Smile Politely

Solid and unpretentious sushi at Sushi Ichiban

Lunch at Sushi Ichiban.
Caitlin Aylmer

Along with bird song, crocuses, and longer days, my willingness to spend — or glee towards spending — extra time outside the house heralds the quickly returning spring. What better way to bask in the tolerable temperatures than to walk around campus and grab a bite to eat?

It was in this spirit when I forgot intentionally left my lunch at home, I made the most of my lunch hour by strolling over to Sushi Ichiban. Located on Wright Street, not far from the main quad, my first visit to Sushi Ichiban was well before I moved to Champaign myself, when I came to visit a friend studying at the U of I. We went to a handful of restaurants on my visit, but Sushi Ichiban is one of only two still remaining (the other being Jerusalem Restaurant). I walked over, wondering if it would be like I remembered: no-frills, convenient, solid food.

Interior of Sushi Ichiban.
Caitlin Aylmer

Upon entering, we were greeted by numerous colorful menu pages advertising various specials. However, the sushi was what I had with my friend all those years ago, and it’s what I came for on this visit. Their menu has an impressive array of rolls to choose from, but I’m a simple girl when it comes to sushi: minimal ingredients, but make sure they’re good.     

I decided on the two roll special ($11.99), with an avocado, asparagus, cucumber (AAC) roll and an oshinko roll, an order of inarizushi (two for $4.50), and a ramune drink ($2.99). The sushi combo special also came with a complimentary bottle of water.

In hindsight, it would have been cheaper to order the two rolls separately ($5 for oshinko and $5.50 for AAC), so I would recommend checking the prices of the individual rolls first — especially if veggie inclined. I was asked if I would like wasabi and/or pickled ginger, and I enjoy both, so I said yes, but I’m glad to see a restaurant ask this question rather than accept food waste as a given for those who don’t enjoy these accouterments.

The interior of Sushi Ichiban restaurant has barstools facing a campus road.
Caitlin Aylmer

After ordering and paying at the counter, I selected my ramune flavor from the cooler and headed to the dining area to choose my seat. The row of seating along the front window made for the perfect place to relax, eat, and watch the bustle of campus life.

The service was quick and courteous. I hardly had time to open my drink before I heard my order number called from the counter. After a busy morning, I was grateful I could spend the majority of my lunch eating rather than waiting for my meal. 

inarizushi at Sushi Ichiban
Inarizushi at Sushi Ichiban; Photo by Caitlin Aylmer

First up was the inarizushi, tofu skin nigiri, which is a favorite of mine, the perfect bite of rice nestled in a golden tofu wrapper. Inarizushi hit all the right combinations, the faintly acidic and pillowy rice was complemented by the slightly sweet and delicately chewy fried tofu skin. It’s a testament to delectable simplicity. Equally recommended is tucking an eye-watering dollop of wasabi into the tofu-wrapped parcel of rice, though I recognize not everyone shares my love for the condiment.

An oshinko roll.
oshinko roll at Sushi Ichiban; Photo by Caitlin Aylmer

The vibrant oshinko roll, starring pickled daikon radish, further exemplifies how complexity is not a requirement for delicious food. Here, we had the balance of sweet, sour, a dash of salty, and just the right amount of satisfying crunch. This roll elevated an ingredient too often relegated to the side(dish)lines to a rightful place of prominence. 

Avocado, asparagus, cucumber roll at Sushi Ichiban in Champaign
AAC roll at Sushi Ichibang; Photo by Caitlin Aylmer

Finally, we had the verdant AAC roll, composed of creamy avocado, perfectly blanched asparagus, and expertly julienned cucumber. An East meets (south)West fusion that has become ubiquitous and, in my opinion, did an excellent job at matching the principals of the original cuisine: simplicity and balance. While the avocado didn’t have quite the same texture or flavor profile as otoro, the effect they have on richness and mouthfeel were surprisingly similar. The refreshingly crisp cucumber and asparagus provided a wonderfully harmonious compliment.

All three had the perfect amount of rice to make for a filling lunch without overwhelming the other flavors. Sushi is, in part, a study in proportions, and Sushi Ichiban was excellent in this regard. 

Interior of Sushi Ichiban.
Caitlin Aylmer

There are few places that remain unchanged around campus, but Sushi Ichiban is one of them — at least for now. The unpretentious and candid approach to food service is the antithesis to the ostentatious jazz-bar sushi aesthetic that seems to be more common. While they both have their place on the dining scene, I know which one I want for lunch. 

The outside of Sushi Ichiban in Champaign.
Caitlin Aylmer

Sushi Ichiban
619 Wright St
M-F 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Sa+Su 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

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