by Elissa Karg
It’s been almost a year since Tot Nguyen opened the Nippon Grille in a storefront on Berkley’s main drag. It’s an unusually homey setting for a Japanese restaurant. The entire Nguyen family dotes on you throughout your meal. We were charmed with our 9-year-old server, Trang Nguyen, who was very professional, even when she had to ask for help reaching the lychee juice from the top shelf of the cooler.
At the sushi bar, chef Tot Nguyen keeps an eye on the kitchen to his left (where his wife cooks) and the dozen or so tables in front of him (son Tot Jr. waits tables). Chef Tot stops his work momentarily as customers leave, thanking them for coming and apologizing for the time it took (which was never a problem). Nguyen is Vietnamese, but he learned the art of Japanese cooking at some of the area’s best Japanese restaurants, including Cherry Blossom in Novi.
Prices at Nippon Grille are a bargain. The $13.50 combination dinner includes a bowl of miso soup, a salad (American-style), a California roll, chicken teriyaki made with breast meat, two tempura shrimp and an assortment of vegetable tempura, rice and dessert. Teriyaki, meaning “luster” and “grilled,” gets most of its flavor from a marinade brushed on the meat as it grills (mirin — a sweet rice wine — provides the luster). More attention to the marinade would make this dish more interesting.
The mako no chi bento is served in a bento box, the elegant Japanese version of a lunch box. Here, the box was more of a tray, lacquered in flaming orange with a black frame. The compartments were filled with a tuna roll, a small piece of salmon teriyaki (better flavor than the chicken version), tempura shrimp, eggplant, yam and bell pepper, plus a bowl of soup, all for $12. There was also a little piece of fried chicken that seemed completely out of place and tasted like it had been cooked several hours earlier.
Also on the menu are a half dozen noodle soups, including thick, long wheat noodles (udon), rice noodles, and egg noodles (ramen). The kamo namban has a tangle of udon at the bottom of the bowl, and ultra-thin slices of duck floating on top — it could have used more vegetables.
Potstickers are pan-fried, plump with pork and minced vegetable stuffing. If you’re a tofu fan, try age tofu (pronounced AH-gey). It’s fried and dipped in a mix of soy sauce and mirin. Even better was niku tataki — very rare, very thin slices of Angus beef served with a dipping sauce of mirin, fish stock, citrus and soy sauce, scattered with scallions sliced unbelievably thin. It’s amazing how such a simple preparation can taste so exotic.
Dessert was bread pudding (one day mango, the other a choice of raisin or blueberry) served with a creamy vanilla sauce, swirled with chocolate. Not Japanese, Tot Nguyen conceded, but customers seem to like it.
Some of our fellow diners were savvy about Japanese cuisine, others were newcomers. One big burly fellow complimented me on my use of chopsticks. He was trying sushi for the second time, and nothing he ate seemed to faze him. Later a father came in with two blond little boys. They sat at the sushi bar and sipped lychee juice and slurped miso soup, while Dad ordered a bowl of edamame, working the soybeans out of the shells and passing them down to his sons. When I remarked on their international taste, Dad said they liked Happy Meals too.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.