Review: Stylish, hip Zao Jun serves a Pan-Asian feast in Bloomfield Township
Strip mall restaurants can be deceiving. Wedged between a framing shop and boutique that sells jeans called "Rear Ends," Zao Jun may initially seem like a spot to grab a quick bite while running errands.
Just peek inside through the roll-up patio doors, though, and you can see that the bright, contemporary Pan-Asian restaurant is much more than that.
Developed by chef Lloyd Roberts, Zao Jun's menu is a reflection of the Jamaican-born chef's travels. Besides having spent time cooking in Asia, Roberts was also raised in Queens, considered to be one of the most diverse urban communities in the country.
Roberts is also the chef at Adachi, a lush, Japanese-inspired restaurant in a refurbished mansion in Birmingham; both restaurants have the same owners. After opening, he passed the baton to chef de cuisine Kwontrell Stowers, who has made his own tweaks and additions to the eclectic menu.
Zao Jun — said to mean "kitchen god" in Chinese — is more casual than its Birmingham sister restaurant. Along with a full sushi bar, the menu has dishes inspired by Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean cuisine.
Ginger, scallions and a variety of chili peppers are the dominant flavors, and there are literally dozens of dishes on the dense, two-sided menu. Expected starters such as miso soup, crab Rangoon, spring rolls and edamame are mixed in with some on-trend stuff you don't see everywhere, like salt and pepper calamari, bao buns and a burrata and crispy eggplant salad.
Making a meal out of ordering a few small plates, appetizers and sushi is the most fun way to experience this new Bloomfield Township spot, which debuted in May.
The crab Rangoon is the real deal, stuffed with shredded, seasoned crab. Each of the four dumplings are encased in a crispy, golden brown fried wonton shell and served with a sweet and sour sauce that has just a touch of heat.
Another starter in the crab Rangoon family is Zao Jun's chicken money bags. Balls of shredded chicken seasoned with cilantro, ginger and green onion are stuffed in a wonton square and tied with more green onion and fried. It actually looks like a cute pouch of coins that you'd seen in a cartoon. All it needs is a dollar sign stamped on the outside.
I can never resist ordering bao buns when I see them on a menu. Offered here are a braised Angus short rib version and another stuffed with roasted shiitake mushrooms, both cradled in a fluffy cloud of bao. The former was accompanied by cucumber and jalapeño and served in a literally steaming-hot basket with a duck spoon full of sriracha on the side. This was the best bite on one visit: well-seasoned, beefy, warm and soft with a little punch from the jalapeños.
Like the rest of the menu, the entrees pull influences from a variety of Asian countries. A Korean-inspired lamb chop, Singaporean-style noodles and a shrimp and scallop dish are all in a section of the menu titled "Asian grill."
The latter was recommended to me by a server and arrived as two scallops and two large prawns both coated in a strong ginger and black pepper sauce that married well with the four slices of grilled pineapples and pile of micro greens and fried green onions. No complaints about the flavors here, but I do wonder if $25 is a bit steep for four pieces of seafood and a few slices of fruit.
If you're concerned about splurging, consider Zao Jun's happy hour, 2-5 p.m. weekdays, where a lot of the prime menu items are half off, including the wings, edamame, salt and pepper calamari, prime rib-eye slider and select sushi rolls. You can also get a draft beer and shot of Bushido sake for $6.
Zao Jun has a full bar that follows the Pan-Asian theme, with labels from Singapore, Japan, Korea and elsewhere.
I really liked the mocktail list of nonalcoholic drinks, particularly the Thai iced tea, a big orange drink served in a tall glass over ice. It's a balanced vanilla sipper with a light black tea aftertaste and a tiny hint of citrus. There's also a Poke Punch, a citrus-forward nonalcoholic drink served in a Pokémon cup and garnished with a stick of Pocky.
The bar area, which has six televisions, will cater to football fans starting next month when hours expand to open for lunch on Saturday and Sunday.
Formerly a Bagger Dave's, designer Tylor Devereaux did a stellar job transforming the space, which seats about 134. Shades of lemongrass and other greens accent both the dining room and bar area, along with colorful pop art and geometric light fixtures.
Zao Jun reminds me of other modern, art-filled Asian hot spots like Ferndale's Antihero or Midtown's Peterboro. Factoring in its location and size, you will likely have an easier time getting a last-minute table during peak dining hours at Zao Jun than the other two, so consider it the next time you want to share some bao buns and cocktails in cool, cosmopolitan surroundings.
6608 Telegraph, Bloomfield Township
(248) 949-9999 or zaojunnewasian.com
Rating: ★★ (very good)
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., 5-11 p.m. Sat. and 5-10 p.m. Sun. Starting Sept. 7, Zao Jun will open at 11 a.m. Sat. and Sun. for the football season.
Prices: Small plates and starters, $4.88-$15.88; entrees, $14.88-$32.88; sushi/shashimi, $6-$10; hand and cut rolls, $4-$12; specialty maki rolls, $6-$15; mocktails, $4-$6; cocktails, $11-$14; wine/sake by the glass, $9 and up; beers, $5-$12.
Reservations: Accepted, but not required. Reserve on the website, by phone or use the Resy app.
Delivery: Pickup and delivery orders can be placed at zaojunnewasian.com
Noise level: Quiet to moderate
Accessibility: No barriers
Parking: An entire shopping plaza of parking in front
What the stars mean
★ — routine ★★ — very good ★★★ — excellent ★★★★ — extraordinary