The “crab roe and bean curd” house special at Ichiban looks similar to traditional, homemade chicken noodle soup.
Delivered to our table in a huge ceramic bowl, the brothy liquid was still bubbling when our server opened the tented aluminum foil. (The secret, we discovered, was a pile of heated salt in the serving bowl that kept the concoction steamy.)
Ladled into cute little bowls with symbols that mean “super lucky,” the silken bean curd in the soup ($15.55) got a boost from spikes of ginger, salty cubes of ham and slices of garlic. It was as comforting as chicken noodle, but with flavors that carried us far from home.
Ichiban, one of the Edo Garden chain of local Asian restaurants, has a Japanese name that means “number one.” It’s ironic, then, that the Park Street restaurant’s epic menu comes as close to “authentic” Chinese cuisine as one is likely to find in Madison.
Dishes focus primarily on Sichuan flavors, with aromatic sauces of chili, garlic, soy and exotic mushrooms. A tiny pepper sign on the menu dots many dishes, indicating the presence (but not the level) of heat.
For a landlocked Midwesterner, some of the Ichiban menu might mystify: “Healthy Soup,” “Spicy Delight,” “Ribbon Fish.” (Our server discouraged us from ordering the last, an appetizer that is apparently full of tiny bones.) And if a dish isn’t labeled vegetarian, it probably isn’t.
Unusual meats and fishes abound. There are hot pots, noodle bowls and soups showcasing frog, pig’s blood, duck tongue (chewy!), pork kidney and intestine (rich and odd tasting, with an appearance like enlarged calamari). One day, “fresh killed carp” was on special.
For one Hong Kong native, dishes like pine nuts with corn kernel ($13.95) and a stew of sliced fish, pork, beef and offal ($17.95) carried strong memories of home.
“This is what mom makes,” he said, later digging into a savory dish of tender, braised bok choy and shiitake mushrooms ($9.95).
He insisted we try one of the poached dishes, choosing a meat-heavy combination of lamb and pork intestine swimming in chili oil and topped with a mound of fresh cilantro ($15.95). Cautioned not to drink the broth straight, we placed the meat onto our bowls of rice, the chili providing enough heat to excite without scorching the palate.
Even for those reluctant to try blood or organ meat, there are plenty of approachable dishes. Among Ichiban’s 200-plus options are toothsome green beans laden with fresh garlic ($5.95), and a fantastic take on Kung Pao chicken ($7.50 for lunch, $10.95 for dinner), crunchy and sticky with a sweet orange-chili glaze.
It would be easy to make a meal of appetizers alone. We could have taken down double the portion of meat dumplings in spicy sauce ($5.95), soft and slick with chili oil and salty peanut sauce. Shanghainese Spring Rolls ($4 for two) were stuffed full and fried crisp; seared potstickers ($4.95 for six) should stand in for pizza rolls at your next movie night.
There were a few misses, as seems almost inevitable with such a lengthy menu. We encountered unpleasantly tough hunks of beef in a lunchtime noodle dish ($7.50). Salt and pepper shrimp ($16.95) were likely tossed in before the oil was hot enough; what should have been crispy tasted limp and strangely chewy, the texture all wrong.
A dish called simply “Hunan Sauce” ($7.50 at lunch) came chock full of veggies — red onion, snap peas, broccoli, red bell pepper, all cooked well. The sauce, though, hit only one note: chili. I found myself shoveling in rice, gulping at my water and sneaking more pieces of Kung Pao chicken.
Ichiban serves lunch and dinner in a plain, ample dining room on white tablecloths that quickly become splattered with drips of sauce. The color scheme is cool, the service slightly absent-minded.
Those puzzled by Ichiban’s culinary chutes and ladders should not be shy about querying a server, however. When they ask if you like spice, say yes — even for the chili-averse, one or two dishes with that little hot pepper sign won’t burn down dinner.
The menu is printed in both simplified Chinese characters and basic English titles.