Metairie: 1414 Veterans Blvd.
Ichiban’s story is short but memorable. Twenty years gone, it tells us something about the current direction of Japanese dining around New Orleans.
The name–much used for other Japanese restaurants around the country–means “first.” Not necessarily in the sense of “We’re Number One!,” although it can be used that way. It certainly could have been in this case, because Ichiban was as fine a Japanese establishment as has ever pleased New Orleans palates.
I suspect the intention of the owners was to denote Ichiban as the place where their restaurant business began. This was the original location of Shogun, the city’s first sushi bar. A couple of other restaurants had served sushi, but when Shogun opened in 1981 it sported the first bar where chefs would slice the fish and create the cool tidbits before your eyes.
Shogun was excellent and still is. In the early 1980s, sushi’s time had come. Trend-aware Baby Boomers descended upon it as The Next Groove. After a few years, Shogun was so busy that it moved to the cavernous former Shakey’s Pizza a few blocks up Veterans Highway, where it remains to this day.
I guess Peggy Kamata still had time on Shogun’s lease at 1414. Instead of shutting it down or maintaining two Shoguns in the same neighborhood, the Kamatas rebranded their first place Ichiban, and it kept on going.
Where it went was upscale. Ichiban’s menu was more ambitious, and its long, shallow dining room was quieter and less busy. These were the days when most of us approached sushi with a certain Oriental reverence. The bright, mirrored room had an L-shaped sushi bar near the door. Elegant bare-wood tables filled the rest of the space.
The sushi and sashimi remained solidly superior for freshness, eye appeal, temperature, and flavor. The variety available was consistently large and interesting. The sushi chefs were frank about what they thought was especially good, and unusually friendly. The chefs often slipped you a sample of something offbeat and delectable. Ichiban was the first place I saw uni (sea urchin gonads). And where I acquired a taste for them.
All of that contributed to a vaunted reputation among sushi lovers that Shogun was as good as ever, but Ichiban was even better.
And there was more. Ichiban performed a range of non-sushi Japanese cooking that few other restaurants even tried. Tableside preparations of sukiyaki, shabu shabu, and yosenabe were particularly outstanding. They involve thin slices of beef (or seafood, in the yosenabe). You would cook them yourself in pans of simmering stock at the table. The raw materials were beautiful, and the waitresses (few male servers worked in Japanese restaurants back then) took delight in setting up the repast and explaining it.
Those dishes and many other items on Ichiban’s menu have become rare in Japanese restaurants. Shogun still does them, and a few Vietnamese places cook similar dishes. But I can’t say I recall a Japanese restaurant that gave me more pleasure than Ichiban did.
But trends in the public taste made themselves apparent, and Ichiban shut down after a few years. And now we have lots of sushi bars with little else besides sushi, tempura, and teriyaki. Which represents a decline in their menus’ appeal. But you can’t fight the market, can you?