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It's not often that I'm surprised by a restaurant. But it happened at Ikigai, a novel concept that debuted in a well-known space late last year.

I knew the space first as home to Mikado, and then later as Naked Fish, so I (wrongly) assumed there would be sushi, sashimi, tempura, etc. But the menu at Ikigai is a radical departure from those earlier inhabitants. It's still based on flavors and foods used in Japanese cooking, but with some Italian and French influences, and in a form that Americans have come to love: snacks and tapas.

There are a couple of "large format" dishes that serve as traditional entrées. But the bulk of the food is presented in small, shareable plates that are imaginative in design and so packed with flavor that a good taste is all you need. Plus, the visual presentation is impressive.

Chef David Hopps, who worked busing tables at Naked Fish before spending time in the kitchen at the Michelin-starred Saison in San Francisco, is adept at taking a simple food like brussels sprouts ($10) and making a masterpiece. The sprouts are roasted to golden sweetness, then bathed in a broth that marries the flavors of dashi (a soup stock made with dried tuna flakes) with the richness of rendered beef fat. A strip of roasted kale placed atop the sprouts makes a visual statement, but demands to be part of the experience. It means taking time to cut it into bites so everyone gets a taste.

That slows the meal and makes it inclusive, which is what sharing is all about.

Ikigai's well-trained staff (who know every element of every dish) are passionate about the restaurant's mission (the name translates as "a reason for being") and even helped remodel the space. On one side of the restaurant are a series of built-in wooden tables set slightly above the floor with space for (shoeless) feet below. This traditional Japanese seating requires a certain amount of core strength as there is no back support.

If you prefer tables and chairs, a large room on the west side has plentiful banquette seating covered with a fleecy blanket, as well as a few tables and chairs. A counter fronted by stools faces an exposed brick wall, which highlights the austerity of the room's design. There's nothing hanging on any of the walls — the better to focus diners' attention on the food and each other.

And that is Hopps' own ikigai, to make you concentrate on that morsel of pork belly ($12), which comes from the famed Iberico ham-producing region of Spain and is absolute perfection in its ratio of fat and meat. A slightly sweet, miso-infused sauce accentuates the smokiness of the pork and is yin to the yang of chopped, pickled red radish. A crowning tangle of green onion ribbons serves as a visual and flavorful finish. It's quite possibly the best pork belly I've eaten.

That's not a traditional Japanese dish, but neither is carbonara ($15). Yet, here is that most Italian of dishes, made with ramen noodles cooked just to the tooth, and coated with a miso-infused egg sauce, marrying the best of both cultures. A subtle layer of flavor comes from fermented, smoked tuna that can be tasted but not seen and, again, there's the finishing touch of a locally grown green called baby shiso, which adds some needed color.

Hopps' menu will change often (it's actually printed daily) depending on what's in season, so you may regrettably miss the sunchokes ($16), a tuber that is actually a variety of sunflower and is also known as a Jerusalem artichoke. At Ikigai, the chokes were marinated in a slightly sweet soy sauce and served with big chunks of lobster, asparagus poached in chicken broth and an herb-infused crème fraîche that was the very color of spring. Transforming a tuber into that was some kind of alchemy, indeed.

Here was another hit, more in the nature of a traditional Japanese dish: sliced rare wagyu beef ($27) perched atop a glistening pool of sukiyaki broth studded with meaty maitake mushrooms and two cubes of silken tofu. The prize in the bowl was a poached egg into which we were instructed to dip that flavorful, perfectly cooked meat (whose lineage was documented by a certificate, shown to us by our server, which bore the cow's individual nose print). It was the best kind of comfort food for a rain-drenched night, and would make a nice-sized entrée if you really couldn't bear to share.

There were a couple of dishes that didn't make my must-have list, for purely personal reasons. I didn't love the burnt garlic aioli served with the calamari ($5), which came as large pieces of tender fish, with a light but crunchy breading. I guess I'm just a purist when it comes to aioli, although I was in the minority in my dinner party on that.

I was glad I tried the softshell crab buns ($21 for 3). But the flavors, which include house pickles, cabbage and a curry dressing, just didn't ring my taste buds' bell like many of the other dishes. It does get my vote for the most impressive-looking dish, however: a whole crab, shell and all, inside the maw of a white fluffy bun, arranged to look as if it were at rest and daring you to take a bite.

Mussels ($17) would certainly be on the do-again list, and not just because of the succulent sake broth that tempted us to drink from the bowl.

Oh, and if you've never eaten a fish head, try it here. There was snapper and trevally; we opted for the latter ($15), and while some people may be squeamish about tucking into what looks like a pile of bones with eyes, the meat on those bones is sweet and unbelievably tender. It came with a ponzu dipping sauce that only amplified the flavor of the fish.

I'm curious about the celeriac ($12), partly because it comes with a "puffed tendon," which is actually a cow tendon that, when fried, puffs up like a pork rind. Next time.

While there's no sushi on this menu, there's a short selection of sashimi, from red snapper ($12) to oysters ($10). We tried the trevally jack, which came as five thin slices of fish, covered with a razor-thin layer of pickled kelp, and tasting as if it were plucked from the sea just before dinner.

If larger, rather than smaller, plates is your thing, there are several options that will feed two or more people. Wait staff sang the praises of the grilled duck ($48), aged in house for a couple of weeks, and served with mushroom rice and a root vegetable salad. There's also a grilled elk, with herb salad ($35), and a whole grilled mackerel ($26).

Ikigai has a full bar, with a limited menu of specialty cocktails ($10-$12), a half-dozen sake options and a like number of domestic wines by the glass. All but one of the eight beers are imported from Japan.

Whatever you eat, save room for dessert, for they are as pretty and interesting as the rest of the menu, and made by Hopps' wife, pastry chef Elyse Osguthorpe. A deconstructed cheesecake ($9) is flavored with miso and interspersed with squares of meringue and crème fraîche. Tiny slices of candied kumquat are spots of color in the pistachio meringue ($9), which is filled with nut custard and paired with a dark chocolate sorbet. A mille feuille ($9) seems like a traditional French pastry until you get to the tahini ice cream.

Despite a miscommunication that led to a service lag on my first visit, I'd give the service at Ikigai high marks. The wait staff are universally knowledgeable, enthusiastic and accommodating. And the food comes out of the kitchen in good time, even if you order in fits and starts, as often happens with small plates.

Rebranding isn't the easiest thing in the restaurant business, especially in a space that's long been associated with a certain type of cuisine. But Ikigai is on a mission. And you can count me among the converts. —



Food • HHHhj

Mood • HHH

Service • HHHhj

Noise • bb

Who knew Salt Lake City needed a Japanese pub? Ikigai, housed in the space once occupied by Mikado and Naked Fish, debuted in December with a menu of bar snacks, small plates and entrées that can feed two or more. The food is inventive and artfully presented, blending influences from a number of cultures. Pork belly, carbonara and a wagyu beef dish reminiscent of sukiyaki are standouts. But save room for the creative desserts.

Location • 67 W. 100 South, Salt Lake City; 801-595-8888

Online • www.ikigaislc

Hours • Lunch, Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday and Wednesday, 5-9 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.

Children's menu • No

Prices • $$-$$$$

Liquor • Full service

Reservations • Yes

Takeout • Yes

Wheelchair access • Yes

Outdoor dining • No

On-site parking • No

Credit cards • Yes