What's In A Name ?
Literally meaning "white" as an adjecteive or "castle / house / domain" as a noun in Japanese, there could not be a more perfect name. This charming gem of a restaurant is hidden in plain site in the metro Detroit suburb of Novi. I'd been here twice before with friends but wanted to bring my son here as he loves all things Japanese and we're preparing for our upcoming trip to Japan.
Shiro Restaurant & Sushi Bar
43180 W. Nine Mile Road
Novi, MI 48375
248 348 1212
The History .
The mansion was originally built in 1929 by Charles Rogers, a "canned milk" magnate (yes, that's a thing). The restaurant is nestled in a rare green plume of trees on the northeast corner of 9 Mile & Novi Raod. When you pull up the steep drive to the house and look left, you're transported back in time. (Don't look right though, it's a chainlink fence and a few idle delivery vehicles -- pure current-day Midwest suburbia).
The city of Novi, founded in 1825, was named for train stop No. 6 (NO. VI or NOVI), the sixth stop between Detroit and Lansing. According to history, Rogers and his wife -- in anticipation of their daughter's wedding -- invested a tidy sum to rebuild the 12-foot curved oak banister staircase into its now grand splendor, straight out of the antebellum South (think "Frankly my dear . . ."). No doubt, Rogers imagined walking his daughter down the staircase, arm-in-arm, to the great admiration of all his guests as he wrote the check to the local carpenter. The wedding took place, but it turns out the parents were the ones left at the alter. The night before the wedding, Rogers's daughter and fiancé ran off and eloped. It has been said that Rogers died shortly thereafter of a heart attack. Some say he died of a broken heart. Rumor has it his and Mrs. Rogers' spirits still roam the attic late at night.
The Experience .
We made reservations for seven at 18:00 several days before. The woman on the phone was polite and pleasant, but somehow a little cavalier ("No problem! . . . click!" instead of a more polite "Thank you" and "good bye."). Her laisez-faire farewell left me with a sneaking suspicion all wasn't exactly right with the reservation. I called back the next day to add people and it turned out she had us down for the wrong date. No worries, though, they could still squeeze us in on the original day.
We arrived on a rainy night, unseasonably warm for Michigan in January. The house was still all aglow with Christmas décor, which made it ever more inviting as we stepped out of the misty rain under the awning and into the front vestibule. We did the typical shuffle with another party to slip into a tight corner and allow the front door to close. The original architecture true to form. The host, dressed in a casual t-shirt, knit lapel jacket, and jeans, while not rude, was without a smile to spare. Again, a little confusion over the reservation, but after pressing his finger down the rows of the scribbled page and without looking up, "Oh yes, there you are."
We weren't seated as much as pointed in the general direction of a small windowless room off the end of the house (the dark annex space to the far left in the banner photo at the top). It felt overly warm and cut off from the rest of the space. Understandably, this is an old house and not many places to seat a party of seven, but I was admittedly a bit disappointed. It wasn't until we ventured upstairs that we saw a sufficiently spacious room with full charm and a view of both the upstairs and down that seating envy truly set in. Truth be told, the entire house from a distance is replete with architectural charm. From a drive by or with a squinty blur, the place looks silky smooth. Up close however, there more than a few cracks and crevices that could benefit from a caulk gun and a coat of paint. One of our guests pointed out a cobweb in the chandelier. Compared to the rest of the restaurant, even, our little space was worse.
The fact that we chatted and were waiting on one final joiner does not negate the fact 20 minutes went by and not a person acknowledged or greeted us in that time. I had to ask the host to ask if anyone would be waiting on us. Having served in restaurants, I know this is not the server's fault. Not being told you have any table waiting on you for 20 minutes is problematic. Having a party of seven waiting on you is the kiss of death. Once the young man rushed in, all pleasant and apologetic , we laughed it off and reassured him it was all OK. But still.
The Food .
Full disclosure : I'm a bit xenophobic when it comes to Japanese food. I don't have enough experience to know what I like or even what everything is. It scares me a bit. We're heading to Japan in March, however, and I wanted to expand my comfort zone before we go. My son is a professed Japanese food connoisseur. We ordered two bottles of Moscato, a split of prosecco, two Sapporo beers, and Cokes for the boys. We ordered several appetizers and small plates for the table : cucumber kimchi, vegetable tempura, spicy garlic shishito pepper, roasted garlic mushrooms, and lobster & crabmeat spring rolls. The portions, presentations, and flavor were all excellent.
The lobster & crab roll spring rolls were textured enough to taste small lumps of meat in a sweet / savory seasoned base; the outer wrapper crackled a bit when you bit in and gave to a chewy softness as you moved through. The rolls were beautifully cut on the bias, exposing the inner filling, and nested in beautifully-piped potato purée rosettes so that that tapered wedge angled up into the air. I'm pretty sure the mashed potato base was rehydrated potato flake. It was super smooth and more consistent than any real potato purée could hope to be. Scrumptious. The order served four. When one guest left to take a work phone call, I knew Brad eager to get at that last piece, but too polite to ask. After 15 minutes and our missing guest nowhere in sight, I simply passed it over to him, permitting him to dig in. Ravished.
We then ordered hoisin racks of lamb, filet mignon with teriyaki demi-glaze, the sushi / sashimi dinner, and miso chicken (a few of us had the same thing). The rack of lamb was perfectly seared, mottled with caramelized brown bits and tender and juicy inside. The hoisin was sweet and tangy but mellow enough not to overwhelm. It occurred to me that I had never ordered lamb to temperature before. I like all cuts of beef medium rare and I ordered this medium. Brad's medium-rare fillet was cooked perfectly. When I asked my son what he specifically liked about the sushi / sashimi dinner he devoured, he simply said "the taste."
Where's the Food Photography ?
Dear Instagram foodie friends : if you can't photograph something nice, don't photograph anything at all. Food does not look good photographed in dark restaurants, neither by natural light nor by flash. Your choices are underexposed mustard-marred yellow or fully-flashed frostbitten white. I'm not going to inflict that kind of visual libel onto the restaurant and I'm not going to do that to you. Check out the restaurant's web site for moderately better food photography and some pretty good crowdsources shots in public reviews.
The Bottom Line .
The bill was $344 including tax but before tip for seven people. The restaurant adds a 3% credit card surcharge but says they'll refund the amount the if you pay cash. Kudos for the fair warning when you walk in and again on the bill, but a little tacky at this price point if you ask me. They'd get more good will by simply rolling that $10 back into the costs.
Shiro is long on food, a little too short on service and atmosphere. I so wanted to run home for my ladder and paint chips and chat with the host about my proposed total interior overhaul. I so wanted to give the stoic and stressed out waitstaff a big hug and encouraging pat on the back ("It's going to be OK!"). I personally wanted to ask the waiter for a hammer and nail to hang a picture, ask the host if I could rearrange the host stand, or shout into my phone as loudly as I could, "Siri . . . play something. Anything!"
Shiro misses the Konmari mark. The Japanese are master minimalists and impeccable at presentation, so I'm not sure how Shiro gets this so wrong. Errant water pitchers here, stacked plates over there, a tape dispenser lingering on a cart, random beer bottles flanking the majestic staircase. It all lends a cluttered, slovenly look. Wine set atop a sagging plywood wine storage is the opposite of merchandise display. Seduce me. Just a little. Help me help you.
Let's all agree not to talk about the industrial handle plunge flush toilet in the single crumbling bathroom in the whole place (from what I can tell). I'm not certain if rules apply to a 100-year-old renovated home, but I can only assume it meets ADA.
And while pleasant, the service lacked in the fine points of social grace. Dining out is theater, after all. Dazzle me even a little and I'm easy. Brad can tell you that. Wine bottles are meant to be presented, opened, and poured, not plunked on the table for the guest to deal with on their own. (Even screw top ones.) Linens are meant to be gently folded into origami or placed gently in front of each guest, not handed to the nearest person in a wadded stack and told to "pass them along." No one is happy when having to ask thrice for a drink refill, even if done in discreet half whisper and a smile.
In Sum .
Having had three experiences here, I would definitely stop by for lunch or a light round of drinks and hors d'oeuvres at the bar, as I've done in the past. I'm not sure I'd go all out on a full meal like this again. The service and atmosphere just don't pull their weight. Nothing is more confusing than a "fine dining" establishment with a fast casual approach. I'm not sure Shiro knows who they're trying to be.
So, while the food is totally worthwhile, maybe Rogers's daughter got it right : carryout is the way to go. The food is spectacular but none the worse eaten at home in fuzzy socks and a messy bun. Like Mr. Rogers and his beautiful staircase, I went with high hopes of a beautiful night, but left a little brokenhearted in the end.
Happiness = Experience / Expectation .
6.5 out of 10