It's one thing to say that you're all for whole-animal cooking, O Pollanite, and another thing to revel in the crunchy-chewy-slippery chunks that you slip to the dog. Take a chicken carcass, for example, delivered to you with beak attached and drumsticks ending in sharp-clawed toes. It's easy to bone out a thigh or a breast, but will you love the heart of the beast, or its gizzard? The fatty little triangle of the tail? How about the cartilage from the keel bone?
Christian Geideman, chef-owner of Ippuku, a new Berkeley yakitori restaurant and shochu bar, uses every molecule he can of the dozen free-range chickens delivered to his restaurant every day. They're a cross of a French heirloom breed and the standard snow-white Hubbard Cross, these birds, raised on the pastures of Soul Food Farm in Vacaville or Bodega's Gleason Ranch. Geideman segments the chickens into their various, delicious parts and threads the meat onto skewers. Then he grinds, braises, slices, and simmers the rest. What Geideman makes of the chicken — a bird bred and subdued into ignoble blandness, unloved by chefs, worthy only of nuggetization and neglect — may cause you to rethink the tuna of the land. I, for one, count the chicken as the meat I'd miss least were I to go vegetarian, and yet I count Ippuku as one of this year's new restaurants I'm most impatient to return to.
It was the neck (nakaochi, $6.50) that got me, thumbnail-sized curls of meat crowded up against one another on a skewer no longer than a well-sharpened pencil. The cooks dipped the skewers in a tare (sugary soy-mirin marinade) and grilled them over bincho-tan charcoal from Kyushu prefecture, reapplying the marinade as they cooked. The cola-colored glaze caramelized and crisped over the fire, and underneath the meat had a smooth spring to it I'd never encountered, and an unearthly juiciness. I had to order the necks on my second visit just to show them off to my tablemate.
Geideman, a Berkeley native who briefly ran the kitchen at Oakland's Ozumo and an izakaya in Santa Fe before that, says he's largely self-trained as a cook. The model for Ippuku was a yakitori restaurant in Tokyo he briefly worked at. "And when I say worked," he clarifies, "I meant that I swept the floor and washed dishes — anything to get into the kitchen."
He has tried to stay true to the Japanese culinary palette, and his vision of a restaurant devoted to chicken and small plates is spare and humble. You are allowed to call Ippuku an izakaya, that much-misused term for a Japanese pub, if you promise to alternate food with multiple pints of Racer 5 IPA or glasses of shochu. Geideman stocks 55 different varieties of the distilled spirit, including 20 that he claims are making their first West Coast appearances at Ippuku. Whether ordering a rustic sweet-potato shochu from Kagoshima or an Okinawan "black sugar" shochu, which resembles cachaça, the spirit tastes best diluted — just to bring out its fragrance and dull the scratchy edges — with a few ice cubes or tablespoons of cold water.
Elemental and brooding, raw and intimate, the restaurant has the look of an abandoned steel mill at dusk. There is no sign outside the place, only a collection of empty bottles in the entryway. When you brush past the fabric panels in the doorway, you enter a deep, shipping-container-shaped room stripped to its rough concrete carapace.
Past the bar are two rows of wooden booths constructed with traditional Japanese joinery. The ones on the left contain benches and shoulder-height tables, while across the aisle is a two-foot-high platform with low tables ringed by blue pillows. When you climb onto the platform (shoes off, of course), you discover there are wells under each table for your legs, and bamboo-slat curtains let you spy on the group next to you. At the very back of the room, a few diners sit at a counter, nose-deep in smoke, as the cooks flip skewers a few feet away. "When I die, I want to be reincarnated as a Japanese designer," one of my friends said after we'd been admiring the room for a while.
The menu is a mass of small plates, priced between $4 and $12, with skewers sold in sets of two. My meals there began with a plate of tsukemono ($6), sweetly preserved slices of dried daikon presented alongside the salty crunch of quickly pickled cucumber, as well as a bowl of green beans coated in black-sesame paste ($6). Shavings of caramelized lotus root and carrot retained their delicate crunch ($5), and an unprepossessing avocado sashimi ($5) — nothing but a cubed green orb, a teaspoon of grated chiles and yuzu, and some soy sauce — may have been the richest thing on the menu.
While we cleaned off the introductory plates, the yakitori began arriving in waves: tender chunks of chicken thigh meat alternating on the skewer with skinny leeks (negima, $6.50); chewy, earthy chicken hearts (hatsu, $6); flame-blistered shishito peppers ($6) or Tokyo leeks ($5); bacon-wrapped knobs of mochi ($5), which melted in the mouth like fresh mozzarella; and blackened, crisp okra pods ($5), whose mucilaginous tendencies were tamed by a splash of lemon and a sprinkle of togarashi (a chile-spice blend).
Not all of the skewers were as masterfully cooked — the rubbery ox tongue ($8) came off the grill too late, the eringi mushrooms ($6) blackened before cooking all the way through, and the electric flavor of the shiso leaves rolled around chicken breast meat (ume-shiso maki, $8) was not to everyone's taste (okay, mine).
These were minor errors. Ippuku's big flaw is the service, which is undertrained. On both visits, items we ordered never made it into the computer, and the staff hadn't yet learned how to pass by a table and recognize when something was missing or needed to be cleared. A meal at Ippuku costs $40 or more, so they need to cultivate this kind of attention.
The servers have downloaded a fair amount of information about the shochu list, and on both occasions, our server pointed out dishes I wouldn't otherwise have tried. And each new discovery — the exquisitely tender turnips braised with ground chicken ($9), the chicken neck — increased my respect for the variety and depth of flavors Geideman could eke out of chicken. It was due as much to the quality of the meat as it was to his skill. I ordered the chicken tartare with a raw quail egg yolk (tori yukke, $9) fearing slimy, metallic-smelling meat. None of that. The chef dipped the chicken breast in boiling water just long enough to rim the meat in white and tossed it with a little toasted chile oil, soy sauce, and chile paste; it tasted almost as meaty as if he'd roasted it for hours. And both meals ended with a soup, something to fill out our stomachs and send us on our way. The contents, whether innocuous ramen noodles or shredded chicken and rice (both $6), were immaterial. We barely noticed them, focused as we were on the broth, the color of saffron and so concentrated that its flavor lingered for minutes afterward. The broth was the chicken's final gift to the meal, and I sipped it with as much gratitude as greed.