No matter how multicultural our dining-out habits have become, the old marker of how to trust a non-American restaurant still stands: We want to know whether Indian people go to the Indian restaurant, whether those who choose to eat at Pablo's are from Pablo's home country.
More than 13,000 Japanese nationals live in Michigan, a majority connected to the auto industry, and they gotta eat somewhere. When a friend reported a long line of Japanese people waiting outside Ajishin in Novi, I felt confident about getting the real deal. When I went on Mother's Day, families took up the tables. The man next to me in line — it appears there's always a line — was wearing a Toyota shirt. He affirmed that Ajishin ("flavor from the heart") is one of the authentic Japanese restaurants in the area.
The place is also remarkably affordable. This same gentlemen said he'd remarked to an Ajishin employee that the flavors were always the same. The reply: Our prices have been the same, too, for 10 years.
The place is small and basic, with backless chairs and the usual weak green tea brought in a plastic tumbler. You can get water, but you have to ask. Small prints on the walls are the only décor; they're for sale. A few choice seats at the sushi bar give you a view of the chefs' work, but if you sit on the wrong side, your view is blocked by stacks of kitchenware.
The menu is divided into sushi, nigiri, and sashimi; hot and cold noodle dishes; and kyo-chirashi, which is Kyoto-style sashimi over rice (the owner learned cooking in Kyoto). The latter two categories are brightly pictured, so the Amerika-jin clients (of which there are plenty) don't have to fly blind. Bilingual servers are patient too.
Hot bowls of udon or soba ($5-$7.50) are perhaps not quite meal-size. Each is fish broth with seaweed, green onions, and "imitated crab made out of fish meat," and you choose which other main ingredient you want: poached or scrambled egg, mountain plants, fried tofu, or shrimp.
I liked the duck and spinach option, which I ordered with soba (gray buckwheat noodles), but I adored the Ajishin, which piles on chewy shrimp tempura, tempura-fried vegetables, fried tofu, and slices of hard-boiled egg. You won't get me to say anything good about limp, soaked fried tofu — kind of like you'd dropped a piece of toast in your soup — but overall the flavors were magical: a fatty, glistening broth with the long, thick, round ropes of udon imparting a mouth feels like no other. I wish I'd measured their length before slurping them all up. Although in general I prefer pasta with some flavor (like buckwheat), I will always make an exception for udon.
Equally delicious was tetsugaku ("philosophy"), a thicker soup — the menu forthrightly proclaims "cornstarch" as an ingredient. It uses curry and manages to taste both Indian and Japanese at once.
A fun way to order kyo-chirashi is to get the $15 sampler, gojyu-no-toh (five-story pagoda). It's a tower of five small brick-colored bowls, each containing a different bite of raw seafood over sticky rice and bright shreds of vegetables. Pink-red tuna, mellow river eel, shrimp, sea urchin, and salmon roe are the toppings.
Sea urchin is actually the creature's gonads, and can be a great delicacy. But the mavens' websites warn that it's either terrific — the foie gras of the sea — or terrible if you get a sub-par piece. I'd think twice or thrice before ordering it again. Perhaps at a place closer to the sea.
The sushi-nigiri-sashimi list is not as long as some. It includes both river and sea eel, a big recommendation in my book, along with the usual tuna, salmon, and mackerel.
We liked the crunchy soft-shell crab roll and the spicy California, as well as the natto, which we ordered because we didn't know what it was. It's fermented soybeans and works just fine. Other vegetable rolls are gourd, plum and cucumber, and burdock — a prickly plant you may know as the inspiration for Velcro.
A frequent visitor seated next to me said a good bet at Ajishin is the grilled catch of the day, particularly cod, salmon, or hamachi kama, the "collar" of the yellowtail just behind the head. When they have it, it sells out quickly.
Ajishin serves no alcohol and takes no reservations, so you will likely have to wait. Use the opportunity to strike up a conversation with a steady customer and find out why Ajishin is in its 20th year.