by Todd Abrams
It's generally understood that the ethnic restaurants where patrons are predominately of the region where the food originated serve the most authentic cuisine. This truism is borne out at Ajishin Sushi & Noodle. Walk in at any given meal to witness folks slurping up delicious hot udon noodles and high quality nigiri while the prevailing language across the table is Japanese.
Tucked away off Grand River in one of Novi's countless unremarkable strip malls, Ajishin literally packs them in to their small but comfortable seating area consisting of about a dozen tabletops and an L-shaped bar behind which chefs cut and roll and pat rice into small, football-shaped bites. There are bamboo screens on the windows. The walls are painted a textured gray with flecks of pink. Weathered-looking wood divides some of the main seating, and a narrow column of fieldstones support the middle of the room. There are cats everywhere.
Not real cats but ceramic cats, silken cats, cats prancing around on cat tapestries. Hanging on the walls are portraits of cats wearing kimono robes and, of course, Hello Kitty makes her appearance in a few places around the room. This is not to say the decorations give the vibe of a vulgar Japanese cat curio shop; the lines and colors of everything besides the cats are rather simple and cozy.
This simplicity persists onto the menu, beginning with drinks. You won't even need to decide your beverage. Everyone that sits down receives a soothing mug of hot, grassy green tea, gratis. But you can choose among about 20 different nigiri, priced between $1.50 and $3 apiece, and about 20 rolls at $2.50 to $6. Missing are the fantastic and pricey specialty rolls you find at so many of the hip sushi lounges catering more to a Western palate. The nigiri are well-constructed, with mildly sweet rice, excellent seafood and wasabi paste already incorporated into the bite. You can give most of the selections a brief dip into soy, but they don't necessarily require it.
There are a couple $15 and $20 assorted sushi plate deals on the menu, as well as a special blend of sushi rice with baby sardines, mushroom, sliced egg and peapod called kyo-chirashi that you can order with toppings such as shrimp, eel, crab and sea urchin. With a texture of whipped gelatin and the flavor of licking the bottom of a tide pool, sea urchin is definitely one of those acquired tastes. There's also a $12 entrée of simply prepared, grilled fish (cod, salmon or tuna on the night we ordered it). The fish comes with rice on the side and a bowl of plain udon soup.
Soup lovers, rejoice! Ajishin's udon soup is extraordinary. The base broth is developed from seaweed and fish and has so much umami flavor going on it's like a black hole for hangovers. The namesake of the soup, the udon noodle, is a thick, wheat-based noodle, and along with a bit of briny seaweed, imitation crab and green onion, makes up the basic, or plain, $5 soup.
From this point, there are all sorts of add-ons. For instance, a poached egg costs another 50 cents and adds a little bit of luscious fat. Other choices are scrambled eggs, boiled and flavored mountain plants, tofu, pork, duck and shrimp. You can also order with a mixture of ginger or curry and corn starch for a thicker broth. The special Ajishin udon comes with sweet fried tofu, hard-boiled egg and shrimp and vegetable tempura. It's a satisfying mix of textures and flavors. Though it seems strange to dunk delicate tempura into hot broth, the tempura coating merely soaks up the liquid and acts as a kind of dumpling with a surprise center.
For a zestier soup, try a few shakes of a savory seven-spice blend called shichimi. All of the soups can be made with the more delicate and nutty buckwheat soba noodle instead of udon. But there are a few cold noodle dishes where the flavor of soba is better illustrated. One of them, arashi, combines soba, grated yam, seaweed and green onion in a tangy dressing for a deep, almost smoky noodle salad.
Ajishin Sushi & Noodle is no secret. During peak hours and especially on the weekends you'll have to put yourself on a seating queue for a table. But as all the regulars will attest, it's well worth the wait. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Monday; closed Tuesdays.
Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.