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Sunday
Aug262012

FALL RESTAURANT GUIDE

Welcome back Gastro fans.  Here’s the good news: after an extended summer vacation I find myself sitting on a backlog of content.  Here’s the bad news: When I finally arrange for a few precious moments to edit these ideas I fall into a perpetual state of optional-paralysis, not knowing how to prioritize. Solution: Procrastinate.

To that end, I’m using today’s precious editing time to write a new piece. Yesterday the dotcom (or dotbomb depending on your perspective) ran a teaser-piece previewing a new restaurant opening in the former Parthenon space. I happened to see the piece immediately after seeing a tweet from Mani Osteria -  a teaser photo of the progress at their new neighboring restaurant.

It’s an exciting time on the Ann Arbor dining scene. We haven’t had this much to talk about since early 2011 when Mani, Raven, Frita and Mark’s Carts opened. I thought I’d get a jump on the chatter and give you my perspective on a few of the most noteworthy changes coming our way. Check it out. Agree? Disagree? Know of another spot left out? Let me know in the comments section.

  • Author’s note:  Kudos to Melanie Maxwell. She has an amazing eye and captures some tremendous images. Her work is one of the highlights of the dotcom/bomb. I’ve borrowed one below. Let's see how long I make it without a take-down notice. Free Press my ass.

 

Photo by Melanie Maxwell (annarbor.com)LENA / Café Habana

Owners: Jon Carlson, Greg Lobdell (AKA the Mission Group) and friends

Previous Work: A portfolio of Michigan restaurants, breweries, and rehabilitated properties

Gossip on the Space: These boys get it right. They have an amazing awareness of space and respect for architectural history. This is a landmark location. I have every confidence that their renovation will become a Main Street Icon.

Skinny on the Food: We’re holding our breath. 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.

Verdict: This place is here to stay.

 

Photo by Angela Cesere (Annarbor.com)Vellum Restaurant (EDITED 9/10/12)

Owners: John and son, Peter Roumanis

Previous Work: Mediterrano, Carlyle Grill  - and long, long ago – part of Cottage Inn

Gossip on the Space: Technically the space is new, created when building owners spilt the space formerly used for the Full Moon, One Eyed Moose, Full Moon again and then Monkey Bar. Team Roumanis are creating a new two-storied concept, opening soon.  Their facebook page shows a few designs that indicate strong potential. 

Skinny on the Food: 

From Peter: "...The American menu will read as though you may or may not have eaten many of the dishes before. When the food arrives, however, it will be super composed ans stylized that integrates both traditional and modern technique influenced by my own working background."

I'm curious to see how that translates. Peter's challenge will be to seperate his menu from Mediterano and Carlyle where flavors are overpowering and unbalanced. They are the type of menus that let down a trained connoisseur, yet inexplicably delights “the real housewives” set (point in case, check out the crowd during happy hour at Carlyle).

Verdict: Chances are good. There’s plenty of transients and visiting parents in town to keep plenty of dining rooms full.

 

Name TBD – Mani’s Latin Twin

Owner: Adam Baru

Previous Work: Mani Osteria (and multiple big name concepts out East)

Gossip on the Space: The paint is barely dry in Mani and Adam’s at it again. He’s hired the same crew that did Mani so expect a similar design aesthetic. It will be casually sophisticated and minimalistic. The big question here is lighting. This space won’t have the benefit of natural light afforded to Mani.  I’m curious to see how they overcome that obstacle.

Skinny on the Food: Here’s a little not-so-secret fact; Adam’s wife grew up in Mexico. The menu is by no means a happy accident. Expect a tremendously authentic and original menu. Chef Brendan McCall is still relatively young and hungry. He’ll be pulling out every stop to solidify his status as a local celebrity chef.

Verdict: Hell to the Yeah. Hurry up and open already!

 

Name TBD – Former Champion House Space

Owner: [?] Can anyone remember who profiled this guy? Was it the Observer? 

Previous Work: None. He's a twenty-something college grad with a business degree and NO restaurant experience. Hmmmm....

Gossip on the Space: Yikes…one half outdated dining room, one-half Japanese steak house. The physical constraints of this floor plan will be difficult to energize. Ed Shaffran, the building owner is a real mench. I'm sure he had a good reason to lease the space to this group. Let's hope it wasn't desparation. The new tenants hired an accomplished desigher. Good Luck. 

Skinny on the food:  Yikes again. They made the carnal sin of describing their menu as “fusion.” They also failed to mention a chef of culiary consultant. That’s a pretty good indication that it will suck. 

Verdict: This place gets my Long-Shot Award. It could very likely become a tragic story of a bankrupt family who poured their entire retirement savings into a child’s dream. The location is not without challenge. It’ll take impressive word of mouth or an expensive marketing plans to draw folks away from Nain Street.

 

Zingerman’s Delicatessen Expansion Project

Owners: Ari, Paul & a band of Amazing Operating Partners

Gossip on the Space: No one is Ann Arbor has bent-over more to appease the rigid, and at times irrational, historical wonks.  Past deli expansion efforts resulted in a confused maze of chaos.  The latest deli renovation has the potential of resetting the clock and establishing a new, dramatically better experience. The new deli will create a space where people can shop, eat, learn and linger as opposed to the current battlefield that allows people to simply “survive.”

Skinny on the Food: No big changes here. All the things you love will remain.

Verdict: The Zingerman’s brand has grown well beyond the deli, a true testament to Ari & Paul’s vision. In the process, the little building at the corner of Kingsley and Detroit has lost some luster.  This renovation will allow the deli to retake its rightful place as the community’s crowned jewel.

 

Bills Beer Garden

Owners: Mark Hodesh & Bill Zolkowski

Previous Work: Downtown Home & Garden, Mark’s Carts, Union Kitchen

Gossip on the Space: Mark & Bill have been toiling away all summer to convert their southern parking lot into a beautiful social garden. From what I have seen, this will be a gift to the city. It will bring a social air to the block the same way Mark's Carts flows out onto Washington. 

Skinny on the Food: Stay tuned. I’m sure they’ll figure out a way to have goodies from Mark’s Carts present. Lord only knows what kind of horse-trading is involved with permits from the city and "equity" arguments from the cart vendors. The real story will be about the taps. Recent rumors include a pretty even selection of Michigan brewers.

Verdict: Watch out Dominicks, there’s a new outdoor oasis to get your drink on. And chances are it won’t be filled with drunk undergrads. 

 

Number Nine Hamburgers

Owner: Rodney McGrit

Gossip on the Space: Anyone who walks down Hoover on game day is familiar with the long lines around the Number Nine Hamburger stand. Those of you who don’t go to football games have no clue…until now. The street food revolution that blew-up locally with Mark’s Carts is heading towards campus. I know of at least three concepts in process of getting vending licenses to set-up food carts near State and South University. The first to open will hopefully be Number Nine Hamburgers, thanks to a successful fund raising campaign on Kickstarter earlier this year.

Skinny on the food: There’s something magic about a simple, honest burger fresh off the grill. There’s no big frills here, just good ol’ beef grilled fresh in front of your eyes.

Verdict: Go Rodney Go! A2GastroBoy loves entrepreneurs as much as I love food. It warms my heart to see a good man (or woman) make a go of it.  Good Luck Rodney!

 

RANDOM NOTES | Here's a few more thoughts before I go...

Death Watch: The only constant is change. Every year someone call it quits or goes belly-up. Here’s my prediction for 2012-13.

  • The Melting Pot: really, REALLY? Who has eaten here? It’s a chain concept on Main Street. And a limiting niche concept at that. At some point the lease will be up. I would be shocked if the cash-flow from this place warrants another round.
  • Mercy’s at the Belltower: I’m said about this one. And I hope I’m wrong. But this place does not stand on it’s own and there’s simply not enough at Hill to leverage a sustainable crowd. We’ll see. 

Opportunity Space: Is the restaurant scene saturated? Hell no. There’s always room for good ideas. Here’s two. Got more? Tell me in the comment section.

  • Squares (formerly Dynersty & briefly Yoshi’s): Here’s the rub, the building is high-rent and the location is shit. Yes, Afternoon delight survives on the same block, but that’s solely based on a 20-year legacy. I guarantee you that if the same place opened new today it would fail. This space needs to be the next Frita. Who’s brave enough to try?
  • West-Side Stadium Boulevard: I live on the west side; without going downtown the dining options are fairly limiting – and let’s face it – I can only eat at the Roadhouse so many times a week. So, here’s my challenge: build it and they will come. The west side is ripe for a young, unique and casual concept in one of the many low-rent vacancies.  Think EAT meets Wolverine Tap House. It needs to be a destination concept, a community-creating idea that draws traffic. Maybe a cooking school that serves dinner, or a collective of local farmers building a 7-day famer’s market that has a liquor license. Bring it on!

There you have it. Did I inspire you? Offend you? Hit comment below and leave a note. 

Reader Comments (7)

This is awesome. Thanks for your great analysis.

August 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen Connor Barrie

Lena: I had concluded that higher entree prices @ Lena (upstairs) was expected given the move to Main street. Just hope they didn't mess up the Habana (basement) ambiance and offerings too much.
Excited to see how Bills turns out.
I echo your sentiment on West-side Stadium Blvd lacking options.
Never understood anything about Melting-pot. That particular spot has had its fair share of failures over time though I don't think location had anything to do with it. Jolly Pumpkin next door changed things getting it right. Hope someone can figure out the right need in that block and make it happen.
Mercy's puts out good fare but the location doesn't help them - would hate to loose them. Who does the marketing for Mercy's? Never hear any buzz. They need to put some effort into getting the word out especially if they can make cut on the food which is the harder part.

August 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterA2serendipity

Spot on!

August 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMadeline

Excellent work. So pissed I left down before Bill's opened.

Also really really excited for Mexican Mani (Mexi-Mani? Let's call it that before it starts). I am obsessed with Mexican food (despite being a vegetarian) and Frita's avo-spread and Darcy's Cart's Breakfast Burritos don't sate that craving. Mexi-Mani (sorry I'm not sorry) will hopefully be as great as the original.

Also, Lena sounds dumb.

August 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGH

Wow G$, tell us how you really feel.

August 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen Connor Barrie

I too am worried about Mercy's, when there isn't an event next door the place is dead. Not sure they do much marketing besides some livingsocial deals (which we snapped multiples of)

We're big fans of the drink menu, and while the food isn't perfect, its creative, tasty, and has its own flair.

Great place for a date night

August 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMercy's Fan

Catching up here....I've been to Lena's twice and the drinks are great. But I'm very disappointed in the food, especially given the price point. Only good thing is the Corvina. The fish tacos were flavorless, the scallops were OK, but paired with a barley risotto?!? Skirt steak was tiny, unseasoned, and overcooked. Had same waitress both times. First time was after a week or two of opening so I cut her some slack. 2nd time we almost gave her zero tip as a lesson.

Mercy's - I really wanted to like it, but it was pretty boring.

Champion House place - Do we need another Asian place in A2?

Isalita - C'mon!!! Open already! I don't need actual walls or flooring. I'd be happy to eat there during construction.

November 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThe Hedonist

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