New and fresh
by M.B. Lewis
It wasn't until a third visit to Tomukun, the new noodle bar on Liberty, that I appreciated the brilliance bouncing around this dark-wooded den of refreshed Asian standards. Contrasting impressions had been amassing up to that point. A breakthrough came when a friend and Tomukun fan suggested a lunch of Vietnamese pho.
Tomukun's pho is noodles and beef broth accompanied by a small platter of cool, crisp mix-ins. I was instructed to float a jalapeno slice in the bowl before sprinkling on sprouts, squeezed lime, and crushed mint and basil. Something magic evolved, a warm richness greater than the parts of the dish. I inhaled the spicy vapors and slurped slowly with the oversize white porcelain spoon. It was soon apparent I was enjoying a soup for all seasons that had moved beyond its ethnic provenance.
That weekend in August, the New York Times Magazine was obsessing about failure-to-launch among twenty-somethings. Meanwhile, I was marveling at deceptively simple fare in a restaurant brought to new life by twenty-seven-year-old Thomas Yon and his partners at Tomukun (the name's a friendly play on the young restaurateur's name). "The comfort foods we loved as kids and still love today," the menu promises. And that's what the young Asian male chefs in the shining stainless steel cooking area prepare. It's what the waitresses in black hot pants shorter than their aprons and black Tomukun T-shirts efficiently and cheerfully serve.
Yet Tomukun can be off-putting at first, especially for those of us of a certain age (over twenty-nine). Literally and figuratively, town meets gown on its block, in the shadow of the Michigan Theater marquee. Several people told me they went once to Tomukun and weren't eager to return.
Without sounding like an appointed defender, I want to explain why there might be more going on at Tomukun than initially meets the eye (and ears and taste buds). Here are some of the issues you may encounter:
The menu is hard to read. Yes, the type
is small, and capitalization stylishly scarce (shall we blame iApple?). A waitress explained that the small words under each entree are ingredients, not options for preparation. "Everyone gets confused about that," she said. Thus, curry udon comes with steak, shrimp, and sauteed vegetables, not your choice among them. We were, however, able to customize a few dishes. Because cuisine here hails from Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, some words could be unfamiliar. But we got satisfactory answers to questions and had less trouble with the menu on each subsequent visit; maybe the fall version of the summer menu we ordered from will correct some of these difficulties. (For the record, "pork belly" is a less processed version of bacon; it's still a guilty pleasure in pork buns and some ramen creations.)
Vegetarians don't have a lot choices, and what about MSG? Only four of the twenty entrees are marked with the little green diamond indicating "vegetarian upon request." But two of the five appetizers are vegetarian as well. (Those who don't eat pork will miss out on the quartet of crispy pan-fried dumplings, a deal at $3.) Vegans may be pleased that dairy is hardly in the house. As for MSG, it is in some of the house-made broths, apparently to varying degrees. Ask for more info if it's important to you.
Do restaurants really need big television screens and pulsing soundtracks? Do we really need to live in the twenty-first century? Seriously, the sound is off on the one TV over the bar at Tomukun (which didn't keep several chefs from clustering around a beaming-green golf tournament one Saturday evening). Half the chairs face away from the TV. The pop music thumps, but echoing conversations in the often-crowded eatery nearly drown it out. With big quasi-abstract photos of the restaurant under construction on the walls, Tomukun's bold atmosphere may not suit some folks. But it's in keeping with the edgy concept of a place that has "beer can chicken" ramen on the menu.
The curry sauce was thick and brown, with not many vegetables. True that--and my twenty-something son loved it. Said it reminded him of gravy for mashed potatoes, the epitome of Western comfort food. My big boys also adored the duck udon. Everyone has individual likes and expectations. The cold soba with nearly flavorless broth didn't appeal to me; shredded flakes of dried bonito and seaweed gave it some interest, but I envied the sweet-vinegar vegetables that everyone else at the table got with their orders. I thought hoisin sauce wasn't a good match for the rice-wrap summer rolls. I was surprised that no kimchi was available with the Korean entrees (I also missed a brown rice option). But on a positive note, the al dente seasoned zukes and grated carrots in the bibimbap were absolutely divine.
Drink options are limited and there's no dessert. Okay, but we couldn't believe how many refills came around on our water, soda pop, and green tea. Tomukun's liquor license is in the works. For coffee and dessert, you can head next door to the elaborate frozen yogurt bar at lab--it's a similarly youthful enterprise, as you may discern from the plywood decor and lack of capital letters in its name.
A place like this isn't for everyone. Amen. Long live creativity and diversity in Ann Arbor dining venues.
Tomukun Noodlebar, 505 E. Liberty 734-995-TOMU(8668), Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 12 noon-10 p.m. Appetizers $3-$6, entrees $8-$11. Wheelchair friendly.
[Originally published in October, 2010.]