3192 Sheridan Dr, Amherst, NY 14226
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A Japanese sushi and teppanyaki restaurant where ratio of price to food quality varies based on aggressive promotions from good to decent; sushi tends to be good.
Kitchen prep and delivery issues have led to inconsistent and disappointing meals, with extended wait times, language issues, and improperly delivered items; prices now vary a lot.
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Amherst Japanese Seafood Steak Sushi
"Turnover - waiters now appear unable to understand clear English orders - as well as kitchen and delivery issues, have led to inconsistent and disappointing experiences here."
Opened in the same month as Clarence's Samurai, Amherst's Ichiban Steak and Seafood Restaurant took a substantially different - and ultimately winning - approach. We had low expectations for this teppanyaki house, which devotes half of its space to the sorts of hibachi grill acrobatics that Americans too often confuse with real Japanese food, but discovered that it also offers an extensive, surprisingly affordable sushi menu and numerous traditional Japanese dishes. It was actually hard to find a bad item on the menu: even the Uni (sea urchin), a notoriously easy item for sushi bars to render nauseating, was good. With a substantially Chinese staff and little signs - like the decor - that the experience isn't completely authentic, hard-core Japanese food purists might chafe a little, but by local standards of quality and value, Ichiban was on our first four visits fully worthy of the meaning of its name: "number one." However, post-opening price changes took the restaurant's initially aggressive prices to a level that's roughly the same as other local sushi and teppanyaki shops, and our final rating reflects Ichiban's parity with other top local options.
The Story: A plaza at the corner of Bailey Avenue and Sheridan Drive in Amherst has played host to some of the area's most interesting Asian shops: Super Bazaar, an impressive Indian supermarket, is its longest-running food-related tenant; the Chinese-style Moon Buffet has recently departed in favor of the New Fuji Buffet, which mixes Japanese, Chinese, and some of the area's least enjoyable ice cream; and a small bubble tea shop. When a sign went up for a Japanese restaurant billing itself as a steak and seafood restaurant, we were initially concerned - did this area, already home to the forgettable Shogun and good but not great Kyoto hibachi restaurants, really need a third? Then, in its first week or so of operation, we went for our first visit. Days later, we were back for our second, and soon thereafter, our fourth. For a brand new Japanese restaurant, Ichiban was surprisingly strong, and its prices suspiciously low. All but a couple of its individual pieces of sushi sold for $2, and its rolls hovered in the $5-6 range. Entrees, with the exception of its hibachi-grilled steak and seafood items, were generally listed in the $10-14 range. And, with rare exception, we were impressed with the way everything tasted.
Highs: Each of the pieces of sushi we tried, ranging from albacore to abalone, egg to shrimp tempura, spicy tuna to tuna, was at least very good, with some pieces in the great category. As of this point, we've tried more than half of the sushi items permanently on the menu, as well as a number that aren't always available, such as the fatty tuna and aforementioned sea urchin; thankfully, Ichiban appears only to sell these items when they're guaranteed fresh, and thus the occasionally intolerable sea urchin - an acquired taste on its best days - was actually very good here. Tuna, which can easily be disappointing after only a short period of sitting out, was delicious in item after item - we tried it in a pepper tuna appetizer, three types of sushi, and as an uncooked entree. It mightn't be the rival of what we've had in Tokyo's Tsukiji Market, but it's about as close as anyplace locally has come in years. The Spicy Tuna stands out from other local sushi shops because it's actually done right, colored red and flavored with a little kick of chili, rather than arriving overloaded with mayonnaise and otherwise under-seasoned.
A surprising find on the menu was the baby octopus appetizer, a dish that we first tried in Chicago years ago, then enjoyed in Ithaca, but rarely have found in Western New York. The red octopi, glazed with soy sauce and sesame seeds, tasted delicious, but varied dramatically in quantity from visit to visit: on our first visit, there were perhaps 14, on the next, only 7 or 8. This was the only major inconsistency in our meals, however, as other items repeatedly arrived predictably. Non-sushi entrees such as deep-fried Tempura and teriyaki continually impressed us in both quality and quantity for their prices; the bento box meals here are large and filling. Expect to pay more for the teppanyaki grilled items, as well as a fair tip if you sit on the restaurant's grilling side and actually watch the chef fry up your meal.
Lows: Though the service at Ichiban is generally pretty good, some service and menu issues do exist. On one visit, two or three of us were served sushi on the same plate, a no-no given certain dietary restrictions and rules of dining etiquette. More importantly, on our first visit, we ordered albacore tuna and were instead served escolar - a notoriously unsafe fish, banned in Japan and Italy for having profound laxative effects. How did this happen? Ichiban's menu describes "white tuna" as albacore, but we found that ordering the white tuna resulted in the wrong fish being served, and on our next visit pointed out the issue. It was unclear whether the menus would be corrected when their new prices were added, but we hope to see escolar disappear entirely; it is regrettably also found at some other area sushi restaurants, too.
Finally, Ichiban's desserts look better than they taste. There are fried banana and tempura ice cream desserts, as well as several predictable ice creams, including green tea, red bean, and vanilla, depending on the day. We've tried each of them, and nothing stood out - a fact offset by their $1 to $3 pricing. In any case, they're better than the stuff you'd get at the nearby New Fuji Buffet, but that's not saying much. If the prices go up, Ichiban might want to hire a dessert chef to make the tail end of its dining experience as fulfilling as the beginning and middle.
The Verdict: In our initial review, we noted that the jury was still out on Ichiban for one and only one reason: a few weeks after it opened, menu inserts were added to note that its prices were promotional only, and ending at the close of July. An employee told us that she didn't know what the new prices would be, but suspected they would be a dollar or so higher per item. This would not make a huge difference on entrees, but for some sushi, it could possibly mean the difference between great values and so-so ones. Ultimately, the quality of Ichiban's sushi and entrees was so impressive that we couldn't help but visit, revisit, and repeat in a very short period of time - something that, as sushi aficionados, we haven't felt about its other local peers - but we'll wait until August before deciding whether it's going to receive the same sort of attention in the future that it has in its short initial run here.
Updated August 4, 2008: At its initial prices, which only later were marked as "Grand Opening prices," Ichiban struck us as a tremendous value. In late July, the prices were raised, and the portion sizes kept the same - on the lower end of what we'd seen before. Had the portions been more generous, we think Ichiban would rate higher, but as-is, the restaurant now strikes us as roughly on par with the best of its local competitors, rather than surpassing them.
Updated August 30, 2008: We're pulling Ichiban from our list of recommended restaurants and dropping its rating from three stars to two after a couple of seriously disappointing experiences. Turnover in the staff, devolving to the point where waiters appear unable to understand clear English orders aided by pointing at the menu, as well as kitchen prep and delivery issues have recently led to extremely inconsistent and disappointing experiences here. Our strong advice would be to consider Fuji Grill and Wasabi instead.