A Great Escape

Godaiko’s soothing décor and pleasing Japanese cuisine offer a break from turbulent times
Princess Lobster Roll — steamed Maine lobster with caviar and crème wasabi sauce. Photograph by Joe Vaughn

Good food brings comfort. Add a peaceful place where you can eat, and you have a little window through which to lock out the troubled world and let the soul marinate.

Our parents or grandparents did much the same by going to the movies in the Depression years of the 1930s. Movie houses, with their opulent interiors, sweeping red-velvet stage curtains, and the great old pipe organs rising out of their pits were pure escapism.

Around these parts, when we’re as close to those Depression-era times as Michigan has ever been, Godaiko in Novi is a restaurant to fit the times. It’s definitely not luxury dining, a few steps away from white-linen, and far more in line with a restraint that many people are currently feeling.

Today, with theater-quality viewing possible on our in-home wide screens, restaurants are where we go to escape, where we gather and immerse ourselves in a little luxury, an oasis of life as we wish it would always be.

Godaiko is dialed-back and yet very handsome, a cavernous space with an Asian-urban look. It has a soothing and uncomplicated modern décor, as well as very good Americanized Japanese food, with prices befitting turbulent times.

The four-page menu ranges from $5.50 for appetizers to entrées topping out at about $25. Only two items are up in the stratospheric range of $38 and $39 — a rather stark reminder of fat times that are no more.

Godaiko has two locations: Novi and Ann Arbor. Though they occupy standard suburban-sprawl sites, both restaurants themselves are a delight to the eye.

The Novi restaurant sits at the rear of the mammoth Fountain Walk Mall that fronts 12 Mile Road. Despite its 12 Mile address, Godaiko is actually at least a half-mile south, on the end of the mall that edges I-96, between the movie theater and the Great Indoors store. The good news: There’s plenty of parking.

Likewise, the Ann Arbor location is south of I-94 in the Oak Valley complex, which also houses an Outback Steakhouse. The menu at the Ann Arbor Godaiko offers greater variety, most likely due to that area’s globally savvy customers.

Ann Arbor is intimate, while Novi is more open with high ceilings and echoing acoustics. Though the tall glass front in Novi looks out onto the parking lot, once inside, you’re ushered into a pleasing, hip, urban world. The host station is offset by a semi-circular stone block wall, the back of which has been made into an attractive garden bed of illuminated, polished black rocks. A rolling techno-disco sound wafts softly in the background as a sleek, minidress-clad hostess leads us to one of the blond-wood booths that are joined in quadrants and topped here and there with massive ceramic vases.

Bolts of colorful cloth cascade from the 20-foot ceiling, while the tables are set with simple four-sided ceramic dishes with lovely curved lines in white and pale green.

In Novi, the menu includes a fairly good run of sushi, but the main menu is geared more to Western tastes. On a recent visit, the first dish to arrive is the traditional miso soup, a very large bowl of rich, smoky, and denser broth than I usually find in Japanese restaurants. It’s deeper and spicier.

Of the first courses sampled, the best is a Shrimp Gyoza, delicately steamed and fried dumplings with a skin so thin and light that it’s almost translucent.

Photograph by Joe Vaughn

The minced shrimp stuffing is just a tad pungent, but quite sweet, and when dipped in a spicy garlic sauce of soy and ponzu, it’s delicious. I bow to it.

I have less luck with the Hamachi Toro, sashimi yellowtail seared in Bacardi 151 and blood-orange ponzu sauce. Our waiter delivers it to the table and, with great ‘Opa!’ drama, produces a lighter and fires up the alcohol. After the blue glow has died, I taste. Something isn’t right. There’s a bitter edge to it, perhaps from the now-burned orange sauce. Someone at the table suggests it’s from the burned fish oils. But as soon as we dip it in the shrimp dumpling sauce, the burn washes away and tastes terrific.

Another starter, Tako Sunomono, a fresh steamed octopus, is cooked to perfection and served cold with Japanese cucumber and sea kelp. It’s absolute perfection in freshness, but a bit dull.

The four main courses arrive, one of which is a tangy, hot spicy udon beef soup with an intense broth and thin slices of high-quality beef atop a bed of those thick, soft, and long sloppy soup noodles, a comfort on a snowy night.

The winner in this course is one of the most flavorful and crisp breaded pork loin cutlets I have tasted in a long time. It’s about a quarter-inch thick all across, and cuts like a fork through warm butter. The pork is lean and white and the breading is panko. I would return anytime for this Tonkatsu, as it’s called. Although its origins are unclear, Tonkatsu was believed to be inspired by European cuisine, and has been popular in Japan for well over a century. It’s often eaten as a sandwich, but Godaiko serves it on shredded lettuce with a katsu sauce.

I also recommend the Habachi Beef Teriyaki, a huge portion of thinly sliced strip steak cooked on a hot grill and dressed with a savory teriyaki sauce, and the Una Don, a whole grilled river eel served warm in a semi-sweet chili sauce, almost like a glaze, over rice blended with chopped egg and pickles.

It’s unusual and memorable.

Godaiko also offers a roast duckling with vegetables and udon noodles, and several shrimp and vegetable tempura dishes, all superbly fresh and well prepared.

A quibble I have is that almost every dish is served with undercooked broccoli and carrots dressed in nothing at all. It detracts from what they do well. I asked to take them home where, with a little more cooking, they were put to good use.

In the end, Godaiko is well worth a visit, and the choices are enough that you can expect to eat very well with great satisfaction for much less than you’ve come to expect.

44175 W. 12 Mile Rd., Novi; 248-465-7777. L & D daily.

Cook is the chief restaurant critic of Hour Detroit. E-mail: editorial@hourdetroit.com.

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