Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ippuku, a trip to Japan in Berkeley

Ippuku, Berkeley
Yesterday i stepped out of the U.S. and straight into a Kyoto Gion District eatery when I entered Ippuku on Center Street, in Berkeley, just a block south of the U.C. Berkeley campus.  I needed to hit a couple of stores in the east Bay, so planned on a Berkeley pre-shopping lunch.

I had remembered reading about this soba/yakitori house a few years ago when working on my business plan.  In fact, I referenced them as one of the newest non-sushi serving Japanese restaurants to open in a sushi denominated scene.   So let's just say, I knew to expect excellent dashi (broth) and other cooked dishes, but had no idea I would be stepping into a cultural space warp when i approached the wooden front door, with the requisite noren curtains wavering over the threshold and heavy wooden interior.

Almost immediately I knew i was in for something special.  Expectations aside, the stand up only sake bar with an opening facing the street for a quick sip of sake, soju or plum wine would have been enough to draw me in.   Pleasantly surprised by the ambience is an understatement.

Tatami matted climb-in seating with small families and kids crawling around lined the right wall, and private booths occupied the left side of the long narrow room.  A few seats were available at the tiny noodle bar in the back, the place where one would expect to see a sushi counter, but instead, was teaming with a few young Japanese looking guys sweating below a large hood sysem that is only meant to cover a smoke and steam producing cooking surface.   Yup, no sushi here!

The menu look was completely japanese, written simply in english but with Kanji characters as well.  I actually needed to consult the "menu explanations" on the reverse side of the sheet to know which soup topping I wanted.  I have to admit I was a little disappointed that the only "meat or fish" option was the Ebi-Ten soba (tempura shrimp) - so I decided on the Tsukimi Soba: Soba with a raw egg cracked on top.  My cutie server (sporting the oh so Japanese look of multi colored leg warmers over her skinny jeans) suggested that  I get the tori shiso-maki to complete my protein urge (chicken wrapped in shiso leaf then tempura fried).  I also ordered the cucumber-wakame salad - a standard I wanted to compare to my own.

I was already "in love" before the food arrived.  The rough hewn booths, naked wood, funny wicker lampshades, long skinny bowling alley feel, dark and timeless - could have been 50 years old or just opened last week - right up my own "alley."

The soba set arrived, with pickles and shichimi, as well as the tori-shiso maki, with tempura dipping sauce.  The cucumbers made it to my table a few minutes later, which was all fine, since i was in lust and this restaurant could pretty much do no wrong - all predetermined before any food morsel had even hit my tongue.  Such a sucker for ambiance!

The food, however, did not disappoint. It's two days later and I can still imagine the taste of the dashi marinated chicken breast and perfect crunch of the tempura outer crust.    Its simplicity partnered with originality and succulence  would call me back for that dish only.  

Infatuation was turning into full fledged love as i bit into the hearty, yet tender soba noodles (made with special flour from the northern island of Hokkaido) (which I'm pretty sure were the 100% buckwheat kind) The perfectly briny sweet broth and unctuous egg yolk slid across my tongue and was again simply satisfying.  There was another flavor in the broth that I still have yet to identify - earthy, familiar and still mysterious. Yes, it was good.    I was already full but forced myself to gnaw on the cucumber-wakame salad, with just a hint of shiso leaf snuck in to make it interesting.  The cucumbers were most likely marinated overnight as they almost had a pickled quality, but without the cloying saltiness that often comes with that sort of preparation.  Delicious in their own right (and totally different from my own chunky, barely marinated version).

I found myself not wanting to leave, but unless imbibing in their great sake and soju list was on the agenda, there was no solid reason to stay.  I visited the bathroom on the way out, to find cool LED lit bottles the only light source which made the area outside the bathroom sexier than any bathroom area should be in the light of day...    Once inside my trip to Japan was complete, as the warm Toyo toilet seats, replete with a warm front and back wash bidet, pretty much put me over the top.  For $28 bucks, less than the cost of a round trip shuttle ride to the airport, the trip to Japan in Berkeley was worth every cent.

Tori no shiso