ICHIBAN; 637 N.Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg. 670-0560.; Open 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: Most dinner appetizers about $4, entrees $7 to $10. Complete dinner with beer or sake, tax and tip about $15 to $26 per person.
KOREAN RESTAURANTS seem to have a compulsion to combine cuisines: Korean-Chinese, Korean-Japanese, even Korean-Polynesian. Whatever the reason for all those hyphens, the results can be exciting -- a case of the whole tasting better than the sum of its parts. Such is the case with Ichiban, a Korean-Japanese restaurant where each of the two cuisines serves as a showcase for the other. Japanese food, with its unrelenting refinement, takes on a new glow when it's unrelenting refinement, takes on a new glow when it's surrounded by fiery, garlic-laced Korean dishes. And the earthy Korean dishes at Ichiban benefit from the gentleness of their Japanese counterparts.
Not that all the food here deserves high marks. Some of the dishes are run-of-the-mill at best. But there are enough excellent ones to put Ichiban on your list. To add to the appeal, this is an extraordinarily handsome place, with reasonable prices. But service can be a gamble. On five out of six visits, luck brought us servers who were efficient, personable and eager to help. But on the sixth the dice came up with a waitress of awesome absent-mindedness and indifference. That's especially hard to take in a restaurant where table-side cooking is emphasized.
How does one order from a two-cuisine menu with more than 100 choices? By relaxing. Crisscross the ethnic lines, let your mood dictate what to have, and don't attempt to try everything in one visit. One caveat: Eat the delicate dishes first -- a palate numbered by a fiery dose of kim chee won't do justice to an ethereal sashimi.
Ichiban's sushi and sashimi are excellent across the board -- no compromises with freshness, with construction, with prettiness in the presentation -- and they're priced reasonably. Equally flawless is tempura, feather light with an almost porous filament of batter coating. You can have shrimp, beef, seafood or vegetable tempura, in appetizer or entree portions. Other appetizers? Man doo, the garlicky, gingery Korean beef-filled dumplings, are top-notch here, as are san sun jun, silver-dollar size discs of fish fillet lightly fried in egg batter. Also consider a bit of soup as a starter. "Clear soup" is the kind of restorative chicken broth you wish your grandmother had made, and Korean won ton soup adds plump, meat-filled dumplings.
In Dorean barbecue dishes, bite-size chunks of meat are marinated in soy sauce, sugar, garlic and sesame oil, then are grilled at the table. Koreans often wrap the meat inside a lettuce leaf along with a bit of rice and a special chili sauce and eat it like moo shi pork. (If you're not served the lettuce, ask.) At Ichiban, the best of the barbecues are bul goki (beef) and daeji gui (pork), both lean, tender and succulent. Kalbi, made with short ribs, is fattier and chewier -- that's understandable -- but dak gui, the chicken version, has far more fat and gristle than it should. (If the server is late in returning to your table to take the meat off the grill, don't hesitate to take charge. Bul goki in particular suffers from overcooking.) Speaking of overcooked meat, we found the beef in the sukiyaki disappointingly dry -- but since that occurred on the Night of the Absent-Minded Waitress, it's hard to draw any conclusions. Ichiban's bibim bap, though, is clearly a winner. In this traditional Korean dish, stir-fried beef is mixed at the table with fried egg. marinated crunchy vegetables and chili paste sauce. Ichiban's version has a larger proportion of vegetables than most, which makes it nicely light, and the mixture of hot and cold temperatures and flavors gives a wonderful punch.
Meat-filled, meal-size soups are featured in both Japanese and Korean cooking, and they're well done at Ichiban. Sha-bu sha-bu, Japan's version of a New England boiled dinner, is cooked at the table with excellent beef, noodles, tofu and fresh vegetables. Although there's a zippy sauce for dipping the morsels between serving bowl and mouth, this is basically a low-key dish that some will find bland. Blandness is no such concern with mandu guk, a Korean soup made with the marvelous mandu dumplings and a pungent, ginger-and-garlic-laced broth. As duk mandu guk, it's also available with added rice-flour dumplings, roughly the Asian equivalent of gnocchi. Probably the hottest soup in the house is me-oon tang, a soul-satisfying Korean stew of fish, fish cake, octopus, squid and clams in a broth ablaze with red pepper.
Korean fried meat dishes have been exceptionally good. The most lovable is goki jun, garlicky ground beef patties rolled in an egg batter, lightly fried and practically bursting with juice. Also immensely appealing (and more peppery) is gochu jun, in which the ground beef is stuffed inside strips of green pepper. Pa chon, a fried pancake stuffed with bits of shrimp and scallion, tends to be oilier and a little less appealing. Several non-soup Korean dishes feature hot-sweet garlicky sauces. Among the best is pan-fried squid, fresh and juicy if sometimes a bit tough. Another is jab tang (oddly listed among the soups), a seafood medley that requires using chopsticks to deal with sauce-soaked little crabs in the shell; some will find this a challenge, others will think it a spattery bore. Dishes to avoid? The excessively fatty chicken teriyaki and the sweet and sour pork in its pasty batter.
Finally, a couple of general warnings: Be prepared for some items to be out of stock, including a few of the more exotic sushi choices and -- our biggest disappointment -- the traditional homemade buckwheat noodles used in some of the Korean soups. And try to plan your visit on an off-hour -- judging from the lines of people at Ichiban's door on weekends, bul goki has come to Gaithersburg to stay.