With Antihero opening in Ferndale and Katsu opening Woodbridge within a month of each other late last year, Detroit's interest level in Japanese izakayas seems to be peaking.
But izakayas are nothing new in metro Detroit. Out in the western burbs, where the bulk of southeast Michigan's Japanese immigrant population lives, there are several izakayas that trade in what's often translated as Japanese pub fare. Among them are Kitchen Hanzo, which Metro Times reviewed in 2017, and Fumi, which sits in a small Novi plaza near 10 Mile and Novi roads.
The first thing you'll notice at an izakaya is that what qualifies as "pub fare" in Japan tends to be a lot healthier than what boils in oil before landing on a bartop here in most bars. "I could eat this every day after work and feel good about myself," a co-diner said while dipping cold buckwheat noodles into a mix of fish and soy sauces. At Fumi, there's a lot of mixing and matching of soy, mirin, and ginger. There's plenty of fresh ingredients, and even the deep-fried plates — karaage, tempura, or agedashi — aren't overfried.
The chilled noodles come in what is arguably the best plate we tried at Fumi, the zaru soba. It's a minimal dish of soft, sightly chewy buckwheat noodles served on a bamboo strainer (zaru). The brown speckled noodles are dipped in a dark, thin, slightly sweet mix of fish and soy sauces. There may not be many ingredients, but there's surprising depth.
In the yakisoba, soba noodles are stir fried until they're crunchy with soft interiors. Fumi mixes the noodles with cabbage leaves, white onions, carrots, scallions, green pepper, bean sprouts, bright pink red ginger, and hunks of salty pork that are sauteed in yakisoba sauce, the latter of which is typically made up of some mix of soy sauce, oyster sauce, mirin, worcestershire, and other ingredients.
The sanma shioyaki is a glorious dish of salt-grilled mackerel. The fillet is oily, salty, and crisp-skinned, as good grilled mackerel should be. Mix its flakes with white rice and soy sauce, though fish's flavor is what makes the plate. Its served on a tray alongside a fresh, crunchy cabbage salad in a ginger dressing; potato salad that tastes as "American" as any other potato salad; and miso soup. Also excellent is the oyakodon, a gooey chicken, egg, and rice comfort food that's driven by dashi sauce, an umami-laden base that's composed of bonito, kelp, and sardine.
Japanese fried chicken ranks among the world's leading fried chicken, and karaage is an izakaya staple. Fumi's version is a lightly breaded and tame bird that's likely marinated in some mix of soy, garlic, ginger, and sake.
Moving back to the grill, yakiniku is "barbecue" and Fumi sends out sizzling, thin strips atop a tangle of sauteed-but-still-crunchy green onions, white onions, and pink pickled ginger. It's all soaked in a sweet and salty sauce that's not short on garlic. A couple vegetarian co-diners ordered the yasai itame, a more mellow, crunchy stir fry of bean sprouts, cabbage leaves, shallots, carrots, and onions, flavored by ginger, soy, and garlic.
Among the long list of appetizers are Japanese pickles that are common with any meal, and at Fumi they are wrinkled, crunchy bits of cucumber and radish marinated in soy and with a sweet edge from what's likely mirin. The tofu agedashi is a staple, with cubes of lightly fried, firm tofu dusted with potato starch and then served in a small pool of soy and mirin. Another solid vegetarian option is the tofu salad, with soft cubes of tofu mixed with crunchy cucumber, tomato, and avocado in a light soy-ginger dressing. If you need meat in your starter, Fumi's gyoza is better than most, as is it's light tempura.
At the end of the day, Fumi is a pub, and there's a long selection of saki, bourbon, and Japanese beers. A double layer of bamboo curtains keep out any light, and it's a chill spot with a friendly staff. It's a decidedly plain setting, which stands in contrast to those at Katsu and Antihero, which are more suited for downtown Ferndale and Woodbridge. For some, that just might make Fumi the ultimate izakaya fix.
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