Review: Stay for the drinks at Ferndale’s izakaya, Antihero 

click to enlarge Fried chicken bao bun.

Jay Jurma

Fried chicken bao bun.

There's a lot going on at Antihero, metro Detroit's latest Japanese izakaya. Nestled on Nine Mile in downtown Ferndale, it's hip and swanky, with an almost Manhattan or downtown Los Angeles feel to it. The lighting is low yet warm. The building is made up of blond wood, which covers the bar, the booths, and custom barstools. Eclectic art decorates the space. One main attraction is the 33-foot mural that features a sci-fi motif, created by Detroit artist Glenn Barr. A DJ discreetly holds space in a corner at the front of the dining room.

Antihero is now the third establishment in the Working Class Outlaws restaurant group's portfolio, joining Imperial and Public House (located next door). The informal Japanese gastropub features a menu with small plates and shareable dishes. But make no mistake — this is, at its core, a bar.

For those unfamiliar, "izakaya" is a compound from the words "stay" and "sake," meaning that drinking is foremost and food is secondary. At Antihero, drinks take up more than half of the menu, with Japanese whiskeys, sake bombs, sake flights, soju cocktails, and wines from around the globe. During one visit, I tried the yogurt cocktail — a popular drink in Korea. Mixed with soju and raspberry, it was a perfect balance of sour and sweet — and so light and refreshing that I nearly forgot that I was drinking alcohol.

On another visit, my dining companion ordered the Tokyo S.O.S. cocktail, a playground of natural sugars and carbonation that gave off island vibes with each sip. My dining companion was surprised, describing it as a "fruit explosion" that was "very well done." Here was another drink that I forgot had alcohol in it, despite the menu listing off bumba rum and vida mezcal in the mixture.

As far as food, there are nearly 30 menu items, divided into six sections — appetizers; raw (or uncooked plates); vegetables; dumplings, rice, and buns; noodles; and hibachi. Although the menu boasts Asian-inspired offerings, the cuisine tends to lean more American than it does traditional Japanese and Korean. Take, for instance, the ramen. Typically in ramen, the meat and the vegetables are thinly sliced. But when my order of ramen hero arrived, there were two puck-sized mushrooms, a piece of pork belly, and an egg, which arrived whole instead of cut in half.

The vegetables are really where the menu shines, which is good news for vegetarians and vegans. It also shouldn't come as a surprise, since Executive Chef Nick Erven is renowned for his former eponymous plant-based American restaurant in Santa Monica. Erven brought to Michigan some remnants of his former establishment with updates, like the chickpea fritter — jet-black rectangles served with a yuzu whip for dipping. One of my dining guests loved the "chicken fried" tofu. Other highlights included the bok choy "caesar" — the crisp, green leaves and white stalks were sliced into strips, and decorated with chili threads and seaweed breadcrumbs. The lemon-caper dressing added a touch of acidity to the salad. The black kale was also a favorite, with lots of contrast between the creaminess of the avocado, the crunch from the leaves and peanuts, and the heat from the carrot-ginger ranch dressing.

The hibachi grill sounded like a fun experience, but we were underwhelmed. You can choose from a selection of skewered vegetables, fish, or beef. At the recommendation of our server, we ordered the New York strip. We received a personal grill and a set of skewers with three cubed pieces of meat and small bowls of togarashi — a 7-spice blend common in Japan, salt, and Antihero's signature "fuck yea" sauce (a combination of pickled garlic ponzu, kimchi juice, and chili-ginger salsa). The only instruction we received was to cook the meat how we wanted. If you're not willing to monitor your food to prevent overcooking it, or want to avoid starting a fire, skip the hibachi.

From the dumplings, rice and buns section, the fried chicken bun fared well. The pieces of chicken breasts thankfully weren't dry, and they were stuffed between pillows of bao buns with curry mayo and pickled cucumbers.

Dessert, on the other hand, can be left behind. The baked Alaska was certainly visually appealing with its mountain of browned meringue. It's a different story once you cut inside of it. It was a relief to have the black sesame ice cream to break up the overt sweetness from the meringue and passion fruit curd. The matcha cake was green and dense, which was acceptable in order to hold the stack of ice cream, curd and meringue. But after some time, I abandoned the dessert as a whole and picked at the ice cream and cake.

Next time, I'll definitely stay for the drinks.

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