Walking into Ichiban, I was confronted with one of those awkward intercultural crisis moments. There sat my friend, at the table, but to get to her I had to somehow circumvent the Japanese kneeling bench that surrounded the table. It never occurred to me to kneel or sit; instead, I vaulted over it, with the American mindset that it was just an obstacle to be overcome.
Ritual was the farthest thing from my mind.
Of course, had I waited for the server who came to my aid with instructions, or my friend who explained to me moments later that I was to sit on it and swing my legs around, I would not have jumped. Not that there was any ritual or rhyme or reason to sitting on it and swinging my legs around, either. In fact, I wondered later why it was even there.
Thus began my meal at Ichiban, which has replaced Aqua in Mount Lookout Square. I have to say that it was one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in the past couple of years. Maybe it was the impeccable and watchful service. Or the fact that the chef managed to make everything without soy (I’m allergic) and still make it delicious (I had no idea that sake could become so many different sauces). Or maybe it was the complimentary dessert at the end: puffed pastry with delicate freshly whipped cream. Or maybe it was just the company.
We began with sushi, of course. But there was such a variety of menu options that immediately after we ordered it we were already looking forward to the next course. What’s fun about Ichiban’s menu is that you don’t have to order two traditional dinner entrees. You can mix it up with several “tapas-like” Robata-Yaki (kebab) options ($4) that range from Beef Tongue to Jalapenos and Konnyaku (yam cake). You can then follow this up with a Noodle dish, such as the Kamo Udon (Roasted Duck) or the Yakisoba (Japanese stir fried egg noodles with vegetables). That’s what we chose to do, forgoing entrees, such as the Broiled Atlantic Salmon or Chicken Teriyaki, so that we could try more things and have the full experience.
Our first course, the sushi, was artfully presented with garnishes of cucumber slices fanned across the plate.
It was so bright and beautiful that I made the assumption that it was decently fresh. I was right. The Honey Bee Roll ($15), with deep red tuna and avocado was lovely, but probably not worth the $10 difference in price from the other sushi. The Boston Roll with cucumbers, lettuce, avocado and crabmeat (normally $6, but we got it at the happy hour price at 6 p.m. on a Sunday) was more impressive, only because it came with a tasty Japanese mayo that I couldn’t get enough of. (I’m also not a big fan of meat; while I appreciated the tuna, I didn’t “ooh” and “ahh” over it like a true sushi lover would.)
After this, we opted for Shrimp and Shitake Robat-Yaki (kabob). While we loved the grilled prawns, with their slightly sweet freshness, we weren’t completely impressed with the Shitake, finding it a bit dry and dull.
But what came next couldn’t have been more surprising. I had told the server I was allergic to soy (try going to a Japanese restaurant allergic to soy). This didn’t faze our super server in the least; she said right away that the chef could make the dishes without soy. This has never happened to me in a Japanese restaurant. Usually, they explain that without soy the dishes will have no flavor, which I always suspected was a sign of a mediocre Japanese restaurant, as there are so many different ways to add flavor in Japanese cuisine.
When she delivered our noodle dishes, Yakisoba (Japanese stir fried egg noodles) and Tempura Udon (a soup of thick wheat-flour noodles accompanied by shrimp tempura), I couldn’t believe the flavor. The chef had added sake to the soup that originally had miso in it; this, the seaweed and the shitake gave it flavor. (Warning: Do not order this on a first date, as the thick noodles, while the perfect combination of soggy and firm, are slippery and will make you look like a fool.) The Yakisoba egg noodles had a sauce of ketchup and sake, giving it an interesting, quirky zest. He’d also made a special sauce of butter and garlic in case the flavor wasn’t enough.
Meanwhile, the Shrimp Tempura was deep-fried so delicately that it reminded us of only one thing — the Brown County Fair that occurs every year in our hometown, where everything, even the humble pickle, is served fried. Despite the fact that my friend has traveled the globe, we both made the same observation at the same time. You can take the ladies out of Appalachia, but you can’t the Appalachia out of the ladies.
While admittedly we were one of only two tables in the restaurant on a Sunday night, the service was superb. The complimentary dessert, a puffed pastry with fresh cream, was the perfect finish. While we felt, towards the end, that the staff was watching our table a bit too closely, perhaps waiting for us to leave, we were there for almost four hours, and it was nearly 10 p.m., closing time.
We both walked out with that strange combination of complete fulfillment and lightness that only comes after finishing a great Japanese meal. We will be back. You should go, too.
Go: 1020 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Entrée Prices: $10-$20
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty of vegetarian options
Accessibility: Fully accessible