Restaurant News & Reviews

Ichiban mixes and misses a bit

You won't find a teppanyaki table at Ichiban Sushi & Steak, though you might be able to get a peek at the chef as he stir-fries your hibachi steak in the compact open kitchen at the back of the dining room. A tiny sushi bar, a five-seater, sits at the front of the room. The decor -- a colorful hodgepodge of Japanese parasols and other bric-a-brac against the backdrop of a wall-spanning Statue of Liberty mural left by the previous occupant (NY Deli) -- is cheerful enough, in a schizophrenic way. But it doesn't encourage lingering.

Ichiban is more than just another Japanese express takeout shop, though. The menu is more extensive than that of the average takeout joint, for one thing, with a full complement of appetizer options, 15 hibachi entrees, and a broad selection of nigiri and maki sushi. Food is attractively presented -- not on paper plates, but on real tableware with real chopsticks (not the splintery wooden kind). Service is friendly and, for the most part, attentive.

By the time you've tallied up all the things Ichiban isn't -- steakhouse, full-blown sushi bar, takeout shop -- you realize that it is, in fact, a hybrid of them all. I suppose it should come as no surprise, then, that the food itself is, well, average.

The jumbo shrimp are sweet and the vegetables fresh in tempura appetizer presentations, but their batter tends to fall short of the airy ideal. Ahi tuna salad, featuring thin, pepper-seared rare slices with mixed greens in a Japanese vinegar dressing, is more successful. So is sunomono, which serves up bite size pieces of octopus, crab or shrimp (or, better still, a combination of all three) with a sesame-dressed seaweed salad.

Pan-fried gyoza are competently done, but there's nothing to distinguish them from renditions served at countless other Japanese restaurants. That also applies to the miso soup and the house salad (iceberg lettuce, ginger dressing thickened with a bit of mayo), which are available a la carte and are included with any hibachi entree order.

With the exception of lobster, all the usual hibachi suspects are present and accounted for on a list that includes shrimp, scallops, salmon, chicken, rib-eye, filet mignon, tofu and vegetable -- as well as just about any combination of these that you'd care to name. The rib-eye I ordered medium-rare recently came out medium, prompting me to wonder for the umpteenth time why they even bother asking how you'd like your steak cooked in Japanese steakhouses. Shrimp were smallish but otherwise OK, in a sauce that was a bit sweeter than the norm.

The sushi menu lists an impressive 45 rolls, more than half of them oversize house specialty rolls. A standard size eel and avocado maki roll hits the mark, as does the Fashion Roll, a bonito flake-sprinkled jumbo roll co-starring smoked salmon and cucumber. But the tempura batter encasing the soft shell crab in the spider roll suffers from the same tendency toward heaviness as it does in the tempura appetizers.

Nigiri sushi are chiefly distinguished by their size, which is larger than most. Quality is by and large acceptable, though I'd advise sticking with popular selections such as tuna, salmon and yellowtail. The ama ebi (raw sweet shrimp) I sampled one evening were fine, but one of the deep-fried heads that accompanied them was -- there's no gentle way of putting this -- inedible.

I'd hate to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, though, so I've saved the best for last. Ichiban's panko-crusted rendition of pork katsu -- a dish so popular in Japan that there's an entire category of fast food restaurants specializing in variations on the theme (called donburi) -- is excellent. Come to think of it, maybe that's one more type of Japanese restaurant that I should have included in Ichiban's hybrid mix.