If you see a Sakura enthusiast deep in conversation at a cocktail party, it is probably because he has trapped some poor, unsuspecting H2O regular in an argument about the proper stickiness of sushi rice. Irvingtonians show their allegiance to the close-at-hand Oishi Sushi. Castleton gets its maki fix at Wasabi on 82nd, and so on. What I am trying to say is that sushi bars, like sports teams, have their diehard fans. And for five years, southsiders have needed nothing fancier than the modest dining room of their beloved Ichiban.
Last year, Ichiban underwent a renovation that doubled the eatery’s size and added a bar and a banquet room that can hold 30 people, and yet the place feels as intimate as it ever did. The menu saw some changes, too, as owner Sammy Li explains. “We have many regulars—really beautiful people. But a lot of them are families, so they don’t order the traditional raw-fish sushi.”
Indeed, many gravitate toward the specialty maki rolls, the ones composed mainly of tempura fish and mayonnaise. Li’s sushi chefs spend a lot of their time assembling State Fair–worthy masterpieces like the addictive shrimp-and-crab Crazy Roll, plated on a helix of sauces, and the Pink Dragon (pictured), named for the color of the spicy crab that lines its spine and its serpent-like presentation. One regular has such a hard-and-fast order that she devised a mnemonic phrase—“The two-handed crazy pink dragon at Ichiban”—to remember where to place her checkmarks; that is, next to two spicy tuna hand rolls, the Crazy Roll, the Pink Dragon, and the Ichiban Roll.
Li is betting this same loyal customer base will want to venture deeper into his expanded menu, which he describes as more of a Thai/Chinese/Japanese fusion. (The name has been elongated to Ichiban Sushi Bar & Sammy’s Asian Cuisine, even.) Li brought in his older brother David Li to take charge of the kitchen, where some of the new crossover dishes include Thai-style basil chicken, panang curry, and some duck-breast offerings. Whether the new creations will fly with the Ichiban faithful remains to be seen. If not, Li’s standbys—embellished maki rolls that are, admittedly, more indulgent than traditional—can always be counted on. Like an old friend. Or a good neighbor.
Ichiban Sushi Bar & Sammy’s Asian Cuisine
8265 U.S. 31 South, 883-1888
Hours Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m., 5–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m., 5–10 p.m.; Sun. noon–2:30 p.m., 5–9 p.m.
Pink Dragon, Crazy Roll, basil chicken
Photograph by Tony Valainis
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue