Salt Lake City's love affair with all things sushi and sake means there's now a Japanese restaurant of every conception and style across the valley from refined fine dining to all-you-can-eat.
But what of the old guard those restaurants that paved the way?
Ichiban Sushi is one of Salt Lake City's more venerable Japanese eateries and there have been changes of late. In the kitchen, Thomas Ontko recently joined the team as executive chef, bringing with him an impressive resume that includes stints alongside Nobu's Toshio Tomita and also Daniel Boulud in New York City. The last decade has been spent at Jackson Hole's Four Seasons resort.
As well as staff updates (Tina Tippetts of Ruth's Chris takes over General Manager duties), the menu has also started to evolve. The most immediate change is an all new Izakaya Japanese pub fare menu.
While it's been many years since I dined at Ichiban, the menu seems to retain its large selection of sushi a boatload of maki headed up by a range of sashimi and tataki. For those who dine Monday through Wednesday from 5 to 10 p.m. there also is an oddly named happy hour menu with a smattering of appetizers, rolls, desserts and drinks all priced $8 or less.
Something familiar to past patrons is the remarkable restaurant interior. Ichiban still calls a beautiful Lutheran church home, as it has for nearly two decades. Dating back to 1894, the main dining room immediately draws the gaze upwards past glowing stained glass windows to lofty beam-cradled ceilings. It's an imposing space with the potential to be one of the city's grandest dining environments.
Sadly, as eyes fall back to table level, the furnishings are less stately. Some spaces could be spruced up, tables and chairs seemed lackluster and dated, and one banquette, that nearly swallowed me whole, had seen better days.
My appetizers of crab wontons with cream cheese ($6) and gyoza ($4) from the happy hour menu were unexciting starts. So I turned to the restaurant's extensive selection of maki rolls, featuring no fewer than 28 creations (not including the extra swathe from the happy hours menu). The X-96 (albacore, snow crab, onion, yamagobo, funky sauce, sriracha, $11) and spicy lemonaid (tempura shrimp, avocado, cucumber, tombo, honey, sriracha, $13) were well crafted but neither wowed me. Both were eclipsed by a white pepper seared escolar tataki dish ($15). Six meaty slices of the buttery fish came bathed in a lemon zest truffled ponzu far simpler, and all the better for it.
Things continued to improve as I began exploring the new Izakaya menu. Dishes such as tempura fried shishito peppers ($7) were crunchy on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside, and every so often, armed with a spicy assault on the senses. The tempura calamari rings ($9) intermingle with rounds of crispy fried, piquant jalapeno; and a pile of sweet and sticky chicken wings ($7) came with a zippy lemon based aioli. All three are perfect to share over a crisp lager like Sapporo ($9 for 600 ml) or the rice brewed Koshihikari Echigo ($9 for 500 ml) from Ichiban's full bar.
An asparagus salad ($8) was delicious enough to forgo any debates over authenticity. It included a perfectly poached egg atop a couple fistfuls of thin, grilled asparagus, and was finished with cherry tomatoes and a miso vinaigrette.
Even the larger Izakaya plates are ideally suited to sharing. The whole deep fried Utah catfish ($16) turned heads as the behemoth fish advanced to our table. But with no side dish, it's better served for a group than a standalone dish. The fish and chips ($13) presentation tumbling out of a Chinese take out box was a bit puzzling, but the tempura fried cod was exceptionally good.
The menu also includes a respectable Kobe beef ($22) dish, served with buttery roasted mushrooms.
The menu featured several other dishes that I would like to sample another dayribs in black bean sauce, steamed pork buns with five spice and hamachi kama. Every item had me more amped up than most of the offerings on the happy hour and generic rolls menu.
Ichiban feels like a restaurant in transition. There are ostensibly three menus vying for a diners attention, and the clutter (80+ items at times) makes finding the gems tricky. With the Izakaya menu, the restaurant has a genuine chance to differentiate itself from its competitors.
With a sensibly pared down sushi menu supporting the interesting new pub fare, who knows, the impressive space might still be going head to head with the myriad of newcomers for a few more decades.
Food • HH
Mood • HH
Service • HH
Noise • bb
One of downtown Salt Lake City's older Japanese restaurants shakes things up with new staff and menu. The new Izakaya menu think Japanese pub food offers something unique.
Location • 336 S. 400 East, Salt Lake City; 801-532-7522
Online • ichibanutah.com
Hours • Sunday-Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
Children's menu • No
Prices • $$
Liquor • Full bar
Reservations • No
Takeout • Yes
Wheelchair access • No
Outdoor dining • Yes
On-site parking • Yes
Credit cards • All major