Dinner Out @ Ichiban

We actually haven't been to too many sushi places in Cincinnati yet. I'm still learning about it, and Sarah is still recovering from a bad experience years ago (more on that below). But, Ichiban has emerged as a favorite for its mix of tasty food, chill atmosphere, and (probably most importantly) the half-price price tag. Epiventures' post captured things quite well a few months back (and has some great photos), but here's our take.

The Food: They have other options on the menu, but with 1/2 off of all the sushi (with the exception of the boat and other samplers/platters), we've made bee lines for the rolls and nigiri. As I mentioned above, I am still in the learning stage - I've probably had sushi 30-40 times, but too many of those have been a single (often unimaginative) roll as an appetizer. One of the real joys of this amazing deal is that you can let loose and try a number of things without feeling like your eating your bank account instead of fish.

On this most recent visit, we sampled tuna and salmon nigiri sushi, crunch, spicy tuna, and shrimp tempura rolls, and two specialty rolls - the Honey Bee and J.T.B. The more I eat sushi, the more I find that I am adapting the "less is more" mantra. My favorite thing of all was probably the salmon nigiri sushi. So simple, but the texture and flavor of the fish are so clean, it makes me sad I wasn't hip to sushi yet when I was a bear viewing/fishing guide in Alaska one summer long ago. Best salmon in the world, right out of the water.

The spicy tuna has a nice kick and the shrimp tempura is a nice standard. I'm coming around to eel, and the added texture brought by the tempura crunch on the crunch roll was appreciated. Both specialty rolls were great too. The Honey Bee is a beautiful creation that packs a handful of flavors - I particularly enjoyed the pieces with avocado rolled on the outside. My favorite specialty roll so far is the J.T.B. though - it is tempura fried and has a spicy mayo on top - there are so many things going on in your mouth, all of them good. Our friend Kate said it was simply "f*cking divine."

On a previous visit we tried the specialty Cajun Roll, and it was one of the only things I wouldn't recommend so far (too smoky, not enough cayenne or garlic or salt). Friends of ours ordered the scallop nigiri sushi and thought it tasted a bit musty. They mentioned this was a "canary in the coal mine" at a sushi place and I can see what they mean. It's a delicate animal that is only really fresh for a short amount of time. Hopefully that was just a fluke.

Oh, and I almost forgot, I tried the sea urchin. Ruth Reichl talks about trying it in one of her books, which got me interested. I don't know what I expected exactly, but from looking at it, I thought it would have some a grainy texture of some sort. Turns out, its a liquid explosion with virtually no form at all. It is definitely weird, but kind of good. I can't decide.

The Ingredients: No mention of any local, organic, or sustainable ingredients. I want to do some more research on sustainable sushi. Mark Bittman's new blog (which has been great so far, by the way) had a link to this site, and there is a book I think I might buy there. I'd like to learn more about how I should feel about eating tuna or salmon and what questions I should ask. As with all the restaurants in town, it would be great if Ichiban would share their sources with their customers. Particularly for a genre of food where provenance is so important, it would be great if they'd pay attention to where their edamame or pork or chicken on the menu come from too.

The Story, Setting, & Service: I told a bit of my story as a sushi newbie above. Sarah's story is a bit more dramatic. She had gotten into sushi big time after she'd been traveling in Mexico one summer and got tired of all the beans and rice. After a weekend trip, she ordered some Domino's pizza (Mexico style) and she - and all of her friends - got extremely sick. Somehow, the association of all the sushi she'd been eating and that dreadful chain pizza got intertwined in her senses, and couldn't eat sushi for years. Fast forward a handful or ten years, and Sarah's happily enjoying sushi again.

As far as the Ichiban setting goes, it has a smooth decor with plush, sunken booths and tables that have the appearance that you'll be sitting on the ground but you're really not. The cool, colorful artwork and round, crisp edges of the furnishings matched the down tempo beats on the stereo. We're told it's almost exactly the same as Aqua before it. On a Friday night they had a live band with a stand up bass, electronic xylophone, and saxophone. We sat down at a little after 9pm and the place was getting more and more full until we left at 11:30 or so.

The service was nice and attentive. You probably shouldn't go if you're in a hurry with a large group (but where is that not the case?), we got some edamame to tide us over after we'd been waiting a while. I guess with 1/2 price sushi a lot of sushi gets ordered, so even with 3 chefs working they get a bit backed up.

Finally, after we ate we walked down to see Nectar's new back patio (and it was rhubarb night), which is cute, and will be a nice spot for upcoming brunches to be sure.

I'm excited about sushi, and thanks to Ichiban for getting me there! I feel like I am just starting to really taste the ingredients fully. For the first way too many times I ate sushi I doused everything in soy, wasabi, and ginger (I still love all three) and was having a hard time getting over things being raw. Here's to many more upcoming opportunities to learn!

Ichiban Japanese Cuisine on Urbanspoon


tblanx said...

so many people in mt lookout overlook ichiban with dancing wasabi next door. JTB is by far my favorite roll there. Gotta love the half price evenings during the week and the ambiance is wonderful, too. If you go on the weekends the bar area also fills up nicely but isn't overly loud which is great too. Ichiban might be in my top 3 places to get sushi in Cincinnati. If you are ever north of the city, Kyoto off Fields Ertel is a gem that is probably my #1.

Be on the lookout for my friend's new place he is opening downtown on W 4th this spring called, "Soho Sushi." He's got some big ideas, but I think this could be a great addition for downtown's lunch crowd.

Gavin DeVore Leonard said...

Thanks for the comment, Tony!

I started following Soho Sushi on Twitter (I guess I should put that info on the sidebar here on the blog now, huh?), I'll be interested to check it out. When they open, we should grab lunch there.

I'll add Kyoto to my list of places to try too...

Ben said...

The scallop thing is a hard one. They're either amazing, or horrible. The line that separates the two must be very thin. From the restaurants perspective, I understand the reluctance to pitch expensive product. From the consumer side, if I'm trying a new joint, it's a guarantee I order scallop nigiri. Poor quality will influence my perception and expectation moving forward...

Have I told you the story about eating the "live"scallop? Great way to find out you have shellfish sensitivity :-).

One more scallop thought before I go back to work. When you're in a landlocked area and you see "dayboat" scallops, be wary. It may mean they're a little better than the ones at Kroger, but since we're unable to get anything off a boat the Same Day in Ohio (for instance, it's a bit suspicious.
It's a little like when you see "fresh" on a menu.....I always want to ask, "are the other items on the menu not fresh?"

Tony, I've been to Kyoto up north and like it. If you're ever in the mood for buffet, (almost Sam's Club) style sushi, check out the "all you can eat" sushi lunch at Kyojin. It's like having Thanksgiving with Neptune.

Sill one of my fav's is Jo Ann's in Kentucky. Just an FYI, the personality of the staff there makes the bartenders at the Comet seem friendly.

Gavin DeVore Leonard said...

Hey Ben - thanks for the comment! You summed up your own thoughts much better than I did :). I'll have to add Kyojin lunch to my list as well...