November 13, 2019

Winnipeg
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Dinner and a show

A trip to Ichiban will take you back in time

Opinion

This month’s Throwback Thursday throws right back to 1973, when this well-known downtown destination opened. Ichiban eventually grew into a small chain, with locations in Minneapolis; Fargo; Reno, Nev.; and Palm Springs, Calif. (all closed now except for Reno).

Restaurant Review

Throwback Thursday: Ichiban Japanese Steakhouse and Pub
189 Carlton St.
204-925-7400; ichiban.ca

Throwback Thursday: Ichiban Japanese Steakhouse and Pub
189 Carlton St.
204-925-7400; ichiban.ca

Go for: dinner and a show
Best bet: the famous chicken livers
Teppanyaki multi-course dinners: $42-50

Sunday-Thursday: 5-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday: 5-10 p.m.
Noise levels: can get high on the lower floor, especially if sake bombs are involved
Reservations: yes, recommended
Parking: validated indoor parking
Licensed: yes, wine, beer and spirits, including elaborate specialty cocktails

★★★1/2 stars

 

STAR POWER

★★★★★ Excellent
★★★★ Very Good
★★★ Good
★★ Mediocre
★ Substandard
No stars Not recommended 

Here in Winnipeg, the original restaurant has held on, catering to conventioneers and loyal locals. Many Winnipeggers see Ichiban — with its theatrical table-side Japanese cooking — as a special-occasion venue, and it remains popular for birthday celebrations, anniversary dinners and bachelorette parties.

Reached via a set of outdoor stairs that descend from Carlton Street, the resto’s plain, heavy doors open into a huge multi-levelled space. A wooden bridge leads to a lower level, where crimson seats are grouped around large, flat, iron griddles. The decor, a little rundown in spots, calls up the immersive, "exotic" dining environments popular in the 1960s and ’70s. There’s a casual bar, as well as a quieter area of table seating removed from the main action for people who want a less interactive meal. Apart from the full teppanyaki-style dinners, the menu also offers à la carte sushi, tempura and snacks.

Raw ingredients waiting for Chef Pete Moleta to cook them in front of guests at Ichiban.

Raw ingredients waiting for Chef Pete Moleta to cook them in front of guests at Ichiban.

Teppenyaki, which traces back to the postwar period in Japan and took off in North America in the 1960s, was way ahead of the curve with the performative cooking trend. Long before food prep became the cultural spectacle it has become — with today’s spate of superstar chefs and open kitchens and 24-7 cooking shows — Ichiban founder Jack Levit realized people just love to watch their food being made.

At Ichiban, the multiple teppan grills are covered by vent hoods and ringed with U-shaped tables. And the chefs really do put on a show. They flip knives and set things on fire and juggle stuff and throw things around, making the whole process interactive. (Be prepared to be a good sport about egg-tossing and bowl-catching.)

If you’ve never been, you’ll get some "ooh and aah" moments, and if you remember Ichiban from childhood experiences, the whole show will supply some reassuring nostalgia.

Chef Moleta flips a cup over to Stephanie Yakiwchuk before serving rice.

Chef Moleta flips a cup over to Stephanie Yakiwchuk before serving rice.

Depending on the size of your group, you may be asked if you’re willing to sit with another party. While North Americans sometimes find communal seating awkward, the teppanyaki experience encourages a loosened-up, friendly atmosphere. There’s something about listening to corny jokes and catching eggs — not to mention sake bombing — that gets people chatting.

Food-wise, this is mostly North Americanized Japanese food. (Ichiban still uses the outdated word "oriental" in its menu.) The teppanyaki table menu is totally old-school, which can be both good and bad. The chicken liver appetizers, for example, are indeed classic. Cooked with sake and butter and loads of mushrooms and onions, they’re tender and tasty.

Other courses could use an update. The soup is fairly plain chicken broth loaded with carrots and other vegetables, and the cucumber and crab salad is crunchy but overly sweet, the cukes tasting more like bread-and-butter pickles.

Moleta prepares a classic chicken liver appetizer for guests.</p></p>

Moleta prepares a classic chicken liver appetizer for guests.

The other courses, which include a choice of fish and seafood, chicken and filet mignon, as well as rice and vegetables, are well prepared but eventually have a certain sameness, flavour-wise.

Our chef’s timing was skilled. He was cooking beef from medium to rare for several people, all while keeping a careful eye on salmon, scallops and chicken — and, you know, throwing things and lighting things on fire.

Certainly, the food is fresh and hot — after all, it’s being cooked right in front of you. The seasoning, however, which relies heavily on varying combos of soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, sake and garlic salt for everything from appetizers to mains to veg, can get overpowering — and especially overly salty.

Some of Ichiban’s main course classics: teriyaki salmon, lobster and a side of rice.</p></p>

Some of Ichiban’s main course classics: teriyaki salmon, lobster and a side of rice.

Everything comes in huge portions, and you’re almost certainly going to be boxing up some of your dinner and taking it home.

If the teppanyaki multi-course dinner seems like too much, you can also order à la carte in the pub or on the upper level. Miso soup is a bit thin, but tempura is very nice, crispy and light, and agedashi tofu is also good, the silken cubes of tofu finished with a crunchy coating.

There are also more recent fusion dishes like tasty sushi nachos — with cubes of tuna or salmon and Japanese slaw in crisped-up fried wonton wrappers, though the accompanying sauce was overly sweet — and Japanese poutine (unsampled).

Chef Moleta crafts a heart out of rice.

Chef Moleta crafts a heart out of rice.

For dessert, there is green tea, mango or vanilla ice cream. The green tea option tastes good but had a few patches of ice crystals.

And if it’s your birthday — and going by the noise at nearby tables, a lot of patrons seemed to be having super-fun birthday celebrations — you get a special banana tempura sundae.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Chef Moleta flips a full cup of rice.

Chef Moleta flips a full cup of rice.

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Saturday, October 19, 2019 at 2:17 PM CDT: Clarifies that the Reno location is still operating

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