Biwako Comes to Ann Arbor
Tasting each grain
by Sally Mitani
Andy Kwon is from a restaurant family. His parents owned several restaurants in Korea, including a traditional, high-priced sushi restaurant near Jeonju (Jeonju is the food destination city of South Korea that invented bibimbap). Closer to home, his uncle owns Bell's Diner.
While he learned a lot of sushi-craft in Korea, Kwon learned his most productive lessons working in an Ann Arbor Japanese restaurant: "Five sushi chefs would get together every Sunday and cook for each other. I was always trying to imitate the chef from Chicago whose sushi was prettier, neater than anyone else's." Then he learned that the beautiful-sushi-maker from Chicago was not the star chef.
"He had come to Ann Arbor to learn from another one of the sushi chefs--one whose sushi didn't look so good. This didn't make any sense to me. But as I continued to eat the sushi of all these chefs, I saw for myself that the sushi that tasted best was always from this chef whose sushi was not the best looking. Why?"
Kwon explains his own riddle: "Sushi is about the rice. You must be able to taste every grain." Kwon often answers questions by telling a brief story, making him sound like a Zen master (or at least an outtake from a Bruce Lee movie). But the thirty-eight-year-old Kwon claims he's not a Buddhist, a scholar, or a philosopher, just a guy who knows a thing or two about sushi. Anyone, he says, can smash together a pillow of rice and lay a slice of fish on it, but the fish isn't much of a mystery. "You pay twenty bucks more, you get better fish," he shrugs--that part of the equation has nothing to do with the chef. The quest of the sushi chef is to make rice hold together while applying minimal pressure to it.
Kwon came to the U.S. to go to college, earning his B.A. and master's at EMU, all the while working part-time in restaurants. After
working in IT for several years he discovered his heart was still in restaurants, so in 2006 he opened Biwako (named after a lake in Japan) in Saline. The second Biwako opened on S. Main in mid-August, a few weeks after his wife, Yunchong Hwang, gave birth to their third child.
Kwon remodeled the space, formerly a Quizno's, with his own hands, even laying the parquet floor himself. For a shopping mall restaurant (it's in Woodland Plaza, around the corner from Busch's) whose main competition is franchise pizza and bagels, it's surprisingly elegant: black-lacquered tables, silvery wallpaper and split bamboo stalks adorning the walls, and soothing indirect lighting. The soup bowls and sushi plates are a particularly meaningful touch for Kwon: he bought them from his friend Tamiko Cowen, owner of Ann Arbor's first Japanese restaurant, Tamiko's. "I thought it was a good idea, a good combination of the old spirit and the new spirit."
Kwon has a sentimental side, but he's also a modern realist with a sense of humor. His restaurant is a casual, inexpensive one (this is not one of those places where you spend the extra twenty bucks for fish) and, in addition to traditional pristine sushi and sashimi, he serves sushi the way Americans like it, as playful, creative finger food. He tells his chefs: "Open your mind. Forget about the traditions. Make anything that people like." This has led to Biwako's "crunch and munch roll" (sprinkled with crumbs of tempura), the beautiful "ruby roll" (topped with thin slices of strawberry), the punning "Marilyn Monroe" (named for its salmon roe), and the "dirty old man roll" (not clear how the name relates to the ingredients of salmon, spicy crab, avocado, and cream cheese).
And Kwon's deep respect for ancient sushi methodology isn't ethnocentric. "Right now I'm training three Americans to be sushi chefs. Most of our customers are American. Why not train Americans? A chef's a chef."
Biwako, 2275 South Main, 761-8353. Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. noon-9 p.m.
[Originally published in October, 2010.]