It dawned on me last night that I hadn’t been downtown in three months. When I lived in California–even in the suburbs–I’d head for Union Square in San Francisco every couple of weeks to re-up Guerlain lipsticks, chocolate martinis, or Bond No. 9 fragrances. I used to dine out quite a lot in San Francisco, too, but this fell by the wayside in Gainesville. Like a lost love, the taste of the perfect japchae or the tom kha gai must always remain a memory on the lips.
Cocktails, though, might be made anywhere someone has a bottle of Belvedere, so I headed downtown to drink vodka and to eat tempura at Ichiban, a Japanese restaurant I find superior to its more entrenched competitor Dragonfly. I like Dragonfly well enough, but their portions are questionably small and so is their seating–and have they considered that I might not want to share my order with everyone else at my table?
I’d been to Ichiban before, on Valentine’s Day, when no one else was seating. That there were tables available then didn’t bode well for this assertive new location that thrust Ichiban into direct competition with the more established Dragonfly. The food, though, was excellent and so were the martinis.
Heading downtown last night, I decided that I wanted tempura and martinis. Tempura is supremely easy to screw up. It should be crisp, hot, and not dripping in cooking oil. I have had tempura that has approached being steamed and tempura that is the texture of gum. I used to eat tempura for lunch in San Francisco from a restaurant called Sushi Bune and I consider myself not just a champion of good tempura but an opponent of bad.
Ichiban has darn good tempura. This, with a bowl of miso soup and the Belvedere martinis, is a highlight of Gainesville dining. We’re so full of the chain restaurant here that a standalone “boutique” that does things well is worthy of special mention. The shrimp tempura was crispy, well done, and not rubbery; there was none of the white-paste gumminess that defeats tempura that has not spent long enough in the deep fryer. I would have every confidence ordering the broader “seafood” tempura, even without knowing which “seafood” it might contain. Based on an earlier meal, I would not hesitate to order any of the Thai curries or the Japanese noodle dishes.
Ichiban is a dark restaurant with some narrow two-top or four-top tables lining the center and a number of comfortable booths along the wall. The interior of the restaurant is colored in shades of dark blue that range from midnight blue to blue-black. This creates a restful, nocturnal environment where one can tuck oneself away assuming the restaurant is not busy. If you are one of the few diners seated at 7 PM, then enjoy the treat–with all that attention the service feels personalized, if perhaps a bit too personal (“Hey, guys, are you still eating?”).
After dinner, I photographed the clock tower with the hot yellow tones of imminent sunset against its face.The clock tower is a Gainesville icon, ranking right up there with the Swamp as this city’s most recognizable image. It was then, seated on a metal bench at the tower’s base, that I noticed the barrier bar installed that would prevent someone from lying down on the bench. This is an anti-homeless measure that serves the purpose of forcing homeless people to sleep on the sidewalk. Try putting one across your Tempur-Pedic mattress. It put a damper on the tempura and also on the glorious sunset that was so full of rich purples and oranges that I thought it might burst and be full of good-for-you Florida orange juice.