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Thursday, March 6, 2014

East Bay Bite of the Week: Chicken Neck Skewers at Ippuku

Posted By on Thu, Mar 6, 2014 at 4:30 PM

A sampling of Ippuku's worthy skewers. - LARA HATA
  • Lara Hata
  • A sampling of Ippuku's worthy skewers.

Ippuku is my kind of pub, mostly because nothing about it resembles the pubs I know. Also because it's one of those places that makes drinking alone feel dignified.

To be fair, Ippuku is not quite a pub, it's an izakaya -- Japan's rough equivalent to our sticky-floored, dark parlors, a cleaner rendition of the places we go to roll up our shirtsleeves and throw a few back after work. Inside Ippuku, the lines are clean, geometric, the lighting gentle and warm.

See also: East Bay Bite of the Week: Fried Chicken Rice Bowl at Hawker Fare

East Bay Bite of the Week: Sriracha Honey Brussels Sprouts at Osmanthus

East Bay Bite of the Week: Barkada's Burger

The restaurant is essentially a corridor with booths on one side, bookended by bar seating at both the kitchen and the actual bar. A wall of shochu hangs in soldierlike order above the bar, and smoke snakes off the oak charcoal -- binchotan, traditional Japanese charcoal that burns low and long -- in the open kitchen that anchors the space. Overall, it's a clean and quiet place, good for dates but better for the peace and quiet you get at 5pm when it opens.

I like going to Ippuku alone because I like to relish the ceremony of everything, undistracted. When you arrive, a small and simple starting bite arrives. And I swear, the corner of cabbage and salty, smokey aioli-like sauce I had last week was one of the best things I've ever tasted. Waitstaff fill sake glasses to the brim, and then some, until the surface tension breaks over the side of the glass into a wooden dish. Something about the overfilling--it feels foreign and generous, which is more than you're bound to get in any American tavern.

But nevermind that, the snack you want is skewers, or yakitori. While Ippuku is most well known for its chicken tartare -- which is exactly what it sounds like, topped with daikon sprouts and chili paste and a raw egg -- the skewers are reliably great. The first page of the menu is all chicken, or rather, all of the chicken -- thigh, heart, knee cartilage, gizzard, breast--which are cooked over the long, thin pit of glowing coals. The chicken neck, scrunched up on the skewer, rippling and accordion-like, is dipped in a sweet sauce rich with soy, charred and crisp at the fattest points.

And then, there is something called, enticingly, the "thigh oyster." Less exotic is the reality of it, being the part of the chicken -- the oyster muscle -- that wraps the upper thigh beginning at the groin. Decidedly more classy is the way it looks and tastes: curled into a fat spiral, the meat is incredibly tender. The skin is wrapped tautly around it and kissed by the fire, making for an unctuous, illicit-feeling bar bite.

Dusted with the smoked paprika pepper, two skewers is enough to feel well fed. Plus, you get to dodge the rowdy collegiate crowd that normally colonizes these parts. Not that I've got anything against yelling and face-slamming pizzas on weekday nights, but if there's a place that lets me pretend, convincingly, that I've evolved beyond that into the very zen and fancy sake-sipping person I always thought I'd be, I'm going to take it.

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Molly Gore

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