by Todd Abrams
In recent years, hipster mecca Ferndale has blossomed into one of metro Detroit's top dining destinations. Dense with restaurants along both Nine Mile Road and Woodward Avenue, there's abundant choice from coneys to crêperies. Not many cities this small boast a quality sushi eatery such as Nami. The most recent entry is the upscale Sakana Sushi Lounge. Sakana aims to smooth the erratic pace of living through stylish drinks, lush electro-acoustic lounge beats and raw fish artfully prepared.
The dining room is wide-open and sparely furnished with muted browns, blacks and grays under modest lighting. The north brick wall is lined with high-backed booths. A few tall tables look out onto Woodward and seating along the bar offers views of the sushi chefs or bartenders. A couple of low sofas sit snug near the turntables where DJs spin deep house and electronica three nights a week. The dinner crowd is respected with mellower tunes but the pace quickens as the night unfolds.
Start with one of the assortment of cocktails benefiting from a mild, quietly nutty base of sake. In the interest of thorough reporting, we hit this portion of the drinks list hard, opening with a brackish mixture of sake, vodka and olive juice for a dirty saketini then moving to a slightly sweeter and lemony sumotini and ending with a fruity mango number. There's a variety of sake available, including reasonably priced 750-milliliter bottles of Momokawa, brewed in Oregon.
Some prefer to delight in the subtleties of sake by sipping it unencumbered by food and are more inclined to drink a fullish white wine such as Riesling or sauvignon blanc with their fish. Sakana's wine list has a few of these and about a dozen more of the standard varietals mostly priced at less than $30 a bottle. They didn't forget about beer. The red-rice and white ales from Japanese microbrewery Hitacho Nest are most remarkable. Sakana presents an expected "martini" menu not significantly different than any other fashionable lounge, although there are a few specialty drinks, like resident mixologist Brent Foster's lychee iced tea.
A meal might start with a $4.50 salad of seaweed tossed in rice-wine vinegar and sesame oil, cleverly presented in a chic cocktail glass. It tastes just as good as it looks. The emerald threads of seaweed have a certain unique texture — a snap — vaguely suggestive of pasta cooked al dente. A half dozen other salads fill out the top of the menu. Appetizers run between $4 and $8. Opt for an assortment of tempura vegetables and seafood, or keep it simple with a bowl of edamame.
Several lunch and dinner specials consisting of varied mixtures of nigiri sushi, sashimi and hand rolls are available and make sense for the uninitiated who might want the chef to make most of their decisions. The majority of folks will create their own plates from the broad menu. Nigiri sushi ($4-$7) is ordinarily raw fish on a hand-formed bundle of rice and comes two pieces per order. The oily hunks of mackerel (saba) nigiri are briny and flavored with the secrets of the sea. The fresh water eel (unagi) is appropriately flaky, tender and sweet. The egg (tamago) is rich and fluffy and the salmon roe (ikura) wrapped in toasted nori seaweed burst with salt and the essence of salmon itself. No complaints were heard about the nigiri, indeed, nothing was heard but chewing and swallowing and soft beats oozing from the sound system.
Looking for a maki roll? Sakana constructs around 50 of them, ranging from the simple vegetable roll to specialty maki topped with curious fruits and glazes. The meaty and fresh Woodward is filled with tuna, salmon, yellowtail and cucumber. Indulge in a cucumber, avocado and cream cheese Frosty maki coated with eel, mango and coconut flakes — a superb blend of flavors even though somewhat burdened by the thick vein of cream cheese coursing through the center.
Carbohydrate-conscious diners will want the option of brown rice or one of six riceless maki. Three are wrapped in thinly sliced daikon radish and three are wrapped in cucumber and come garnished with a spicy sauce that blazes in the mouth rather than wilting the head like wasabi. Or forget carb counting and cool off with green tea, coffee, mango, red bean or strawberry ice cream wrapped in chewy mochi or the self-indulgent tempura-fried ice cream.
Owner Kon Kim and his twentysomething son, Gregory, had this idea of a posh lounge attracting health-conscious and trendy young professionals to gather and drink while snacking on the freshest possible seafood in a smoke-free environment. They had planned on being a bar first and didn't expect the food to take off like it did. But they have no complaints. They have adjusted and are doing well. In this city already teeming with so many excellent bars and restaurants, Sakana fits right in.
Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.