Stepping into Kitchen Hanzo is a sharp contrast from the tony suburbs of West Bloomfield. The long dining counter forming the perimeter of the open kitchen sets the stage for the meal to come. Sizzles, cooking aromas and cooks efficiently prepping dinner orders play out like theater against a backdrop designed to transport diners to an izakaya, a Japanese after-work establishment that serves food to accompany drinks.

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Ume Chazuke: Rice topped with sour plum and served in tea. Photo: Daniel Steinman

The menus decorating the walls are hand-written in Japanese by the sous chef. The sequence of dishes are served according to izakaya customs. Food and drink served in an izakaya is meant to be shared, nibbled and picked at intermittently between after-work socializing. According to custom, their Chazuke (rice porridge) is served last to quickly fill your appetite before leaving. I had the Ume Chazuke, rice porrdige served in tea, decorated with pickled plum. The small plums are an awesome force, strong, salty and sour, best enjoyed garnished between spoonfuls of porridge with a nutty sesame finish.

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Spicy Hiyayakko: spicy kimuchi sauce, cold tofu, poached egg. Photo: Daniel Steinman

Kitchen Hanzo’s executive chef ran an izakaya in Japan for almost 20 years. He grew up on Okinawa, where bitter melon is commonly eaten. His culinary heritage manifests in the restaurant’s Goyachanpuru, a pork, egg, tofu and bitter melon stir-fry. Bitter is a difficult flavor to serve and it is often misunderstood as undesirable. Goyachanpuru does not hide the bitter, it shows how bitter is done. The fat in the pork and the salt in the seasonings work like teammates with the bitter melon, and the creamy tofu, dispersed like treasure, offers calming respite.

Goyachanpuru: pork, egg, tofu and bitter melon stir fry. Photo: Daniel Steinman

Kitchen Hanzo makes most of its own ingredients. They use private recipes to make their teriyaki sauce and soy sauce. They make their own stock, which is the base for their udon soup, hot pots and sauces. This dedication to the craft results in flavors you cannot taste anywhere else.

The Takosu salad is a refined plate of octopus sashimi paired with a crunch of cucumber and a squish of seaweed in a delicate pool of smooth vinegar that was made from six ingredients. The Spicy Hiyayakko uses a spicy kimuchi base that adds fire to the cold block of tofu and poached egg, brightened with thin slices of fresh green onion.

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Takosu Salad: octopus sashimi, cucumber, seaweed, vinegar sauce. Photo: Daniel Steinman

The Mochi Pizza, fried rice cakes covered in teriyaki sauce and mozzarella cheese, is an experimental exploration in gelatinous texture. The rice cakes cling around each bite like raw elastic dough. It is weird and it is wonderful. Finish everything quickly before the cheese cools.

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Mochi Pizza: fried rice cakes and teriyaki sauce baked in mozzarella. Photo: Daniel Steinman

Kitchen Hanzo’s proprietors also own Sharaku, located in the same strip mall. Sharaku uses the highest tier of sashimi, flown in from Japan on a daily basis. They are fiercely true to traditional Japanese cooking methods with dishes like steamed egg with fish cake, grilled shishito peppers with beef and lemon slices, and mountain potato with natto and okra. Even the fish parts are traditionally Asian, such as fried shrimp heads, grilled salmon cheek and yellowtail collar sashimi.

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Wafu Salad: their house salad that includes seaweed, fish cakes, chicken and tomatoes

Sharaku’s executive chef chose the location based on the ease of access for the large Japanese population living in the West Bloomfield, Bloomfield and Novi areas. They began arriving in the 1990s, when Japanese automotive companies were moving operations to Michigan to compete with the Big Three. Most of Kitchen Hanzo and Sharaku’s patrons have three-to-five-year work visas. They are hungry for a real taste of home, not the commercialized offerings that currently dominate the Oakland County food scene.

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Gyoza: Pan-fried Japanese dumplings filled with ground meat

Dining at Kitchen Hanzo and Sharaku is the closest you can get to eating like you are vacationing in Japan. The dishes will delightfully challenge your perception of Japanese cooking and you will be changed by the time you leave. Mark Twain said that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” After eating at Kitchen Hanzo, you will discover how taste is like travel, too.

You can find Kitchen Hanzo at 6073 Haggerty Road, West Bloomfield Township, MI 48322.

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