It looked like a ball of road tar and it smelled of singed toast. It required some courage to bring spoon to mouth. But the taste of it was cool, rich and unsweet, with a powerful campfire finish. And it made a lasting impression. In fact, I returned for more.
So permit me to begin this report at the end. I was at Ichibei, a long running Japanese restaurant in the downtown core. After all the sushi and sashimi, the tempura, udon and sukiyaki had been successfully chop-sticked up and slurped down – let me tell you about my encounter with this wonderful ice cream.
I rarely bother with dessert in a Japanese restaurant. The pickings are slim. Green tea ice cream. Red bean ice cream. Sometimes a pastry. But when “black sesame” ice cream was mentioned (Sorry, what did you say? Black sesame? Never heard of itâ€¦), I gave it a whirl. I was expecting vanilla ice cream with a sprinkling of seeds. What arrived was made with ink-black sesame seed paste. The sooty ice cream is brought in (I asked) from Toronto, and to my mind and mouth, was startlingly good.
Anyway, it was new to me, and I liked it.
There were other things to like. Ichibei’s sushi struck me as fresh and carefully made, the rice well seasoned, the fish well cut and draped, the portions on the generous size, the price about right.
Most of this (rather disjointed) menu of packaged pages and colourful inserts is largely familiar. The sushi and sashimi are easily delicious, served with vivid ginger and soy sauce. A favourite of mine is the warm unagi, paired with cucumber, nori and rice, rolled, sliced into disks and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The contrast of the warm and oily eel with the cool and crunchy cucumber makes this a rousing pleasure. If you like your spicy rolls spicy, you will find them so here.
Of the hot food, we like the tempura – hot, crisp and light enough – shrimp, green beans, eggplant, shiitake mushrooms, coated lightly in batter and judiciously fried.
Sukiyaki, served in a black cauldron, is a sweet broth filled with squares of firm tofu, thin strips of beef, mushrooms, Chinese greens and shirataki (“white waterfall”) noodles – thin, translucent and jelly-like, made from plant fibre. Next to the hot pot, a bowl of rice and a raw egg – you are invited to crack it, or if that seems like too much work, they’ll do it for you. Once cracked and whisked with a fork, you are encouraged to dip the sukiyaki offerings in the raw egg. It adds richness.
There is trout, grilled whole, which is pretty good, and usually a daily fish special. Hamachi, or yellowtail tuna, arrives overcooked one night.
There are some dishes with a vivid gaminess or sliminess that you may find an acquired taste. I am working on developing a fondness for natto, fermented and aged soy beans, all slippery and slimy, with a sort of cobweb-like lacquering. But matched, as they are at Ichibei, with the crunch of grated daikon, chopped scallion and the buttery richness of tuna sashimi, they are almost pleasurable.
Ichibei’s physical space is small – seating for about 20, with maybe six more at the sushi bar. Clean and well lit, white and beige, the small dining room is partitioned with slatted screens of pale wood creating private nooks. The only colour in the room is in the navy tablecloths and the bright red globe lantern that hangs above our heads. If you’re alone and seek diversion, you might gravitate to the sushi bar where you can watch the sculptors at work.
Sapporo or sake, or both, are the drinks with this food. The wine on offer is negligible.
The dessert isn’t.