Way back in 1988, when sushi was considered more of a punchline than a serious dinner option, Ichiban bravely opened on Orange Avenue, offering sushi and sashimi along with tempura and grilled fare. Ten years later, this spunky downtown pioneer is like the woman scorned in the Gloria Gaynor song -- it has survived. And, its dance card is still filled up with admirers.
Not everyone knows this, and those are the uninformed who show up on Friday and Saturday nights without reservations. There was a whole flock of them waiting outside when we visited. But with reservations, we were whisked into the dining area. It's the same as always -- soothing and casually elegant, with kimonos displayed on blond-brick walls, and a translucent glow thrown off by rice paper lanterns.
Seated on tatami mats in one of the booths, we decided we were in a sushi mood and perused the options: rolls made with gator meat ($4.50), asparagus tempura ($3.95), sea urchin ($5) and even quail egg ($1.50). My guest gave up and chose the special ($9.50): tuna, cucumber and California rolls. Ichiban turned this sushi cliché into quite a presentation, slicing the rolls diagonally and arranging them like blossoms on a chop block.
"Dancing eel" turned out to be a happy surprise as well, if an expensive one ($11.95). Crab, cucumber, avocado and flying-fish eggs were rolled up together, bonded by cream cheese and topped with barbecued eel boldly glazed with a dark caramel sauce. Teamed with robust jolts of wasabi, the sushi did exactly what we wanted it to do: primed us for the main course.
For dinner, seafood tempura ($12.99) has to be one of the best deals in town. An abundance of shrimp, scallops and grouper fingers were deep-fried in a fine, frothy batter that melted in your mouth. Teamed with broccoli and zucchini tempura, and even a fried banana, they were artfully propped against a lacy "fan" of fried rice noodles.
And the "Ichiban special," while pricey at $20.99, was a solid investment. A polished black box was divided into quarters, which were heaped with delicacies sized just-right for chopsticks: grilled lobster tips nestled into a split lobster tail; chargrilled shrimp and scallops that cast off a sweet, oceanic perfume; slivers of sweet teriyaki steak; and mixed grilled vegetables.
Ichiban offers the kind of choices that sushi and sashimi adventurers crave, along with tempura and grilled fare more agreeable with mainstream tastes. It may not break culinary ground, but it's good food, prepared skillfully, and served with attention and a sense of fun. Ichiban continues to inspires quiet confidence.