I'm not sure if anyone remembers my last encounter with the rather oddly named Fugu Restaurant, which served Sichuan style cuisine in Madison. Of course, there must be explanation, perhaps the place just kept the former restaurant's name to keep the customer base, licensing issues, or perhaps something similar. But what are odds of having two restaurants with Japanese names serving Sichuan cuisine in Madison? Enter Ichiban.....yep good ol' "number 1" in Japanese. Strange thing indeed.
I had the pleasure of having my Sichuan meals with two wonderful people, YZ who is from Shanghai and YHL originally from Beijing. Having eaten at Fugu the day before, they wanted to check out Ichiban. The restaurant's tables have a slight San Gabriel stickiness to them and would not be out of place in the SGV. The clientele was a bit older than what I saw at Fugu, but almost all conversations were taking place in Mandarin.
We started with Steamed White Meat Chicken with Chili Oil.
The chicken was moist and tender, but the sauce lacked depth. It was indeed fairly spicy as the chili oil and chili flakes added heat. I'm not quite sure if this was supposed to be Ma La Ji Pian, if so, it was missing the mild sweetness or perhaps this was Guai Wei Ji Si, but then it was missing the nice sesame paste and black vinegar flavor. There was also just about no Sichuan Peppercorns at all in this.
Next up was the Zi Ran Yang Rou - Cumin Lamb:
The meat was fairly tender and the dish had some mild heat. It was better than the version I previously had at Fugu, but was still lacking in cumin. Overall, the best dish of the evening.
Next up was the Spicy and Crispy Pork Intestine:
The intestines could have been fried a bit better and the flavors were really lacking.
YHL needed a break from all the spicy food and ordered the Chicken with Corn Soup:
We finished up with the Shui Zhu Niu Rou, called Poached Sliced Beef in Hot Sauce on the menu. More familiar to us as Water Boiled Beef.
I really missed the Sichuan Peppercorns in this one. The Chili Paste was either quite inferior or (my guess) they really didn't use enough of it as the color looked a bit off. The beef was adequately prepared. But this wasn't very spicy.
Overall, the food was ok, not a bad try, some "La" (hot), but no "Ma" (numbing). Every dish seemed to be lacking in complexity and layering of flavors. Prices were about 15-20% higher than San Diego.
610 S Park St
Madison, WI 53715
The next day we corrected and headed to Fugu. Funny story, before her last trip to Madison, I mentioned Fugu to YZ. she ended up eating here 3 times! Since there were the three of us we were able to sample a couple of dishes.
We started with the Liang Fen, which I think is on the menu as Sichuan Mung Bean Noodle. Liang Fen is basically a starch jelly which I like, but for many people it's more of an acquired texture than taste of which it doesn't have much.
Hooray, Sichuan Peppercorns! The sauce was a bit too watery, but this wasn't too bad.
Next up was my favorite dish from my previous visit, the "Hot Crispy Pork Intestine".
This didn't disappoint, the intestines were fried to a crisp. Like before, there was only the slightest offal flavor. As mentioned before, I could probably pass this as slightly gamey, weird looking, fried chicken skin. My preference would be for a bit more "ma la" (numbing heat), but I think this is still my favorite dish here. Both YZ and YHL agreed this was much better than the version at Ichiban.
Yu Xiang Qie Zi - Fish Fragrant Eggplant. I believe it's on the menu as Eggplant in Garlic Sauce. A classic dish. You've probably eaten this under the guise of Garlic Eggplant or perhaps Szechuan Eggplant.......
YZ really liked this, probably because it hit some Shanghainese flavor points as I found it a bit too sweet for me. Eggplant was cooked nicely though as it melted in your mouth. Nice vinegar touches, not a bad dish overall.
We also ordered the Pao Jiao Yu - Fish with Pickled Chilies.
My initial reaction was, "where's the Pao Jiao?" Not much pickled pepper action going on and not spicy at all. The fish had a nice, neutral flavor, but was on the mealy side. The sauce was a decent balance of spicy - sour - sweet....but where's the pickled chilies????
We ended the meal with Hui Guo Rou - Twice Cooked Pork.
This wasn't as greasy as previous versions I've had. And though I would have been happier with a bit more savory flavors, the vegetables tasted quite nice.
It was great fun sharing two meals with YZ and YHL....they found my interest in Chinese food somewhat amusing and were great company. YHL did tell me that Fugu was better than the best Sichuan Restaurant in Houston, so I guess that's saying something. If I get back to Madison, I hope to see more of these types of places. Though I hope they go with a proper Chinese name......though the thought of a restaurant named Benihana serving Hunan style food does make me chuckle.
411 West Gilman St
Madison, WI 53703