Slurping Turtle

. June 2, 2014.

When decorated chef Takashi Yagihashi announced that his Chicago-based restaurant Slurping Turtle would open a second location in Ann Arbor, buzz began to build. Born and raised in Japan, Yagihashi began his career in Chicago but gained national recognition when the James Beard Foundation named him Best Chef in the Midwest for his work at Tribute in Farmington Hills in 2003. He later appeared on the show Iron Chef and earned a Michelin star at his restaurant Takashi in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. After months of anticipation, the Slurping Turtle’s second location opened for business April 21 on the corner of E. Liberty and Maynard streets in the old Borders building.

I visited the Slurping Turtle on a Sunday evening trying to avoid the waits I heard could extend up to two hours on a busy night. My date and I waited 45 minutes before being seated, but appreciated being able to check our status through a link we received via text when we placed our name on the list. Slurping Turtle’s interior design is minimalist, with cream walls accented by warm red blocks of paint and glowing orange steel hanging lamps. Japanese anime plays on the lone TV screen, a refreshing reprieve from what might be a Tigers game at other local restaurants. Seating at the bar is separated from a handful of booths by two long communal tables that run through the middle of the restaurant, ending in an open kitchen.

Apps at the bar

We sat at the bar where our waiter brought bottles of Pellegrino that he poured into wine glasses draped with a wedge of lime. We ordered a few appetizers from the Hot and Cold Tapas sections of the menu. The cold Hamachi tacos consisted of fresh yellowtail bathed in truffle-soy sauce and stuffed in a taro root shell, which provided a light crunch that offset the firmness of the fish. Though pleasing, the tacos might have benefited from more red onions and cilantro to balance the saltiness of the shell and the sauce. The ceviche was similarly tasty, though not outstanding, and the small serving size made it hard for this greedy eater to share with his date. Chef Takashi substitutes yuzu, an East Asian citrus fruit, for the lime common in South American ceviche while grape tomatoes round out the dish’s acidity.

Our hot tapas came out next. The nuggets of chicken fried in duck fat gleaming crisply next to a squirt of Sriracha mayo were the true beginning of the meal. Salty, juicy, spicy, though not recognizably Japanese, they were gone in seconds. Topped with strings of fried scallions, the fried Brussels sprouts are at the “comfort food” end of the Japanese food spectrum, disappearing almost as quickly as the fried chicken. We finished appetizing with pork belly and tempura shrimp bao buns. As I chewed, the pork melted into my tongue against the fizz of pickled cucumbers and carrots. I commented, “I hope the ramen is this good.”

When in ramen

It very nearly was. My tonkotsu ramen came in a deep, slightly narrow bowl that forced the pickled mustard greens, green onions, bok choy and mushrooms to crowd around the thick slices of pork, making every bite a medley of Japanese delights, stewed in a creamy pork broth. My date enjoyed a Japanese interpretation of the Provencal classic, bouillabaisse. Mussels, shrimp and clams simmered alongside rice cakes in a deliciously balanced and spicy kimchee miso broth. Slurping ensued.

Dessert was a fist-sized coconut cream puff with a crusty exterior and dreamy cream filling that almost did me in. Order one even if you’re so full you have to take it home, and eat it before bed.

As Slurping Turtle hits its stride, the lines will get shorter and the already-delicious food will likely improve, no doubt a soon-to-be staple in my Ann Arbor restaurant rotation.

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