Miki, Ann Arbor’s oldest extant sushi restaurant, harking back to the 1980s, has new owners and is in mid-course of a name change. Felisha and Yoon Kim will eventually change the name to Sushi Zen, but for now, Felisha says, it’s “Miki slash Sushi Zen.”
The Kims, both from Korea, met about ten years ago as students at MSU, where she was studying hospitality and he med tech (while training to be a sushi chef on the side, working in several East Lansing sushi kitchens). Five years ago the pair opened Brighton’s first sushi restaurant, Sushi Zen. They’re discovering that taking over Miki is a little different. In Miki, the Kims inherited a restaurant and a staff with a history.
Started by Ann Lin in the 1980s, Miki was Ann Arbor’s third sushi restaurant, preceded by Tamiko’s (around the corner from Miki), and Fuji, in Braun Court near Kerrytown. Those early sushi restaurants tried to reproduce, as closely as was possible in the landlocked Midwest, the pure, spare, Edo-style sushi of Japan–a style so rigorous that an Observer write-up from the era claims that Miki’s Japan-trained chef had endured corporal punishment for bad knife work.
Customers didn’t have it so easy back in the 1980s either. First you read up on all the diseases you could incur eating raw fish, and if you were still game, you then had to navigate a steady procession of etiquette crises, beginning with what to do with that hot towel and ending with whether to tip the sushi chef separately.
James Bee and Kevin Choi bought Miki in 2003, and they sold it to the Kims, who still seem to be deciding how much of its history they want to carry forward. “Sixty percent of our customers have never been here before,” Felisha says, but nevertheless “we keep all the old Miki menus, and we have the same chefs, so if customers order a favorite thing, we can make it.” Sections of the old menu moved intact to the new one, like the teriyakis and most of the appetizers, and some changes are minor, like “a new ginger dressing for the salads. It’s lighter.” She hesitates politely. “And better.”
But elsewhere on the menu, big changes are afoot.
The Kims represent a new generation of sushi restaurateurs, and their touch seems lighter and more relaxed than the old guard’s. The menu is all in English. Beach Boys music plays in the background. Rolls–those seaweed-wrapped nuggets of rice that are easier to eat than nigiri sushi and are considered the entry-level sushi item–have names that sound like happy-hour specials in a Key West bar: Blushing Madam, White Tiger, Mango Fiesta, and Kiss of Fire–and include ingredients like cream cheese, mango, Cajun seasoning, jalapeno, and mozzarella cheese. While customers can still order nigiri sushi and sashimi off a checklist, the place now offers an eye-popping list of seventy rolls, some of which even contain beef or chicken. The Kims have also added Korean entrees, like bulgogi and kalbi (short ribs) to the menu.
Behind the scenes, Yoon claims to be a strict taskmaster who takes the job of training and retaining sushi chefs seriously. Colorful, innovative sushi made with cream cheese and deep fried avocado may seem friendlier than raw octopus, but it is still demanding, precise food work. He has his chefs quickly assemble some for a photo shoot; garnished with an elaborate crane made from a daikon radish, the result is a tribute to their skill.
Miki/Sushi Zen, 106 S. First St., 665-8226. Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 4:30-10 p.m., Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 3-10 p.m. (no website)