Food nourishes the body. Good food pleases the senses. Great food does more; it’s inspirational, feeding the spirit.
Sushi is my favourite style of seafood. The fresh, mild softness of the tuna, salmon, or yellow tail, the complex interplay of flavours, the way such broad varieties of foods are used without distorting their essence. It’s fascinating, and at its best, as much art as food.
The time I have spent in Ho Chi Minh City has been something of a desert. I’ve looked for great sushi, over and over, and yet settled for good.
I can’t claim prescience about Ichiban Sushi, which means ‘number one’ or ‘first’ in Japanese. The location didn’t inspire confidence, nor did the garish sign; it looked like another restaurant I wouldn’t revisit in countries with more options.
Yet stepping inside surprised me — the black and silver interior design, the jewel-bright slabs of fish displayed behind the bar, the scents teasing my nose. All gave me hope that I’d found a place that could, perhaps, create great sushi.
The hostess swept me into a booth bounded with beaded curtains, and handed me a menu. The service was excellent, start to stop.
Menu pictures rarely do food justice, so I reserved judgment as I flipped through the lengthy list, noting dishes I liked. Glancing up, I saw the sushi chefs dancing, rocking out to the music. Smiling, I kept reading, and the variety proved, as the menu stated, that the owners have been around the world.
Short version? Ichiban deserves its name. Each dish, beautiful, garlanded with flowers and displayed on elegant white dishware. Each mouthful, superb. Words like ‘buttery’ and ‘subtle’ are terrible food clichés, but sometimes only they apply.
Bluntly, I ordered a feast. How could I pass up toro, oysters, Norwegian salmon and mochi ice cream?
I started with standard miso soup (VND28,000) and moved on to salmon rolls (VND88,000) and kaki (VND78,000), fresh oyster with raw quail egg and sea grapes, slurping it down with relish.
The Mr. Van (VND178,000) and MexiCali (VND168,000) speciality rolls dropped my jaw. I gobbled down the Mr. Van, a complex creation of shrimp, avocado, salmon, and tempura.
Until the first bite I almost regretted ordering the MexiCali, with mango, salsa and guacamole topping cream cheese, spicy salmon and tuna. Yet their guacamole, better than that served at most Mexican restaurants, harmonised with the sweet mango and spicy salsa over the other flavours.
Crowning the meal, a spread of pink-and-white striped Norwegian salmon sashimi (VND118,000) arrived with my order of chutoro (fatty Pacific tuna belly, a steal at VND98,000) and I came as close to nirvana as a non-Buddhist can.
I finished with some fantastic peach and vanilla mochi ice cream (VND28,000 per piece), a habit I can’t break. Though small, they went with the last remnants of the sake (VND98,000) and the amazing mango nigiri (VND48,000.)
Truth in Advertising
I’ve eaten sushi in many countries over three continents, after a family member who trained under a Japanese master sushi chef, and a non-descript place on America’s West Coast I visited years ago, converted me.
Ichiban also converted me, from first bite to last. Incomparably fresh, displayed like Faberge eggs, everything I ordered satisfied me.
Though not the best I’ve ever had, Ichiban is the best I’ve had in Saigon by far. If, like me, you take food seriously, move it to the top of your list of sushi places. It’s not cheap, but great food, the ineffable pleasure of eating art, is worth it.
Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15.
13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 — 12.5 very good to excellent
8 — 9.5 good to very good
5 — 7.5 fair to good
0 — 4.5 poor to fair
The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals