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Battered chicken karaage
Battered chicken karaage ( and chicken thigh yakitori . Bloomberg

In the soup: miso raises questions

You can tell a lot about the quality of a Japanese establishment by its miso soup. How much care has been given to a dish often served as an accompaniment, rather than as the star of the culinary show?

A staple in its native Japan, miso soup is often served with white rice for breakfast, though it is popular at any time of day – or night. The miso ($0.75) on offer at month-old Ichiban, which means “first” or “number one” in Japanese, was rich.

Though awash with seaweed and made with flavourful stock, it was a tad over-seasoned and slightly too rich for my taste.

The joint specialises in sake, Japanese rice wine, and yakitori, a term that refers to grilled, skewered food. Ichiban, however, also offers the whole gamut of the country’s most recognisable cuisine. Yakitori, sushi, sashimi, salads, ramen, tempura and bento boxes plaster two sides of their A2 menu, available with a rainbow of different meats and fish.

The drinks list was equally lengthy. Ichiban claims to have the largest variety of Japanese sake in Cambodia, but it also offers an ample range of Japanese and Cambodian beers.

Ichiban’s signature yakitori dishes were, on the whole, delicious. The pork belly ($2.25) had a smoky hit and a perfect sauce to meat ratio: a light, sticky coating rather than a liberal dousing, which is excellent news if you’re wearing cream attire, as I was. The chicken thigh and leek skewers ($1.75) were plump and some of the juiciest I’ve ever tasted. The garlic skewers ($1.50) were among the more unusual dishes on offer. Whole cloves were impaled on wooden skewers. Charred, they took on a rougher, meatier texture, but tasted bitter.

Served with a dash of lime, a lick of kewpie mayonnaise and a salty battered coating, the karaage chicken (otherwise known as Japanese deep fried chicken, $3.50) was very tender and came in generous portions. Could the coating could have been crispier? Possibly. Did it verge on the greasy side? Maybe. Were our plates licked clean? Yes.

Less palatable was the sesame salad udon ($3.50), a bizarre mix of lettuce, tomatoes, udon noodles and chewy chicken. The dish was decidedly bland, though the accompanying sesame sauce was delightful and the plate’s saving grace.

The tempura prawns were also a let down. The prawns were big, fat and buttery ($4.50), but the batter clung to them like an excessively tight little black dress, rather than the billowy cotton shirt that would have been a better fit.
On a recent Monday evening the restaurant had a slow but steady flow of customers.

A young Western couple gazed at one another. Businessmen made small talk. A table of Japanese customers chatted with the restaurant’s attentive staff. Later, a lone backpacker strolled in. Perhaps she was wooed by the warm red glow emanating from the restaurant’s lanterns adorned with Japanese script.

Outside, the residential streets were so quiet that the noise from the crickets chirping blended with the Japanese ballads played inside.

Ichiban has promise. With its over seasoned miso soup and crowd-pleasing menu, the place simply needs to rein in its overzealous approach to find that it already has all the ingredients for success.

#54, Street 454. Open daily for dinner only, with lunch plans also pending. ​​​​​​

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