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Ichiban Asian Fusion
*** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Ichiban fuses new eatery excitement, exotic flavors

It is almost always exciting to try a new restaurant, but not near as exciting as trying a new style of cuisine.

So when I heard Ichiban Asian Fusion, which recently opened in a spot once home to Sushi West across from Glenbrook Square on Coldwater Road, was offering Malaysian food in addition to Thai and Japanese, I was eager to not only explore the new restaurant, but this cuisine that I had never had.

The Malaysian offerings at this sharp-looking strip mall eatery were expansive, with 29 selections ranging from appetizers to desserts. The menu was way too big, however, with 28 Thai dishes, 47 Japanese dishes and 37 sushi rolls. It was fusion overload.

I had a little bit of each but found the Malaysian to be the most enjoyable and the most interesting.

The best way I can describe Malaysian food is sort of a cross between Thai and Chinese with a hint of Burmese, perhaps. There are several noodle dishes, stir-fried meats and vegetables and sauced stir-fried combinations. The two dishes I liked best could not have been any more different.

The Crispy Tamarind Beef was easily the best thing I had at Ichiban. Fork-tender, succulent slices of marinated beef were lightly dredged and wok-fried until crisp. The beef was joined by onions and green and red bell peppers, and it was all lightly dressed in a delicious sweet and sour tamarind sauce. It was familiar in its components – sort of like Chinese General Tso’s chicken but with beef – but the sour tamarind made it special.

The Nasi Lemak was not at all familiar, but it was just as enjoyable. This plate of food was segmented with a pile of coconut rice in the center surrounded by a boiled egg and clusters of curried chicken, pickled vegetables, crispy fried anchovies and roasted peanuts.

The chicken was tender and its seasoning was perfect. The pickled vegetables provided a nice vinegary bite that was offset with the salty little fried fish, which were mixed in with them. The anchovies were also combined with sweet sautéed onions in another little pile. It was sort of a mix-and-match plate that was a lot of fun to eat as I tried different combinations. And anyone who likes salty, briny anchovies will like this dish as much as I did.

The other Malaysian dish I tried, the Flaming Short Ribs, was also good but not as exotic or exciting flavor-wise. They were pretty entertaining, however. The bone-in beef rib circles arrived in a foil packet that my server set on fire with the help of some grain alcohol on the plate below it. The blue flames danced for a minute or so and I could hear the “chef’s special sauce” that coated the ribs bubbling and popping inside the foil.

Once the fire was out and the foil was opened, I found out that the special sauce was pretty similar to the sauce on the tamarind beef. The ribs were tasty, but I would have rather had the tamarind beef because it had more ingredients and was frankly better.

The ribs weren’t the only thing I had lit up at my table. The Fly Dragon sushi roll was presented the same way. The roll had tempura fried shrimp, asparagus and spicy tuna inside its rice, and was topped with more shrimp and a combination of creamy light and sticky dark sauce.

The fire made a difference here as it slightly warmed the roll up and gave it a hint of smoky flavor, and the dark sauce caramelized a bit and sort of emulated barbecue sauce.

The featured Bonzai roll was the best sushi I had at Ichiban, but I can’t really call it sushi because it had no rice. Smoked salmon, crab, mango and cream cheese were rolled in thin slices of cucumber and the roll was drizzled with a vibrant, citrus-based ponzu sauce. It was delicious – crunchy, creamy, sweet, tangy and smoky – and I cannot imagine finding a more summery roll.

The best Malaysian starter – one I would order every time I dined at Ichiban – was the Roti Canai. Dubbed an “all-time Malaysian favorite,” these thin pancakes were similar to Indian naan bread, but they were crisped a little. They came with a curry sauce for dipping, but I liked them as is and could have eaten an entire plate myself.

The pancakes were also used to make fantastic desserts when their layers were split and stuffed – like Mexican quesadillas – with mashed bananas or crushed peanuts and sweet custard.

The Singapore Salad was listed in the Malaysian part of the menu, but last time I checked Singapore was not part of Malaysia. But they are so close I guess it is OK.

The salad was better than OK. Chunks of mango, pineapple, cucumber, onion, tomato and jicama were dressed in a spicy-sweet red chili-lime sauce that sort of had the consistency of ketchup. The salad was also topped with crispy puffed rice. It was fresh, tasty and fun to eat with the two wooden spears that came with it.

The Japanese and Thai offerings I tried were OK, but not as impressive as the Malaysian dishes. Basically, Ichiban Asian Fusion would be better served to do less fusing.

The pad Thai was fine. It had fresh vegetables and its flavor was enjoyable, but it wasn’t any better than any other place I have been to. The Gyoza – Japanese pan-fried dumplings – had the same result.

The daily special Mormiso Sea Bass was the biggest disappointment. This Japanese entrée sounded great with pan-seared fish over vegetables with its miso bean sauce, and it looked stunning – as did everything at Ichiban, which may have had the most stunning overall plating of any restaurant I have been to in recent years.

The sea bass was nicely cooked – melted in the mouth and it was extraordinarily fatty and scrumptious; however, there was no searing on it, no skin, and, therefore, no texture. The murky brown sauce also coated everything on the plate.

It was thick and heavy and much less would have been much better. The asparagus, carrots, sweet snap peas and big mushroom wedges were nice accompaniments but were lost under all of the sauce. It also had large chunks of raw jicama, which were impossible to eat.

Restaurant: Ichiban Asian Fusion

Address: 4036 Coldwater Road

Phone: 373-2900

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Malaysian-Thai-Japanese

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes, but no menu

Menu: Roti Canai ($4.50), Singapore Salad ($6.50), gyoza ($4.50), Fly Dragon Roll ($12.95), Bonzai roll ($10), Nasi Lemak ($9.50), short ribs ($15), Crispy Tamarind Beef ($13), pad Thai ($9.50) sea bass ($18), banana pancake ($5.50), peanut pancake ($4.50)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.