It was the chirashi that sold me on Ichiro. Sushi deconstructed, chirashi often shows up as a bowl of vinegared rice with a few slabs of sashimi arranged on top. Ichiro's version looked like an English garden in a bowl, a deceptively organic profusion of colors and shapes: A fan of transparent, millimeter-thin cucumber slices arced up from its bed of sushi rice, next to triangles of golden tamago (a sweet omelet). Bright half-moons of lemon alternated with slices of octopus edged in frilly mauve tentacles. Once we'd stopped counting, it appeared that the sushi chef had tucked more than a dozen types of fish and vegetables into the bowl, all gathered around a pile of tiny roe dyed the color of jade. Such abundance! Such food! At $12.75, such a steal!
Unless you're prepared to pay $30 to $60 a person, it's hard to find a mid-priced sushi restaurant in the East Bay that stands out. Hundreds of similar places around the area serve minuscule variations on the same menu, with the same waving kitty above the chef's station and the same pictorial guides to varieties of fish Bay Area suppliers don't offer. To distinguish themselves, most places are now focusing on complicated American rolls, and the rolls themselves are getting fatter and fatter, with cutesier and cutesier names. I'll save you my rant about rolls you can't eat in one bite, but I will pledge you this: The day I come across a single-maki meal that requires a fork and knife to dissect is the day I give up sushi forever. And that day is coming quickly, my friends.
Once in a while, however, some twirl of the pickled ginger or particularly unctuous slab of hamachi makes a sushi joint stand out. In late summer a couple sent me a two-page letter about Ichiro, their favorite unsung spot in downtown Oakland. It's not the most sublime fish you'll ever taste, they said, but for the price it's stunning, and the owner rocks. On my first visit, the owner told me he was expanding, so I waited as long as I could stand and then returned.
Not to confuse you, but there's Ichiro on 15th Street and an Ichi Japon on 17th. They're both named after Ichi Kazato, who owned Ichi Japon until he sold out to his co-owner three years ago. But the former partners didn't sign a noncompete agreement, so last year Kazato opened Ichiro in a tiny storefront, and then expanded into the space next door.
Even now that it's nearing its one-year anniversary, Ichiro still looks like a restaurant on the brink of opening, with little by way of decoration beyond cream-colored tile and creamy yellow walls. There are a couple of small photos on one of the walls, a plastic sign spelling out "Sushi Bar," and conical blue halogen lights over the tables. The room is anonymous and scrubbed to a shine, which, when you're dealing with raw fish, isn't a bad thing.
At night, the restaurant still hasn't taken off, but lunch moves briskly, as word of Ichiro's quality spreads from office to office. Most of the businessfolk spending their noon hour at the restaurant have come for Ichiro's combination plates, both raw and cooked. The restaurant's two-item hot combos ($8.25) could send any accountant into an afternoon coma. One lunch I filled half my four-person table with a quart-sized bowl of udon in a soy-sauce broth -- with noodles that qualified as clinically obese and a few strips of pink-and-white fish cake -- and tonkatsu, a pork chop breaded in the shaggy-looking Japanese breadcrumbs known as panko. Plus miso soup, rice, and salad. My lunchmate covered the other half of the table with a lacquer plate containing a thin steak of salmon coated in teriyaki sauce that was far from cloying, as well as a stack of lacy, if unseasoned, tempura vegetables and prawns. Plus miso soup, rice, and salad.
Ichiro's combination of bounty and thoughtful presentation extends to the sashimi and sushi. Kazato forms his nigiri gently, so the ovals of rice hold tight just until the fish makes it to your mouth, where they disintegrate. He slices the fish into clean, thick slabs, anointing the oiliest with dabs of grated ginger or radish. Ichiro doesn't stock a huge variety of less-common fish, but Kazato's seared bonito could out-steak any cow, his tako (octopus) is sweet and barely chewy, and his uni (urchin roe) a sea-tinged mousse. In the $15 sashimi plate, one of the most popular dinner items, the chunks of tuna, halibut, salmon, and yellowtail propped on tufts of shredded daikon and lettuce are so big you wouldn't expect them to melt away completely. But they do.
Kazato plans to add heartier dinner items such as donburi and curry to the menu soon. Right now much of it is small appetizers such as an ethereal chawan-mushi (savory steamed custard) and a lovely "Caribbean" salad of greens and seared tuna. His American-style rolls range from spicy tuna, where he forgoes mayonnaise and mixes chopped ahi with straight Thai pepper sauce, to the Titanic, which packs three or four kinds of fish in a three-inch maki, and then piles crab and roe on top (yet another sign that the one-plate maki is near at hand). No matter the size, the rolls are precise and elegant. Combinations like the Super California, a California roll with unagi on top, come off as awkward, but when Kazato plays crisp against creamy and cold against warm -- as in the spider roll, where sprouts, lettuce, and cucumber surround a soft-shell crab; and the Florida Roll, with unagi, avocado, and lettuce -- even I get the appeal.
The chef, with his quick, nervous movements and ready laugh, is a big part of the restaurant's charm, and he's hired a group of cooks and waiters who infuse the blank decor with personality. As of two weeks ago, the chef added one of the most ambitious sake lists in Oakland. Right now Ichiro's coolers are stocked with seventy types of sake, shochu (or soju, which is distilled rather than brewed from rice), and plum wine, with another 25 still due to arrive. But Kazato is building the sake business just as slowly as he built out the space. It's hard to select from the list, because the preliminary sake menu is divided by bottle size, rather than by type of sake. There are no descriptions of each, just its name and price, and the staff isn't yet able to help because Kazato is waiting for demand to pick up before he pays for everyone to taste the stock.
My friends and I forged ahead. We started out with a three-sake flight supplied by Ichiro's distributor. Small glasses, set in a wooden rack, contained one junmai, one ginjo, and one daiginjo. In general, these three classifications describe how much of the rice grain is polished away before the sake is brewed and thus how light and complex the finished product tastes. Kazato also poured us glasses of Himezen junmai, which has the full, sweet-tart flash of a Pinot Grigio (the ladies generally prefer it, he explained to my lady friend), and then we finished with a small bottle of Okunomatsu junmai, which left us with noses full of chocolate and spring flowers. Like everything else at Ichiro, the experience was a paradox: unfinished and polished at the same time. Sushi joints are a dime a dozen, but Ichiro manages to distinguish itself from the crowd.