meal for three + wine and tip = £100
Ichiban, apparently, translates roughly as "first" or "best”. I'm not sure if Cardiff’s Ichiban can lay claim to being it's first Japanese restaurant, although it is Cardiff’s most well known. I'm also uncertain as to whether or not it's Cardiff’s best as the only thing I have to compare it too is Tenkaichi on City Rd. I was asked on twitter recently for my opinion on which I thought served better sushi, and had to confess to not really having a clue. I'd visited Ichiban a good few years ago, but have absolutely no recollection of that visit, and Tenkaichi was a new one on me. I'd noticed it in passing before, but it never crossed my mind to visit.
There's a reason for my reluctance to frequent these places, in that I have a huge respect for Japanese cuisine and didn't want to be disappointed by what I always assumed would be Cardiff’s sloppy attempt at one of the worlds great food heritages. (I said I had a reason, I didn't say it was a particularly good one). I've always saved my sushi indulgences for places elsewhere, fearing I’d be served fish of dubious quality. This was me at my most patronising and to be quite frank, stupid. For all my pretended knowledge of Japanese food I’d made that common mistake of associating all Japanese cuisine with seafood and especially sushi.
It's a common held belief that the Japanese love of fish arrived in the 8th Century with Buddhism and the proclamation that the consumption of meat should be outlawed in line with Buddhist principles. I choose no to believe this story as it seems that whenever religion gets it's grubby fingers into the kitchen all it brings to the meal is prohibition, and that stands in stark contrast to the pluralistic appetites of the modern foodie. I follow a different train of thought that says the Japanese, ever the pragmatists, decided to save their animals to work the land, and avoid the need to hand over vast swathes of their precious, liveable island to pasture.
Whatever the reason, the Japanese continued to eat meat and although you'll struggle to find horse or chicken sashimi in the U.K. (sadly) you can enjoy yakitori, ramen, Kobe beef, shabu shabu and various other meaty delights.
Anyway, back to the reason I was spurred into action, and came to visit Ichiban; that twitter question.
I'd popped into Tenkaichi to sample their wares one lunchtime, and although I wasn't blown away, I was impressed with the value. I spent £10 at lunch and left pretty stuffed after trying a tasty eel nigiri, and some badly prepared maki that unravelled on the plate without my even touching it. I'd ordered a tempura squid which on first bite tasted bland but rewarded subsequent tastings with a very understated and subtle, light seasoning. You had to concentrate to appreciate it, but it really was, very good.
I ordered the same dish on my visit to Ichiban a few days later, and although that particular dish was on a par with Tenkaichi, everything else about my visit was far better.
Three of us visited the Cowbridge rd Ichiban on a Saturday night. They have two branches, one here and one in Roath. This one is a shabby old place and could do with a bit of a spit and polish, but then again so could most of Cowbridge rd so I won't hold it against them.
We ordered beers and a plate of mixed nigiri to eat whilst we considered the substantial menu. Besides the octopus nigiri, which was too chewy to eat in anything near a civilised manner, everything else on the plate tasted excellent. The salmon was for me the star and tasted out of this world. It was something I ordered a few more times that night only to wake up the following morning craving more. In the end, We decided the best way to tackle such a big and appealing menu was to order a few large dishes and a range of smaller tasters to share.
Amongst the smaller dishes was a sashimi salad. A good value alternative to a normal plate of sashimi, which can be prohibitively expensive, and it's freshness put an end to any doubts I might have previously had about the quality of Cardiff’s fish. Tempura vegetables featured aubergine, sweet potato and enoki mushrooms amongst other things and the veg held its bite well. Age gyoza or chicken dumplings divided the tables opinions. The misses adored them, but to me they were a bit unexciting, the pastry bland, dry and a bit tough.
The larger main dishes were spot on. A plate of curry yaki udon, was above average for a noodle dish, but what really set it off was a covering of dried bonito flakes that danced and melted in the heat from the noodles. They provided a depth of savouriness that no Chinese noodles I’ve ever had possessed. My one complaint with the bonito flakes is that there weren't more, as once they had gone the dish slightly lost its punch.
My friend had ordered a bowl of ebi katsu nabe which Consisted of four large prawns, breaded and deep-fried and swimming in broth, with clouds of egg swirling about them. I tasted half of one of the prawns and it was good. The breaded exterior had stood up well to the liquid and retained a good bite. I can't really comment further since my fat, greedy and if I do say so myself, selfish companion thought the dish far too good to share and refused me any more.
The misses ordered tori karaage, or deep-fried chicken with a brown sauce. We wondered what the brown sauce would be. I said (with no authority whatsoever) that it must be a katsu curry. I was wrong. It was brown sauce, H.P. brown sauce, and in my opinion the moreish deep fried chicken deserved something a bit more special.
For dessert, the misses went for the tempura ice cream, and our companion the deep fried mango. The tempura ice cream is an interesting alternative to your run of the mill deserts. Tempura balls are served sliced open to reveal a Thayers ice cream, and come sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. It's by no means as unpleasant as you might think, but after a few bites feels far heavier than desert should so makes a great sharing dish. I wasn't in the mood for dessert but still fixated on that salmon nigiri, ordered another two portions for myself.
Both Ichiban and Tenkaichi have the customary pieces of fabric in the doorway to get in your way and irritate you as you nip out for a smoke. In Japan in the old days, customers would have wiped their hands in these as they left and the shops would never wash them; a dirty cloth denoting good business and therefore good food. It's a shame that's not how they do it these days, for it would save customers the hassle of finding the best place to eat and perhaps wasting money as they do it, but this is the 21st century and twitter is how it's done these days. It's with my eternal gratitude that I thank @AmandaJJenner for posing that sushi question on twitter, as it got me out of my self imposed, Japanese denying rut, and led me back to Ichiban. It made me realise that the chances of finding my dream Japanese restaurant, where a ninety-year-old sushi chef serves omakasi in a place that seats only four people a night, isn't ever going to exist in South Wales. I can though be happy with food of the quality that Ichiban serves, but more importantly with the price of both Ichiban and Tenkaichi.