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Next stop Tokyo

By Josh Sens, Photographs by Laura Flippen | January 26, 2011 | Story

The BART line through Berkeley would never be confused with the Tokyo subway. But like that other metro, it offers late-night transport to a myriad of strangelings, some of them modeling Japanese youth fashion—punk-chic outfits and purple hair. Until recently, these evening riders weren't apt to climb aboard with booze on their breath and smoke clinging to their clothes, at least not the booze and smoke of a yakitori joint. But that's now possible, thanks to the welcome opening of Ippuku, a delightful, artful downtown outpost that features all manner of delicious grilled things, with lots of sake and shochu to wash them down.

Ippuku's chef and co-owner is Christian Geideman, a Berkeley native who got his culinary start 33 years ago at the Fourth Street Grill before opening his own place in Santa Fe. Along the way, he worked—OK, swept floors—at a yakitori restaurant in Tokyo, sneaking peeks into the kitchen whenever he could. In his cooking, Geideman supplies a range of yakitori staples, from bacon-wrapped mochi to natto-stuffed tofu skin. And in his choice of location, a half block from BART, he adheres to the Japanese habit of arraying yakitoris around public-transit stops. You aren't meant to hop behind the wheel when you leave.

On a stretch of Center Street lit with the fluorescence of Bongo Burger and a Ben & Jerry's, Ippuku stands out in its understatedness. There's no flickering sign, only Japanese characters ringing the entrance and strips of fabric dangling across the door. To step inside is to beam into another quadrant, or better yet, into a primal room for feasting, designed by a caveman with a highly evolved eye. The space is boxcar-shaped and aglow with lanterns made from woven to-go baskets. It has raw concrete walls and tables of reclaimed wood framed by joinery. On one side, benches. On the other, traditional low-slung seating. You strip off your shoes, clamber onto a platform, and sink your feet into a well. Throughout the evening, white plumes billow from the kitchen bar in back, as proteins drip their juices onto a charcoal fire.

Ippuku isn't just about grilling. The kitchen serves fresh uni, creamy orange tongues licked with ponzu and tickled from below by daikon sprouts; assorted and addictive pickles; and crisp tempura shrimp, in a net of vegetable tempura. You can get fried eggplant, sake's soul mate, with a mellow dollop of miso mayo; brussels sprouts dusted with tiny, briny fish eggs; and chestnuts and persimmons tossed in a soft-tofu dressing and then piled on the plate in an earthy mound. Yet for all the pleasures offered by these fine items—cured or uncooked or dipped in roiling oil—the restaurant revolves around the robata. On it the chef sets pork belly skewers, blistering the meat and then brushing it with spicy miso paste. Mostly, though, what Geideman grills is chicken, putting the birds to use with the waste-not-want-not ethos of a fox. He cooks chicken thighs, of course, alternating the plump skewered chunks with leeks. But he also pierces livers; plays Cupid to the robust, grape-sized hearts; and impales the skin, searing it until its fat renders and all that remains are crackling textures and concentrated flavors: chicken to the power of 10. By the time you've stripped the sweet meat from the chicken necks, which the kitchen marinates in soy and mirin, or savored the “oysters” (treasured coins of meat embedded behind the thigh), or crunched the cartilage of a chicken knee, you're convinced, if you weren't before, that the breast is the chicken part best left for scraps.

I can't not say it: Ippuku also serves chicken tartare, which is common in Japan but carries some shock value on our shores. Geideman blanches the meat, tosses it with chili oil and soy sauce, and tops it with an egg yolk. The only surprise is how familiar it tastes, sweet like tuna but cleaner on the palate: an improved chicken of the sea. Far more startling is a dish called shutuo: salted fish intestines doused in sake and honey and served with cream cheese as a foil. The tidal flavors of the fish guts have the nuance of an asteroid impact. An acquired taste? Perhaps. It would take me nine lives to acquire it, and in the meantime I'd likely have slipped the shutuo to my cat.

Nanoseconds after sampling this fishy force of nature, I reached instinctively for my shochu, a firewater poured in 52 varieties at Ippuku. Distilled from sweet potato, barley, or rice, it's a bracing spirit, and though hints of its origins survive its heat, let's not kid ourselves about its purpose. On one of my visits, I eavesdropped on the next table, where a man with the wispy beard and wan look of a lifelong doctoral student had locked his waiter in a Dingo stare, the better to disgorge a disquisition on the subtleties of the shochu. (Ippuku's distinctive offerings are popular with both Japanese nationals and domestic fetishists.)

“I don't drink this stuff to get drunk,” he said. And college kids pound Red Bull for the vitamin B.

Eventually, I interrupted by signaling for service, which is how it works. The waitstaff here don't hover. They wait for your summons, an approach that suits this unfussy style of dining, which feeds on the pleasures of good company and lubricated conversation in a festive setting, furnished with very satisfying food. You don't want to be pampered, rushed, or interfered with. You want to tilt a glass and enjoy the fellowship and the unforced rhythms, right up to the last bit of dessert. In this case, it's black-sesame ice cream, studded with mochi and speckled with tempura flakes: refreshing, not too saccharine, a nightcap with just the right amount of sweetness. Then you step out happily into the evening, ready to let someone else ferry you home. Ippuku, 2130 Center St. (bet. Shattuck Ave. and Oxford St.), Berkeley, 510-665-1969 $$ three stars


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