At Ichi Umi all customers are welcomed with a unanimous “Irasaimase!”—a Japanese welcome—from the staff. After venturing inside, the first thing that will most likely stand out for most New Yorkers is how spacious the restaurant is, an unusual find in midtown Manhattan. Ichi Umi seats six hundred, all in a comfortably roomy manner. The restaurant was once called “Onami.” Later its name was changed to “Minado.” Park said that it will remain Ichi Umi, which is Japanese for “number one ocean.” This restaurant offers surprisingly good fare of one hundred and ninety items on the menu.
The food is decoratively set along the buffet. Each dish is presented in a manner expected from a high-end restaurant. Sushi, sashimi, and a plethora of various rolls cover one side of the buffet, slowly giving way to seaweed salads, shrimp, and king crab legs. On the other end of the buffet, mounds of cooked food are placed for everyone’s enjoyment. Items range from crab cakes and stuffed mussels to marinated baked fish and lobster-fried rice.
A key to good sushi is in the preparation of the rice and the freshness of the fish. Ichi Umi’s sushi is wonderful in both categories. The rice has a mildly soft texture and is not overly sticky or hard. The fish also has a clean freshness to it. This is often a rarity in all-you-can-eat restaurants. The sushi is of good quality.
A Fresh Catch
According to restaurant owner Yun Park this quality is partly attributed to the restaurant’s policy of buying ingredients and preparing food. All items served are made from scratch and are prepared within an hour of serving each meal.
Park believes that the quality of food is determined by the source of the food. For this reason, he avoids using imported frozen seafood. Instead, he receives daily deliveries of fish, clams, mussels, and other ingredients from local fishermen. He said that much of the menu is caught in the morning and delivered by the end of the day. “I know that the fish were in the water yesterday. Fresh tastes better,” Park says.
Because of this policy, many items on the menu rotate with the season. Even the fruits and the desserts are seasonal-based. The fruit is sweet, the fish is free from the strong “fishy” smell and has a pleasant, clean flavor. The desserts are free from any freezer-burn dryness and are deliciously moist and flavorful.
Park said that in the restaurant business, success is more than skin deep. “If you only think about money, you cannot win. You must like your food,” he said.
Sushi aside, a definite star of the menu is the cooked sea bass. Marinated in soy sauce and Thai chili sauce, this dish is often a favorite among Asians. Most Westerners sadly never give it a chance, often shying away from fish cooked whole, yet this is a must-try.
The fish has a pleasant meaty flavor with only a slight fish taste. There is a hinted of a mild spicy sweetness, but it is not overpowering. This dish has a nicely balanced flavor, compared with a less-spicy and less-strong Thai dish.
The fried calamari is tender and crunchy; they are also not too greasy, as this dish can be. At first bite, I felt that the calamari was cooked well; it is not gummy or overly soft. Rather, there is a slight chewiness, which your teeth can quickly sink into. It is also served with a homemade cocktail sauce.
Another must-try, on par with the crab cakes, is the lobster-fried rice. The flavor of the lobster really shines through. This dish has a distinctive taste. Spices and oil, in my opinion, tend to make it a heavier option on the menu, yet give it richness reminiscent of lobster dipped in melted butter. Made in the traditional recipe for fried rice, it is also mixed in with eggs, bell peppers, and chives.
In addition to its menu of cakes, ice cream, and fresh fruit, Ichi Umi has all-you-can-eat chocolates. These chocolate treats are soft with just a bit of crushed nuts mixed in. They are made with a darker chocolate, and with a flavor similar to light fudge.
Ice cream comes in two exotic flavors: green tea and red bean. To some Westerners, ice cream made with red beans may sound a bit strange, but beans are surprisingly tasty when sweetened. This is a common dessert for Chinese and Japanese. Beans are made into a paste with sugar. This makes a thicker, frosting-like texture that is mixed into the ice cream.
At a Japanese restaurant, mochi balls are a must and the mochi balls at Ichi Muni are of excellent quality. These small, round treats are made with crushed rice flour exterior with a red bean filling.
The restaurant has a regular flow of locals and tourists. It has also developed a strong following of food aficionados from far and wide. “People actually drive from Canada to come here,” Park said with a smile.
To keep things new and fresh, the three chefs who make the menu items regularly research and invent new dishes, which are brought into the daily cycle following a taste test by Park. The words “all you can eat” and “sushi” don’t always sit well together, yet some restaurants are able to pull off this food feast in a all its glory. With fresh ingredients purchased daily and a one hundred and twenty foot long buffet, Ichi Umi is among these restaurants.
Ichi Umi is open for lunch and dinner and is located at:
6 East 32nd Street
New York, NY 10016
Hours of Operation are:
Daily, 11:45am to 3pm and 5:30pm to10pm
Lunch is $18.95 to $21.95 depending on the day.
Dinner is $28.95 to $31.95 also depending on the day.
There are also discounts for children under 4 and a half.