Korean bibimbap is a comfort food that transcends seasons, borders and cultures. While there are innumerable iterations, all are united by a cushion of warm steamed rice garnished with colorful veggies, maybe some meat, and often a fried egg. And then there's the sauce, a pungent and fiery chili paste that gets stirred into the rice along with everything else.
The version at Ninja City comes close to those prepared by standard bearers in the area, save for a few setbacks. While nobody expects the crispy-crusted bottom that comes courtesy of the sizzling ceramic bowl in the traditional dolsot bibimbap, ours was cold through and through, from the rice, to the bowl, to the sauce on the side. And that sidecar of sauce wasn't gochujang, which has a magical way of uniting all of the flavors, but a thin soy-based elixir.
Diners who go to Ninja City expecting to find the most authentic versions of their favorite Asian food will likely be disappointed. Spice levels are dialed back, sauces are toned down, and textures often muted compared to what one might find in Chinatown. But it was never owner Bac Nguyen's intent to be the definitive voice on all foods Asian. His goal from the jump was to create an informal space with a distinctive personality where customers could relax, have fun and enjoy creative food, only some of which is Asian-inspired.
Ninja City has evolved considerably since it opened four years ago in University Circle. And when it relocated to Detroit Shoreway this summer, it used the opportunity to shift even further into the "neighborhood bar with food" category. Folks who pop in for a post-theatre or pre-flick bite these days can ping-pong between edamame and mozzarella sticks, pho and mac and cheese, banh mi and po' boys. While it's pointless to take a hard stand against a well-built hamburger with tater tots, one can't help but lament the watering down of one of the few truly unique, genuine and personal concepts out there.
I really wanted to dislike the chicken and waffles ($12.95) on principal, because who needs another place selling chicken and waffles, but the dish won me over. Crackly crusted fried chicken sat atop a base of pitch-perfect Belgian waffles: crisp, airy, slightly sweet and golden-hued. All the dish needed were splashes of maple syrup and house hot sauce to make it sing.
One of the best ways to kick off a meal here is with a bento box, filled with three ($11.95) or four ($14.95) different snacks. Ninja City has always twisted and fried exemplary spring rolls and the move hasn't affected them one iota. The thin-jacketed pork and cabbage pot stickers should be in that box as well, joined by either some sauce-slathered wings or spicy shrimp quesadillas. The mozz sticks ($4.25, $3 with a meal) are solid – well-seasoned, golden brown, cracker-crisp, molten core – everything a cheese stick aspires to be. A bowl of tom yum soup ($4.25, $3 with a meal) is fresh, flavorful and comforting, but lacks the familiar pungent kick of fish sauce.
Shortly after he made the decision to relocate Ninja City, Nguyen announced that he was closing Bac, his flagship spot in Tremont. Naturally, the menu offers popular dishes from there as well, either as regular menu items or fleeting specials. The silky smooth green curry ($14.95) – a "throw-Bac special" – is loaded with crisp-tender zucchini, peppers and shrimp in a mildly spiced coconut scented sauce. For the opposite of meekly spiced, snag an order of the bold kim chi noodles ($14.95), another Bac classic that occasionally makes an appearance. Slick glass noodles are tossed with kim chi, your choice of meat or seafood, and vegetables in a tart and spicy sauce.
You can't go wrong with the kitchen's takes on edamame, steam buns, pho, ramen and banh mi sandwiches. The Korean rice bowl with steak and egg ($13.95), apart from being too chilly, is decked out with sprouts and kim chi and scallions and julienned veggies and seaweed and a properly fried egg. We never did get around to trying the nachos, burgers, fish and chips, po' boys or etouffee.
Notwithstanding the past four years, Ninja City feels more at home in Gordon Square than it ever did in University Circle. It's less of a destination restaurant than a quirky neighborhood tavern. There's a wraparound bar dispensing great beers, wines, sakes and cocktails, and a happy hour that's easy on the wallet. At 70 seats, the space is slightly smaller than the original but it's more cohesive and comfortable.
After an unintended six-month sabbatical between closing and opening day, the longtime crew of cooks, servers, bartenders, managers and principals seem genuinely happy to be back on the job. How can you not be when everywhere you look there are action figures, graphic artworks, arcade games and comic book-style menus?
Disclosure: Dan Zelman, the father of Euclid Media CEO Andrew Zelman, is an investor in Ninja City.