This used to be a great place to go to back in the mid 90's. At the time every chef there was highly skilled and fun, or really just a great cook. Fact is, if you had asked me to name my favorite Gurnee area restaurant back those days, I probably would have replied "Ichiban", that's how much I liked it. At the time, it seemed that Ichiban was keeping pace with cross county rival and now undisputed king of Japanese steakhouses in the area; Tsukasa. Clearly today that's not the case.
In a way it’s hard for me to think about Ichiban and end up not end up thinking about Tsukasa’s ascension to the throne. At the onset, they both had medium size restaurants, each with about a dozen cooking tables and good pool of chefs. At the time, the players in the area were Hanakawa, Ichiban, Tsukasa & Ronkbonki. A couple years later, Yuri jumped into the fray, but by that time Tsukasa had already made the big move to its present day mammoth building with over 45 cooking tables, which soon changed the game for all the other Japanese steakhouses in Lake County.
As I reflect on how it all played out, it feels like some sort of kitchen stadium battle went down before our very eyes, but this one was far more strategic, like a classic game of Monopoly. In the early part of the game everyone initially had a few houses on the board with a bunch of miscellaneous properties and plenty of money, the prospects looked great. But somewhere along the line, Tsukasa slipped in a hotel or two, then quickly more showed up. All of a sudden, it was a totally different game, and the rest of the players at the board were left playing survival games, not really in the game playing for the big stakes anymore, for Tsukasa has clearly already won.
In the end I think Ichiban fared about the worse of all the steakhouses from this battle. For whatever reason, the owners choose to let it get very run down, looking like they never painted, re-decorated or even changed out the carpet. In other words, the place just looks dumpy now. Even worse is that they also changed the success formula that was working early on; and started going with skimpy low quality ingredients, and for what you get, Ichiban is frighteningly expensive!
The saddest part for me, is that even now when I walk into Ichiban, I'm fondly remembered by the owners and most of the staff for having been such a regular customer and proponent of the place for so many years. After all, I’ve going there ever since I moved to Lake County in 1996. My last dinner order was politely taken by the same kind waitress that's been taking my order for over 10 years. The chef on this night was some new low key Hispanic chef, not the venerable Nino, who normally is the only non-Asian chef working the Hibachi/Tappan tables.
Unfortunately, my steak was awful; it was tough & chewy, it was remarkably overcooked cut into a small handful of tiny morsels. As I watched the two 1" x 4" strips of select grade sirloin steak meat get put on the grill, I foolishly hoped that they were meant as portions for two, but at a table of seven, they weren't, it was served to four.
Hiding under a 10" steam lid five medium shrimp looked small and lonely, each was buried under a single tablespoon of garlic breadcrumbs peeking out to see if a spatula could coax them onto six plates, they obviously were suffering from an insufficiency complex with good reason.
The small diced chicken portion was fine, as was the less than a full bowl of $3 extra fried rice, but all seemed only mildly sufficient, and could not ever hope to achieve or recreate the greatness of past Ichiban memories across my pallet on this night.
So that’s it Ichiban, that meal marked the end of a good 10+ year run together, but now I've finally reached my limit, and lost my patience with you. You now make me feel that I just can't go back without knowing that in order to dine here, I'm lowering my standards and expectations to do so. So I thank you for all the great memories, but last week was indeed my last visit. I hope you can turn it around someday so that maybe I might return, in the meantime, best wishes.