There was a time, my children, when people thought of sushi as the austere choice. Rather than chowing down on porterhouse and baked potato slathered with sour cream, you would forswear gluttony for a night, pick daintily at raw fish and rice, sip tea, maybe even sit on the floor. The delicacy and grace of a Japanese painting would inform your experience. The food was probably delicious, but restraint was part of its charm.
No more. Maru Sushi, opened downtown last month, attempts to wow the diner with every roll, and succeeds. Portions are large, and ingredients like bacon, guacamole, and deep-fried sweet potato shout "go for it!"
Detroit's is the fifth Maru in Michigan by owner Robert Song and executive chef Moon Yang, who began their empire in Okemos in 2009. Occupying the ground floor of the Federal Reserve Building with its floor-to-ceiling glass on Fort Street, it's spacious and airy and already filling up on weekend nights. Decor featuring abstract splashes of paint high above the dining room signal that this is not your grandmother's intimate teahouse.
Of course, most of our grandmothers didn't eat sushi. We had to learn to love eel sauce and tobiko on our own.
Although the menu at Maru appears written for the experienced, with Japanese terms not explained, the restaurant is clearly focused on creating an approachable experience even for those few remaining Midwesterners not yet clued in to sushi's allure. If they must, they can resort to a few Western dishes like potato with sour cream and cheese, or a $36 ribeye (hold the miso butter).
It's hard to pick a favorite roll among Maru's three dozen choices, and then there are the grilled items, nigiri and sashimi, plus soups, salads, and generous "sharing plates" that borrow from China, Korea, and Mexico as well as Japan.
We started one night with a deconstructed ceviche, brilliant with cubes of ruby-red tuna arrayed alongside avocado and tomato, and dressed with lime, cilantro, red onion — all sounding at home on a Baja beach thus far — plus masago (the electric-orange roe of smelt).
Another night we went Korean with excellent, garlicky bulgogi beef, heavy on umami, what with the crisp shiitakes. A "land and sea tempura" was vegetables and shrimp with a batter so light it lost some of its needed flavor.
One of Maru's biggest sellers, for good reason, is a "sexy bacon" roll, the bacon cooled down with cucumber and asparagus and served with two eel sauces and a creamy garlic, and a tangle of black seaweed threads. I liked even better "soy joy," two tunas with three sauces and delicate curls of scallions, each slice a composition topped with crunchy tempura. Have I made clear Maru's "more is more" aesthetic?
"Jaws" pulls out all the stops with a yellowtail or salmon kama, the collar of the fish behind the head. Two big, delectable pieces are panko-fried and served with both a sushi roll and a giant chef's salad with peanuty dressing.
A more picante choice is "yellow fever," which incorporates spicy tuna and serrano peppers. "Rio grande" is one of six vegetarian rolls — no fish — and, as the name suggests, is topped with guacamole and pico de gallo. The slices are presented upright, like red and green wagon wheels with fins of avocado thrusting upward.
Also vegetarian is pungent "mountain veggie udon soup," which plops grilled inari into a clear broth (inari is sushi rice inside a skin of fried tofu). Another excuse both to slurp udon (how is it they seem more slippery than other noodles?) and to satisfy your fried-food jones is "tempura udon soup," with shrimp and seaweed.
When I lived briefly in the Bay Area, a guilty pleasure was bacon fried rice from a downscale Chinese hole-in-the-wall. On my first visit to Maru, the chef offered a sample. This is the uptown version, glistening with beloved bacon fat, lovely with corn kernels and bright green edamame.
Maru pays attention to its drinks menu, with, of course, sake and plenty of Japanese, American, and Scotch whiskeys (much beloved of Japanese businessmen). From the wine column, Bacio di Fiori (kiss of flowers) from Italy was delicious but too sweet to drink with sushi. A white blend our server said was created for the restaurant was very ordinary. Best bet is cava, a lightly sparkling Spanish white wine, with just the right fizz. It's also the cheapest wine at $10.
For afterward, chestnut tea is just as mellow, and just as beautiful a chestnut brown, as the nut itself. The dessert list includes both traditional Western extravagances like dark chocolate truffle and a Japanese-American fusion: mochi, a layer of pounded sticky rice cake, formed around a scoop of ice cream. We tried a different fusion: matcha (powdered green tea) crème brulee. The French aspect was as perfectly silky-crunchy as it's supposed to be, and the matcha flavor was delicate enough to make dessert possible after a gargantuan meal.