Christian Geideman, owner-chef of Ippuku in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Nicki Rosario

He’s run a pizza joint in Montana and a Japanese restaurant in New Mexico, but Berkeley-bred Christian Geideman has perhaps earned the highest marks for coming home and opening a stylish izakaya restaurant, Ippuku, in downtown Berkeley.

Izakaya is Japan’s answer to the tapas bar or gastropub: a casual joint to go after work for strong drinks, small plates, and a chance to unwind with friends.

Ippuku opened two years ago on a strip that typically serves the student set and it’s been widely praised since then. The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Michael Bauer heaped compliments on the place. Alice Waters is a regular and calls Ippuku one of her favorite spots to dine in town. And local chefs laud the restaurant for its drink list, including shochu (a distilled spirit typically made from barley, sweet potato, rice or black sugar) and craft beers on tap, as well as its authentic, Japanese fare. The restaurant showcases yakitori, or grilled skewers of just about any cut of meat from chicken, including neck, heart, liver, knee cartilage, shoulder blade, tail, gizzards, and skin.

Clearly, Geideman takes the trend of whole-beast cooking to heart. The dish that’s garnered most attention on the menu is chicken tartare. That’s raw chicken, topped with daikon sprouts, Korean chili paste, and a raw egg to the uninitiated — what Bauer described as “a double dose of culinary danger.”

Inside Ippuku the ambiance exudes a Japanese ambiance. Photo: Nicki Rosario

At dinner, the restaurant also features beef tongue, sea urchin, and avocado sashimi. Recently, Ippuku began serving lunch: hot and cold handmade soba noodle dishes, as well as tempura, agedashi tofu (deep-fried tofu in a broth), and sunomono (a vinegared vegetable side dish).

Geideman, who has done stints behind the stoves at izakaya restaurants in Japan, has created an elegant eatery with a Japanese ambiance: think bamboo screens, fabric panels, low tables, cushioned seating, a place to park your shoes, private booths, wood panels, and a dimly lit interior.

The 43-year-old attended Berkeley High and worked his way up from bus boy at a variety of local restaurants in town, most long since gone. He lives with his wife, Erinn Geideman, the restaurant’s general manager, and their three kids in North Berkeley.

What brought you back to Berkeley?

I came back for a concert at the Greek in 2007 — I hadn’t been here in 13 years — and I realized then that I’d really like to move back. I wanted to bring the concept of izakaya to a market that would really appreciate it and where I could grow the business. I’d been in Santa Fe for seven years and we did fairly well there, given the demographics. I did learn to cook Japanese food for non-Japanese people there, that was valuable.

What does the word Ippuku mean?

It means a short rest or little break. I wanted it to be a place where people could come and chill out. In Japan, where almost everyone smokes, the word also means taking five minutes to have a cigarette. I thought it was appropriate for a yakitori restaurant, since it’s smoky in here. It’s a little play on that.

Soba noodles star at lunch at Ippuku. Photo: Nicki Rosario

Where does your interest in Japanese food originate?

I started cooking the cuisine before I ever went to Japan. Pan-Asian food was popular in the 90s, restaurant chefs tried to take the entire continent and put it on a plate. That sparked my interest in the region and I made the jump to Japanese food exclusively. Once I got over there I realized that Japanese food is so specialized you really have to just pick one type and explore that. One person there spends their whole life mastering sushi or soba or yakitori.

Do you get challenged as a chef of European heritage cooking Japanese cuisine?

It’s funny because nobody would ever ask me that question if I was making Italian or French food — and I know nothing about those cultures. I know nothing about German food, either, and my ancestry is German. For me to open a restaurant serving any of those cuisines is about as far fetched as it is for me to open a Japanese restaurant.

When we first opened people would come in the back and stare at me or sit at the counter and check out what I was doing. I could tell they were trying to see what my credentials were, but that didn’t last very long. People come for the food. I went through that same stage in Santa Fe, so I was expecting it. I don’t think that sort of criticism is justified if you’re making food with integrity. I respect the cuisine and culture a lot and there’s nothing on this menu I’ve invented. It’s all food I learned in Japan. I’m not trying to do fusion food with a California twist.

In the kitchen at Ippuku. Photo: Nicki Rosario

What are the most popular items on the menu?

Bacon mochi, ramen, and gyoza — almost everybody orders those three things.

Do you have any advice for izakaya novices coming to Ippuku for the first time?

Just be open, have fun, and be adventurous. Let got a little bit. You don’t have to understand everything on the menu within the first ten minutes. Just come here and let it unfold.

Can you give us some background on that chicken tartare?

It’s not for everyone and we certainly don’t push it. We offer it to people who want it. It’s for the eater who wants to experience foods they’re not used to. Certainly a lot of Japanese people are familiar with it, since raw and rare cooked foods are typical there. For the uninitiated, our staff know how to explain the dish so people understand what they’re ordering.

Do you cook at home?

I work, my wife works, so we do a lot of takeout. We go to Cheeseboard Pizza because I can feed the whole family for $20. The kids love Vik’s, there’s so much choice and a lot of unusual dishes. If Erinn and I want a break we’ll go to César’s, because it’s close to our house and they serve good drinks along with good food.

What kind of food did you eat growing up?

My mom was a good cook — not fancy food — just down-home comfort food. But after my parents divorced, I lived with my dad and he was a terrible cook. There was a lot of burnt toast, boiled potatoes, and PB&Js. He also took us to places like Chez Panisse. I think I found work in the food industry at a fairly young age just so I could eat better.

The details: Ippuku 2130 Center Street (cross is Shattuck Avenue). Lunch 11:00 am -2:00 pm; Dinner: 5:00-10:00, Sun-Thurs; 5:00-11:00, Fri-Sat. Tel: 665-1969

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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