Behind the white curtains visible from the street is a parallel reality. A soft and friendly atmosphere that seems ingrained in the walls; the dining room with its warm lighting and wood panelling in modern yet cosy design alleviates urban stress syndrome even before the food arrives. The opening bento box of snacks is like a small, glittering jewellery box from which we pluck a skewer of flavour-packed shiitake mushrooms, grilled and glazed with butter and three-year-old soy, and little carrot pralines filled with a smooth carrot and orange cream spiced with browned butter. Drinks? Most fun is to try the sparkling sake with grapefruit vibes and an underlying sweetness that envelops the umami-rich snacks. The chawanmushi is a study in textures, where the ultra-silky custard has been reinforced with a mussel broth and then enveloped in an oil of roasted nori, and finally topped with little salty exclamation marks in the form of lardo and caramelised mussels. The sake, a fruity junmai daiginjo, turns into the third component of the dish, picking up on the toasted note of the oil as well as the mussels’ shellfish sweetness. Ichi’s flavour palette is Japanese at its core, particularly in its almost preternatural instinct for balance. But Nordic aspects (such as our weakness for butter) and a curiosity about local ingredients are seamlessly incorporated into the experience. Head chef Saori Ichihara was schooled at Esperanto, and it shows, perhaps as much in the food as in an attitude – and in the smoothly elegant service. An Arctic char is barely cooked, but softly smoked over birch bark and served with a mix of fatty belly meat and roasted almonds – and matched with a sake of red rice whose acidity and rooibos notes capture both smokiness and nuttiness. As we arrive at the saddle of lamb with celeriac purée, we hear a soft ‘whoosh, whoosh’ in the background – it’s the hand-operated ice shaver, placed in the middle of the dining room. It peels soft, fluffy flakes off the chambré ice block to make a sensationally refreshing pre-dessert which is dressed with condensed milk, elderberry syrup and shiso powder. ‘Did you have a favourite dish on the menu?’, one of the waiters asks. We’re stumped. The dishes succeed one another with such tonal and gustatory accuracy that it feels as if none of it could have done without the rest. At the risk of sounding touchy-feely: a meal at Ichi has a lot of Zen about it.
Published december 2019