar, izakaya is about the experience - hanging out with friends while having a drink and sharing small plates of Japanese tidbits. (Sherry LaVars/Staff)

Seared Albacore Tuna at his Sasa in Walnut Creek , Calif. on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010. First came tapas. Then mezes. Now, the Bay Area’s love affair with small plate cuisine has added a Japanese twist, and izakayas are popping up all over. Not quite a restaurant, not quite a bar, izakaya is about the experience – hanging out with friends while having a drink and sharing small plates of Japanese tidbits. (Sherry LaVars/Staff)

Sasa chef Philip Yang holds a plate of Seared Albacore Tuna at his restaurant in Walnut Creek , Calif. on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010. First came tapas. Then mezes. Now, the Bay Area's love affair with small plate cuisine has added a Japanese twist, and izakayas are popping up all over. Not quite a restaurant, not quite a bar, izakaya is about the experience - hanging out with friends while having a drink and sharing small plates of Japanese tidbits. (Sherry LaVars/Staff)

Sasa chef Philip Yang holds a plate of Seared Albacore Tuna at his restaurant in Walnut Creek , Calif. on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010. First came tapas. Then mezes. Now, the Bay Area’s love affair with small plate cuisine has added a Japanese twist, and izakayas are popping up all over. Not quite a restaurant, not quite a bar, izakaya is about the experience – hanging out with friends while having a drink and sharing small plates of Japanese tidbits. (Sherry LaVars/Staff)

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First came the tapas craze. Then Greek mezes. Now, the Bay Area’s love affair with small plate cuisine has a Japanese twist. Suddenly, izakayas — casual Japanese-style pubs — are popping up all over.

Izakayas are cozy places to hang out with friends, sip a little sake, and share small plates of sashimi, grilled skewers, deep-fried morsels and hiyayakko, a chilled, silken tofu with toppings.

Recently, at least four new, high-profile izakayas have opened nearby in recent months, including Walnut Creek’s Sasa, Berkeley’s Ippuku, Mountain View’s Bushido — and Sozai in San Francisco.

Some of them arise unexpectedly. Former Chez Panisse creative director Sylvan Mishima Brackett has taken to creating pop-up, one-night-only izakayas . Last weekend, his Peko-Peko izakaya took over the kitchens at Bar Jules in San Francisco.

“The food is obviously great, but it’s the whole experience of an izakaya,” says Brackett. As you might expect, there’s an izakaya in every neighborhood in Tokyo, their doors marked with red lanterns, and a chalkboard listing the evening’s offerings. “People’s houses (in Japan) are pretty small, so people tend to go out to these places together and eat and drink and talk. I love the feeling. It’s lighthearted and fun and intimate, loud and rowdy and totally different from most of the kinds of Japanese places I’ve seen in America. The food is pretty heavily seasoned and amazingly delicious — a folded omelet, which is a big izakaya thing, deep fried things, grilled chicken. I thought, ‘My God, why isn’t this a humongous thing in America?’”

Even raw fish-ophobes will be happy at an izakaya, where sashimi typically shares the menu with other marinated, grilled or pickled specialties. Certainly, the sheer number of izakayas suddenly blossoming on the food scene has not gone unnoticed.

Fans line up at Cupertino’s 3-year-old Gochi Japanese Fusion Tapas for chef Masa Takei’s take on casual, elegant small plates, including sashimi, tataki — briefly seared, marinated and sliced albacore, mackerel or bonito — and hiyayakko. And a bustling, capacity crowd descends on Oakland’s Ozumo and San Jose’s tiny Izakaya after work and on weekends.

Even in Japan, izakayas have changed dramatically over the last few decades. “When I moved to Japan as a teenager, izakayas were mom-and-pop kind of restaurants that seated six or 10 people,” says Philip Yang, who opened Sasa this summer. “It was a neighborhood place — and exactly the way my grandma cooked at home.”

It was during a more recent visit to Japan — after Yang had given up his career as a computer engineer, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and opened his own sushi restaurant, Blue Gingko, in Lafayette — that he discovered that izakaya had changed. They had become larger and more polished. The food, he says, was fresh, seasonal and elegant. And for the stressed-out Japanese, izakayas had become somewhere to “wind down a little bit,” says Yang, “You have a couple of small drinks, small plates and move to the next izakaya. I want something like that!”

Yang spent two months educating his new restaurant staff. Izakaya is about a state of mind, he says, as much as it is about small plates. But those small plates have signature flavors — fresh, simple, clean tastes. His favorite? Lightly seared ahi, sliced and served with a citrusy ponzu sauce and garnished with grape tomatoes, slivers of red onion and a drizzle of truffle oil.

Just, please, don’t call them tapas, he says with a laugh.

“Why don’t they call tapas a Spanish version of izakaya?”