Restaurant Review :: Ippuku

The exterior of the restaurant, located at 2130 Center Street.

The newest restaurant on Center Street, Ippuku, couldn't have earned more rave reviews upon opening. Recommended by food guru Alice Waters herself, the eatery brings a truly authentic taste of Japan to Berkeley. Ippuku is modeled after Japanese izakayas, or bars that serve small plates, and specializes in yakitori (grilled chicken) and shochu (a distilled liquor usually made from sweet potato, barley, or rice). All this translates into a veritable treasure trove of rare, imported refreshments and unique Asian tapas. Even with its rapidly-growing popularity, however, Ippuku isn't at all ostentatious -- in fact, passersby may not even notice the discreet, but exceptionally well-designed, space at first.

A display of liquors lining the entrance.

Customers enjoy their meals within the booths that make up Ippuku.

One step inside, however, and you're immediately transported. The restaurant, which was designed by local master builder and ordained Zen Buddhist priest Paul Discoe, is laid out efficiently, with a bar, intimate booth seating, enclosed group tables, and an open grill lining a long walkway. We waited at the bar for seats, enjoying the view of the very well-stocked shelves and amazing shochu bottle dispensers. Their drinks menu is extensive and impressive, with 12 out of nearly 50 available shochus making their West Coast debut.

Two views of the restaurant's extensive selection of drinks.

After about a half hour wait, we were seated at the end of the restaurant at the grill. A word of caution -- grills generally make you and your clothes smell like food, and Ippuku's is no exception. We, however, wanted to see owner/chef Christian Geideman and his team at work, so off we went. Our waitress helped us navigate the drinks menu and gave us many recommendations from the selection of small plates. We ended up ordering quite a bit -- fortunately, their menu prices range from $5 to $12, so it's quite affordable for a diverse and delicious meal.

Beautifully prepared vegetarian dishes. Clockwise from top-left: cabbage with spiced mayonnaise & lotus root stir-fry; agedashi tofu; grilled shiitaki mushrooms; little potatoes with shochu butter. Click to enlarge.

For our first round, we had a cabbage appetizer on the house, the lotus root stir fry, agedashi tofu, little potatoes in shochu butter, and grilled shiitake mushrooms. I especially enjoyed the latter two; the sauces that the potatoes and mushrooms were steeped in complimented them perfectly. My dining companion and I, who both eat Asian cuisine regularly, agreed that the dishes were definitely delicious, but not particularly spectacular.

The bacon-wrapped enoki

Grilled chicken skewers (from left): wings, skin, gizzard, neck, and thigh cooked with leeks.

The meat dishes, however, were on a different playing field. We ordered the bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms (similar to their most popular dish, bacon-wrapped mochi), which were flavorful and bright. Even more creative were the set of five chicken skewers we ordered. Ippuku has a "whole chicken" philosophy, cooking even rarely-used parts like the heart and liver. Our chef's choice sampler came with wings, skin, gizzard, neck, and thigh, all grilled to perfection. Of these, perhaps the only one we didn't love was the gizzard -- but maybe that's due to our own lack of courage in eating strange chicken organs!

The chicken ramen

We ended our savory plates with a mini bowl of chicken ramen; although I thought this was too peppery, my other eater loved its hearty flavor and thought it was one of the best dishes of the night. Of course, we couldn't forget the drinks. I sipped on a glass of Ippuku's most recently acquired sweet potato shochu, while my drinking partner had a stein of Racer 5 beer (which they have on tap, along with Asahi). The shochu differed from other Asian liquors I've had in a very good way: smooth and, at 25% alcohol by volume, strong.

Black sesame ice cream with tempura crumbs, mochi, and red bean paste

We were almost ready to call it a night until we saw several amazing-looking desserts pass us by. We had to have the black sesame ice cream, topped with tempura crumbs and served with mochi and red bean paste... and it was good. Perfectly mild and sweet, it was as incredibly delicious as it looked, and probably one of my favorite desserts yet.

A view from the chef's station.

At the end of the night, we were very impressed by Chef Christian's ability to create an amazing izakaya atmosphere. Everything about the restaurant exudes an authentic and, well, cool, vibe -- even the restrooms were outfitted with Japanese plumbing. Truth be told, however, I had heard so many good things about Ippuku that I came in expecting a life-changing dinner. What I should have anticipated was solidly good, well-prepared food, an incredible alcohol selection, and a wonderfully designed restaurant. Ippuku is definitely a unique, welcome addition to Downtown Berkeley, and a recommended experience for eaters of all ages.

Julie Dinh
BARE Reporter

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