"I believe there is a mistake on the menu," I tell the waiter, pointing to a dish featuring "wagyu" described as "tuna," and hoping it was the former. "Oh there are lot" he replies "for one we aren't open 23 hours a day!" Ichibantei is a quirky Japanese "soul food" joint on a quiet little part of East 13th Street.
I'll admit that I was predisposed to like the place when I heard that they crank reggae music and have a wall covered in LP covers of some of the genre's biggest stars: Bob Marley, Buju Banton, Shaba Ranks, and others. The place has an undeniably laid back vibe which bleeds into service that can seem glacial at times. But the menu of Japanese comfort food, ramen, and steak has some standouts that make it a good neighborhood joint.
I love that they sell icy mugs of Sapporo for $5.
....and Suigei for $10.
What is described as Black Pork Sausage ($7) on the menu isn't a black pudding or blood sausage as the name suggest, but rather a Frankfurter-style hot dog. (I suspect the "black" refers to Japanese Kurobuta pork.) Either way it makes a fine appetizer and pairs nicely with the beer.
Chicken Nanban ($12) is the sort of thing that Ichibantei does best, which is to say it's deep fried. Tender hunks of chicken in a crunchy batter come doused in sweet and sour sauce under a dollop of homemade tartar sauce.
Less easy to recommend is the Ramen ($11.50). I don't love the broth, which lacks the viscosity and depth of flavor you can find at other neighborhood spots. That said, the noodles have a pleasing firmness, and the broth laced with garlic and a peppery finish is delicious.
The "wagyu" dishes turned out to be beef and not tuna. I ordered the Ichibantei Steak (7 oz. for $20 or 11 oz. for $30). The beef was from "washugyu" cattle, but I wondered what specific cut it was beyond "cow." Although described as "rib" by the owner, a peek at the raw product revealed boneless short rib. Sliced thin and simply grilled, the dish had good, beefy flavor and pitch-perfect saltiness, but I don't think the restaurant gets enough sear on the beef—it never develops the crust that makes beef so delectable.
Ichibantei might lack the glitz and gleam of the ramen houses and sushi joints that proliferate in the East Village. And there are certainly places that do ramen and steak with more proficiency. But almost anything that is deep fried or that you eat with your fingers at Ichibantei is worth your time, and the general vibe—with the dim lights and pulsing reggae beat—makes the joint a great place to hang, snack, and knock back a few drinks.