Class of one

When the man whom I usually refer to as "my dining companion" first started traveling to Japan on business 11 years ago, he stayed at the luxurious New Otani Hotel in Tokyo. He would come back two weeks later, his bags stuffed (no, not with towels) with presents for me and the kids.

Now he stays in the so-called guest room--actually an office--of a friend in Tokyo (if he can find a profitable reason to go at all), which among other things means he has to get up really early, before anyone comes to work.

Well, I read recently that Mitsubishi Metals is shutting down a major zinc smelter, whatever that is. Japanese steel factories are downscaling. Mazda Motor Corporation is taking off two days a month to slow down production--seems they're making more cars than Americans can buy (or afford).

Someone ought to suggest the Japanese put their money in sushi in the United States, because apparently our appetite for Japanese cuisine is insatiable. Never mind scare stories about polluted water and fish parasites--we're not afraid. Bring on the sashimi!

It's a little perverse, this fascination with vinegared rice and fish. Japanese food is about as far as you can get from the typically American meat and potatoes mentality. For one thing, there's very little meat and potatoes. For another, there's no dessert.

You take the fat and the sugar out of the diet and you are left with...sushi. That's what.

Although I'd sort of assumed sushi-love was another example of '80s indulgence--it seemed obvious to me that after an aperitif of white powder and champagne, you weren't hungry for much more than fish, anyway, yet sushi cost enough to demonstrate how well your real-estate deals were going--the yen (sorry) for Japanese food hasn't abated a bit since everyone has gone straight or to prison.

There are more and more Japanese restaurants opening every week and the reason is, of course, that Japanese food is subtle, artistic, and delicious. And contrary to popular belief, Americans are not too boorish to recognize that.

The differences are the delight. Japanese food is aesthetically different, the way Japanese painting is different from Western painting, the way the Eastern musical scale is different from ours. Eating Japanese food is as close as any Western person can come to turning Japanese. Which means, among other things, an appreciation for fastidious food, cuisine that bears the illusion of simplicity but is never artless.

Ichijo is a new restaurant in Irving. "Ichi" means "one." "Ichijo" doesn't really mean anything, but when pressured for an answer, my Japanese friend told me, "unique" comes close; "one-of-a-kind" is what they might have meant. Which, in these days of replicated "uniqueness," really means nothing.

But according to my dining companion, Ichijo in Irving, though it's definitely got real Japanese style, is not typical of Tokyo restaurants. Not that it's one of those faux Tokyo restaurants, either, with the curving roof and temple bells.

Ichijo is thoroughly modern, sleek, simple, understated--it's thought-out, designed.

The aesthetic that produced the food produced the space. It's succinct, small, just a few tables separated by strategic screens with a tatami room in the back. But although the size and style are thoroughly Japanese, in Tokyo restaurants usually specialize--you won't find noodles, yakitori, and sushi on the same menu. You do one thing and do it well. (Americans tend to do everything and lots of it.)

Ichijo's menu lists sashimi, sushi, seaweed, noodles, sukiyaki, you-name-it. Well, almost. According to my indispensable Japanese friend, who introduced me to Ichijo, the temperamental chef used to work with Yamaguchi and possesses a thorough scorn for Americanized dishes such as "California rolls." He's actually refused to make them for customers.

We ate leisurely, ordering from the appetizer list instead of the sushi list, a succession of dishes to go with our succession of not-quite-cold-enough Kirins. We ate tamagoyaki, Japanese omelettes--a far cry from the French free-form ovals. These are ovals, too, but completely controlled--symmetrical straight-sided little cakes molded from layers of delicate, pale yellow curd. They were just warm, slightly sweet, and unadornedly eggy.

Negimayaki, a new-to-me morsel of sizzled, spiraled rolls of shaved beef dipped in soy sauce and wrapped around a green scallion, were a trial for the chopstick-challenged. (The scallion, whose greenness balanced the saltiness of the soy, was hard to bite through, but eating it whole seemed to invite the Heimlich maneuver.) Sobemaki were thick disks of deep red tuna meat with a wedge of buttery avocado wrapped in seaweed; a seaweed salad, sunomono, was foil to the protein.

The separate dinner menu offers a number of combination plates: tempura and sashimi, teriyaki and sashimi, tempura and teriyaki. We tried an entree called tonkatsu, a pork cutlet pounded slightly and bathed in a heavy sauce that beefed up the white meat. And we splurged on a platter of sashimi--a virtual jeweler's tray of pristinely fresh morsels of fish with a palette of wasabi daubs, including dark rich tuna, yellow-tail, whitefish, rose and white salmon, and sea urchin, as strong in flavor as it is blobby.

Supposedly, William James once said, "Few of us are adventurous in the matter of food. In fact, most of us think there is something disgusting in a bill of fare to which we are unused."

And though I'd rather eat sea urchin than write a sentence like that, sea urchin makes me see what he means.

I'll probably remain unused to sea urchin, but as I said, eating someone's food is as close as you can come to being that person. Forget walking in their shoes--eat their sea urchins and you'll see how different our senses of taste are.

I loved Ichijo. Maybe it's not unique, but I don't know of a more Japanese restaurant in Dallas--one that caters less to Western tastes and yet remains so gracious.

The Japanese palate does not crave sweets; that must explain the invention of green tea and red bean ice creams, which, in turn, ensure that the Japanese shall never crave sweets.

One can only suppose they stay in love all the time or get their endorphins through some kind of seaweed I don't know about. How else can you explain a cuisine so completely free of chocolate?

Ichijo Japanese Cuisine, 3045 N. Belt Line, Irving, 255-0116. Open for lunch Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.- 2 p.m.; open for dinner Monday-Saturday 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Closed Sunday.

Tamagoyaki $5
Negimayaki $6.50
Isobemaki $6.50
Tonkatsu $10.50
Nigiri $25


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