Long before there were Asian restaurants all over Ann Arbor (including more than a dozen Japanese), Miki held court downtown. With soft lighting and screenlike partitions making the large space feel intimate, it was a popular destination restaurant–the kind of place you’d take out-of-towners to taste real sushi and nori-wrapped rice rolls, deep bowls of thick udon noodles, and cutlets, drenched in intensely sweet-salty teriyaki.
Times change, and Miki has changed, too, since its sale to Felisha and Yoon Kim, who also own Brighton’s Sushi Zen. The new blended name signals that the glass-fronted, earth-toned space on First Street is now a different kind of destination, one decidedly un-Zenlike in a few major ways. Miki/Sushi Zen still offers classic sushi, but it now also serves up elaborate, turbocharged creations unlike any seen in classic Japanese cuisine.
You walk in the door to a cheery greeting shouted across the room from a row of white-capped sushi chefs. You sit down to traditional steamed hand towels, polite servers, and soothing roasted green tea in handle-less mugs perfect for cradling. But don’t relax too much: tradition explodes as you open the foot-tall, black-laminated six-page “roll menu.” It’s like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when everything bursts into color. Check out that asparagus, avocado, cucumber, and crab-filled Mango Fiesta Roll, draped with mango slices and drizzled with sweet sauce. Sure, other Japanese restaurants have their dragon rolls, but have you ever seen a Shrek Roll, ogred up with three kinds of fish and sushi rice wrapped in steamed cabbage leaves?
The Pistons Roll is made with avocado and four kinds of hot-spiced fish, deep-fried and served with a splotch of crab salad and spicy mayo on top–the subtext perhaps being hope that the actual team will be anywhere near as hot on the basketball court. The Chicken Teriyaki Roll is a surprisingly successful medley of thin strips of tender white meat alongside asparagus and cucumber. In the beef version, planks of grayish meat overpower all subtleties in the mix and are hard to chew amid the soft rice.
Among the seventy marquee rolls, the most adventuresome I could rally for was a deep-fried U of M Roll filled with shrimp, salmon, avocado, and cream cheese. It’s a surprisingly harmonious combination, carried mainly by the classic pairing of salmon and cream cheese. Still, its success did not persuade me to try the Snowman Roll–another dairy sushi, this one topped with melted mozzarella.
The sushi chefs (or “artists,” as one server called them) fan the fire of outrageousness by presenting their creations as miniature fantasylands on platters, complete with cucumber trees and little blue lights inside carved daikon radish lanterns. (Little kids looking for fairy doors all over town should love this.) The U of M’s Roll’s deep-fried heft was leveraged into a bricked arch, literally a half-foot model of the famous one in St. Louis, with artsy red “eel sauce” scribbled playfully across the landscape. Another roll topped with actual eel, though, had a fishiness beyond other eel experiences around town.
Many of the exotic rolls cost around $10, which doesn’t seem unreasonable for a creative appetizer with high-quality ingredients. The really packed ones (like those with seared tuna, lobster, or softshell crab) can soar beyond $15, however. You might not feel that pain too much while marveling over the flair and flourish of the tableside presentation, but be aware that takeout orders cost the same and forgo the theatrical plating. For the best value, eating in or out, don’t even pick up the big black menu and instead order standard sushi and veggie rolls traditionally, using the paper pad and little pencil. A fresh and simple cucumber roll spun into a cute pinwheel, for example, got a good score on my personal Zen scale. Whether it’s exotic or classic, you can ask that any roll be made with brown rice. The brown rice with avocado roll I ordered to temper a spicy meal was a wonderful, Zen-ful comfort food.
Sushi is only part of the story at Miki/Sushi Zen. There are dozens of appetizers from the kitchen, as opposed to the sushi bar. Edamame was perfect, as was a ginger-dressed green salad. The noodle bowls are straightforward and substantial (though something more colorful than spinach, scallions, and shitake mushrooms would have been welcome in the veggie udon), and the bento boxes are basic (with the tempura and dumplings a bit too greasy and the usual pickled vegetable accompaniments sadly missing).
The Korean classics the Kims have added to the menu are also worth a try. Excellent bibimbop came sizzling in a stone bowl. Light on the beef and heavy on mushrooms, sprouts, and carrots, it was just the way I like it, with a big bowl of spicy sauce on the side. (Order it with brown rice if you want extra-nutty flavor.) Dinners in general represent good under-$20 value.
As of early October, some Miki favorites were still on the menu, to ease the transition for old faithful customers. But traffic seems low. The big “Help Wanted” sign taped smack in the middle of the front door every time I visited communicated a state of flux, and probably explains why servers had a hard time answering questions about which of the exotic rolls contain raw fish and which don’t. It appears that cooked-sushi extravaganzas might not be an instant slam-dunk in Ann Arbor.
Some of those Technicolor creations worked for me in both concept and taste, but others seemed weird and unappealing. I would bring people here if I wanted to impress them and create conversation–especially hungry and impressionable young adults who watch Ninja Warrior on TV and are willing to try anything named “Awesome Roll.” Personally, though, I find it hard to justify the expensive marquee rolls for more than their wow factor, which is why the simpler rolls and well-priced dinners stand out. But there’s entertainment aplenty here if you want to wander two blocks west of Main some evening, into a strange new world of food.
106 S. First St.
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.
Appetizers, $3.95-$16.50. Salads, $2-$8.95. Soups, $8.95-$12.95. Dinners for one (from the kitchen, not the sushi bar), $9.95-$21.95. Group platters and boats available
x Wheelchair friendly