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.
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.
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.