Picture the scene: it’s a gray March day, the kind where cold winds blow and all you want is college basketball and a Snuggie. Then, you walk by Slurping Turtle. The aroma of flavorful ramen wafts out. The restaurant’s warm air beckons you inside. Michigan spring has sprung.
Just kidding. Thanks to global warming (or not), this March often feels closer to the May sun and April showers than the usual chill and gloom. A steaming bowl of ramen is never unwelcome, but with the unseasonable warmth, why not try something a little lighter? With a little “madness” in mind, this month seemed like the perfect time to venture into unknown territory with some adventurous fare at Slurping Turtle.
When Slurping Turtle came to Ann Arbor a few years ago, I was skeptical. Did Ann Arbor really need another noodle restaurant? With local favorites TKWU and Tomukun both within 100 yards of the Turtle’s door, East Liberty St. might as well be the town’s “Ramen District.” But the Japanese restaurant, the second outpost of Takashi Yagihashi’s popular River North spot in Chicago, manages to bring something entirely new to the crowded restaurant Ann Arbor scene. Its calming, minimalist atmosphere and fun events like last year’s charity “Ramen Battle,” a winner-take-all Iron Chef of Ramen between nationally-famous noodle cooks, quickly drew droves of townies and students alike.
So we know that Slurping Turtle has some obvious strengths: mouthwatering noodle dishes, a cozy-yet-chic city ambiance, and a quirky tone that’s right at home in Ann Arbor. But how is it when you stray off the beaten, into its more unique, offbeat offerings? In the name of scientific curiosity, I set out to explore the non-slurping side of the Slurping Turtle.
My evening started with an order Hamachi Tacos. The tacos feature raw yellowtail marinated in truffle soy sauce and topped with taro root shell, riding on the wave of popularity that’s turning “Asian-Latin fusion” in everyday fare. A vibrant cherry tomato garnish, a few sprouts, and a dash of salmon roe round out each bite. Presented in a nifty little taco stand alongside beautiful Japanese ceramic serving dishes, they look almost too gorgeous to eat (I did anyway). While I could detect small hints of the soy flavoring, and I’m not exactly one of those pigs they send snuffling through the woods in search of precious mushrooms, the yellowtail was low on flavor. The toppings made up for this a bit, and the textural contrast between the fish tartare and the crunchy taco shell was pleasing.
Next came the fried brussel sprouts, an unexpectedly pleasant blend of flavors and textures. “No one should be allowed to call this a vegetable,” photographer Courtney Evans joked, and it’s true — the dish’s deliciousness had more to do with generous use of oil and seasoning than it did with the humble veggie. Accompanied with a lively dash of soy sauce, not too salty or bland, and topped with a crunchy counterpoint to the creamy brussel sprouts, my first bites were extremely gratifying. However, a good portion of the dish was a little too burnt, covering up some of the flavor.
We wrapped up the evening with their vegetarian bao, a slightly sweet blend of veggies that really lives up to the restaurant’s billing as “Japanese comfort food.” Once again, the lightly-breaded eggplant, mushrooms, and jalapeño (accompanied by a luscious spiced miso mustard) skewed the dish towards “fried.” No one would mistake it for leafy greens and a juice cleanse. But, served beautifully on another ceramic platter with a crisp, light side of dressed greens, this was a well-balanced dish that would make a perfect light lunch.
The Slurping Turtle’s offers perhaps the best ambiance in Ann Arbor. If you stick to the big, steamy noodle dishes while you soak in the beautiful restaurant space, you’ll never be disappointed. However, for the adventurous eater, their non-noodle fare leaves something to be desired when it comes to seasoning. Fortunately, The Slurping Turtle’s strengths far outweigh any weaknesses. In other words: I’ll be back often, whatever the weather.