by Bob Barnett

When the owners of Sagano Japanese Bistro opened for business in Flint in 2003, they were taking a huge risk. In a town where the number of Coney Island diners is greater than the number of police patrolling the streets, convincing people to eat pieces of raw fish on little balls of rice could certainly be a hard sell.

I, for one, however, believed in them. In fact I stalked the building for months ahead of the opening because I was so excited about a sushi bar coming to Flint. Every few days I’d drive through the Lincor Plaza, on the corner of Linden and Corunna roads, just to see how much progress had been made.

Finally, toward the end of that summer, they staged a grand opening, and Sagano was born. The crowds were amazingly large, with people often waiting as long as a half hour for a table or a spot at the sushi bar. Six months later, the crowds were still coming, still waiting, and still enjoying what had quickly become the most popular restaurant in Flint.

Then, in 2005, Sagano added another full dining room to accommodate its new Hibachi style Steakhouse. With a full grill menu, including chicken, shrimp, lobster, snow tuna, steak, and vegetarian options, and with some very entertaining chefs who prepare your meal as you watch—and in many cases participate—Sagano has been transformed into a Bistro & Steakhouse superpower. As the only gig in town, Sagano has developed a very loyal following, has won numerous culinary awards, and has even opened a second location in Brighton.

But wait.

A challenger has emerged recently to give Sagano some direct competition. Ichiban Japanese Bistro & Steakhouse opened earlier this summer on Hill Road between Dort Highway and Interstate 475, and early indications point to a potential Sushi War in the making. Ichiban has created a dining experience that is almost identical to Sagano’s: a full sushi bar on one side and a hibachi dining room on the other.

Can Flint sustain two high-end Japanese Bistros at the same time? Will the new kid on the block make a formidable opponent to the powerhouse and defending champion? Well, we’re going to find out! In a two part report, I plan to review both restaurants, share their strengths and weaknesses, and make some personal recommendations. In the end, I will attempt to determine which Japanese Bistro & Steakhouse reigns supreme.

Ichiban Japanese Bistro & Steakhouse

I took my daughter Alexis to Ichiban earlier this week for dinner because she loves the adventure that comes with eating at a Japanese Steakhouse. This was our fourth visit since Ichiban opened in early June. We’ve tried the sushi side and the hibachi side and loved them both. On this particular day we chose the hibachi grill side. You can still order sushi here and you get all the drama of the dinner show while you wait for your food.

The entire staff of Ichiban, including the chefs, the wait staff, and the manager, is pleasant, helpful, professional, and just plain nice. They treated us like they were genuinely glad we’d come, and they made a special effort to make sure Alexis was involved in the dining experience.

We started our meal with a couple of sushi rolls and some complimentary miso soup, a mixture of broth and bean curd with a few thinly sliced mushrooms. The sushi choices at Ichiban are immense and, if you don’t know your way around a sushi menu, a bit intimidating. No problem. If you come to Ichiban for the sushi, and you definitely should, just ask your server for help or even for recommendations. We chose a simple spicy salmon roll, which is finely chopped fish in a delicately spicy sauce, wrapped in pieces of nori (or sea weed paper). We also chose a couple of pieces of sushi, which were fresh, sweet, and of very high quality.

The sushi choices range from four dollar vegetarian rolls to ten and eleven dollar specialty rolls. Order on the light side if you plan to have other courses, especially if you’re eating on the grill side. You can find the entire sushi menu online at including photographs of the beautiful presentation of their plates.

The hibachi grill concept is straightforward and simple. You simply choose which meat or vegetable entrée you’d like, then sit back and enjoy the show. Choices include chicken, steak, a variety of sea foods and shellfish, or any number of combinations. I recommend the combination plates because you can try multiple dishes in one sitting. Prices range from about fifteen dollars for the vegetable and chicken dishes to the upper twenties for the steak and seafood combinations. They do have a kid’s portion for about eight bucks, which is quite reasonable. We ordered the steak and chicken combo and the swordfish plate.

The show begins when the chef comes out with a cartful of food and equipment. We’re all seated around a six foot by three foot grill and the chef is positioned behind the grill, tools in hand. For his introduction, he pours a generous amount of oil on the hot grill and lights it on fire. The effect is dramatic and a bit shocking, but everyone applauds with delight.

From there, the chef pieces the dinner together one item at a time, all the while engaging in culinary acrobatics, like juggling eggs on a spatula, tossing pieces of food at the customers—who willing try to catch the food in their mouths—and making an onion ring volcano that flames and smokes! First, he whips up a batch of fried rice, then some fantastic fried noodles (which you can order as a side dish on the sushi side, and I highly recommend it), the meat, and finally, a delicious assortment of fried vegetables. Even those with big appetites will probably take some of their meal home in a box. The portions are generous.

The food at Ichiban is always fresh and delicious, and the prices reasonable. If that doesn’t win you over, then the hospitality will. The name Ichiban means number one, and the number one goal at Ichiban is to create a memorable and enjoyable dining experience for everyone. This new kid on the block is making a very strong case for dethroning Sagano as the premiere Japanese Bistro in Flint. Find out next time if it can really be done.

© Bob Barnett, 2010