A delicious homecoming: Takashi Yagihashi returns to Michigan with Slurping Turtle

Metro Detroit has been slow to take up the noodle trend that has been dominating the trendy food scene of major cities all over the world for nearly a decade now. While casual Asian take-out eateries in strip malls are never in short supply, especially in cities with larger ethnic Asian populations like Novi and Canton and, a little further east and a little less glamorous, Madison Heights, the metro area's core – Detroit – was noticeably absent the kind of upscale and/or late-night noodle shop found in abundance in places like Chicago and Toronto (and still is, if you consider that the places now just recently serving this kind of food – Rock City Eatery, Katoi, and Johnny Noodle King – are all helmed by non-Asians). 

But Ann Arbor is a different kind of beast. Detroit is not quite the same kind of urban core city that Chicago and Toronto are, and it lacks the clientele base, density, and walkability that have aided in the rise of noodle shop popularity in other cities. It is a college town, so the kind of restaurants that do well here are the kind that are affordable for students, and it is also a city with a significantly large Asian population (14.4 percent as of 2010), meaning that there is a built-in clientele base for a variety of Asian cuisines. 

Which is precisely why celebrated chef Takashi Yagihashi decided to re-establish his presence in southeastern Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Slurping Turtle opened in downtown Ann Arbor in April of this year, marking Yagihashi's first culinary return to Michigan since he left the internationally-renowned Tribute in Farmington Hills in 2005 to accept casino tycoon Steve Wynn's offer to open a high-end Asian-fusion restaurant in the brand-new Wynn casino and resort. No doubt Takashi being named Best Chef: Midwest in 2003 by the James Beard Foundation caught the billionaire's eye. To this day, Yagihashi is one of only a handful of Michigan chefs to actually win the title (though several have been nominated). 

"I spent two years in Vegas," Yagihashi says. "I had a really interesting time and a great time and I learned a lot too, but Las Vegas is a tricky place to raise a family. I think I didn't realize that [initially]." His wife and children missed their family and friends back home in the Midwest and had a hard time adjusting to life in seedy Sin City. "They weren't happy when we moved to Vegas. That's why we decided to come [home]." The restaurant itself, once Wynn's favorite, remained open until 2011, and its closure had less to do with Yagihashi's departure than with other factors.

But instead of going back to Michigan, he and his family returned to the Japanese-born chef's first American home – Chicago. "[My wife and I] both said we were going back to Michigan and Chicago," he says, "but the economy was worrisome in Michigan." He opened the eponymous Takashi in Chicago's Bucktown in 2007, which was a concept in keeping with his refined style and fine dining background and would earn a Michelin star. He followed this up with the fast-casual Noodles by Takashi Yagihashi inside the downtown Chicago Macy's, his first foray into the "fast-cas" concept which was named "One of the Five Best Noodle Shops in America" by Bon Appetit in 2009. 

At the same time that Yagihashi was developing and honing his new fast-casual approach, Korean-American culinary wunderkind David Chang was making huge waves with his ramen-and-pork-bun-focused Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York and quickly built himself an east coast empire under the Momofuku banner. It seemed that, in the struggling economy, the time had come for accomplished chefs to embrace more casual concepts, and Americans who had spent years worshipping at the altar of sushi chefs were ready to embrace other kinds of Asian cuisines. 

"Lots of different cuisines are coming up all over the country," he says. "Lots of different restaurants are showing their own character. Japanese food is very big on sushi; it used to be nobody wanted to eat raw fish. Now even my mother-in-law eats sushi and she never wanted to before. People want to choose what kinds of sushi they want to have – different kinds of rolls, different roe, or they want to go to an authentic Japanese restaurant [and have an authentic Japanese experience] using ingredients from Japan." 

In other words, people's palates are growing more sophisticated and the culinary knowledge and curiosity of the average diner is growing…and they want more. 

Yagihashi's fast-casual concept evolved into Slurping Turtle, a full-service casual Japanese comfort food restaurant with communal seating. It serves ramen, items cooked on a bincho grill, and sashimi. He didn't want to limit himself to just noodles like a traditional ramen shop. 

"I'm a very selfish person!" he laughs. "When I go to a restaurant I want to be able to order different things and have a drink." 

Though he is excited by what he does in fine dining, he says, "On my days off I like going somewhere with my kids and wife. It can be a little difficult to find somewhere to go. So I thought, why don't we open something that's not pretentious? Not the [upscale French] fusion, a little more authentic, not cheap but more reasonable so people can come once or twice a month. I didn't want to downsize my career or the dining experience; I just wanted to have something fun, more affordable, more hot home-cooking. Street food is more interesting to me sometimes." 

The downtown Chicago restaurant opened in 2011, followed by Tabo Sushi inside the first Chicago outpost of Farmington Hills-based Plum Market in 2013, followed by the second Slurping Turtle location, in Ann Arbor, in 2014. 

"My business partner Raj Vattikuti is from Michigan," says Yagihashi. "He was a very special customer at Tribute; that's how we met. He kept asking me, 'When are you coming back to Michigan?' That was one of the big reasons we came back." 

This time, though, he chose Ann Arbor. "We chose Ann Arbor because it's a very international town with the University of Michigan," he says. "When I was running Tribute on my days off my family would go to Ann Arbor, go to the farmers market, go to Zingerman's." 

The demographics of the city also sold him. "We looked at the population," he says. They found that Ann Arbor has that 14.4 percent Asian population, which boded well for the success of Slurping Turtle. 

"All other races will come too, but [we knew] the Asian population would support us. Plus with all of the [Japanese] automobile companies located around Ann Arbor, basically the culture is there." 

His appeal was definitely wide-ranging. Under Yagihashi, Tribute became one of the finest restaurants Michigan has ever known. While he was well known and respected in the area, having ran Tribute for 10 years, but then appearances on Iron Chef America and Top Chef Masters catapulted him into the mainstream of foodie fame. When Slurping Turtle opened in Ann Arbor, the restaurant was on an hour-plus wait-list for weeks. 

In his mind's eye Yagahashi sees Slurping Turtle as a place where students can go during the week, get a bowl of ramen and study, then come back again with friends and spend a couple of hours there and get some nice sakes, then come back again when their parents visit and order sushi and sashimi. So far, he says, it has been drawing a very diverse crowd from students to people aged 35-55, which is exactly what he wanted. 

Yagahashi also emphasizes how he's thrilled to come back to Michigan after eight years and see all the chefs he used to work with become so successful. But the ever-humble self-trained chef says, "I have to be careful. I don't want people to think I'm coming back like, 'I'm the big guy; I'm the big chef.' I have to be careful, really." 

Luckily there are plenty of noodle-starved Michiganders willing to toot his horn for him.

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer extraordinaire. She is primarily known for her former blog, Eat It Detroit.

All photos by Doug Coombe