Cafe Reviews

Big Mouth

The expectations game can be as dangerous for restaurant owners as playing mumblety-peg with a 10-inch, razor-sharp Bowie knife. If you roll into town telling all and sundry you're the bee's knees, pour $1 million into your eatery, and brag that your venture is going to be the only "authentic" vittles vendor of its kind in-state, you'd best live up to your braggadocio. Otherwise, keep your big yap buttoned. Like the Good Book says, pride goeth before a fall. And what's the point in courting the disappointment of future clientele?

I reckon that's why I'm pissed at Ippei Japanese Bistro, the product of 19 local and international investors, and at least one cool mil that we know of. Ippei's owners have pulled out all stops in their media blitz, bombarding this writer and others with press releases, and making blowhard statements like the one Ippei exec Michael Nishi made to The Business Journal of Phoenix:

"In this market, there are no truly authentic Japanese restaurants available," he told them. "Ippei is designed to bridge that gap."

Granted, Greater Phoenix could always do with more Nipponese nosheries, but you can score good sushi at several places in town, and at least we have Cherryblossom Noodle Cafe, which is pretty authentic on the noodle tip. Chandler's Shimogamo also serves up bona fide Japanese edibles, in addition to its sushi, that you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the Valley.

Still, as Phoenix boasts no equivalent to L.A.'s Little Tokyo or Sawtelle Boulevard, we miss out on a lot of Japanese cuisine. Ippei's claim of authenticity, along with its promise of sushi, breaded katsu comestibles, and grilled, skewered kushiyaki, had me hoping that we'd be gaining an izakaya-style restaurant along the lines of downtown L.A.'s stylish Izayoi or West L.A.'s funkier Furaibo. This hope would soon be decimated.

See, izakaya are kind of like Japanese tapas houses, places where people go to drink and eat small plates, not unlike the ones served at Ippei, save that there's far more variety at a Japanese or L.A.-based izakaya. Furaibo is more a yakitori house; that is, one specializing in grilled chicken parts. But its extensive menu and pub-like atmosphere has it straddling the yakitori-izakaya fence. Izayoi is closer to the hip izakaya so popular in Japan and L.A. at the moment.

The selection at both spots leaves Ippei's sadly deficient bill of fare staggering in the rearview. At Izayoi, you can sample monkfish liver, sautéed beef tongue, and roasted ginkgo nuts along with your glasses of cold sake, traditionally filled to overflowing. At Furaibo, you can bite into grilled chicken hearts; shredded, gooey "mountain potato" (yamaimo) topped with raw quail egg; or even whole, sliced squid tinged black from the flame. Just recounting all this makes me want to gas up the Hyundai and head for La-La Land quicker than it'd take Lance Armstrong to pedal 'round Chase Field.

It's not so much that Ippei, pronounced "ee-pay" and meaning "most peaceful," is some Katrina-esque culinary disaster. Rather, it doesn't live up to the high mark it has set for itself. Little things kept annoying me. For instance, Ippei has no Kirin Ichiban on tap, and does not offer the large, sharable bottles of Kirin beer you get at other Japanese eateries. Just 12-ounce bottles, enough for one person. Strike one. Strike two: When you order sushi, as well as any of the skewers, you have to order them one by one, instead of receiving, say, two pieces of nigiri per order, as is customary. Then, on each of my forays into Ippei's box-like interior, there were always two or more menu items not available that evening. Can't a million-dollar operation keep itself stocked so it's not always running out of ingredients? Strike three, sports fans.

Supposedly, Ippei has shipped in some staff from the motherland, and you can eyeball your foodstuffs being prepared by said staff at the large open kitchen and the sushi bar beside it. All the traditional nigiri sushi I tried — from tobiko to tuna — was of very high quality, so perhaps Ippei's hiring policies paid off in this respect.

I only tested two maki rolls, the dragon roll's eel-avocado-crab combo, and the Philly roll's smoked salmon-cream cheese-salmon roe fusion. The first was adequate, though not as thick and flavorful as I've had before. But the Philly roll tasted like bath soap. After two pieces, I surrendered the remainder to my server.

When delivering kushiyaki skewers, the wait staff pesters you about Ippei's "signature" dips: teriyaki, orange marmalade, and ponzu. Does the ownership think its customers are retarded? Why would anyone want to make a big deal about presenting such pedestrian condiments? I'll concede the skewers that accompanied them were often quite savory. The tebasaki, or impaled clucker wings, were fatty and left your fingers with a sweet, charred smell; and the negima, or thigh meat with Japanese leeks, were fine, if hardly exceptional. These were two of only three chicken items listed. A paltry poultry showing, indeed.

Beef kushiyaki selections also numbered three in total. The filet mignon and prime rib-eye skewers were keepers, though the filet was unnecessarily salty. And the Kobe (I presume they mean American Kobe) beef was one of those menu items busy doing its Ferris Bueller impersonation. In other words, playing hooky from the menu.

Ippei crows so much about its panko-breaded katsu that you'd think its pork katsu would blow Cherryblossom's out of the proverbial koi pond. It doesn't. Not that it's bad, but Ippei's panko crust falls off the cutlet too easily, and somehow fails to capture the comfort-food feel Cherryblossom easily does. Another oddity was the karaage chicken. Normally, with karaage, you'd be brought a plate of scrumptious, sesame-flavored fried poultry nubbins. Ippei serves up chicken wing drumettes no different from what you'd get at the average sports bar. No rule against this, but why such banal prep?

Kudos for the shinjo age shrimp, or ground shrimp and onion deep-fried in a won ton wrap with tangy sauce. And an A for effort for the green tea cheesecake, though you could barely taste the green tea therein. Ippei aims to be destination dining, but it's not there yet. As of now, I'd rather do the five or six hours via car to L.A. But if you're in Ippei's vicinity, you could do worse. After all, both McGrath's Fish House and the White Chocolate Grill share the same complex.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons