Japanese pub Antihero hits the ground running

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

In storytelling, the anithero is the guy who saves the day when it's least expected. 

A Glenn Barr mural runs the length of a wall of tables at Antihero.

In downtown Ferndale, Antihero is the hottest thing since the last hot thing, and as expected, hit the ground running after opening in late November. 

It's billed as an izakaya, a Japanese pub that serves small plates and shareable dishes to enjoy while exploring an expertly crafted bar program. If the "f-word" on the menu (more on that later) and the DJ booth didn't give it away, this is a bar: a place for adults to enjoy a variety of alcohols. 

Antihero — from the same restaurant group behind Public House next door and Ferndale's always-packed Imperial (tequila bar and SoCal cuisine) — serves Japanese whiskeys, sake bombs, sake flights, soju cocktails (Korean liquor) and affordable wines from Japan, Spain, France and the states. There's a lot going on and so much of it is really fun; think cocktails served a fish-shaped glass or a drink for two served in a copper kettle. 

Diners that come in pairs or solo may be seated at the bar, at high top doubles near the bar, or communally at one of four tables that seat eight people, strangers or not. Bigger groups may get lucky to be seated in one of seven enclosed booths that surround the dining area. These seem to be better suited for conversation as Antihero gets louder as the night goes on, as bars do. 

A young, informed and largely enthusiastic staff buzzes around the dining room constantly, which is overlooked by a 33-foot mural by Detroit artist Glenn Barr inspired by a Japanese big-city nightlife scene. More visually stunning walls are found in the restrooms, which are bursting with color murals designed by artists Shania Kasztelan and Kadee Spangler. Take a selfie. 

The food menu is broken into starters, raw dishes, vegetables, "dumplings, rice, buns," noodles and hibachi. Each of these are very moderately priced on their own if you're just looking for a snack, but for a meal it's recommended to get several and to share. (Even the ramen is served with extra bowls and spoons. Do your best; it's still soup.)

One of the starters, the pickle plate, is really a small bowl of unspecified items that may include vinegar-ed root vegetables, sliced cucumber and whole okra. Don't eat it all when it's served, let this bowl hang out on your table and take a few briny bites in between dishes. 

If you're comfortable with your dining partner(s), the smoked chicken wing is a sweeter start, if a bit messy. Served as whole, tender wings (you get two), the crispy skin is doused with the right amount of a sweet, citrus-y house barbecue sauce. 

For something more interactive, the hibachi grill is a good ice breaker and easy to use. Order a selection of skewered vegetables, fish or beef. Each comes in a set of three, except the dry aged waygu steak, which is a pair of bite-sized marbled cubes. That runs $8, not bad if you were interested in trying the trendy cut without committing to an expensive meal. 

All hibachi items are cooked by you, the diner, at the table on a small pile of hot coals. These items are served with a small bowl of togarashi (chili pepper and other seasonings), more salt than you'll ever need and Antihero's "f--- yea" sauce, which is a glistening pot of a mix of condiments like pickled garlic ponzu, kimchi juice and chili-ginger salsa. It's more sweet and earthy than spicy or shocking. 

Noodles are everything right now in Metro Detroit, with the recent opening of a handful of ramen and udon shops around town. Antihero offers five "noods" dishes, including ramen hero. The broth has a heavy soy sauce taste that's warm and savory up front and then hits you with a beef flavor and just a hint of heat on the back end. The light noodles mix with a big slice of pork belly, plus bok choy, shiitake mushroom, seaweed, green onions and a perfectly-cooked, marinated six-minute egg that's nice and jelly-like in the center with a tan-colored white. 

Other menu favorites include the kitchen sink fried rice, which is a mix of various Asian and other influences and has pork belly, spam, edamame, kimchi, American cheese and a runny egg. The udon noodle dish kimchi "carbonara" is also a hot item. 

The most surprising dish that I shared at Antihero, though, was the black kale salad. Ordered as an "I should eat a fresh vegetable today" afterthought, it ended up being a favorite at the table. The kale, along with avocado, cilantro and peanuts, are tossed with a carrot-ginger ranch, giving the dish a contrast of textures from creamy to crunchy and a tiny bit of heat. 

The menu's "veg" section is where most of the vegetarian and vegan dishes live, including a favored "chicken fried" tofu with kewpie mayo, soy-maple caramel, jalapeno, Japanese seasoning furikake and, again, cilantro.

Antihero's executive chef Nick Erven also offers a miso ramen bowl that's vegan and a black garlic chickpea fritter. 

A small dessert menu has three dishes, each $8, including a Japanese spin on old school baked Alaska with a matcha cake and tangy passion fruit curd, but the black sesame ice cream was too hard to spoon into. Could have easily been a one-off misstep.

Antihero is part of a mini wave of izakayas happening right now. Katsu Detroit opened last week in Woodbridge and Corktown pub Nancy Whiskey's has an izakaya pop-up night on Jan. 13 and Feb. 10. 


Twitter: @melodybaetens


231 W. Nine Mile, Ferndale

(248) 307-7383


Hours: 4-11 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 4 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat. and 4-10 p.m. Sun. Bar open until midnight Tues.-Thurs., 2 a.m. Fri.-Sat. and 11 p.m. Sun. 

Prices: Starters $5-$6; raw items $10-market price; vegetables, $7-8; mains $8-$16; hibachi, $2-$8; dessert, $8; cocktails $11-$13; wines $8-10 per glass and $32-$38 per bottle. Subject to change. 

Reservations: None, walk-ins only. If there's a wait, they will text you when your table is ready. 

Noise level: Moderate to loud

Accessibility: No barriers 

Parking: Metered city lots and street parking