Sunday
Jan132013

A Short White Paper on VELLUM

Holy Fornication we need to talk.  Where to start…where to start…

First of all, Happy New Year. I hope you and yours had a good holiday.  I also hope you’re off to a good 2013. This morning I read that the majority of resolutions fail within ten days. Today is lucky 13. Here’s hoping you beat the odds.

Confession time: Deep down, in the bowls of my soul, I’m a cynic. I play a good game, smiles and happy talk, but more often that not I find fault eons before seeing the good. Case-and-point: When I heard that Peter Roumanis, son of John Roumanis (Mediterrano, Carlyle Grille), was opening a restaurant on Main Street I laughed. I called his father’s establishments “one chromosome ahead of the Olive Garden;” a mean spirited comment that I’ve since redacted. I failed to recognize that Peter, albeit young and natively Midwestern, has traveled the world. He’s studied at Cornell, apprenticed in France and dined across the globe. He’s literally spent his entire life in foodservice and I failed to consider that he may posses the ability to birth a fabulous restaurant. Hold that thought.

Fast forward to today…

Greetings from San Antonio. I'm coming to you from the Historic Pearl Brewery, home the new southwest CIA campus. that’s Culinary Institute of America – not the home of former intelligence Director H. W. Bush. Suddenly San Antonio is more than just the Alamo. Once again my day job affords me the opportunity to pursue some Gastro tourism. I’ve spent the last week planning my meals and strategizing expense reports. I just had a great fish taco while sitting outside and watching foot traffic along the riverwalk. It's sunny and 70. Life is good.

And while this is a perfect vista, my mind is on the Ann Arbor restaurant scene.  It’s been 16 days since I posted a new blog and my self-imposed guilt is throbbing like a belligerent canker sore. Three new restaurants have opened in the last two weeks and Juicy Kitchen opens Monday. I’m knee-deep in data from the recent restaurant survey and I’m trying to plan the Ann Arbor Chapter of Meat Week. I want to get wide on Shiner Bocks and Tequilla but I need to be writing.

Whatsmore, just before flying out I stopped in to one of these new restaurants for a quick investigative preview. The experience was shocking and provocative. It challenged and engaged my inner restuarant critic in a way I didn't expect. I've been obsessing on a few memories for 24 hours. It doesn't hurt that one of my travel companions is another Ann Arbor gastro-enthusiast willing to indildge my mania. In either case, I've resolved to put the survey data off for another week and spend my free time this evening typing about Vellum.

 

Preamble: A Fly-Over State

Let’s face it…this is not 1950. Michigan is no longer the center of cultural or industrial enterprise. The majority of my contemporaries have fled the state in search of greener pastures. I spend more energy than I care to admit defending my decision to retain residence in the Great Lakes State. I often argue that Ann Arbor is the most livable city in the Rust Belt. That’s almost like defending the tallest midget – and you know how I feel about midgets little people. A visiting friend who hadn’t carefully considered his words once said, “Wow – I had no idea. Ann Arbor is great. It’s almost like a real city.”

So as much as I consider Ann Arbor a rust-belt haven, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that this town lacks some of the amenities accustomed to coastal states. Our definition of “fine dining” clearly lags the expectations of diners in New York or LA. We cheer when a tremendous chef launches a fabulous menu in a dining room with "opportunity"(*cough-Grange*cough) or a mediocre menu is served by amatueur waiters in a beautiful dining room (cough*Vinology*cough). I’ve come to assume each new restaurant will be great at one, but not all attributes of hospitality. Which will Vellum inhabit? Did they go hog wild on the space only to disappoint on the menu, or did they focus on food only to leave me empty on atmosphere? 

Shock & Awe…the answer jusy may be both.

Author’s Warning: I’ve only spent one brief encounter at Vellum (to those who read Craigslist, no, not that kind of encounter). It’s impossible to establish a solid opinion on one experience. That said, I was imprssed. The following are only initial thoughts.

 

SPACE | Reference Point

I am intimately familiar with the Vellum space. “Back in the Day” Wednesday was pool night. Me and the fallas would visit the One-Eyed Moose religiously. We’d get wide on $4 drafts and play pool till our pockets ran dry. This was before incessient texts began interrupting the art of conversations so we'd actually talk to one another. I remember marveling at the space and discussing what could be if someone with vision and a few dollars would convince Andy to renovate. It's no small challenge.  If new tennants, in this case Vellum who are also now owners, simply present a pool hall sans pool tables we'll all be let down.

SPACE | Result

Fist and foremost, Bravo. Well played Peter. Team Roumanis has done a spectacular job at creating an intimate and enveloping dining room with a sense of space. They retain the patina of the building's age while simultaneously instigated a vision of new. The front lounge works seamlessly. The dining tables, including their rich arched booth-backs, extend the sight-line to a new and regal staircase. It presents like a grand foyer. The century-old wood floor is carefully balanced with dark tones of leather and newly stained trim. Note, the second floor lags slightly in glamor. There is a promising cellar room and well appointed restrooms, however the choice for carpets in the larger second floor dining room undermines the atmosphere... in my humble opinion.

LIBATIONS

From a grape perspective, Vellum has amassed a respectable cellar. I spent more time with the cocktail menu. There appears to be a few well crafted drinks that lend fresh perspective to common themes. Be aware, not every ingredient is listed on the menu. It's an intentional slight-of-hand. I'm still meditating on whether that's acceptable or if I consider it a mis-directed ploy acted out by insecurity and paranoia. In either case, be sure to clarify the whole of what you're ordering.

FOOD

It would be extremely premature for me to say anything about the menu other than to say it is very french in technique, continnental in flavor and miticulously choreographed. This is 'fine' dining. There is a significant emphasis placed on the tasting menu as apposed to independent entrees. I personally enjoy the shared experieince of a pre-fix menu. I encourage diners to seriously consider that option. And while my working class father would laugh at the idea, I think it's competitvely priced. Again, it's too early for me to speak with authority on the food.  I will simply say that of the few things I did taste, everything was superb.

 SERVICE |  "Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing."

Here's the doozy. Remember that notion of a "fly-over" state? There are many things that I consider 'refined' in New York that may be seen as 'douchy' in Ann Arbor. In that vein, team Vellum have jumped off the Summer's Eve cliff of douchbagery. Now hear me out...I actually applaud the effort. It takes serious cojones to attempt the level of service for which Vellum aspires. And to be frank, that level of poise takes practice. This is brand new venture. It will take a few months before every last aspect feels natural. There are MANY attributes of servce at Vellum that may be perceived, by a lesser diner, as cheeky, arrogant or just plain silly. Stay the course my friends. (PS: How's that for Snark control? You are now witnessing the newer, more mature GastroBoy. The old Gastroby would have noted that a few of the skinny-jean wearing hispter waitors need to see a tailor and get their blazers fitted).

Cheeky Service Example: Special Happy Endings (again, not that kind!)

Confession time - I'm an ex-smoker. Yes, I know it's a horrible, rotten, filthy habbit that may someday kill me. That said, it's a gloriously sensual vise that instantly sooths me. And let's not forget that it looks cool. Year's after quitting I still fight frequent urges to smoke. So now imagine this...while sitting at the bar I noticed a staffer take out a laerge silver service tray. Resting on the tray was a mound of what could only be tobacco or tea leaves. Next comes a zig-zag roller, not that I would know what a zig-zag roller looks like. This person proceeds to hand-roll custom cigarettes, filter and all. The concept was so counter to practical thought that my brain seized in confusion. I immediately asked for an explainination.

"It's our signaute tobacco service."

"What? Do you mean you can smoke here? It is 2013, right?"

"Well no, you can't smoke inside. But when as we see people step out or leave for the evening we presnt them with our house tobacco."

Holy Fornication. At the surface, the idea is rediculously pretentious, impractical and obscenely French (not a compliment in my Italian psyche). A the same time, it's inspired, brave, and down-right thrilling. The explaination was genuine. There was no pretence or arrogance. They simply beleive that finishing a fabulous meal with an equally fabulous tobacco is pleasant. Bravo. Now granted, this is the Rust Belt, and it is 2013. This charming charade will clealry be received in polarizing opinion. Many folks will not, like me, find it charming. That's ok - they can always go accross the street to the Mongolian BBQ where the expereince is void of any risk or character.

 

So there you have it. My early shot accross the bow for Vellum. Ann Arbor continues to grow. We no longer hide our fabulous resturants on the side streets. It appears we may now have something amazing right out in the open on Main Street. Check it out and share your thoughts.

Wednesday
Dec262012

BUTT CHUGGING and the O.C. | A look back at 2012

As a young grasshopper I had deep resentment for Year-End Review articles. They’re so arbitrary. “Top Ten” lists always include questionable entries for the sole purpose of filing page columns. And don’t get me started on Rolingstone. They have a subjectively ridiculous list for everything. I lament the lack of new content starting in late December. You may as well publish a head-line that reads, “I got Nothin.”

Now however, as a grown-ass man reflecting on the last twelve months I find myself joining in the charade. I’ve come to appreciate the victory-lap glory in celebrating the successful completion of another year. It’s not easy being green. As humans we should take more time to stop and smell the roses.

To that end I’ve started compiling a few of my favorite facts from 2012, some locally relevant, some selfishly personal, some inexplicably ridiculous. Can you smell that?  What made you smile in 2012?

 

2012 HIGHLIGHTS

Best Proof that Fact is Stranger than Fiction...and the True Sign of the Apocalypse: Butt Chugging

I am entirely over the Myans. Here’s real proof that our world is coming to and end. This may be the funniest news conference known to man. You’re welcome.

 

Best Restaurant Review of 2012: Pete Wells of the New York Times on Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar (LINK)

The smoldering war between esoteric culinarians and mouth-breathing, TLC-watching, neophyte-foodies came to a public boil this fall when food writer Pete Wells took on Guy Fieri. Arguably neither party is innocent, though I tend to applaud Mrs. Wells. Still the fall-out made for darn entertaining news coverage.

Best New Local Establishments

  • The WURST Bar: Sure, you can now get sweet potato fires at Burger King, but at WURST you can get sweet potato tots with Marshmallow fluff! Right? Just don’t try to get in-and-out for a quick lunch. These guys have embraced the slow food movement.
  • Bill’s Beer Garden: In 2011 street food came to Ann Arbor with Mark’s Carts. This year we welcomed Bill’s Beer Garden. I cannot say enough about how cool it is to sit outside in downtown Ann Arbor, watching a bonfire and sharing Michigan’s best craft beers with good friends. BRAVO! (PS: How's that for a run-on sentence).

Most Exciting Local Restaurant [& BAR] Trend: The Detroit Burbs     

Like most cultural developments, it takes a while for culinary trends to reach the rust belt. While you’ll still struggle to find someone in Royal Oak who can accurately define unami, there’s a gaggle of hot new restaurants popping up in the Motor City. For the first time in years I aspire to enter Oakland County Don’t worry, I still avoid Livingston like herpes. Here’s a few noteworthy stops.

FASHIONABLE FERNDALE

UPTOWN (B’Ham)

PLYMOUTH

BOONDOCKS

 

Best Detroit Restaurant Scene Blog: Eat it Detroit   

If I ever quit my job and become a free lance writer I want to be an intern for Nicole Rupersburg. She has the inside track on all things hot in the Motor City, and a fair wit to boot.

Favorite Local Food Tend: Washtenaw Food Hub | Growing a Healthy Community

As much as I love my CSA I’m also pragmatic. I know that we'll never fed the masses with a sustainable local food sources without a more significant infrastructure. If you're not close to the local food movement you may not be aware of the Food Hub. Think of it as one part economic incubator, one part distribution center and once part blank canvas, ready to become Washtenaw Counties next work of art.

 

Favorite New A2GastroBoy Lifestyle Trend - Less Air Travel

If you don’t travel for a living it may seem glamorous. Don’t believe the hype. I only took 28 flights in 2012 visiting 12 airports (ATL, MSP & BWI each tie for most visited with four stops each). It’s aggressive, but I’m vying for less than 20 in 2013.

 

 

Favorite Meme

Forget about ‘Gangnam Style’ or ‘Somebody that I used to Know.’ And definitely don’t ‘Call me Maybe.’ The best Internet meme since the Honey Badger is “Shit People Say.” For those unenlightened, like that cute MILF that lives with me and just asked, “what’s a meme,” here’s a link that explains it all. Go get edgamacated. (LINK)   

Speaking of Honey Badgers, Here’s my favorite Kickstarter of 2012 (LINK)…I just received my shipping notice! 

 

Best Ann Arbor Concert Series: Sonic Lunch   

There are many reasons to love living and working in Ann Arbor. This year the fine folks at 107.1 and the Bank of Ann Arbor took a relatively small, yet wonderful outdoor concert series and set it on fire … like dousing your BBQ with a full can of lighter fluid. I spent every Thursday morning looking forward to sneaking out of the office at lunchtime. It made afternoons sitting in a conference room watching another boring powerpoint tolerable knowing that I just saw Mitch Ryder killing it live on Liberty… for FREE. Even the rain couldn't stop Mayor Hawthorne from bringing down the house. Did I mention it was FREE?!  Thank you Bank of Ann Arbor. I pray your marketing budget allows this to continue in perpituity.

 

Best Local Ad Campaign: Non-Local Bankers, Bank of Ann Arbor

Speaking of BOAA, how amazing was their non-local banker campaign this year?  “Asking my Facebook peeps for a good recipe for Fingerle potatoes.” Brilliant. Well done Perich.

 

Best Household Technology of 2012: Withing’s Wi-Fi Scale

I’m a closet techie and ardent gadget hound. I love playing with new distuptive technologies. This year I bought a Withing's wifi scale. Every time I step on the scale this digital terrorist uploads the evidence. I now have a years worth of incriminating proof of my girth. And it's smart enough to know which family member is weighing in so everyone can join in on the fun. The data is accessible from a computer or any mobile devise. "wiz-bang-cool" factor aside, I think this is an important step towards getting fat Americans more engaged in their physical well being. I'm equally impressed with high-tech pedometers like the Nike FuelBand or Jawbone UP Band. Let’s not give up bacon fat – let’s get all of our Fat asses moving.

 FatsoVision

Favorite [Sub]Urban Discovery - The Camp, Costa Mesa,CA (LINK)   

As we watch Arlington Shops rise as yet another characterless temple of Urban Sprawl consider what could have been… I stumbled on this oasis during a conference in Orange County. I became an instant photo-snapping tourist, all the time amazed that thoughtful urban planning could create something intersting in a suburban setting.  “The CAMP, now entering it’s 10th year, excels as an innovative retail campus dedicated to an active, healthy lifestyle mindful of environmentalism and supportive of the local community. This nontraditional shopping center balances culture, sophistication and functionality, blurring the boundaries between nature and everyday bustle of life in the O.C. Welcome!” AND they have an Unami Burger. Nuff said.

 

And finally, becuase I know you care, here's the 2012 most heavily clicked-on A2GastroBoy Article.

It's a Zing Thang   While I love this article, I need to disclose that a fair portion of the traffic was driven by my use of the word Nazi, and the comment war that ensued. Once again I thank the reading audience who holds me accountable and forces me to constructively address my snark-attacks. I still think the historical commission is a bunch of irrational, progress-impeding ostriches. At the same time I have a newfound appreciation for the impact of poorly chosen words. I am now committed to finding more innocuous ways of expressing my thoughts. You fucktards.

For the record, the all-time most frequently trending article is my still 2011 SEO experiment titled “PUMPKIN PORN.” Thank you to all the Internet derelicts who get tragically annoyed when they land on an article about muffins and beer.

 

There it is - an entirely arbitrary view of 2012 compliments of A2GastroBoy. And not a single mention of some new Mexican restaurant that may or may not be opening next door to Mani before New Years. The same joint that coincidentally showed a total disrespect to the community by inviting a tree-hugging graduate student blogger to their friends and family night without so much as a smoke signal to your truly. I’m so hurt Adam. Was it something I said? The gloves are off. I have a Yelp account and I know how to use it!

(totally kidding dude – please don’t black-list me. Can I PLEASE get an invite next time? I’ll wash dishes. You can even sit me in Stacey’s section. I promise I’ll stop complaining about her). 

Sunday
Dec162012

VINSETTA GARAGE...I've got a crush on you

Have you ever walked into a room and immediately said, “Oh HELL Yea!” That was my reaction to the Vinsetta Garage. 

In a recent post I mentioned that I’ve been crushing on the idea of the Vinsetta Garage. I say ‘idea’ as I had yet to visit. Still, I loved everything I’d seen and heard. The concept embodies all that I hold dear; booze, great food, the thoughtful restoration of an iconic space and most importantly, a whole lotta of Moxie.

 It’s also of personal interest. I’ve driven past the building hundreds, if not thousands of times. I’ve always loved the façade and taken pleasure speculating about the building's history. Hearing of the renovation fills me with pride and hope for the continued revitalization of metro Detroit.

Unfortunately, as it relates to this story, GastroBoy lives in Ann Arbor now and this dreamy apparition is way the hell out in Oakland County.  Knowing that it takes an act of god or a gentile holiday to get me into the North Woodward corridor, I resigned myself to living vicariously through other’s Vinsetta experiences. 

The universe works in mysterious ways. As soon as I’d given up hope life conspired to get me to the Vinsetta Garage. Two weeks ago Mrs. GastroBoy and I were making a mad dash from Detroit to Grandma’s house, just north of Somerset, to collect our seed. We’d spent the previous night in the ‘D’ on a sleep-over date night.  It was just about brunch o’clock and I needed a Bloody Mary more than oxygen.  

We were also playing a wicked game of beat the clock. In traditional fashion, we’d over-scheduled our weekend. We had to be back in A2 by 2:00. We had roughly two and a half hours to cover 80 miles, get fed, collect the kid and visit with Grammy-Gram.  Frantically Siri and I started calling every brunch joint from Ferndale to Birmingham searching for a table that didn’t come with a 30 minute wait.

As I hit the Nine mile curve along I-75, hearing my third rejection, inspiration struck. Why was I limiting the search to brunch joints? Faster than I could say Mimosa we changed our target from brunch to lunch. The world opened up and I knew exactly where to go…

 

Enter the Pleasuredome

The new owners of Vinsetta are crafty folks. They’ve earned respect in the community with their Clarkston joints the Union and the Woodshop. Still, Vinsetta presents some unique challenges. The building itself is an Icon along the most visible and storied stretch of pavement in all of Detroit, Woodward Avenue. And while the exterior is a landmark, the interior was anything but sanitary. I’m confident it took tremendous effort to preserve the essence of the garage without entirely bombing the space.

Perhaps more problematic is the ‘Motor City / Hot Rod / Dream-Cruise’ mojo that comes along with the building. It’s difficult to pay homage without gimmick and still establish authentic, modern relevance. This is where the team shines. This place is steeping in swagger. Rather than scrubbing the filth and starting anew, the interior at Vinsetta celebrates the bruises. They masterfully marry elements of the garage with new foodservice function.  It’s simultaneously a history lesson and a demonstration in re-purposing; visually striking, emotionally moving and downright cool. At the risk of sounding like a love-struck slob, let me say that this is one of, if not thee most Bad-Ass joints in the whole of North America. I aspire to take residence.  

Don’t take my work. See for yourself. This week’s post is more a photo essay than a composition. Enjoy the scenery.

 

 

 

 

MENU

I can’t say much about the food. I only had time and stomach for a few morsels. I will however, make a few comments on the menu design. Vinsetta is firmly rooted in the “casual dining” space, presenting their own interpretation on Detroit styled comfort food. It’s a delicate dance, offering “down market” entrees like Coneys and Mac-n-Cheese still trying to get check averages high enough to pay the mortgage. Portions are “Fat American” huge and I was sufficiently enamored with everything ordered.

    Vinsetta has also entered the “me too” space of Neapolitan-inspired pizzas. It seems that every new restaurant built has a pizza oven. I can’t figure out what sparked the craze, but there’s a handful of similar pizza places either recently opened or in the works for Ann Arbor. It’s difficult to establish a unique perspective while facing stiff competition from masters like Pizzeria Biga and Mani. I did not try the pizza at Vinsetta. There’s yet another reason to return.

 

Yugo, Oldsmobile, Packard

There are many examples of astute forethought throughout the renovation and menu. I was particularly amused and impressed with the Wine list. Cleary this is not a place to showcase the reserve section of Ed Jonna’s cellar. Still, the clientele will surely demand something more than two-buck Chuck. Vinsetta presents a solid selection of reds and whites in three tiers. They cleverly avoid the implicit titles of “Cheap, Moderate and Expensive” by referring to the three tiers as Yugo, Oldsmobile and Packard.

Wednesday
Dec052012

LENA: The Verdict is in

Public Service Announcement: I was recently corrected. The proprietors of Lena pronounce it ‘len-uh’ not ‘lee-nuh.’ I apologize to all the sexy Russian Ladies who take issue with this phonetic interpretation. In response I propose the joint establishments located at Liberty and Main be here forth collectively referred to as Lebana.

Additional Author’s note: I apologize in advance, but I don’t consider Lena and Café Habana separate establishments. They were built and exist in unison; Ergo ‘Lebana.’ I will inevitably go back and forth between thoughts on both. 

 

ON LEBANA...

In a small town like Ann Arbor new restaurants incite a feeding frenzy of interest. It’s a race to dance with the new kid and be the first to publish your thoughts.  For the record, if you’ve only dined at a restaurant once, your writing on the matter is not a proper review, it’s a business report. Still, every local food writer and a few free-lance hacks have already written about Lena. In an effort to avoid “me too” guilt I nearly decided to forego publishing my own opinion. But the more I read, the more I realized I owed it to my GastroBoy loyalists to publish a piece of merit. And besides, Isalita isn’t open so I have nothing better to do.

It’s been said that “it’s better to be lucky than smart.” If that’s true, Lebana struck pay dirt…twice.

Location, Location, Location

I dare say there may be no stronger retail site along the Main Street corridor. The Carlson/Lobdell partners have clearly earned respect in the community as they appear to have had an inside track on the lease. Bravo.  I’m intrigued to see how their inevitable use of the sidewalk will alter the evening foot traffic. And for the record, let me say that I like the “Cunningham Green.” I was scared to death that the deco chrome would fall victim to remodeling. Once again the Mission boys successfully navigate the balance of historical respect and modern living. Lebana is an instant landmark. My only note would be in considering the sheer vastness of said green. Is there any way to add depth or interest?

Timing: First Strike Advantage

Here’s another kudos for Lebana. There are many dining options in Ann Arbor. And there will soon be many more; two within a block’s walk. Lebana was the only one to get the doors open in time for the fall high season. That not only gave them crucial months of cash flow prior to the winter lull, it made them the only buzz-worthy show in town. Everyone Tom, Dick and Harry, as well as their suburban trophy wife is talking about Lebana. Well played Mission boys. Here’s a run down of my impressions.

 

HIGH POINTS: COCKTAILS

Let me be explicitly clear about one thing…the cocktails at Lebana are EPIC. Whomever is responsible for envisioning the cocktail menu deserves a Gassy (my answer to the Oscars). There are many traditionally Latin cocktails presented with a sublimely modern twist. There’s a common theme, “heat ad sweet.” Though you need to be forewarned, the abundance of real fruit juice does make many of the cocktails a filling meal onto themselves. Here are three examples of their mastery. I encourage you to sample many.

LONG WALK TO ECUADOR – Knob Creek bourbon, Campari, cherry liqueur, Falernum liqueur, and fresh

muddled blackberries with a whiskey cube 11

POSION DE BRUJA – mezcal, Midori, Cointreau, agave nectar, honey and fresh lime shaken with ripe avocado 10

HOT PEPPER PEACH MARGARITA – infused hot pepper and peach tequila, fresh peach puree, house made sour and cayenne sugar rim 11

BAR NOTES: 1) While I enjoyed the rum raisin punch, I felt neglected when everyone else’s drink arrived garnished like a debutant and I had nothing but a straw. 2) I miss the sugar cane swizzle sticks that used to adorn Mojito’s at the original Café Habana. 3) Beer: I need to address this. When I think of Latin beers I expect light refreshing lagers. Lebana leverages the Brazilian Chopp style. Let me clarify that yes, Chopp is a Brazilian brand of beer. I’ve also recently learned that Chopp has been adopted as the colloquial term for serving this style of beer ice cold.  Lebana offers two Northpeak beers as Chopp. While I appreciate the charm, It’s a little confused. May I suggest the fine brewers at Northpeak develop a signature lager to bear the name Chopp.

 

FOOD

First, let me remind you what a “significant” local blogger wrote about Lena in August of this year.

“…The former Café Habana menu had some rock-solid, and fairly inexpensive winners. Moving forward that menu, and the Habana brand has been relegated to the basement. The main dining room (Lena) will be a new perspective on Latin flavors.  Me thinks’ that may be restaurant shorthand for ‘higher entre prices’. The folks behind Lena have a respectable palate, though in most of their establishments the beverage menus tend to overshadow the food menus. I’m more excited for the return of Ann Arbor’s best Caipirinha than the menu.”

All together now…”I told you so.”

It’s been said that we eat with our eyes. The presentation at Lebana is beautiful. On my last visit I hosted a large group of diners. It was truly stunning to look around the table at the fashion show of plating formats. Each dish was garnished with artistry. My guests were all tremendously satisfied.

Unfortunately, for GastroBoy eyes are only a portion of the dining experience. In my humble opinion many of the dishes failed to answer their visual grandeur with equally stunning flavor. Let’s discuss the menu in three categories. 

Corniva   

 

 

I. STRENGTHS          There were definitely a few choices that demand your attention. I’m confident these will become long-standing signature dishes.

SPANISH YAPIN GACHO (grilled potato cakes with queso blanco, avocado, peanut sauce and chorizo 8)

GASTRBOTY NOTE: Simply put, delightful. A brilliant balance of texture and flavor.

PAN ROASTED CORVINA (seared ocean fish with white rice, plantain chips, infused peanut sauce and escabeche salsa 26)

GASTROBOY NOTES: This hearty yet flakey drum fish is a well executed excercise in contrast; crispy and soft, sweet and savory. It was both visually stunning and well appointed. The peanut sauce adds tone without overpowering. Bravo. 

 

II.  OPPORTUNITIES         These were well-intended dishes that fell short. I believe each one deserves a place on the menu, assuming they receive sophomore year make-overs.

ECUADORIAN HUMITAS (fresh corn cakes with lemongrass-tomato stew and melted chihuahua cheese 9)

GASTROBOY NOTES: Our waitress described this as “corn meal lasagna.” Unfortunately it was cornmeal mush. It could be saved by frying the cornmeal more like polenta and changing the tomato stew to a more delicate version of tomato compote.

CHEESE & CHARCUTERIE PLATTER (Serrano ham, aged Manchego and Drunken Goat cheeses, Spanish membrillo, toasted almonds, fresh fruit, dried figs and grilled bread 13)

GASTROBOY NOTES: Let’s call a spade a spade. This is a cheese plate. The token curl of Serrano felt like a consolation prize. 

SEA SCALLOPS (pan-seared, with barley risotto, glazed fava beans and espuma d’ cilantro 26)

GASTROBOY NOTES: The scallops are wonderful. The barley risotto is not. Either don’t call it risotto or don’t use barley.

  
 

III. WILD CARDS         There's a hung jury. Each of these items have been sufficiently debated. I welcome feedback.

CEVICHE TRIO (shrimp, scallop and fish ceviches with matchstick plantains 9)

GASTROBOY NOTES: At least one diner questioned whether these ingredients were in fact raw, as is tradition, prior to preparation or whether they were simply pre-cooked fish that's been dressed and chilled.

CUBAN SLIDERS – Habana Menu only (with smoked ham, pork belly, Manchego cheese, pickled onions and mustard aioli  9)

GASTROBOY NOTES: These were essentially grilled ham & cheese sandwiches made on a flat press grill. Neither the cheese or ham used lend complexity of flavor. Candidly, they were great drunk munchies. I've had them twice. Perhaps there's a way to dress them up a bit.

FISH TACOS (beer-battered or pan-seared corvina with black bean menestra, rice, lettuce, escabeche salsa and Ecuadorean chimichurri 14)

GASTROBOY NOTES: Perhaps you’ve read my piece on fish tacos (LINK). I’ve studied the art. Arguably these are not authentic or tasteful and the tortillas were served cold and stale, a major offence to the sport. Having said that, one diner loved the option to choose your fish preparation method and also raved about the chimichurri sauce.

 

FOOD SUMMARY

Lebana teeters dangerously close to a category I refer to as Sysco-Chic (FSA Bistro for my west coast readers). This term is the result of well-intended kitchen mangers making convenience-driven choices either in provisions or in preparation.  Consider it the “Epcot version” of genuine ideas. I respect the vision behind Lebana’s menu. Now go back a fine-tune the execution.

 

SERVICE

Good news: We live in a relatively small mid-western town, yet we have access to more dining and cultural opportunities than many cities twice our size. Bad news: Most service in our hamlet is more akin to a shopping mall than a cosmopolitan enclave. 

The owners of Lebana operate a number of casual beer joints. It’s easy to tolerate middling service when ordering fried pickles and bumper crop IPA (Blue Tractor). Lebana demands, yet falls short of, a more polished bedside manor.

Author's Notes:  1) Lebana employs large trays to deliver entrees. It’s a subtle cue that you’re receiving cattle-call service. 2) This may seem like nit-picking, but the mis-matched gingham shirst worn by the wait-staff lack polish. Pick a color and cut, and preferably not gingham. This is a latin joint, right?  

 

DÉCOR AND AESTHETIC

I don’t understand why more restaurant reviews don’t adequately address the physical space. It may seem obsessive, but I have a lot to say about the Lebana renovation.

First and foremost, I love the design approach at Lena. It’s sophisticated yet approachable.  The first floor and lower level atmospheres create a masterful exercise in contrast; the former sleek and white, the latter rich and dark. Common elements tie the spaces together without mimicking tone.

Still, a few compromises, no doubt cost-driven, have left the dining room with a markedly less harmonious Feng Shui.  

In my opinion, the designers made a tremendous strategic error in not locating the bar in the front-right window (the old Parthenon cook-line). YES – I know you’re trying to steer drinkers downstairs. And YES, I assume the current layout allows for more seats. Having said that…you can’t reinvent the laws of nature. The steering wheel goes on the left and you don’t make guests walk through the dining room to find out whether or not there’s an open seat at the bar.

The current bar is not a proper bar; it’s an exposed service area. Sitting at this bar puts you too close to the kitchen expediter’s station. At busy times it’s chaotic. The cocktails at Lebana are epic. The bar should be a celebrated focal point.

Pragmatically, the current layout also lacks a wait station in the front of the house. On one visit I sat at the large front table. Our server was forced to walk the length of the restaurant for every service issue, be it water or ringing-in entrees.

Collateral Damage.

As a result of not placing the bar in the front, locating the Habana stairway in the left position and not reconfiguring the front doors, the host stand becomes an awkward galley way. There’s nowhere for waiting patrons to congregate.  One of the most striking design elements at Lena is the suspended fireplace (the Leon Speaker wall installiton is a close second). The awkward kris-crossing of traffic at the host stand makes it impossible to stand or sit admiring the fire. The fireplace is also undermined by an unfortunate choice in flooring, but I’ll come back to that.

Seating

One of Lebana’s dining room high points is the booth seating. While you maintain sightlines to the outside world these private “cabanas” create the air of intimate seclusion. I’ve yet to be seated in one, but all of my friends who have rave. I was equally pleased with each of my common-space tables. The rich brown leather banquettes are perhaps the most firm yet luxurious “benches” I’ve ever sat on.

Now for the chairs. Lebana designers selected the iconic white Eames Molded Plastic chair. They’re beautiful. They are also polarizing. Two separate friends flamed with such hatred about their discomfort in these chairs that they may never return. I’ve sat in the chairs twice.  I have no issue with the comfort. I’m also a rabid fan of Eames design. I aspire to have an Eames Lounge in my office. The bigger issue for me was how they too easily slide on Lebana’s tile floor.

Flooring. This is a serious GastrBoy hot button. Flooring is the foundation of a room. It’s perhaps the most meaningful determinant of cleanliness, acoustics and aesthetic. Still, it’s the one item most frequently pillaged when finalizing budgets.

In my humble opinion, the single largest short coming with Lebana’s dining room is the flooring. In the front they kept the Parthenon’s industrial terracotta tile; the same tile used in every restaurant built from 1970 to Y2K. You’ll notice however, that tile only covers a portion of the floor. At the point where The Parthenon had carpet Lebana switches from the terracotta to larger squares  of “builder-grade” tile. Neither suits the space or hte wood trim. The room screams for a deep dark bamboo flooring. 

Bathroom Disaster!

The flooring in the dining room is not the extent of Lebana's trouble. By the time I visited to dining room restrooms I had also already been in the beautiful basement loo. I expected the main floor to be similar. Au contraire mon frere. This is perhaps the most glaring cost-cutting move in the renovation. Rennovating old restrooms is a nightmare. Building codes have changed dramatically and even a simple rennoation can become a money pit, not to mention a hastle. I'm guessing that it's for these reasons that the Parthenon crapper remains exactly as it was….old and smelly. I mean, really smelly; Old Tiger Stadium piss-trough smelly.  This is a massive renovation over-sight that demands review.

Thankfully not a scratch and sniff photo

 

Final note on décor – Acoustics: Every historical renovation fights sound. The more you expose a room, the more sound bounces around. Lebana does a tremendous job of hiding acoustic panels above the sight line. The right wall beautifull transitions into a suspended ceiling, allowing the air of exposure with the benefits of sound-dampening sheet rock. The room maintains an active hum, but conversation at each table is easy, and at no point did I feel as though I was ease-dropping on my neighbors. 

 

FINAL VERDICT

Lebana is an interesting addition to the Main Street scene. I’m confident business will remain brisk. Having said that, I can't help but feel as though the dining room is stuck between two worlds; one casual and resourceful, the other glamorous and sphoisticated. The mixed result is a bit disconcerting. Given their DNA, let's hope the folks at Lebana accetps their place in the former - or makes important investments to reach the later. 

  • Décor: Inspired with a few tremendously undermining compromises. ie, A Post-Modern Ultra Lounge accented with natural elements and a cost-cutting stop at Home Depot.
  • Cocktail Menu: Epic
  • Food Menu: Well intended with Spotty Execution
  • Service: Pedestrian
  • Overall Verdict (on a scale of 10): 7… Lena 6, Café Habana 8
  •  

    Sunday
    Nov252012

    WHERE'S WALDO?

    Something cray-cray just happened... Ben Connor Barrie, the esteemed (and at times full of steam…sorry, I couldn’t resist) editor of DamnArbor.com contacted the staff at A2Gastronoy.com to request an interview. In the process he called A2GastroBoy "the only significant anaoymous Internet personality in the area." Wha-WHAT?  You heard me..."SIGNIFIGANT!" I’m SIGNIFNCANT! Now my mother can finally get over the fact that I never went to med school.

    That event inspired this post.  Enjoy.

    WARNING: Let me save you the trouble and acknowledge that this is a total vanity piece; an egomaniacal masturbation. If you enjoy masturbation (and who doesn’t?!) read on. If you’re a frigid Protestant please click away.

     

    “Anonymous?!” I know exactly who I am

    It was bound to happen… in fact some may say this this issue's been a long time coming.

    I've spent the last two years blogging, tweeting, checking in on Foursquare, iTapped, Instagram, yada, yada, yada...basically galavanting around the interwebs under the cloak of anonymity, free from recourse. Yes, my close frineds are in on the secret, but the majority of folks "liking" me and responding to my posts have no ideas who the hell I am.

    So what gives? Who is A2GastroBoy? Why don't I use my real name?  The long answer is complicated. The short answer is "nunya"...AKA "None Ya damn business" (not to be confused with "fumunda").

    First of all, be careful of what you ask for…I’m 100% convinced that my alter-ego is ten-fold more interesting than my true identity. Appreciate what you’ve got.

    What’s more selfishly relevant is that while the first amendment protects my right to post this drivel, it does not defend me against ridicule. I live in a glass house. I’m pretty darn sure that a few biographical facts about yours truly would become fodder for taunting derision. I deal with enough ass holes in my daily travails. I don’t need to invite more. And let’s face it, most of the folks who read and write blogs are ass holes, right? Obviously, present company excluded.

    Sarcastic bullshit aside, it warms my cold heart that some of you folks want to know who the heck I am. I've come to relish my online peeps. I've made some genuine "e-friends" with folks like @DamnArbor. @A2serindipity is my ‘brother from another mother.’ The wife of @satchels shares my passion for helping our public schools. @A2Jess is my restaurant-choosing Bobbsey twin and @psa2 cracks me up with her genuine concern for lesser species.

    I have, at times, had a desire to connect with these folks IRL (that’s ‘in real life’ folks). At the same time, I have also been creeped out by a stalker on Foursquare who tried to pick me out of a crowd. Ultimately this is a hobby and not a vocation so I’ve decided to remain hidden within the uncomplicated cloak of ananymity.  My identity is a “need to know” fact…it’s just that most of all-y’all don’t need to know.

    All that said, I thought it only civil to open the kimono a wee bit (not that there’s anything ‘wee’ behind the kimono). I thought I’d save @DamnArbor the effort of developing questions and conduct my own auto-biographical interview. For extra credit points I’m included a few candid photos from the A2GastroBoy archives. This is for Ben. Enjoy.

     

    Twenty Questions With A2GastrBoy

    (Please note, these are also fabulous conversation starters at your next dinner party)

     

    Q1: Name 5 celebrities you’d most enjoy having to a dinner party

    1. Uncontested MC & Social Commentator: Jon Stewart. If you have to question this selection you are officially banished from this site.
    2. Comic Relief: Louie CK. Yes, he’s the man of the hour and I feel like a “me too” poser choosing him. Still, the man is genius. The fact that he’s cast Pamela Adlon as his love interest in two separate shows is just icing.
    3. Most Desirous Rich Friend (and Inspiring Entrepreneur): Sir Richard Branson
    4. Fiery Estrogen (and voted most likely to bring pot): Sandra Bernhard
    5. Token Person of Color: Baratunde Thurston (Look him up; I’m allowed to call him black because I bought his book)
    • Cheating Extra Credit Invite: To skirt the limit of five invites I’d “hire” Mayor Hawthorne or Bruno Mars as a musical guest.

    Q2: Same question, Dead People…

    Yuck…creepy

     

    Q3: OK, no dead People. TV or Film Characters…

    1. The entire cast of Californication (Hank Moody if you force me to pick one)
    2. Tim Riggins (with Buddy Garrity as his designated driver)
    3. Larry David (his fictional persona)
    4. Eli Gold
    5. Warwick Davis (again, his TV persona)

     

    Where would you host it?

    The roof-top patio at Big Georges. It's Ann Arbor's best kept secret. 

     

    Who would cook? 

    Damn good question. I'd like to say [James Beard Foundation Award Winning Chef]  Alex Young, but I'm sure to get called a faboy. If not Alex Chef Thad Gillies (Logan). 

     

    "[apprentice] Chef GastrBoy" circa 1991Q4: What’s your Favorite Nickname?

    I’ve always lamented that the simpler URL“GastroBoy.com” was taken (don’t bother checking it out, some lame squatter is sitting on it). As much as I cherish and identify with my geographic community, adding “A2” to the front of GastrBoy creates and awkward mouthful. I’ve been playing around with a few ways to abbreviate my nom de plume. After a particularly aggressive craft beer tasting some folks started calling me “Gassy.” I’m officially voting against to G-Boy. I’m open to suggestions. Just don’t call me late to dinner.

     

    Q5: Are you secretly a chick posing as a dude?

    HA! I laugh in your general direction. While I’ve been accused of blood-letting on a moon cycle, you can rest assured that I am ALL BOY. If you really have to ask you’re clearly not a qualified A2GastroBoy reader. Move on.

     

    Q6: You’ve been accused of being well written. You’ve also been accused of being a Snarky Douche Bag. What’s your opinion?

     I enjoy writing. I have a sister who’s a writer by vocation. She inspires me to pursue the craft. Ironically, I also have a sister who’s an English teacher. You’d think I’d be a better speller and grammerist. To be considered well-written is a massive compliment.

    Douche bag? Well I don’t mind if I do.    I prefer the term satirist, albeit I’m still learning to navigate the fine line between satire and sarcasm. Do I at times offend? Perhaps. Is it malicious? No. In the immortal words of Sergeant Hulka, “Lighten Up Francis.”

     

    "Rock Star GastroBoy" Circa 1989Q7: Who’s your favorite Author?

    SNARKY ANSWER: I came of age in a cohort that judged others entirely based on the contents of their bookshelf and album collection. I refuse to willingly expose myself to such scrutiny.

    A: TRUE ANSWER: I have horrible ADD. I can’t concentrate long enough to read fiction. 99% of my reading happens in Flipboard. That said, I try to get through almost everything published by Douglas Coupland, Nick Hornby, David Sedaris….And my sister. I also just bought the new book by local boy Dave Rothbart. Four pages in and I’ve already laughed out loud. I’m looking forward to finishing it over the holidays.

     

    Q8: What’s the most embarrassing Fact about A2GastroBoy

    I've never enjoyed Bob Dylan OR Neil Young. Also, despite the stern counsel of my sisters I still wear [Dansko] man clogs in public.

     

    Q9: Do you secretly work at, or own a local restaurant?

    If you consider pretending to enjoy myself work, than yes, I work at many local eateries. If you’re referring to the header on my W-2 I’ll disclose that I derive my income in a much less scrupulous pursuit…I’m a marketer. To lend credential to my critiquing qualifications, you should also know that I HAVE worked in MANY restaurants. Young GastroBoy had delusions of gradeur as a rock star. At that time I paid the bills working both front and back-of the house resturant gigs.  I even went so far as to consider attending the CIA. In the end, I choose dining over cooking, sold-out and went to B-School. 

     

    Q10: Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is (RE: open a restaurant)?

    Frankly, I’m too damn lazy.  It’s a long, hard, thankless job.  Add to that the fact that I have a low tolerance for assholes and you’ll come to appreciate that I am not very well suited for the service industry.  Finally, I like money too much. While I have endless gratitude for those who do, given the current status of my financial portfolio, owning a restaurant is not a prudent investment.

     "Sweater Vest GastroBoy" Work'n for the Man circa Y2K

    Q11: If you DID own a restaurant, what would it be?

    Lately I've been crushing on Vinsetta Garage in Royal Oak. I grew-up "Motor City" and that building has forever been a favorite visual icon. I'm in love with the aesthetic. When I heard it was being converted to a restaurant I was overcome with equal parts excitement ad jealously. I've heard it's wonderful. Unforturantely it takes a hell of a lot to make me willingly venture all the way to Oakland County. I've also become obeseed with a group in Madison, WI called the Underground Food Collective. Imagine Selma meets the Grange and they birthed a 'joint" called the Fore1/4 (forequater). I love the idea of a supper club that has the culinary grace of Alice Waters and the social sensibilities of a VFW hall. 

     

    Q12: What’s a random fact about you that readers would find interesting?

     “I can eat 50 eggs.”

    I’m not sure it’s interesting, but I’ve collecting wine corks and beer caps since 1995. I literally have bags of them in my basement awaiting a yet-to-be-determined art project. Perhaps when I retire I’ll sell bottle-cap checker-board sets at Art Fair.  I also aspire to collect silver spoons from travel gift shops.

     

    Q13: You obsess on food. Why don’t you consider yourself a Foodie or Culinarian?

    If you pay attention to my writing you’ll come to appreciate that I don’t really obsess on food. Food is just a sub-set of my OCD. Let me explain it like this… last weekend I had to tell my nine-year old nephew why I don’t keep Kosher.  While I hadn’t previously articulated it as such, my response was that “I can’t keep Kosher because I keep Sicilian.”

    Huh? Like Judaism, food is an integral part of my cultural heritage.  That said, it’s not the critical attribute. Put another way, it’s a vehicle, not a destination.  Yes I love food, but more than food I love dining. I love breaking bread. I love the experience of sharing that experience with others. That’s why I don’t consider myself a foodie. It’s not really about the food. And frankly, the propensity of any fanatic, be it “Foodies” or sports junkies, to engage in an endless esoteric debate over nuance is utterly exhausting. I don’t have the time of day to learn the name of the cheese maker’s dog. Just pass me the formage!  

     

    Q14: What’s your Biggest Regret?

    That I can’t skateboard. I have the balance of a defective weeble-wobble. Still I support the Ann Arbor Skate Park. I even bought a brick. I can’t wait to hang out and watch the cool kids tear it up.

     

    "Sport Fishn GastroBoy" this very summer; coincidentally, that fish is called a "Mullet" Q15: What’s your proudest accomplishment?

    Frankly, getting through undergrad without a DUI. Though, the fact that gets the most mileage is when I admit that there’s a Zingerman’s sandwich named after me.

     

    Q16: Explain your Blog’s design. Why is ‘Dog Love’ such a stagnant hole?

    Here’s the good news, my site is open to the public. Here’s the bad news, my site is open to the public. When I first designed the site I had visions of grandeur. I wanted separate sections for different categories of content. I also wanted to create a gallery for art and photography.  Unfortunately my ideas often exceed my capacity to execute or maintain. Today the front page [blog] is the only section that gets regular attention. Every blue moon I find time and motivation to update photos or links.

     

    Q17: Why don’t you post more often? And what happened to your “small plates” posts?

    This is a tough question because it incited personal angst.  While I LOVE the idea of sharing more, I simply don’t have the time to be consistent. Earlier this year I experimented with posting interesting content form the interwebs on the off-weeks. I called them “small plates.” My self-imposed rules for such content made it more work than pleasure so I’ve done away with it. I’m playing around with an idea for next year that will allow me to do both long-form feature articles and short-form blurbs. In the mean time you can follow my twitter feed for a few amuse bouche.

     

    Q18: What’s your favorite restaurant in Ann Arbor?

    For the record – I HATE this question. I liken it to asking a parent which child is their favorite.  In every case there’s an answer, but it’s entirely uncouth to admit it.  My “polished” answer is simply to say, “there’s many fine restaurants in Ann Arbor, each with its own niche in my heart.” The easier questions are what’s your favorite Brunch, quick lunch, celebratory meal, or guilty pleasure. I have much faster responses to those queries.

    "Gastro-Tourism GastroBoy" visiting the now extinguished "Eternal Flame" of Garlic, Gilroy, CA circa 2001 

    Q19: If you HAD to choose, would you rather be blind, deaf or dwarf? (for the record, I had already drafted my response to question 20 when my brother-in-law posed this question on Thanksgiving).

    DEAF! My grandfather wore hearing aids. Whenever he got sick of listening to my grandmother he’d turn down the volume. I’ve been jealous ever since.

     

    Q20: FINAL QUESTION…What’s your biggest fear or phobia?

    The return of Squares restaurant. Beyond that, midgets. DON’T LAUGH PEOPLE – I’M BEARING MY SOLE HERE.  (And yes, I now know that the socially correct term is “little people.”)

    Let me first of all publically thank the producers at TLC. Due to their show “Little People, Big World” I’ve learned to confront my fear and be a stronger person.  As proof, let me explain that I’ve since watched Warwick Davis’s show on HBO without obsessing on his stature. I simply saw him for what he is…an Ewok.

    I can’t explain why, but since childhood something about the labored gate and unique proportions of little people has filled me with paralyzing fright. That fear was further nurtured as an undergrad. One of the sororities on campus had a “little person” member. You can imagine the drunken debauchery when she attended parties. Rather than taking it in stride and being the bigger person (oh, yes I did just type that!) she would intimidate and bully anyone naïve enough to look her way. This behavior earned her the knick-name “Gidget the Mean Midget.” I’m a sloppy drunk. I was absolutely terrified that she’d catch me looking her way and then pounce on me like a ferocious Honey Badger. Again I say, DON’T LAUGH PEOPLE – I’M BEARING MY SOLE HERE.

    In 2006 I stumbled upon the most curious of all reality TV shows. It was called “Little People, Big World.” It showcased the trials and tribulations of Oregon’s Rolloff family – a married couple of “little people” who were raising three biological children; two “regular” sized and one “little.” It was an instant addiction. I couldn’t stop watching it. And thanks to the power of “Video-on-Demand” I didn’t have to. I think I watched an entire season during a single weekend caring for my infant daughter.

    Psychology has a term called “Flooding,” a form of behavior therapy based on the principles of respondent conditioning. Unknowingly I was conducting a self-guided treatment program. The more I watched the more my opinions changing. What started as juvenile intrigue became genuine human-interest. These were hard-working Americans dealing with the same issues of parenting and household finance that I encountered.  I came to respect and admire their fortitude. I genuinely have a new-found respect for the plight of little people and the importance of ADA building codes. Thanks TLC.

    (OK – you can laugh now. As long as you laugh “with me” and not “at me” it’s ok to make light of awkward social interactions).

     

     >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    EDITED 11/26 10:00 PM: ...When I orignally listed my "twenty questions" this was in the top 3. I deleted it because I thought it too crass. After careful consideration I decided it would be out of character NOT to include it. Here's your moment of Zen...Turns out it was too crass. Mea Culpa