If you live in Ann Arbor, you probably know the place I'm talking about - on State St., just North of the State Theater? Unfortunately, I wasn't thinking when I went there to take a pic of the storefront, so for now you'll all have to settle for looking at the pixely Google street-view of it:
If you're wondering if there's a correlation between the name and Miyazaki's children's story "Totoro", there is.
For those who don't know, Totoro is equivalent in Japanese culture to Winnie the Pooh, here. The story is of two young girls, and their ability to, as children unhindered by adult 'sensibilities', see small and harmless spirits which appear in the form of dust bunnies in the house and small rabbit like creatures outside. The king of these spirits is Totoro, a very large form of the smaller spirits, who is clearly soft and friendly, and happy to be of help when the girls need him. The father of the children, when they tell him about Totoro, says that he is the king of the forest and that they are very lucky to have him watching over their family.
(One of the girl's first encounters with Totoro, and probably one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, where she lends the clearly in-need king of the forest her umbrella. He becomes so delighted by the sound of the rain pitter-pattering on it that he leaps up and down to shake the branches on the trees, creating an even greater downpour, and making him grin ear-to-ear as he is so famous for doing.)
Why the restaurant is named after Totoro, I don't know, but that is where it gets its name. I have very fond memories, having grown up watching Miyazaki's film, but try not to let it bias me toward the restaurant.
So, here's the story. For Labor Day weekend, The Brother was in town to visit, and while we'd gotten to see each other a little over the weekend it wasn't until Monday that we had some time together, just the two of us. Now, for those of you who care, my brother and I are four and a half years apart in age, but sometimes I swear we're twins. Secret, not-the-same-age, twins. Stealth twins. Ninja twins. I'm getting carried away... the point is, we get along like... like two things that get along really well (must've used up all my adjectives in the last sentence, wow).
Anyway, whenever he comes to visit it's usually a bit of a rush to spend time with everyone he wants to spend time with, and it seems a rare and precious opportunity for us to be alone - but when we are, there's one thing we always, always must do, and that is get sushi.
The Brother and I are the only two in our family who are real fans of sushi, and while I do have other friends who aren't opposed to the stuff, I've always thought of him as my 'sushi buddy'. In fact, I remember once getting sushi alone and calling my brother up to say I was thinking of him, only to have him return my call a moment later to say he couldn't answer his phone because he, too, had just been eating sushi. Twins, right?
Okay, so I should probably mention that the ideal way to get sushi (assuming it's not a per-piece or buffet-style place), is to go with at least a few people, order several different rolls so everyone gets to try a bit of everything, and then split the bill. This way you get the most variety at the most reasonable price. This logic, however, doesn't stop my brother and I from having our 'us' time. We order a few rolls - usually a favorite or two and something new - and let it be a little pricy, because it's such a treat.
Back to the story: Monday afternoon, after a morning jog around campus, The Brother and I decided to stop in on one of our local favorites - Totoro's. There are a few Sushi places right around campus, and though I haven't tried them all, I've found Totoro's to be one of the best. The quality is good (very important with sushi) and the prices are more than decent for what you get. Often times when it comes to rolls, sushi place will have unique-to-the-area options, like the Michigan roll, the UofM roll, or other creative things specific to the restaurant itself. Often times the less traditional ones are some of the best tasting, and it's always fun to see what they've come up with and know you're trying something you can't get elsewhere. Totoro's menu is full of these, like the Yam Yam, the Black Dragon, or the aptly named "Yummy", and it seems they keep coming up with more.
My Brother and I sat down, still panting from our jog, and quickly checked off four items from their list of rolls - a spicy salmon (one of our go-to's), an eel and avocado (one of my favorites, especially at Totoro's, is the eel tempura, but after the run I wanted to keep things a little lighter), a Michigan roll (in honor of my brother being back in town), and something I'd never tried before - the Totoro Tower:
(Forgive the sub-par photos, as all I had on hand was my brother's iPhone.)
The Totoro Tower is a layer of spicy salmon, topped with avocado and tobika (a small, mild roe, colored with wasabe, yuzu, and squid ink), all atop a bed of rice. It looks like a lot of rice for the amount of stuff on top, but with the sauces this dish turns from okay to total temptation. The brown sauce is their eel sauce, one of my favorites - it's sweet and savory in an almost hoisin-like way, and pairs perfectly with the rest of this dish (or with tempura, as it is often served). The light green is the wasabi, which is milder than it sounds but offers just the right hit for the tower of rice. The final sauce is their 'spicy' sauce, which is typical for their spicy salmon, and gives a very pleasant level of heat along with an amazing amount of flavor. The Tower was a pretty awesome amalgamation of these three, and will definitely be something I order again in the future.
(From top to bottom: Eel/Avocado (with eel sauce), Michigan roll (with wasabe sauce on either side), and Spicy Salmon (with spicy sauce) - it is complete coincidence we ordered three rolls which come, individually, with the same three sauces as the tower)
The rolls were as I expected, delicious, and somehow between the two of us we managed to finish off the entire tower and all three rolls, and left feeling just a little too full. Ahhh, sweet satisfaction!
So, Ann Arbor is a pretty artsy, eclectic place, with many wonderful restaurants and local staples (like Zingerman's, Angelo's, and Afternoon Delight, to name a few), and while there are quite a few sushi places, it seems there aren't too many that stand out, or seem up to par with the quality I'd expect from my home town. I don't pretend to be a sushi connoisseur, by any means, but Totoro's is one of the few I've found that lives up to the rest of what Ann Arbor has to offer.
Looking at other reviews I'm finding a lot of people agreeing with me, and according to the UrbanSpoon, out of nearly 100 votes over 90% are positive, making it one of the top three sushi places in the area.
Another very cool feature of Totoro's, which I've just discovered, is their website, which allows you to pick and choose from their lunch, dinner, and roll menu and order for delivery online. Sushi delivered to my door? Yes, please! I haven't seen very many restaurants (besides pizza places) utilize the whole online-ordering thing with any kind of effectiveness, but sushi seems like the perfect medium for it. I'll just have to see if their service for delivery is as prompt and polite as their wait staff.
I should probably mention(/rant) that I've heard some people complain how it's a "Japanese" restaurant, but is run by Koreans. This doesn't bother me in the least. I mean, people complaining about it bothers me a little, but the fact of the matter is that the quality is good, the taste is good, and I don't care if there are Mexican's serving me pizza or Chinese making falafels, if the food is good, it's good, and that's that. Again, I don't claim to be an expert in Japanese cuisine, but I do think I'm qualified to say when something makes my taste-buds happy, and Totoro's has given me no reason to complain. (End rant.)
So, it was a good Labor Day. One of the best. Time off work, a beautiful day, a long jog, and time spent with The Brother over a plate of raw fish. Maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but definitely mine.