Review: With Zao Jun, Adachi sushi chef Lloyd Roberts scores another Asian hit

Jul 24, 2019 at 1:00 am
Green papaya salad.
Green papaya salad. Tom Perkins

There's a real dearth of truly good sushi in metro Detroit, but some of the best rolls in town are prepared at Adachi, the upscale restaurant that chef Lloyd Roberts opened last year in downtown Birmingham.

Try to find something like Adachi's hamachi crudo — a dish of delicate, paper-thin strips of fatty fish made intense with yuzu and white truffle oil. There simply isn't anything else like it in metro Detroit.

Well, there is now — at Roberts' new spot, Zao Jun. The crudo is there, too, but it's labeled new branzino and new tuna. Like at Adachi, both hold delicate tabs of raw fish in intensely flavorful sauces. The branzino comes adorned with a paper-thin slice of crunchy jalapeño and microgreens, and sits in a small pool of truffle ponzu with shallots, garlic, and brightening yuzu. The recipe is nearly the same as that in the hamachi at adachi, but Roberts says he decided to switch to branzino at Zao Jun because some Michiganders didn't like the hamachi's fat. Come on, Michigan. Quit being so Midwest. The fish fat is good.

The new tuna is similarly flavorful, and Roberts does it with a wafu dressing composed of sesame oil, soy, vinegar, daikon, and ginger. It's excellent, though it does sort of stand in the shadow of the branzino. The Red Dragon is a solid tuna roll that is notable for its green sauce of wasabi, mayo, lime, salt, and pepper.

But while Roberts brought some of the sushi hits to Zao Jun, there's a different focus here than at Adachi. It isn't a sushi restaurant but is billed as "new Asian." Such a concept can be a little cliche and not-so-great in the wrong hands, but Roberts doesn't let us down.

The dishes at Zao Jun are busy with complex sauces and flavor profiles. Take the green papaya salad, which Roberts describes as a "roller coaster ride." It's an artful, colorful mound of shredded green papaya, mango, cucumber, tomato, and more with a crown of shiso greens. That's all mixed in with palm sugar and fish sauce, and the package is hit with a sauce of liquified red fresno chilis, vinegar, salt, and sugar. The salad is alternately sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and cooling, and the fresh mint and cilantro help clear the palate for the next ride.

Roberts, who's worked at acclaimed restaurants around the world, spent time helming the kitchen at Nobu Matsuhisa in Budapest, from where he could cheaply travel to Thailand. That's where he ate the inspiration for the green papaya salad, and many other dishes at Zao Jun. He says he sought to represent his favorite plates from his trips to southeast Asia.

Among those is the roasted cauliflower that comes mixed with spring greens; a salsa of jalapeño, red onion, and ponzu; and a pool of a sauce made with jalapeño, soy, ginger, vinegar, and garlic. The salt-and-pepper calamari's texture is perfect, but needs to be mixed with the drenched greens.

Zao Jun's braised short-rib bao buns include super tender beef that's been braised for 24 hours in a mix of soy, kombu, water, sugar, mirepoix, and ginger, then is folded into a pillowy, slightly chewy bao bun along with acidic, crunchy, pickled jalapeño rings and marinated cucumber. Awesome. The mushroom bao bun, however, didn't really pop like the short rib.

The "main menu" section of the menu holds some standards from American Chinese restaurants, like the Mongolian beef, which comes with big hunks of super tender, seasoned Creekstone rib eye, broccolini, and jalapeño in two sauces — a "mother" sauce made with OK sauce and another of soy, chinese rice wine vinegar, and sugar.

The red fresno chilis and ginger are behind the bite in the stir-fried shrimp and scallops, which is filled with bell peppers, benefits from the heavy presence of garlic, and is rounded out with red bell pepper and water chestnuts. The Singaporean Style Noodles is a jumble of shrimp, squid, scallops, snow peas, shreds of bell peppers, carrots, and green onion in vermicelli that's all flavored with a mellow golden curry sauce, though it didn't quite sing like most other dishes.

Zao Jun's cocktail list is similarly inventive and well-crafted with Asian-inspired drinks like the Machatini with Absolut Elix, yuzu, and macha.

What makes Zao Jun more impressive is that Roberts managed to assemble solid menus for two restaurants in less than a year. Who knows what the future holds — the chef is a globetrotter who doesn't seem to stay in one place for too long — but for now, Detroit is blessed to have two of Roberts' kitchens to choose from.

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