It's happening. Ippuku, the East Bay's premiere yakitori and shochu bar is opening on Monday 7/5! HOLLA!
I was lucky enough to get a tour of the restaurant before it opens and talk with the owner/chef, Christian Geideman. Located in the heart of Berkeley, the restaurant space is quite breathtaking (read: epitome of cool) and the menu boasts nearly 50 kinds of shochu! INSANITY!
Christian himself is not new to the world of Japanese cooking, or running restaurants. He opened Kasasoba, an izakaya in Santa Fe, before becoming chef de cuisine at Ozumo in Oakland. He has dedicated himself full time to building Ippuku from the ground up since the beginning of 2009, which is about to become a full-blown reality on Monday, as the doors will officially open on Center Street.
Christian, who once worked as a sake distributor, began exploring the world of shochu on a trip to Japan years ago. I guess you could say he was smitten, considering he decided to make it his personal mission to open a bar/restaurant devoted to this stuff (which is surprisingly little known here in the States).
Right when you walk in, you're greeted by a long row of 24 shochu bottles-- ON TAP. The bottles are gigantic, but somehow defy gravity and hang upside down. Christian said he was inspired by an izakaya in Osaka that had this, and just had to have the genius contraption. Each one dispenses an exact shot! I would say it's the main centerpiece of the entire restaurant-- it is just AWESOME.
Ippuku is an expansive, sparse space with light wood accents to compliment the cement walls and hanging pipes, painted blue. It's as though a hip izakaya in Tokyo just landed in Berkeley. Local master builder, and ordained Zen Buddhist priest, Paul Discoe designed the 600 sq. ft space-- not an easy task considering how long and narrow the space is. Bravo Mr. Discoe!
The bar is located right as you walk in. But there will be no stools-- standing room only. Racer 5 on tap!!
Despite the super high ceilings, intimate and cozy booths align one wall-- just like Tokyo. This is gonna be the hottest date spot in the East Bay. Hell yah!
There is an enclosed area on the other side, with several tables that will seat about 4-5 people each. NOMIKAI! (Please excuse the construction).
Walking towards the back, the open kitchen with bar seating is just delightful.
Getting all the fire codes squared away here must have been a nightmare. With all the grilling and the smoke, this couldn't have been an simple process with the DOH. But they did it! Skewered meats will be grilled, before your very eyes, on coal, just as they are meant to. Whew.
A little bit about shochu, which is a Japanese liquor-- a close cousin to the Korean soju. It is absolutely NOT to be mistaken as sake (nihonshu), and is more like vodka in profile and taste, as it is distilled with barley, rice or potato. The end product tastes clean and often earthy. The potato version can be a bit pungent, and takes some getting used to-- but when sipped on the rocks, as is recommended, one begins to appreciate the different dimensions of flavor.
Also to be enjoyed with oolong tea, or with some freshly squeezed grapefruit juice!
Ippuku's shochu menu is out of this world. With nearly 50 bottles, 12 of them will be making their West Coast debut. As in, they aren't available anywhere around here. They also have Awamori on the menu, which is a liquor from Okinawa. Yoko wrote about it last year.
I believe Ippuku will increase shochu knowledge in the Bay Area tremendously. This is REALLY EXCITING!
Their food menu will predominantly be yakitori, crunchy parts and all, with a sprinkling of usual izakaya fare. I have an insider source telling me they make their own mayo and ponzu. Ohhhh Yahhhh.
Great story: Christian grew up in Berkeley, and told me that the actual Ippuku space used to be an art house theater (hence all the awesome vintage Japanese movie posters). He said that the very last time he was there, he had accidentally left his wallet behind. The wallet contained $650. GASP! Of course, it was never found. He told me that he's determined to make back that money here. It's as though he was destined to open his dream restaurant, right in this exact location. It's fucking fate.
Ippuku, in Japanese, means to "take a break." In slang terms, it's more like, "take a smoke break." Love it.
Here's to a fantastic opening, Ippuku! Wishing you many years of success in the Bay Area, that will surely bring a community together over grilled chicken gizzards and sweet potato shochu. We look forward to many drunk nights here, and watching you grow!
Full disclosure: Washi, Yoko's husband is one of the bartenders at Ippuku. Make sure to stop by and say hello to him when you're there! He is lots of fun and extremely knowledgeable about shochu, and drinking in general. We're all drunks here, at Umamimart, what can I say.
*Updated (February 28, 2011): I started working as a server at Ippuku in August 2010, after I originally wrote this post. As of February 2011, I am no longer working there.
More photos of Ippuku here.