In the Spring, I experienced a dish that remains one of the best I’ve had all year. A Japanese take on spaghetti and meatballs, its three duck meatballs sat in a nest of silky udon noodles marinated in a savory yuzo koshu teriyaki sauce bursting with flavor. I voted the dish Diner’s Choice at this year’s Savor Showdown. I wrote about it in Hour Detroit’s food issue. I’ve since held every meatball to the standard of those tender spheres of perfect flavor and texture.
The concept dish showcased the talents of Lloyd Roberts, executive chef at Adachi and Zao Jun. An alumnus of Vong, a former New York City staple of the Jean Georges empire, and a trio of establishments within the Nobu universe, Roberts has a refined yet imaginative approach to contemporary Pan-Asian cuisine. In Adachi, he’s brought a fine, Japanese-inspired dining experience to downtown Birmingham.
Behind a sushi bar, a team of chefs masterfully craft fresh sashimi and nigiri dishes served with ambrosial truffle ponzu dressings and glistening caviar toppings, all executed against the backdrop of an expansive mural of a geisha beneath a vibrant Japanese maple tree. In the kitchen of the historic 19th-century Victorian Ford-Peabody mansion, soy truffle broth is ladled over pork dumplings reminiscent of coin purses, and miniature tacos are filled with lobster, tuna, or vegetable pickings. Roberts’ duck meatballs, with their bright green flecks of scallion, appear in a bowl of udon co-starring with charred carrots, asparagus, mushrooms, and a medley of other grilled vegetables.
In less than one year since Adachi’s grand opening, Roberts welcomed his latest venture in Asian fusion cuisine with Zao Jun. The Bloomfield Township restaurant’s May launch revealed an eclectic menu influenced by east and southeast Asian traditions with the same innovative technique Roberts is known for.
Roberts’ approach to Zao Jun is not unlike the way a parent rears a second child — far less precious and with an air that says: “I got this.” Whereas the interior at Adachi could be the inside of your Aunt Ivy’s pre-war brownstone (the one where you leave your shoes at the door and follow your mother’s instructions to keep your hands in your lap), there’s an air of ease that billows about Zao Jun. Here, there are casual cushioned booths anchored by wooden tables, and flat-screen televisions hang near the bar, broadcasting football games in the fall. Portraits of fashionable women line the walls, some notable, such as stars like Olivia Wilde, Iris Apfel, and Twiggy, others unrecognizable Asian models in cultural garb and tribal face paint — the juxtaposition presumably a nod to the restaurant’s cultural fusion.
That ease translates to the menu and the approach to presentation at Zao Jun. Here, there’s no ice tower to chill a crystal bowl of soba noodles, and servers leave you to pour your own soy sauce in miniature dishes, rather than carefully pouring the sauce on your behalf, as is commonplace at Adachi.
There are hand-me-down favorites from its elder sibling with subtle adaptations. Rock shrimp is fried crisp and basted with a creamy, pungent chili garlic aioli. The Adachi Slider features a succulent wagyu beef patty dripping with jus, draped in truffle aioli, and served on a buttery toasted bun leaving your fingers and palms coated in the best parts of it all.
Fried starters are reminiscent of appetizers you might order at a Chinese takeout joint — vegetarian spring rolls filled with crisp carrots, celery, bamboo shoots, and cabbage; chicken egg rolls; and crab rangoon with a creamy cheese filling.
The Chicken Money Bags, though, are uniquely in a class of their own. Aptly named, the small crispy pastries are filled with chicken spiced with a tangy blend of cilantro and green onion, and tied to resemble little brown bags cinched at the top with a noodle for a lace.
Grilled cauliflower gives Roberts’ meatballs — which are missing on the menu at Zao Jun — some steep competition. They’re drenched in a veil of a ginger-garlic sauce so tasty you’ll want to dip every starter into the broth.
The lamb chop entrée, however, may veer you into a territory of sensory overload. Three chops are grilled and basted in a yakitori sauce and served with a side of cucumbers so salty, even this salt devotee had to tap out.
But a sweet finish offered a nice counter to the briny entrée. On the fall dessert menu, a flourless molten lava cake oozes silky green tea fudge, and bananas are flambéed and wrapped into warm spring rolls and served with housemade strawberry sorbet. Despite a more casual setting than the fine-dining establishments on his resume, to the very last bite, Zao Jun embodies just what Roberts is celebrated for: a commitment to fusing Asian traditions and flavors with New Age techniques, earning Zao Jun its rightful place within Roberts’ own growing empire.
Zao Jun, 6608 Telegraph Rd., Bloomfield Township; 248-949-9999; zaojunnewasian.com. D Daily.
And Then There Were Drinks
Equally as impressive as the food menu at Zao Jun is Roberts’ extensive range of beverages. There’s wine, beer, sake, cocktails, and spirits, as well as Infusions, intended for highballs and mixing into any one of the restaurant’s inventive mocktails.
That’s where Zao Jun’s beverage program really shines. Much in the same way Roberts fuses Asian traditions with whimsical contemporary details, the restaurant’s non-alcoholic beverages playfully dance with flavors from Thailand, Japan, and Indonesia. The Tropical Tango, for example — a sweet and tangy blend of pineapple, mango, coconut, lime, and almond milk — is a creamy, decadent chilled beverage almost as filling as a starter. Yet you’ll still be inclined to order seconds.
Where the dinner bill of fare lacks elaborate presentation, drinks on the Mocktail menu even the score, served in festive vessels and topped with elaborate garnishes. Aptly named, the Poke Punch is a citrusy elixir of lemon, orange, cranberry, and mango juices poured into a mug shaped as a Pokémon Poké Ball. The Tropical Tango is served in a small glass the shape of a pineapple etched with graphic rows of pineapple eyes.
Typically too sacharine for my liking, the Thai iced tea at Zao Jun strikes a flawless balance between bitter tea, vanilla, and sweet cream. Another tradition done right by Roberts and his team of culinary champions.