Fire Up the Grill at this Izakaya
2130 Center St. (between Shattuck and Oxford), Berkeley
Mon.–Sat., 5–11 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted; no reservations
My name is Ben. And I am a food-snapping photoholic.
And I am not alone. My blogger friend Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging is also a photoholic.
How so? Well, a couple of weeks ago we made plans to have dinner at the newly opened and buzz-worthy Ippuku, a Japanese izakaya in Berkeley near the UC-Berkeley campus.
Before I went to meet Sandy, I made a quick check on Yelp to see what food is worth checking out, and that’s where I read one reviewer who said, “you gotta love a place that discourages photo-taking.” Gulp. Not the words a food blogger wants to read right before dinner.
I quickly texted Sandy, who had already arrived at Ippuku. She knew, she replied. There was a big honking sign attesting to the fact right at the entrance.
Despite the ban on photos, we still went on with dinner at Ippuku, and throughout our meal, we quickly snuck in snaps of photos as if our cameras serendipitously appeared in our hands. The danger of being caught by the servers and thus being kicked out of the restaurant made the photo-taking stressful. I had night sweats. But we still snapped on. We couldn’t help ourselves.
But we survived. Truth be told, near the end a couple of servers caught glimpses of us snapping away, but they just turned a blind’s eye. Ippuku, which opened during the summer, isn’t about publicity. It doesn’t need it. From the non-descript entrance that looks like any other sushi joint, Ippuku is actually an izakaya, which in Japan is a drinking establishment with small bites coming mostly from the grill. And since opening, Ippuku has been generating rave reviews so really it doesn’t need any more bloggers telling people that this is a place to check out.
Side note: The décor is a sophisticated but cozy environment, encouraging intimate dinners in the private booths along the wall (where we sat) or friendly gatherings at the larger tables in the tatami mat section across the way.
Sandy and I enjoyed some drinks and a variety of dishes. Here are the shots I was able to “sneak” in:
While Sandy got a Japanese beer, she convinced me to try Ippuku’s happy hour shochu flight ($6). Shochu is a clear drink made by distilling ingredients like rice or barley. It’s more popular than sake in Japan, and in recent years has begun to appear in the United States.
The shochu flight I got included drinks made from potato, barley, and a type of rice called awimori. Of the three, the barley shochu was my favorite.
Ippuku is also known for being the only restaurant in the Bay Area willing to serve the raw chicken dish that’s a delicacy in Japan. I suggested Sandy order that while she waited for me because I knew I couldn’t get myself to eat it. But the dish arrived just as I sat down.
The tori yukke ($9), or spicy chicken tartar with yolk (from a quail egg), was actually a beautiful bowl of raw chicken spiced with a very nice flavor. I tried one bite just to see what it was like, and it didn’t taste like slimy chicken but it had clean and fresh flavors and almost tasted like spicy tuna roll but without the rice.
This is the surume ika yaki, or large Eastern Pacific squid ($10). It was amazingly cooked to perfection, slightly raw but not chewy. There was a light smoky flavor from the grill, and this squid was huge, giving us plenty to eat. It was served with a yuzu mayo sauce, but I was happy just eating it plain, tasting the fresh flavors of the sea.
Some of the more original dishes is this bekonmochi, or bacon-wrapped mochi ($5). FYI: most things are on skewers since most of these small bites go on the grill, and the same went for this mochi, which is the sticky rice balls that were lightly cooked on the grill. This would then cook the bacon and melt the mochi inside to give it a soft, almost goey texture. What was odd, though, was I didn’t get a strong bacon flavor, and instead it tasted almost like nori, or dried seaweed.
Sandy suggested we get the omakase gushi ($14), which is the chef’s choice for the skewer section of the menu. The chef picks five skewers, and they’re all different parts of the chicken, which is the star of the grill at Ippuku. On our plate, there were chicken wing (bit salty), breast (what you’d expect), gizzards (looked like testicles and kind of had that chewy texture, not that I’m an expert on testicles), neck (crunchy) and thighs with leeks (good). It was an interesting exploration of chicken and I felt I got my fill of chicken but Sandy kept trying to suggest ordering an additional plate of chicken knee, but I couldn’t eat any more chicken parts.
I should note that we also ordered the uzura or roasted quail ($10), which I didn’t photograph because it looked like any roasted bird and I had to pick and choose my shots so I wouldn’t overexpose myself to the servers. The quail, though, was cooked perfectly in the medium level where it was tender but not dry or undercooked. We orderd a lot of protein, of course, so I convinced Sandy that we get a side of grilled Brussels sprouts ($5), which were split in half and skewered and then topped with dollops of creamy mayonnaise dusted with chili powder.
Another dish Sandy had to try was this abura-age ($5), which is a deep-fried tofu skin pocket filled with natto – the Japanese sticky (and stinky) beans. I’d never had natto, and just like the raw chicken, was a bit nervous trying it. But I did and I have to say, it wasn’t that bad. Sandy said maybe Ippuku’s version of natto was the mild type because she’s had stronger tasting ones. The tofu skin was nicely crispy, but the natto really just made me think of a burrito.
I really wanted to try the buta bara, or pork belly ($8). Even though everyone serves pork belly, I wanted to see what Ippuku did with its version. The skewered pork belly served with a spicy miso spread actually was a bit tougher than other pork bellies I’ve had elsewhere. Maybe it was from all the grilling.
At this point, we had tried a lot of food. And also around this time, the small kitchen and grill in the back began to smoke up the entire restaurant. I had read that the place has poor ventilation, but since we dined early on, we didn’t experience the smoke. But when you’re there anytime after 7 p.m., the smoke can be stifling. So I was glad we were done and ready to leave.
But we didn’t escape right away because something on the dessert menu caught our eyes. Ippuku offers up a matcha affogato ($6). Affogato is the Italian treat of vanilla ice cream served with espresso poured over it. Ippuku does a Japanese version by pouring matcha green tea over what tasted like Strauss soft serve vanilla ice cream.
The bowl of ice cream and matcha looked beautiful with a light green tint, but I felt the green tea flavor didn’t come over as boldly as I wanted. I did enjoy the soft-serve ice cream, though.
Ippuku is on the high end for an izakaya. Remember you’re getting small plates of these orders. But the quality matches the prices, and I found Ippuku’s grill chefs to be experts in delivering wonderfully cooked meats at a level that can be eye-opening.
Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (grill masters)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
Get a look at Foodhoe's smuggled photos on her post here.
Other izakaya spots:
Ozumo: "Sushi, Sake, and Robata Grill on a Grand Scale"
Nombe: "Japanese Pub Blends Traditional with Modern"
O Izakaya: "Drinks and Small Bites at this Japantown Lounge"
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Fire Up the Grill at this Izakaya