At the end of a long, hard day, there's nothing like a potent drink and a savory nibble. That's why humankind invented the tea house, the tapas bar, the bistro, and the pub: gathering places ideal for long evenings of relaxing, sipping, and snacking. The Japanese equivalent is the izakaya, and with Ippuku, Berkeley-bred chef Christian Geideman has introduced this unique form of casual, festive dining to his home town. One of the hipper Berkeley restaurants to open within the past year, it's a far cry from your typical sushi joint or flying-cleaver Benihana floor show. Skewered variety meats, not raw fish or sizzling steak, is the specialty of the house. The carefully assembled food is presented on exquisite platters, dishes, bowls, and flagons imported from Japan. In traditional kotatsu dining areas, customers eat and drink at low, square tables, shoes off, their lower limbs nestled into cozy footwells. Even the ladies' room is authentically Japanese, with heated toilet seats only one of the ablutional gadgets on hand.
A special mood envelopes you the moment you walk through the door. The recessed entryway features a seating area and open-air counter where you can enjoy an al fresco shochu, the establishment's primary tipple. Just inside is a stand-up bar with cushioned benches, and beyond is the dark, narrow dining area, a strikingly elemental setting in raw concrete and recycled wood with private booths on one side and the more traditional lantern-lit bamboo-screened kotatsu on the other. Toward the back is an open kitchen and a counter for single diners, and scattered about are cool color photos of Tokyo street scenes. Knowledgeable servers circulate throughout to help you navigate the occasionally cryptic menu.
The menu is divided into five sections: tasty snacks, skewers, fancy food, last plates, and ice cream. Following the custom of izakayas, tapas bars, gastropubs, and tea houses around the world, we began our meal with a round of shochu, and continued ordering nibbles, noshes, and small plates over the course of a long, pleasant, and taste-bud-awakening evening. Take, for example, the scoop of rich, fluffy cream cheese accented with tiny yet potent bits of salted skipjack tuna innards: a tongue-thrashing acquired taste, and a lively aperitif to boot. Kinpira, earthy lotus root stir-fried with carrots and spices until hot and crunchy, made a more agreeable meal-opener, as did slices of sweet heirloom tomato draped in a tart, citrusy ponzu sauce. Matchsticks of bitter melon battered and fried, tempura-style, were hot, crunchy, and salty, with a snappy bitter aftertaste — perfect with a glass of beer. And if coagulated soy milk always tasted as good as Ippuku's agedashi tofu, I'd eat it now and then: Crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside, it was served in a bowl of dashi broth that invigorated the tofu's lush, bland flavor.
The skewers (or "sticks") make up the bulk of the menu, but they aren't your garden-variety strip-steak yakitori. Every cubic inch of Soul Food Farm's pasture-raised La Belle Rouge chickens are skewered, seasoned, and grilled — heart, liver, skin, neck, knee cartilage, shoulder blade, tail, and all. The gizzards were especially meaty, smoky, and rich, despite their distractingly crunchy texture. The thigh oyster — the soft filet behind the upper leg — was much more delicate, a tender morsel of flesh wrapped in its own crisp, parchment-like skin. Thigh meat was also featured on another skewer, interspersed with tender rounds of sweet, pungent leek. Particularly yummy: tsukutaka, a minced, spiced, sausage-like chicken patty served with a creamy egg yolk that added a lush, suave component to the hearty meat.
Other skewers included rounds of corn on the cob grilled until sweet, juicy, and slightly charred, and served with a dollop of herb butter; rounds of meaty shiitake mushroom sprinkled with scallions and a drizzle of sparkly, citrusy yuzu sauce; and a chewy, bubblegum-like version of mochi (rice paste) wrapped in smoky bacon (not our favorite dish). No complaints about the smoky, supple Gleason Ranch Berkshire pork belly, though, delicious with its dollop of sugar-laced soy paste, or the Wolfe Ranch quail, a tiny, perfectly juicy bird that offered up a surprisingly ample amount of rich, tender meat. An entirely different taste sensation came from the komochi shisamo, half a dozen tiny smelt with lots of crunchy, salty flavor, head to tail, bones and all.
Ippuku's shochu selection is as central to the restaurant's personality as its food. Forty-two varieties of the 12- to 20-proof distilled firewater are available on tap or by the bottle, ranging from the vodka-like sweet potato imo and the whiskey-like, barley-based mugi to the sake-esque rice kome and awamori and the rummy black-sugar kokuto. They're served on the rocks or cut with hot or cold water; we had a sweet potato Shiranami over ice and enjoyed its crisp, earthy flavor, while a buckwheat-based Unkai (served in a mug mixed with hot water) was more floral and spicy, like a Yuletide toddy. Prices range from $30 to $100 per bottle ($6 to $14 per glass). You can also have your shochu in a chu-hai ("shochu highball"), in which the booze is mixed with seltzer and fresh fruit you squeeze yourself. We opted for the Meyer lemon (it needed sugar) and the grapefruit (tasty), which benefitted from all that lovely pulp. There's also an impressive seventeen varieties of pure, fortified, or unpasteurized sake, seven beers (go for the Hitachino), and one red and one white wine, if you're into that sort of thing.
After your delicious and fascinating but not-exactly-appetite-quenching meal, you might be tempted to gorge yourself at the Ben & Jerry's next door — but then you'd miss out on Ippuku's own signature ice cream dishes. The maccha sundae starts with Strauss' organic green-tea soft-serve, then accents the ice cream's herbaceous flavor with earthy red-bean paste, sweet, sticky mochi, and a sprinkling of crunchy tempura flakes ... a delightful variation on the familiar. The kuriimu mitsumame was less complex and more refreshing: Strauss's vanilla soft-serve topped with ripe fruits and berries, a drizzle of kuromitsu (Japanese caramel), and cubes of sweetened seaweed jelly, a surprisingly easily acquired taste. It's the perfect conclusion to an evening of delectable, occasionally challenging, strikingly impressive food and drink.