LITTLE ROCK Igibon Japanese Food House was a fairly early entrant into the area’s Japanese restaurant competition, practically a stone’s throw from Mount Fuji a little farther south on North Rodney Parham Road.
Like Mount Fuji, and unlike most of its other competitors, there are no teppanyaki grills, in the dining area or in the kitchen, at Igibon. The menu is a catalog of tempura, teriyaki, rice and noodle dishes, plus a wide range of sushi and sashimi options.
And also like Mount Fuji, the place has had its ups and downs, starting with a fire in October 1999, a little over a year after it opened, that wiped the place out (along with four other businesses in that portion of the double-strip shopping center), forcing its owners to rebuild.
Around 2002, reviewers complained that the service, which before had been very customer-friendly, almost to the point of obsequious, had run into problems that resulted in long waits for food.
And in 2010, the restaurant changed hands. Batulzii “Crystal” Bataa took the place over from Eva Chen, whom we have still occasionally spotted on the premises; much beloved sushi chef Paul Lin stayed around for a while to ease the transition but has since retired.
The quality of Igibon’s food has remained steady and dependably good. The new ownership has made some very minor changes to the decor, nothing flashy or outrageous, and none to the menu.
The pattern-inlaid, thickly varnished tables are still there, as are the shell-fan pattern, sea-green upholstered woodand-metal chairs that showed up a dozen years ago after the fire. They’re still widely enough spaced so you don’t feel like you’re sitting on top of your neighbors.
Waving cat and other Asian accents grace the front cash register area but are less ubiquitous in the dining room. Silk hangings covering the front windows keep the place kind of dark even during bright lunchtime sunshine.
With Lin’s retirement, there are new faces behind the small sushi bar, which, with only three seats, is primarily a showplace for sushi service rather than a place to sit.
But sushi bar and kitchen are putting out the same good product. And the prices, especially considering the size of the portions, are still very reasonable; they’ve risen slightly over the years, but not as much as you’d think.
That might be because the cost of reprinting the menu possibly outweighs the benefit of higher prices to the restaurant’s bottom line. The menu looks much like it did when we first encountered it in 1998: full of full-dish descriptions (for better guidance for newbies and oldbes), plus color photographs of what the plate is supposed to look like when it gets to the table. The curling-at-the-edges laminated sushi list likewise carries full descriptions of the contents of rolls, though one is not always entirely clear, for example, about just what constitutes “crunch.”
We generally don’t, before we revisit places, go back and reread past reviews, but it’s comforting to know our tastes are consistent. Which explains why many of our choices were things we’ve enjoyed over the years at Igibon.
That includes the Age Shumai appetizer ($3.95), deepfried, bite-size pork-filled dumplings (slightly differently spiced from the also-$3.95 pot-sticker-like gyoza), with a piquant dipping sauce. Warning: Ours were so hot out of the fryer that we risked significant mouth burns.
The Crabmeat Puffs ($3.95), similar to Chinese-restaurant Crab Rangoon, were a bit disappointing. The quasi-crabinfused cream cheese mixture inside was a bit sweet and we found very little quasi-crab, the exterior so over-fried that we had to break off and leave the uber-crisp edges of the thin shell on our plate. (Subsequent puffs on the side of various dishes were less firmly fried, but still tough to negotiate.)
Igibon’s teriyaki sauce and similar eel sauce, atop of a lot of dishes, are a little on the sweet side, too sweet for Intrepid Companion, who for that reason did not enjoy the two old-favorite appetizers we otherwise enjoyed revisiting: Ika Teriyaki ($4.50), marinated-and-seared squid strips and rings (cooked enough to be slightly chewy but not rubbery), topped with a generous amount of teriyaki sauce and sesame seeds, and the similarly topped Beef Roll ($4.95), strips of seared beef rolled, sushi-roll-like, around bits of slightly crunchy cabbage and carrots.
The sweetness of the sauce was the only drawback to IC’s enjoyment of her Steak Teriyaki ($13.95); otherwise, the steak was perfectly textured and the portion was plentiful. IC was even less thrilled by the rather oily vegetable tempura, generous slices of carrot, sweet potato, zucchini and an onion ring fried in a thin, bland tempura batter. Taking a few seconds to let the vegetables drain before moving them from fryer to plate would help the problem without unduly delaying their delivery.
Fried rice turned out to be the right choice (rather than steamed); the rice, less intense than is Chinese fried rice but not quite as flavorful as you’d get it off a teppanyaki grill, still had a subtle flavor that might have been citrus.
The oily tempura was also an issue with our for-lunch, beef-roll-centered Igibon Special Bento Box ($9.25). The two slices of zucchini, one each of carrot and sweet potato soaked the bit of doily on the compartmentalized plate they came on, alongside a beef roll, three pieces of nigiri (tuna, smoked salmon and shrimp on rice), two slices of a large but otherwise unexciting California roll, a crab puff and two pieces of shrimp tempura that weren’t oily at all. (See, it’s possible!)
On the side: a gentle miso soup ($1.75 a la carte) with more suspended seaweed than tiny tofu cubes; a small bowl of green salad ($2.50), mostly iceberg lettuce and carrot slivers in a somewhat creamy, slightly sweet ginger dressing; tempura sauce; and rice (steamed or fried).
We tried three successful sushi rolls. In order of apparent simplicity:
Spicy Tuna Roll ($6 for eight pieces), tuna enlivened with chili powder, wrapped in rice and served on a white rectangular plate.
Fried Red Snapper Roll ($10.50 for 12 pieces), red snapper, quasi-crab and “crunch” in a rather bready wrapper, served with “yellow” and “spicy” sauces, the former on the sweet side, the latter pretty close to, if not the same as, good old sriracha, served on a brown-black clay plate rife with Japanese symbols. (We actually ordered this one twice; the first time, the sushi chef took great pains to interlace the yellow sauce with sriracha to create a treat both for eye and palate. The second time, there was yellow sauce in one corner and sriracha in the other.)
And it was a pleasure to revisit a longtime favorite, the Igibon Roll ($7.25 for 12 pieces), fake crab, cream cheese and rice wrapped in seaweed, tempura battered and deep fried and served warm with eel sauce.
Igibon, unlike some of its competitors, hasn’t gone kamikaze-wild with the number and variety of its sake offerings; just three — one warm, two cold. The wine list is limited to three whites (including a riesling and a pinot grigio, both of which fit well with sushi) and less than a handful of reds. There’s a modest selection of Japanese and American beers.
The owner and one waitress pretty much handle the entire floor on weekdays and at lunch; both were very attentive and service was good.
Address: Market Place Shopping Center, 11121 N. Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
Alcoholic beverages: Wine and beer
Reservations: Large parties
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Weekend, Pages 41 on 11/22/2012
Print Headline: New faces, same reliable Igibon