Japanese barmen milk shochu from a long overhead rack of upside down bottles, at the front of Ippuku, the authentic yakitori in Berkeley. They squirt 50 proof barley, rice and sweet potato liquors into frosty glasses and concoct cocktails with the vodka-like liquor, citrus, ginger and spritzer over ice. They purposely over pour cold, artisan sake into ceramic cups, so that it overflows into wooden saucers. They draw Japanese beers into small glasses. I know this because I ate dinner standing in front of the bar the other night, watching them work. I was going to a performance of new music the UC Art Museum and didn’t think to make a reservation.
Ippuku, almost two years old, is a huge hit, a collaboration between Buddhist monk and master Japanese architect Paul Discoe, who designed and built the space, and chef Christian Geideman, who lived, studied and cooked in Japan. This izakaya feels like a cross between a monastery and a pub, rustically austere and fun at the same time. Discoe super-imposed Japanese design and craftsmanship on a raw cement shell, leaving plenty of raw wall and ceiling. He milled Berkeley street trees for the tables, and created lighting out of woven bamboo shoot husks and rice paper. It’s the most evocative Japanese restaurant in the Bay Area–except maybe for Wakuriya, the kaiseki restaurant in San Mateo. Though run by a white guy and his American wife, Ippuku is full of Japanese customers, many of whom seem to have landed there straight from Japan and speak no English.
Ippuku makes few Western compromises. The only table seating is at hand made wooden booths on platforms covered with tatami mats and cushions. Blessed sunken floors hide beneath the tables. At the back, stools in front of the yakitori bar where Geideman precisely cooks skewers over a skinny charcoal grill, are universally coveted, if smoky.
The cooking is pure Japanese. No fusion here though Geideman uses fine local products such as Gleason Ranch chicken from Bodega Bay for skewers that take advantage of the full bird: skin, cartilage, gizzard, livers, hearts, thighs, and tsukune–skewers of moist, coarsely ground chicken. The hand chopped breast is served raw, as tataki, a yakitori standby in Japan, as is cartilage. As a nail biter (who did it way too long), I am devoted to nubbins of knee cartilage ($7) covered in panko crumbs, with plenty of meat and fat, and two kinds of crunch, all seasoned by the fire from white Japanese charcoal. Geideman grills smelt filled with roe that you eat head and all. His vinegar-marinated beef tenderloin, seared on the outside, raw in the center, is tender, smoky and exquisite.
At the bar that night we ate pristine, Mendocino sea urchin roe ($12) dressed in a little sweet citrusy ponzu, a luxurious portion nestled at the bottom of a ceramic bowl. Light, airy, crab korokki ($9), croquettes, dusted in crumbs, tasted of both pure sweet crab and pure sweet milk, the latter captured in a silken bechamel that held the croquettes together. The deep fried ovals perched on a bed of naked shredded cabbage, the perfect foil, especially with a squeeze of lemon. Smashed, baby, yellow fleshed potatoes in shoyu butter ($5), cooked over the coals, may be one of the best potato dishes in the world. The only dish I haven’t been wild about was a Japanese salad of raw petrale and seaweed ($12) in a mustardy miso dressing that needed more acid.
Start with cucumber and seaweed salad, and pressed cold spinach in nutty black sesame paste. Finish with grilled rice triangles scented with yuzu, and house made pickles. And then have one of the best desserts around, a green tea soft serve sundae.
After shochu, sake and beer–the drink list is exciting and extensive–you may have to hop on nearby BART, unless you have a designated driver. It’s hard to stop eating or drinking at Ippuku. I, for one, don’t want to leave.
Ippuku, 2130 Center Street, Berkeley 510-665-1969; www.ippukuberkeley.com
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.