Suspicious sea creatures make for briny dining

When it comes to authentic Asian food, I am about as savvy as the average Nashvillian.

I'm no stranger to a spicy tuna roll, General Tso's chicken, or even edamame if I’m feeling extra sassy, but that's about the extent of my Asian grazin'.

I had been feeling extra brave since my last penicillin shot so I decided for this month's obscure lunch date I wanted to go to a Japanese restaurant and order only foods whose names I couldn't pronounce - in truly obscure fashion.

I caught wind of Ichiban, a Japanese restaurant squished between two country Western-wear stores downtown on Second Avenue, and decided it was perfectly unheard of for my O.L.D.
   
The décor was unobtrusive and aesthetically appealing enough on the Friday evening of my visit. The walls upstairs were bamboo-esque, and aside from a few statues on the ledges that served as some of the tables’ benches, the art was sparse.
   
The muzak version of “Nobody Knows” by The Tony Rich Project added to the ambiance, yet I felt strange as I hummed along, my hands full of Japanese beer and chopsticks.

My O.L.D. date and I began our adventure with several sushi choices, some more dubious than others. There was a Burdock roll, which is a vegetarian friendly involving only seaweed, rice and a Japanese root that was similar to the texture of a carrot. It was small and tidy and a pleasant segue to the rest of the plate.

Next, we had a salmon skin roll that was wrapped in rice. It was crunchier than the usual roll made of salmon and tasted reminiscent of the salmon patties I was fed as a child.

We had an order of surf clams, which were bright red and shaped like a claw. The texture was slightly rubbery but it went well with the rice and, although it looked odd, was a bit forgettable in flavor.

We couldn't resist the Torro roll, which was very mysterious given that the menu listed no numbered price, only the elusive “Market Price.” Turns out the Market Price was $18 for two pieces of torro, which come to find out is the belly of a tuna and usually taken from the area close to the head. It looked to me like a tongue, to my dining companion like a piece of raw bacon.  It seemed overpriced but we gave it the benefit of the doubt, Nashville being landlocked and all.

Our final appetizer was an order of sea urchin. It was bright orange, very wet looking and wrapped in seaweed. It is larger than an average sushi roll.

Our server told us that she had never gotten enough nerve to try it but promised us that there were many patrons who loved it so much they would call ahead to make sure it's available before coming in and having a meal. Thrilled by the prospect of a dish so superb loyal patrons plan their entire evening's around it, we were excited to partake.

Now I know that sea urchin tastes like the ocean, solidified and orange. It can also be likened to a raw oyster three days after its prime, only significantly brinier. I will not be one of those devoted patrons.

For the main course, I chose something traditionally called a Hot Pot. It can be made with some variation on ingredients. Mine had rice, mushrooms, various root vegetables and broth. It is finished by cracking and cooking an egg on top. It was a little sweeter than expected but was very filling and would be extremely comforting on a cold day.

My dining companion chose the panko encrusted pork cutlet with white rice and a brown curry sauce. The pork was very moist and the plate was very nicely presented. The curry sauce, which was served in a gravy boat on the side, appeared to be left over from lunch. It had a skin on top that seems to only come from the blessing of being reheated.

As a final act of bravery, we decided to order a dish called Natto. It is a traditional Japanese dish made of fermented soy beans that I have only ever seen on the original Iron Chef. They were surprisingly sweet but left a smoky, almost coffee bean taste that lingered for quite some time. The soy beans also had a peculiar stickiness that left a string - from bowl to chopstick to mouth - that would put the cheesiest slice of pizza to shame.

At the end of the meal, I felt satisfied and accomplished. I would rate Ichiban very highly among my Asian dining experiences, as few-and-far-between as they may be. It certainly provided me the confidence to try some unusual, unexpected and unfamiliar foods - much more so than any corner buffet in Antioch ever has.

For a minute, Rachel thought 'yakimono' was something worn by some of her gays, and we know you did, too. That's why each month she finds a local, low-profile restaurant and dishes out the details to O&AN from the average vixen's perspective. Check out O.L.D. each month in print and at outandaboutnewspaper.com.

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