Saturday
Feb042012

INTERMISSION | Alamo Drafthouse

 

Thanks again to everyone for the wonderful feedback on my last few posts. It warms my heart. I received another note this week asking for more frequent posts. That too, warms my heart. Unfortunately it's not as easy as I make it look. While I have four posts in varying stages of completion, none are ready. I'm resigned to continuing my current cadence of one long-form post every two weeks. 

That said - and in the spirit of maintaining traffic - I've decided to fill the off weeks with little treasures I find on the interwebs. Have you heard of the Alamo Drafthouse? It's a wonderful movie theater in our Texan Sister City, Austin. A year or two ago they went viral by posting a voicemail left by a patron who had been allegedly wronged. It's priceless (scroll down for the video). 

Well, the crafty folks from Alamo are at it again. They've gone above and beyond by creating a tribute to the Princess Bride. The "Bottles of Wits" are signature house wines designed as an homage to the "Battle of Wits" within the Princess Bride, one of my Top-10 favorite movies. Bravo Alamo Drafthouse. 

via Laughing Squid,  Craft

images via Alamo Drafthouse and Helms Workshop

 

For those of you who never heard nor saw the viral video of which I refer, you're welcome... 

Saturday
Jan282012

Why I Love Mani

 

Ann Arbor’s newest “it” restaurant is Mani Osteria. Since opening last May the well warranted buzz has been constant. To say that I’m a fan would be an understatement. I’m becoming evangelical in my passion for Mani. 

Is it just new-place novelty? Nope. This place is the real deal. According to Mint.com the latest tally is 13 visits for A2GastroBoy. I’ve brought friends, family, clients and co-workers. I’ve eaten 80% of the menu and been waited on by nearly every server. I’ve put Mani through the paces and I stand by my praise. This place ROCKS.

Here’s why.

 

Warning: This is a rambling post. You’ll need to get through 1,300 words on design and service before the first mention of food. If that’s an issue start scrolling.

 

 HISTORY & PHYSICAL PLANT

As I’ve become prone to saying, life is too short to endure ugly.  Thank god Mani agrees. The first thing you’ll notice about Mani is the chic makeover.

 Do you remember the previous tenants?  The location is almost as good as it gets in Ann Arbor. Still the space sat vacant longer than almost any other property in the downtown district. Most recently is was a furniture rental showroom. Prior to that it was a bookstore.  It’s a curious leasing proposition; too large for many retailers and lacking the expensive infrastructure for foodservice. Anyone wanting to make it a restaurant would need capital, lots of capital. At one point we thought it was going to be a Mellow Mushroom franchise. Than a brewpub. Time and time again prospective business owners passed. When Mani finally signed a lease I half expected to soon hear they’d backed out. Thank god they didn’t.

 The Mani renovation is brilliant. It is a distinctly minimalist aesthetic allowing their food, your dining partner and the outside world, compliments of their wall of windows, to become your focus. Their designer’s attention to detail was meticulous.

 Perhaps the most ingenious design choices were in their approach to separating the bar and dining room while maintaining an open space. The raised floor level and a slight rail are the only structural elements used.  The separation of ambient zones is predominantly established through contrasting design.

 Flooring in the front is crisp tile. In the dining room it’s dull cement. It’s subtle – but speaks volumes to the thought behind every decision.  I’m crazy for the high seats used in the bar. They look like post-war Steelcase furniture from a studio or classroom. Now compare that to the intentionally mismatched low back seats in the dining room. They could easily have been reclaimed from dormitory common areas. Independently they would be gauche – in this space they remain below the sight line allowing diners to focus on the open kitchen’s centerpiece hearth. It’s masterful. Interestingly, the opposing chair styles also neutralize the four-foot height difference, creating a unified through-line. Finally, the wood paneled bar, stacked firewood and discrete curtains add just enough warmth to protect against what would otherwise be a cold room.

 In all candor, the most striking aesthetic in the entire experience though is Sarah, the ever-present Host with her severe bangs and signature red lipstick. She herself is a Haute Couture icon. She effortlessly manages the front door chaos, always smiling, never frazzled. With the seating chart as her canvas, you could easily imagine Mani as her personal design shop in Milan.

 NOISE: Can Mani get loud? Define loud. When you combine tile floors with glass walls and exposed ceilings sound will carry. I consider it lively. It’s actually one of the charms. If you consider it too loud you can always walk your AARP card west a few blocks to the Earle, Ann Arbor’s version of the Regal Beagle, where 50 year old divorces go to slurp mussels and punish their liver. Too snarky? Sorry.

SIDE NOTE: Mani should consider adding translucent decals to the bottom three feet of dining room windows.  It will prevent seated diners from accidentally flashing a crotch shot to sidewalk pedestrians who because of the raised dining room floor walk at exactly eye-to-crotch level.

SERVICE & SERVICEWARE

Now let’s consider service. Great service is no accident. It takes calculated intention and flawless execution.   Mani’s service succeeds in a hundred little ways, all of which accomplishing one massively perfect objective. Let me explain.

On the art of dining…

I hate defined courses. The fact that tradition dictates the order of presentation imposes an arbitrary beginning, middle and end on your meal. It undermines the unique flow of independent social events. And let’s be clear, going to a restaurant is a social event.

I’ve also grown to hate the concept of entrees. I don’t want nor need one huge piece of protein accompanied by a plate-filling starch and an underwhelming after-thought of vegetable. I want to nosh on a cast of characters. I want to have a balanced meal that nourishes my spirit and my body. 

And I want to share. What kitchen table has a separate entrée for each person? It’s not natural. That said, I hate “family style” restaurants. Yes, I relish the shared experience, but economic practicalities force compromises in meal selections. The result is a mediocre meal that accommodates all but thrills none.  On the other end of the spectrum I hate the way tapas has been bastardized in the American dining experience. “Small plates” allow discovery and sharing but most restaurants confine the concept to one section of the menu.  By default they become appetizers.   

Wow. That’s a lot of hate. Here comes some love.

The French take credit for creating the worlds best cuisine.  Perhaps it’s true. But let me be clear, the Italians have perfected eating. 

Once again Mani is masterful in their design as well as execution. The menu has no beginning, middle or end. It presents a variety of inspired dishes, each highlighting a lusty ingredient, within loosely relevant groupings. Food arrives as it is prepared. And everything is presented in a fashion that makes sharing an assumption, not a novelty.  The staff is trained to coach diners through their decisions in both cadence and scale. For mouth-breathing Mall-rat adults it may be intimidating. For me, it’s breathtaking. You achieve the shared experience of “family style” meal without the compromise. You’re also given the opportunity to let you body and mind call the shots on the fly rather than ordering everything at once only to find you’re too full for the last course or that plate-envy has you regretting your choices.

Here are a few additional service-related observations. As a guy who came of age working restaurants, I love studying the architecture of service. Mani, like Frita and many other restaurants at large, has opted to provide diners with large bottles of water at the table. Yes, the bottles are “pretty” but the real benefit is service – wait staff doesn’t have to leave your table to refill water glasses. It also eliminates the ubiquitous condensation-sweaty pitchers that never pour straight.  I’ve also realized that it subtly limits the amount of ice used by the restaurant; a valuable tactic. And speaking of savvy tactics, check out the bathroom.

Have you seen the men’s room at the Chop House? Some well-intended soul thought it would be nice to provide real towels. In theory it is. Here’s the problem; men are pigs. Unless you staff the restroom with a dedicated attendant (more labor, cost), it takes but five minutes to look like a disheveled locker room.  Mani has no towels at all – paper or otherwise. Don’t go hug a tree – I doubt it was a green decision. The benefit of no towels is no mess and no distraction during the dinner rush, which is invariably when the towel dispensers run out. Brilliant.

 SOAPBOX NOTE ON SERVICE: When dining recently with someone I consider a good friend I learned that they ignorantly tip a meager 10%. I was shocked. I’m a 20-percenter. I grew-up in the service industry. Service people work for tips. If you’re reading this post you can afford to tip better. Let us all resolve to tip like a drunken sailor. Make it your goal to over-tip. Then go home, ring-up Kickstarter and donate to some cool art project. Pay it forward. Amen. I now return you to your normally scheduled programming.

MENU

We’re almost ready to talk about food, but first – a self-indulgent debate. Is it Northern or Southern Italian fare?

While praising Mani to a friend recently he asked whether it was Northern or Southern Italian fare.  I’m accustomed to the terms yet I’ve never spent the energy to consider and clearly articulate a distinction. I had no clue how to answer. For a moment I associated the north with more dairy and cream sauce vs. southern being more tomato-based, but that was quickly an irrelevant oversimplification as I considered some conflicting Tuscan and Neapolitan dishes.  So what’s the difference?  To my amusement this friend was also unable to explain. He was hoping I, GastroBoy, would lend assistance. After doing some research on the topic, I found my favorite position statement buried in a discussion thread on Chowhound: 

“…This fallacious nonsense has been foisted on the restaurant-going public. There is no such thing as "Southern" or "Northern" Italian cuisine. At best there is the cuisine of a particular Region in Italy (of which there are 20). In fact many so-called cuisines of Italy may be--and probably are--Province related--or even small areas of a particular Province. …The preponderance of "Italian" cuisine we find in NYC, even the best, can be described the cuisine of the "21st" Region, "NewYorkevese"

Yea - What she said.  For the record, Mani is pretty eclectic-nouveau Italian with dishes representing many different Provinces. Now, to review the menu…

As soon as you meet your server instruct them to put in an order of pickled tomatoes and meatballs post haste. Both have quickly become hallmark dishes. The tomatoes are served with whipped ricotta, tapenade and sliced rustic toast.  They combine to create a perfect, hearty amuse-bouche. The meatballs are epic. Small, single-bite “glory morsels” dressed in a passion-inducing tomato and pine nut gravy. Their warmth is in perfectly balanced contrast to the vinegar-based tomatoes.  And like all meatballs should be, these baby’s are pork and beef.




Stage 2: At this point in the meal I’d suggest another hot dish. There are three in my standard rotation; the Pork Belly, newly added Brisket Stracatto or Cauliflower Soup. The pork belly and brisket are easy to imagine, but the Cauliflower Soup – you need to taste it to understand the depth of its flavor. It’s surprising and stunning. Alternatively, when dining with those who enjoy octopus, the charred Mani interpretation with arugula and lemon is top shelf [when it’s not over cooked].

Next stop – balance out that protein with some more vegetables.  There are two strong options; Beets & Fennel or Prosciutto and Fig Salad served on a bed of spinach. Both rock – and while I will forever be a meat-eater, you can never get enough vegetables.

PIZZAS

The centerpiece of the establishment is clearly the pizza. It’s a moral obligation. Though, to be honest, calling these dishes pizzas feels limiting. It doesn’t capture the magnitude of glory that the chefs have created. This is “Mario Batali Does Pizza.” The dough is light with a hint of sea salt but it’s not truly magic until it hits the wood-fired oven. The hot stone toasts the crust to an airy masterpiece with just the right bite. I’m such a fan of the pizza dough that the toppings seem like a second thought – though they too are amazing. I encourage you to sample many. If you need suggestions, try one of my three favorites: Red Onion & Pistachio, Prosciutto & Arugula or Buratta & Balsamic.

PASTA

You need to understand I grew up in a family that frowned on ordering pasta at restaurants. We had pasta three nights a week. Why would you waste your dining opportunity on something that pedestrian? Still, I’ve now sampled every Mani pasta with exception of  the Garganelli. These are not pedestrian pasta dishes and they stand on their own next to the masterpiece pizzas.  If asked for a favorite I wouldn’t even hesitate. It’s the Papparadella, a broad fettucini style fresh noodle, married with Mani’s version of a meaty Bologenese. Brilliant in it’s execution.

DEBATABLE ITEMS

OK – after all that fawning over the menu let me admit that there are a few items I do not encourage. Had either one been given a different name I’d be telling you how creative they are, but I struggle with their representation of sacred recipes. 

Arancini: By definition arancini are rice-balls, covered in breadcrumbs and baked or fried. 90% of the arancini that I’ve encountered in life have a meatball center, or a uniform rice-meat interior. Most definitely a Sicilian invention, Arancini were a part of my youth. I was once told that the name comes from their shape, resembling an orange. Therein lies the problem.  The arancini served at Mani are peas. Tiny, fried risotto balls. Are they tasty? Yes. Do they satisfy my expectation for arancini? Not even close.  Don’t drop them, just rename them palline di riso. Then challenge the chef to create a truly impressive Arancini, served one per dish.

Caesar: The Mani interpretation of a Caesar Salad arrives with a cracked “farm egg” resting on top. The romaine, finely chopped, is drenched in young Parmesan.  The farm egg is essentially a scotch egg and the runny yolk creates a unique, albeit non-Caesar dressing.  I know someone who thinks it’s the quintessential Mani salad. I’m not impressed with it. All that said, any day you get to eat a white anchovy is a good day.

DESSERT

Here’s where I’m going to take a stand. The deserts at Mani, what few exist, are completely inadequate. I get the intention, and yes, their gelato is good – but some occasions warrant more than a scoop of gelato. Which brings us to the only other dessert – the Cannoli. In a restaurant that prides itself on authenticity, why do they serve the Epcot version of Cannoli? I like the small size, now find some real filling.

 The meals at Mani meander through fields of glorious flavor. Why short-change the sweet ending? I watch other tables. It sure looks like no one’s ordering dessert. Which do you prefer, faster table turns or higher tickets? Here’s a thought – hire some young, hungry pastry chef. Have them create a signature almond cookie and automatically serve it with every cup of coffee you pour. Then find celebrated and sharable items like sfinci or pizzelles and make them spectacular.

Final thought on dessert…can we all agree that Tiramisu is gross? Who wants to eat soggy anything? Thank you Mani for leaving Tiramisu to the Olive Garden crowd. 

THE BAR

You can’t have a great meal without great drink and Mani does not disappoint.

Wine: The name Osteria implies a place of wine and simple food. One would expect the wine list at such an establishment to stand on it’s own – and Mani’s does. I applaud the restraint in scope. Mani is efficient at providing rich choice without creating optional paralysis. Now for the apology, I’m horrible at remembering vintages. If you’re looking for suggestions ask your server. They’re entirely capable. I can tell you that I’ve had a tannin-rich Borolo, a passionately dark Sonoma Cab and archetypal Chianti. And while I did not partake, I once witnessed two friends relish their Pinot Grigio.

Now stop for one minute and consider this…is it possible for an ‘A Scene’ restaurant to survive serving only wine? If it were, Mani is the place with Cojones to pull it off. Alas, this is the Midwest and the homies need their beer and cocktails. Ergo…

Beer: I’ll be frank – this is one part of Mani I simply don’t get. The draft list is a disjointed collection of confused intentions. I’ve always been able to find something drinkable, but in a state that ranks #3 in the nation for craft brewers, why not leverage the local expertise. And Budweiser in bottles? What distributor forced you into that? Clearly this is no beer garden, but may I suggest Mani become the downtown showcase for Wolverine Brewing? The premium lager is a universal pleaser and the more charactered varietals are stunning.  Imagine pairing a brown lager with the Cauliflower Soup. Think about it.

Cocktails: Here’s an area for development as Mani matures. First the compliments…straight pours ordered on the “rocks” are sometimes served on a single impressive “rock,” a 2-inch square of ice. It’s cleaver and stylish.  Kudos too for stocking fine versions of Lemoncello and Grappa.  Now the constructive critique… I find the signature cocktails reaching, heavy on alcohol and light on flavor.  Your bartenders are skilled. If you’re going to make a name for yourself with the mixologist community let me suggest you focus on drinks you’d be served on the Amalfi Coast, perhaps find a way to make Campari appealing.

So there you have it. My mediation on Mani Osteria. Ann Arbor’s newest “it” scene. Did I get it right? Before I leave allow me to pass on one last piece of advise about Mani…Bo Schembechler had a very clear position on athletes going out at night. He said, “nothing good happens after 11:00 [PM].” After my last trip to Mani I’ve adapted Bo’s advice to this, “nothing good happens after two bottles.” You may, hypothetically, fall in Love with a beautiful Cabernet. You may, again hypothetically, indulge that love generously. Head my advice. Don’t order a third. And for god’s sake – if you do, don’t chase said third bottle with grappa. Nothing good happens after two bottles.

But I digress. What’cha think? Have you been to Mani? Are you the Mayor? Did I nail it on the head – or totally inflate mediocrity? Hit the comment button and type something – damn it!

Ciao.

Saturday
Jan142012

ANNUAL SURVEY RESULTS

Has it really been a year? What an action packed festivus of food it’s been.  Ann Arbor is a city on the grow. It’s genuinely thrilling to reflect on all of the food-born excitement from 2011. We added new restaurants, new shops, new farms, Mark’s Carts, Wednesday night Farmer’s Market….the list goes on.  And based on the rumors I’ve heard in the last two weeks 2012 is already shaping up to be another stunning year.

As some of you know, A2GastroBoy was born in the late fall of 2010 while doing some development research.  We had created a survey to gain insights on Ann Arbor diners and gauge the cities appetite for a new concept. A2GastroBoy.com was initially built for the sole purpose of publishing the survey results. Since that time our humble little site and subsequent social media presence (Twitter, Facebook, Fourquare, Food Spotting, iTapped) has grown into a thoroughly gratifying dialogue about food at large and dining in the Washtenaw County Foodplain.  I’m blown away by the sustained traffic and commenting A2GastroBoy generates.

Almost from go, the survey was conceived as an annual ritual, a longitudinal study for monitoring changes in the gastronomic landscape. To that end, I’ve been working behind the scene for the last few months to finalizing the second installment.

And the winner is…

Hold your applause. Before we dive into the results we need to run down some of the survey basics.

1)  Survey Participants: This is a non-scientific study. While we do have a method to our madness, there is very little formal screening conducted on respondents. Participants were solicited from a series of local e-mail lists and word-of-mouth. We do not control the number of haters or mouth-breathing sheep that found the link. Based on the results I have surmised a few subtle shifts in demographics from the first survey. In either case, we’re very pleased with the sample.

2)  The results are entirely useless. As I’m fond of saying, a good analyst can make the numbers say anything. Yes, the results are based on real data, but what you’ll see here is my presentation of the outcome, chock-full of personal bias and opinions.  If you don’t like the story, suck it. Build your own survey. If you love it, I’m available for consulting at a ridiculously high hourly rate.

3)   Inclusion: Each year I field questions about how we arrived at the list of restaurants. There were 59 included in the latest survey. The basis is this…each establishment must be open for dinner, possess a liquor license and reside within reasonable driving distance from downtown Ann Arbor. From that point we add and subtract specific establishments to maintain an entirely subjective sampling of the local dining landscape. 

NEW ADDITIONS: This year we added seven restaurants to the list, 5 were newly opened (or re-opened) and two were added for diversity or sheer curiosity.

  • Class of 2011: Aubree’s, Frita, Mani, Raven’s Club, Roger Monks, Seva, Tio’s

RETIRED LIST: We also said goodbye to five restaurants because they closed or were rendered irrelevant.

  • In memorial: eve, Lord Fox (now Roger Monks), Michael’s Chop House (at the Sheraton), Northpoint (now Aubree’s), Victor’s (At the Campus Inn)

One last logistical preface…The survey was designed to shed light on two facets, behavior and preference – or in layman’s terms, “what’dya do and what’dya like.” There are six basic questions and one long exhaustive rating exercise.  Clean and simple. What in NOT simple, is interpreting the results. Here’s my stab at it.

 

Insight

Whenever you review data you have to consider the source. Perhaps the largest insight I take away is the difference is audience from 2010 to 2011. In 2010 A2GastroBoy had not yet launched so the survey was almost entirely completed by my contemporaries, parents with school aged children. The second time around the survey represents readers. While I did not gather data on age, I would almost guarantee my readers skew younger, with less being parents.  

Attendance & Restaurant Reference Set

Here’s another important guiding insight. Through the glory of data I was able to deduct where folks have and have not dined. That single attribute speaks volumes about our scene.

Most Visited:  It’s fairly intuitive – casual dining - but interesting to it see play out. Note what’s not listed – chain restaurants, save for Mongolian BBQ. It's also curious that half the list is compirsed of establishments founded on beer.

  • Head Scratcher: Mongolian BBQ, really? Is that because we've all been forced to go to a group or department event - or do some people go there on their own free will?  I pray for you all.

Least Visited: Clearly our readers don’t venture beyond downtown. None of the Dexter-Chelsea restaurants have been highly visited.

  • Head Scratcher: Miki? Hmmm. I guess it makes sense. While it was the original sushi go-to in Ann Arbor, it’s been left behind in the proliferation of newer sushi options.

 

 

Now let’s review the specific answers in detail.

 

Q2. Excluding lunch while you’re working, how frequently do you dine out? 

 

A2GastroBoy NotesCheck this out. 70% of A2GsatroBoy survey respondents dine out at least once a week. 34% report dining out more than once per week. Do we know restaurants or what? Also, don't assume we're dined out more in 2011 vs. 2010. I think the change in frequency is more representative of the different survey participants.  

Q3. Again, excluding lunch while you're at work, how much do you normally spend when dining out?

 

A2GasstroBoy Notes: This is pretty consistent. Looks like $30 is the breaking point. 85% of our readers spend 25 or less.  Who's the 2% that spent an average of over $50? I'd like to participate in your bar tab.  

 

Q4. What factors most often determine your choice of restaurants (pick the two most frequent)

 

A2GasstroBoy Notes: OK, time for a confession – this question was a shill. I would have been shocked if “Food / Menu Quality” was NOT the # 1 item. The trick was in forcing folks to pick two items. The secondary preferences will start filling in the story. Remember this in question 6.  Note how "Kid Friendly" was so important in 2010 and fell off the map in 2011. Again, evidence of a different demographic in the second round.

 

Q5. When you think back on your dining experiences during the last year, what was the purpose for those outings (pick the two most frequent)

 

A2GasstroBoy Notes: Nothing shocking, but again, notice how family was replace with friends. 

 

Q6. When choosing between two restaurants with similar menus, quality and prices, the winning choice would most often hinge on the restaurant that offers... (pick just one)

 

A2GasstroBoy NotesThis is my favorite question - for many reasons. First of all, consider this - the #1 rated differentiating attribute for my readers si locally sourced ingredients. That rocks. Not only is it intrinsically wonderful, it also means hipsters read my blog! Real live DamnArbor reading hipsters. Can you imagine Meg Goes Nom Nom readers passing Kroger to buy their produce at Arbor Farms (no offense Meg)? Bless you my people.

The second thrilling point is the resulting importance of Decor and Atmosphere. It matters! The data substantiates my rants on how much the visual world impacts our world. Life is too short to endure ugly - even if the entre is to die for. Be warned restaurateurs - if you don't make the room visually appealing, no level of cheffery will make up for the damage.

 

Q7: The Overall Ratings

Here’s the money shot. What’s the best restaurant in Ann Arbor? Good question. We asked readers to rate each restaurant individually. Then we compared that rating to the percentage of folks who have actually dined there. It's an interesting exercise. So who won? What's the best restaurant in Ann Arbor?

Statistically speaking, Mani Osteria received the highest ratings, 87.2% positive. But 47% of the same survey respondents answered "Don't Know / Never Been." Now consider Zingerman's Roadhouse. It has a dramatically larger pool of diners. 89% of A2GastroBoy readers have eaten there. Their approval rating was 82.3%. Whish restaurant ultimately fairs better? It will be interesting to see if Mani's ratings remain high as more diners visit. To be clear, I LOVE both.

Frankly, I LOVE every restaurant on the list. I couldn't be more proud of the results. That said, I don't believe in ties. There must be a winner. I hereby name Mani Osteria the 2012 A2GastroBoy Restaurant of the year. In the coming weeks I will compile the last nine months of dining notes to help educate the 47% of you who are Mani Virgins.

 And what’s the worst restaurant in town? That’s easy - any chain. Remember how Mongolian BBQ was on the list of top 10 visited restaurants? Well check out the liking score. Less that 10% of Diners at Mongolian rate it favorably. Applebees and Chilis share the honor of lowest liking score. Only 2% of respondents rated them favorably. Don't you love statistics?

 

 

BONUS ROUND

OK - Here's one last bit of fun before we part screens. Have you heard of foursquare (the geo-based social media app, not the playground game)? If you have, you know how trivially important it is to achieve “Mayor” status. As I was preparing this post I decided to investigate the Mayors at each of the top 10 rated restaurants. See if you can match the Mayor to the correct dining establishment. Yes, Jessica S. REALLY is the Mayor at three of our top ten restaurants. Aren't you jealous?

 

PS: If you made it this far you read the entire post - congratulation! Now take the next step and click the comment button below. Tell what what you thought - or give me a scathing flame of a tounge lashing - or cut and paste a witting joke. All are acceptable. Just know that I thrive on feedack. Tommy can you hear me? 

 

Sunday
Jan012012

BREAKING BREAD

WARNING: The holidays have turned Gastro Boy into a sentimental sap. If you're expecting the normally insightful albeit snarky gastronomic critique we've all come to love you may not enjoy this post. If you're one of my sisters, however, you may love it. In either case, I promise to lose the schmaltz and return to form next week. Peace.

 

I have ten brothers. 

To be clear, two are biological and I picked up two more when my mother remarried. All four biological sisters are now married, adding another 4 brothers, and I scored two more by way of marriage. Ten.  For those who are keeping score, I also have ten sisters from varying states of legal and biological binding. There are twenty humans I call siblings. Collectively we’ve also spawned twenty-one off-springs for the coming generation. They’re one louder. 

While I have twenty siblings, we’re not all close. How many of you can say that you intimately connect with twenty people? I’m not sure we’re wired for that. In today’s world it’s simply not practical to stay in touch with a squad of geographically dispersed and socially diverse individuals. Still, we’re family.

That’s where the holidays help (or hurt depending on your reliance on pharmacology).

Every year, or at least every alternating year, the majority of this mob converges in Southeast Michigan to reunite, celebrate the holidays, and participate in the annual ritual of passive, sometimes outright aggressive, psychological warfare.  Strike that, I mean love.

In my biological family, Christmas Eve is the pinnacle. Two magical things happen on the 24th. We feast and we gift. And regardless of your preference, both are prizes worth 364 days of anticipation.

To focus on the feast, I’d tell you that historically the menu was entirely predetermined. We’re Sicilian. Like any culture, we have specific foods that accompany each holiday. And in the hierarchy of holidays, Christmas Eve is the Oscars.  There’s a defined cadence of pomp and circumstance. Starting in early afternoon, we graze through course after course of family history.

Or at least we used to. Therein lies the challenge of my story.  History.

In the utopian world of the Normal Rockwell, generations of families live and work together. Traditions, and in my case recipes, are passed on seamlessly. But I didn’t grow up in a Rockwell painting. In my family, like every other family that exists in the real world, we encountered life. We encountered loss.  In a short succession of time, my father, and then his parents became deceased. My siblings and I were not yet fully grown, and as a result, had not yet fully taken on the knowledge and duties of family tradition.  

 

Family

 The architecture of a family rests on the theory of foundation. Like a house, the older generations provide the support, the basis to grow. Over time, you build additions. Eventually the house can grow beyond its original foundation. To over use this analogy, at some point you may even find the original structure obsolete and tear it down, leaving only the new, bigger, better house.

In my family the foundation was removed before the addition was complete. We were forced to take shelter in multiple encampments. Some stayed close, some moved away. We grew. Years passed and lives moved on.  I’m sad to admit it, but on a social level, many of my siblings have become strangers. No matter the distance though, each holiday season we come back together.

What does this have to do with Food? Well, as it relates to food there was a gap in the generational through-line. We stopped sharing many of the traditional meals. Food was still a celebrated icon, but we adapted. Rather than spending the hours and energy trying to recreate the family recipes we celebrated holidays with new foods. Beyond the holidays we continued to eat well, but we weren’t eating at home, we weren’t eating together and we weren’t eating the food of our family.

Fast-forward twenty years.

Through the grace of god we’ve all grown to be healthy, well adjusted adults with our own families.  And as luck would have it, another miracle has happened. Driven by nostalgia and familial love, we’ve started recreating the foods from our past. Specifically, the Christmas Eve Feast. One sister has mastered Sfinci, a light potato fritter made on Christmas.  My brother has perfected a lustful rendition of Grandma’s veal cutlets. Another sister spends hours hand-rolling tiny meat balls and steeping broth for the soup along with stuffing dozens of pasta shells with an rich mixture of ricotta.  Add fresh fennel sausage and we’ve almost entirely recreated the Christmas Eve dinner of our youth. Almost. We still needed bread.

The centerpiece of my childhood diet was grandma’s fresh bread. It’s more than just bread –it’s the recipe she brought with her from Sicily. It’s the bread she made for laborers working her father’s farm. It’s the bread we used for pizza. It’s what we ate at every family meal.

You Knead it

Bread is spiritual food. Beyond the biblical references, it’s a cultural icon. In my family grandma would start the dough before we woke-up. It would proof throughout the morning and fill the house with a beautiful aroma as she baked through the afternoon. It’s more than just food. It’s artistically hand-labored love in a nourishing and addicting carbohydrate form.  In my family bread was formed into rolls, either small knots or the prized pepperoni roll; warm and crusty on the outside, soft and dense on the inside.

As an honorary Jew by marriage, I’ve discovered the same spiritual connection with Challah. In my wife’s family Bubbe starts the Challah early each Friday and we wait anxiously to devour it for Shabbat.

Bread’s also a pain in the ass. Excuse my French. Not only does it take hours to mix, proof and bake, it includes a delicate balance of science that can easily frustrate the inexperienced baker.  Even though we had the good fortune of documenting our grandmother’s bread recipe before her death, none of us had the patience or intestinal fortitude to make it. There was the occasional attempt, but the result always left us wanting.

This year, at the coaxing of my brother, I decided to once again attempt grandma’s bread. To be frank, I held little hope. My grandmother baked without exact measurements. The “recipe” I have is nothing more than a general guideline. Having spent many years of my adult life in businesses that include making dough, I knew that matching the flavor and texture of her bread would be near impossible without the same ingredient sources and oven. Still I endeavored to try. Just not for Christmas Eve.

While Christmas Eve continues to be the pinnacle of excitement, there’s another meal quickly becoming just as important. Many of my siblings now live out of state. They don’t have the luxury of returning home for Christmas Day.  To that end, the 25th has become a second, independent event onto itself.  The “local” siblings vacate to spend Christmas Day with their in-laws and the remaining out-of-towners stage a second, non-traditional feast.  As I mentioned, I’m an honorary Jew by marriage, so I’m afforded the luxury of joining in day two of familial eating.

It’s an interesting day. Whereas Christmas Eve is a shrine to our immediate family history, Christmas Day is dominated by mud-bloods, or in-laws. The meal isn’t dictated by tradition, but rather the culinary pursuits of my adult siblings. This would be the time for my bread-making debut.

It’s the Glu[ten] that holds us together

On Christmas Day I began the time-staking task of mixing and proofing the dough. Concerned about texture and yeast activity, I decided to make two separate batches with varying amounts of shortening and water.  Yes, it was a chore, but as I beat my forearms sore kneading the dough I fell into a meditative trance. It was immensely gratifying.

To proof the bread I followed Grandma’s time-honored technique of hiding the dough between layers of blankets.  Anxiously I monitored development until finally it doubled in size, then kneading it and repeating the entire process for a second proof.  This is not a sport for the impatient.

 After literally hours, I transported the dough to my mothers where I cut and formed the dough.  Finally, after a third proofing it was time to bake the bread.  Even without tasting it, we marveled at the familiar shapes and smells. Our olfactory system is one of the strongest senses. The scent of yeast and anise (the secret ingredient) rushed me back to my youth.  But better still, made me feel as though Grandma herself was in the kitchen.

The final product was tremendous. Objectively, not the best bread I’ve even eaten, but the closest thing to Grandma’s kitchen that I’ve tasted since Clinton took office. I relished watching my nieces slather on butter and eat them warm. I swooned with pride at my 80-year old aunt taking a second piece during dinner.  But in all vulnerable honesty, there was one person who’s response was most meaningful.

I told you I have ten bothers. I also mentioned that we’re not all close.  Of the ten, one brother in particular, and one with whom I share DNA, is the most distant of all my siblings. Only four years apart, we’ve forever lived in separate worlds. Our distance is not for lack of trying. On several occasions each of us have made an effort to take interest in the other. Unfortunately these attempts always seem to come at a time when the other is not on the same wavelength – myself included. As time has passed and our lives have become more encumbered it’s become easy to stop trying.  Understand, we’re not enemies, but nor are we friends.  I simply don’t have a relationship with my brother – and I regret it. 

This brother, by chance, happens to be one of the “out-of-towners.” Ironically, he and I have partnered to lead the Christmas day cooking. Weeks before the holiday we exchange tactical e-mails about the meal with little or no personal affect.  He was at my side when the bread came out of the oven. Together we both tasted the result and together we took great pleasure and comfort in the warmth of Grandma’s bread. It was a bonding moment. We were sharing more than bread, we were sharing a piece of our family history.  And while I don’t want to overdramatize the moment, it was a nice.  It reminded me that no matter how distant we are – we share history. We share family.  That’s the spiritual power of bread.

Too hokey? Sorry.

Today is New Years Eve. One week later. I’ve resolved to make bread on a regular basis. As I type, a batch of rolls are proofing in the dining room.  They’ll be part of my culinary contribution to tonight’s revelry.  I pray that my friends, people not related to the history of Grandma’s pepperoni rolls, will find them half as satisfying. Even if they don’t though, I’ll be thrilled. I take great satisfaction knowing that as I bring in the New Year, I do so with the love and history of generations.

Thanks for reading. You may go in peace. But do me a favor. At some point in the coming year, make time to bake bread. If possible, do it with family. I guarantee you’ll appreciate the result.  

Ciao.

Saturday
Dec172011

HOME, HOME ON THE GRANGE

(sorry, I can’t resist a good Pun)

I'm a fan of sit coms - situational comedies. They’re an underestimated art. That may seem like an odd opening for a discussion on the Grange, but stick with me (and NO - the Grange is NOT a punch line). 

As it relates to sit coms I've developed a theory I call 'Season 3'. It's my assertion that all great sit-coms peak by Season 3. In season one the actors are still developing the characters, the writers are finding their voice and the audience is bonding with new friends. Season two is for retooling. Any major flaws are mysteriously resolved and new plot tools are introduced; audiences ebb and tide and actors lock-in the tone of their character. Season three separates the wheat from the chaff. Great casts gel, great writing teams find their stride and the result is comic genius. Lesser shows get canceled. It's a time-honored tradition. 

This fall the Grange began season three. 

Opening a new restaurant has become a high stakes act of masochism. The ante is dauntingly high. An innovative menu isn't enough anymore. You need a celebrated chef to server as the face for the menu. Once the menu is set you need to match the artistry in spirits. Gone are the days of basic well drinks. Guests expect as much thought and care in their cocktails as their food. Finally, you need to showcase the experience in a setting worthy of an Architectural Digest profile. Oh, and if those three elements don't bankrupt your constitution, your staff, both front and back of house, need to be able to execute flawlessly from day one. Word travels fast in the dining community. You only get one chance to impress before you're cast off to parish in the pool of second-choice "backup" reservations. 

The excitement and anticipation on my first trip to the Grange was palpable. There were many reasons to root for the Grange. And while I enjoyed that meal in 2009, the experience was syncopated with "Season One" moments. I've returned to Grange many times since, but only to visit the second floor bar where I can limit my experience to the highlights.

Recently, at the request of some friends who were "Grange Virgins" we returned to the main dining room. Here's a run down...

FOOD

Let me say up front, the food at Grange has been killer since day one. Chef Brandon has created a masterful menu highlighting locally sourced, seasonal foods. His recipes are masterful without putting on airs, and I am constantly impressed with his creative and inspired interpretations of classic comfort foods. His love affair with pig is lustful. But even more attractive, is the way Chef incorporates fish into the menu, delivering hearty, savory joy without appearing as the "token fish." 

As it relates to menu format, Let me also say that I appreciate the approach of "Snacks, Plates and Entrees" as apposed to the traditional "Appetizers, Salads, Entrees." Three coarse meals are so bourgeois. And let's face it - too much food. I rarely order a full entree anymore. It's much more enjoyable to order a host of smaller dishes and/or split entrees. First of all, this affords the opportunity to sample more flavors. Perhaps more importantly however, I've found that it creates a more balanced pace for the social dining experience. If you're a restaurant owner, don't fret about this evolution in dining styles.  Tables still turn efficiently and judging from my Visa bill, the check average hasn't taken a hit. If anything it's grown. 

As I started, everything on the menu has been tremendous. And the menu changes frequently, so don't get hung up on tasting everything I mention. That said, here's a few highlights from our last meal.

Spicy Fried Chick Peas: This has become a Grange trademark. You'll be shocked by how flavorful the warm crusty shell can be, and by how addictive the result becomes. The delicate balance of crispy outside / soft inside is perfectly echoed with the presence of spicy heat and mellow, savory chic pea. 

Smoked Trout Potato Cake with Crème Fresh: Another example of harmonious balance. The pan-fried cake is both crisp and tender. The crème fresh provides contrast without distracting. 

Gnocchi, Roasted Pumpkin and Arugula: Gnocchi and Roasted Pumpkin - two things you may expect to be heavy. Not so. Perhaps the smaller-than-traditional individual gnocchi helped abate the density. Tossing them both with fresh Arugula and brown butter brought out the sweet while simultaneously introducing cool and crisp. 

Popcorn Ice Cream: Serious props to the Pastry Chef. While I was concerned by the name, my table was excited. Popcorn Ice cream? Don't think fake butter salt laden movie popcorn. Think Michigan Avenue Chicago Garrett's caramel corn. The plate arrived with a crazy-good dollop of caramel-brittle ice cream garnished with caramel corn, candied cashews, caramel sauce and an "icicle" of candied caramel. It was beautiful, decadent and delicious; a perfect crescendo for the evening. 

PS: I forgot to mention the Scotch Egg...EPIC.

 

DRINKS

As I've said, having a stellar cocktail menu has become equally important to my restaurant selection. The Grange meets that requirement. They've also reinforced that cocktail menu with perhaps the best bar staff in town, lead by the Mighty Mixologist Jen. I cannot say enough about the skill and charm of this fine steward of spirits. Jen is a case study in knowledge, technique, skill and "bar keep" persona. Though be forewarned, she's a proud Spartan. Here are a few drinks I would encourage.

GGGinger: Fresh Mint, Ginger Syrup, Fresh Lime Juice, Tanqueray and Ginger Ale, garnished with Crystalized Ginger; A lake-side veranda in a glass.

GKB Manhattan: Did I mention the love affair with Pig? The Grange has a wonderfully fresh and lust-inducing cocktail menu, but the piece de resistance is their Bacon Bourbon Manhattan. Chef creates the foundation by rendering the bacon down to liquid fat and meat. Dropping the temperature below the flash point he adds Bullet Bourbon and allows the two to marinate for days in the cooler. At last the separated fat is removed and the remaining elixir is strained. The result is a deep rich and meaty symphony. Add maple syrup, a dash of orange bitters and a brandied cherry and you have pure cocktail genius. Drink it up, but not on the rocks. The chill masks some flavor and the ice dilutes the magic.

SERVICE

Waiting tables is a dicey game - I've done it. No two guests are alike. Everyone has slightly different idiosyncrasies as it relates to dining and a server needs to diagnose and adjust on the fly. To be amazing, it takes equal parts of two separate left-brain / right-brain faculties. Many are masters of one. Rarely do you find both.

IQ (Intelligence Quotient): First and foremost, know the menu. Servers need to be able to answer questions and coach guests through their selections. Then the server needs to have the competence to carry out the tasks of service without issue. These are not innate skills. It takes training and ongoing support from leadership. 

HQ (Hospitality Quotient): Beyond the tactical elements of service, wait people are social stewards. Again, there's more than meets the eye. I tend to be a chatty and engaged guest. Others easily offend when the server is too familial. With either diner, servers need to be humble servants dedicated to making the experience a pleasure. Easier said than done. And frankly, many finer dining establishments seem to believe that mastering the first (IQ) automatically provides the later (HQ). Not so.

The service at the Grange get's top scores for IQ. On every visit they've known the menu as though they conceived it themselves. And clearly each server is experienced. Truth be told, execution was not flawless, but issues were corrected poste haste.  HQ is harder to report. Admittedly, it's more subjective. Will I request the same server? No. But know this, I would not hesitate to bring dignitaries or friends to the Grange.     

ATMOSPHERE

OK - now let's roll-up our sleeves. Food is somewhat obvious. What is not always obvious though, is the impact the aesthetics of a dining room have on the meal. My foodie friends are a finite resource. I have far more friends who judge an establishment by the ambiant experience. "This place is too loud. That place is too cramped."

Consider the word Grange….an association of farmers. What would you expect that dining room to look like? Now consider this photograph.

ABC Cafe in NYC (Photo hoisted from beenthereeatenthat-foodobsessed.blogspot.com)

Stunning, right? It’s both rustic and contemporary. Elegant and earthy, simultaneously practical and ethereal. Genius, just like a farm. Now look at the Grange.  

(Photo Hoisted from lifeisfair.wordpress.com)

Simply put, the dining room at the Grange is an eclectic menagerie of distracting compromise.  The longer I contemplate each element, the more I appreciate how it came to be. Still, I can't help but feel offended for the meal. As I've explicitly stated, the food, drink and service are without error. They demand a better stage. As I stare at this screen I struggle to sugarcoat my blunt, snarky nature. Here's the crux of my angst. 

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Let me be explicitly clear. I have tremendous respect for the staff and management of the Grange. The following stand may include some stinging content. As my father would say as he struck my misbehaving ass with his paddle, "I do this because I love you."

Before I decided to broach this topic I had to do some research. I was only at Bella Ciao (the former restaurant) once. I have no vivid memory of the interior. I felt it imperative to understand what the Grange team inherited. It was slightly more difficult than I expected, but I finally found two images from the Bella Ciao era that clearly illustrate the “before” stage. To that end, let me clarify two serious, and often mis-quoted (including by myself) constraints:

1) The floor was already carpeted; The Grange team did not cover the wood (nor did they uncover it…but more on that in a minute)

2) The wainscoting was already painted. Again, the Grange team was not the instigator.

 With that said, where to begin? Remember when I said I said I love you? Keep that in mind. 

Flooring: This is tough…the fact that carpet has been down for so long implies that the subfloor below is not in showcase condition. Replacing flooring is an expensive proposition. On one level I can emphasize with their original decision to keep budgets low and stick with carpet. But let's be honest - that's betting against success. And the hideous office carpet chosen looks like it came in rolls hanging in isle 5 at Lowes.  You've made it past the three-year mark. Breath a sign of relief, get a SBA loan and replace the floors!

Table & Chairs: Here's another decision I can only attribute to small start-up budgets. The chairs were clearly inherited with the lease. Again, I understand. But understanding does not beget approval. The caramel wood backs match nothing in the room - literally or figuratively – too light to pair with the rich brown painted façade, too dark to bond with the light birch booths and the banquet rail. What’s worse, the chair seats are covered in tired and uncomfortable cushions. Final thought on table and chairs….do you have the table cloth to cover unsightly tables, or because you’re trying to sheesh-up the joint? I may generate debate on this idea, but I believe table cloths smack of 1980. When you fix the floors, order new furniture - better yet, have it commissioned by local artists. 

 Walls & Art: We've already established that the woodwork was painted long before the Grange. So I actually applaud their ability to work with it. While a more fashionable diner may note that Brown and Blue is entirely last season, it works. Here's what doesn't work - the frameless canvases of vibrant photography. While independently beautiful, they are entirely counter-culture to the muted blue and the colonial woodwork throughout. And WHY are one front wall’s photos color, one black-and white? It's unbalanced. The name Grange conjures such vivid and implicit imagery that the color photography undermines its brilliance. Consider rusty old farm implements. Even empty, but ornate frames could add more.  Does brick lay beneath the plaster?  Since you're ripping up the floor, wanna take a swing at the walls?

OK – I’ve said my peace. And while I stand by each word, I feel icky. It’s time for a compliment… I love the paper flowers that adorn each table. They're beautiful - simultaneously telegraphing handcrafted care, sustainable frugality, and support for local artisans. Bravo.  Let me also say that I love the green foyer tile. Tragically our climate forces the team to keep much of the tile covered with slip and slop-resistant floor matts. When you cross the threshold be sure to look down. It’s one of the true visual highlights.

Do you get the sense I care about aesthetics?

If you stuck it out know that I’ve held you hostage for 2146 words. It’s time to part. Let me close by reminding you that the Grange is a stunning restaurant. I not only encourage you to see for yourself…I demand it. GO. EAT. DRINK. Just be sure to stay focused on your dining companions and not the room.  Then come back and tell me about your experience in the notes section. Ciao.