Ah, autumn in Michigan! Here it comes. The leaves turn orange and golden. “Hail To The Victors” is heard over the battlements of Ann Arbor’s Michigan Stadium. And the sound of a turtle slurping wafts upward from nearby.
Wait a minute. The sound of a turtle slurping?
Well, yes, if you allow for a little culinary imagination, at least.
Slurping Turtle is the name of a new, sleek casual dining spot offering hip takes on traditional Japanese dishes. And it’s a mere 10-minute walk to the stadium on game days.
Slurping Turtle is the creation of super chef Takashi Yagihashi, who is now at his zenith in Chicago where, since 2007, he has run one of the city’s top fine-dining Japanese restaurants named (what else?) Takashi.
Three years ago, he launched a casual, laid-back place called Slurping Turtle in Chicago’s River North. The place was immediately packed. He opened a second location in Ann Arbor a few months ago.
Slurping Turtle marks Takashi’s (everyone calls him by his first name) return to Southeast Michigan, where he was one of the area’s super chefs until 2005. He was the chef and culinary spirit of the fabulously fancy Tribute in Farmington Hills.
From 1996 onward, Tribute, with its Harry Potter set-like interior, superb wine list, and flawless service, was one of the pinnacles of Detroit dining. It was continuously ranked at the very top of magazine lists, and for a while became a “destination” dining spot for out-of-towners.
Takashi left Tribute in 2005 to launch Okada in the Wynn Las Vegas casino. Many in Detroit’s culinary world considered his departure a real blow. Tribute closed in 2009.
Takashi has become nationally renowned. In 2003, he was named the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Midwest. At Okada he created a contemporary Japanese menu influenced by his French training. He has also been member of Macy’s Culinary Council. He has been featured in Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and other national and regional publications. He has appeared on the Food Network as well as Iron Chef America and Top Chef Masters.
Slurping Turtle is the cultural opposite to Tribute’s type of fine dining. It is ultra modern, with almost a fast food flair and energy, yet with table service. Its fare has been described as Japanese street food, or cart food. Chef Takashi himself has described it as Japanese comfort food. It ranges from small items in buns to bowls or plates of noodle-based dishes, and the ubiquitous sushi and maki.
Slurping Turtle is in the old Borders Books building at State and Liberty streets, right across from the Michigan Theater.
At lunch, Slurping Turtle has the energy of a train station cafeteria with some people in a hurry grabbing takeout orders, while others nest in their space, shut out their surroundings, and relax with the food. Still others line up waiting for seats to turn over. And there is the occasional confusion over where and when to sit because Slurping Turtle is basically one long communal table that runs the length of the interior, dominating the restaurant (there’s also communal tables in the lower level).
Slurping Turtle’s seating is on comfortable tall cushioned stools with good back support. There are a few four-top tables to the side, but chances are you’ll end up at the center table, which has a feel of cheery equanimity.
It’s a funny thing that as open and friendly as we Americans think we are, we still like our defined spaces and are not used to sharing table space with people we don’t know. At the long communal table where we were seated, the staff clearly understands that. We noticed that they left a comfortable margin of space — several chopstick lengths — between our neighbors and us on either side, relieving any potential awkward closeness.
The décor is simple, clean-lined, and minimalist. Flat-screen televisions are strung around the restaurant, poised for the next game day, no doubt. The mechanical guts of the building — air vents, plumbing, and electrical conduits — run along the open ceiling. The kitchen’s storage and some of the prep area spill into the restaurant, while a small aluminum enclosure houses the chefs’ stove and burner prep area, which open at the front.
There is a lot to try at Slurping Turtle, much of it pretty unusual, starting with what the menu calls Cold Tapas. The first four of the eight tapas on the menu are basically from the raw sushi family: A hamachi taco is a yellowtail tartare served in a taro root taco with truffle-soy oil. A taro root taco? It’s worth trying.
Another tapas is made of salmon marinated in soy and served in a crispy tortilla with jalapeno peppers and anchovy aioli. Even the standby ceviche is different here: raw octopus, scallops, shrimp, and squid cold-cooked but then served with ceviche dressing. Good, but not what I would consider anything near comfort food, however.
The Hot Tapas do take it more in that direction however, with such items as pork dumpling with a soy-chili dipping sauce and duck fat fried chicken — it’s crispy and heavenly. Then there is the kani cream croquette, a snow crab croquette with béchamel.
There is short list of bao, the traditional steamed buns, served with daikon radish, pickles, and spicy mustard and in choices of roast chicken, pork belly, or shrimp tempura, each with a different sauce.
The standby sashimi bar and maki rolls are on the menu, as are an impressive array of noodle dishes: Tan Tan Men Ramen is made with stock, pork meatballs, pork chashu, pork miso, bok choy, and bean sprouts. The Tonkotsu begins with a savory light pork broth and adds pork chashu, which is a Japanese adaptation of a Cantonese way of spicing and cooking pork, cutting it into pieces and rolling it before firing it.
There is a lot of variation on traditional dishes at Slurping Turtle, but the one constant that makes the food attractive is that it has brightness, freshness, and a spring of flavors: always sharply fresh and perky. And that really makes it worth the visit.
608 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734 887-6868. L & D daily.