Grange Kitchen & Bar / Ann Arbor, MI

Michael and I in Ann Arbor

Michael and I in Ann Arbor

When deciding on a day trip to Ann Arbor, I believe the respectable thing to do is to eat at Zingerman’s Deli.  I mean, why not?  It’s delicious, has a store chock full of goodies, and is the place to go in Southeast Michigan.  However, this post is not about Zingerman’s.  It is about what happens when you venture out of your pastrami and pickle comfort zone and into the streets of Ann Arbor.

We discovered Grange Kitchen & Bar as we walked down a side street, off of the main drag.  Our stomachs quickly deciding for us that any food is better than no food, we opened the door that led us down an long, narrow hallway.  We were quickly seated at a booth by our friendly host and began to take a look around.  The decor was unassuming, just a few large prints of vegetables on cream colored walls.  The only other decoration was a wall-sized chalkboard that listed out the days specials, as well as where the vegetables had come from.  Because it was brunch, their special for the day was a chocolate chip fritter, for a mere $2.

The menu included some of the usual offerings, but the pairings were less than normal.  The fried egg sandwich came with chile mayo, the seasonal vegetable hash with wax beans, and the buttermilk pancakes were lemon.  Each thing sounded a little better than the next.  Starting with coffee and the charcuterie board, we settled in for some lavish tastings.

Our appetizer arrived quickly, and plated beautifully on a white plate with small glass jars holding duck pate and pickled vegetables.  Beets, carrots, and green beans mingled together in their vinegar soft shells and tasted of a bountiful harvest.  Michael commented that the pickled pig’s heart was delightful, a word not many would use to describe such an organ.  Satisfied with our first tastes, and our velvety coffee, we awaited our entrees.

My mozzarella, basil, and red pepper omelette came out a bright yellow, a sure sign that the eggs came from well kept chickens.  Biting into the brunch, it was almost like it was screaming, “SUMMER! This is what summer tastes like!”, because, really, it did.  The peppers and basil were fresh, and the mozzarella blended perfectly, not runny at all.  The potatoes were also another strong point.  Not cooked too much, and with a strong flavor, they complimented my fresh omelette nicely.

Michael was in heaven with his order of the duck confit poutine over two fried eggs.  The French fries, crispy, danced with the duck confit, not giving the breakfast too much of a duck flavor.  “That was just about the best poutine I have eaten,” were some of the only words I could get out of him in between bites.

Ready for more, we noticed ice cream was on the blackboard.  Flavors like popcorn, mint, and lemon balm enticed us to try a few flavors, which all arrived in small glass jars.  Each one a creamy blend of the ice cream and its mix in, we were floored.  The chocolate Dragon’s Milk, made with the New Holland brew by the same name.  Not overpoweringly alcoholic (or chocolate for that matter) I could see it pairing well with a hot summer day.  The sage, the more savory of all flavors, left us dreaming of what we could do with all the sage on our front porch.  Fresh and distinct, it was a wonderful way to use extra harvest.  But finally, the lavender and lemon one was to die for.  I could have easily bought an entire gallon of it and chowed down on my journey home.  So light and fresh, but never overly sweet, it was like the flavors were meant to be together.  After talking to our lovely waiter, he informed us that the ice cream was made in house by their pastry chef-and that she sells pints at Ann Arbor’s Farmers Market every Wednesday.  If you want to check her out, which I suggest you do, click here for her Facebook link.

I have to say, I couldn’t be happier with our decision to venture from the norm.  An excellent meal, friendly service, and a dessert that will keep us coming back more than we should, sure made our day.  To top it all off, we were able to support Michigan farmers while filling our bellies!

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Roast / Detroit

Salt.  I can comment mostly on the excessive amount of the simple seasoning that was poured over every one of my dishes, and less on the actual taste, for it was clouded by the salt.  After hearing multiple accounts that Michael Symon’s Roast was one of the best in the area, Michael and I hopped in our car and sped off to Detroit, not entirely aware of what we were getting ourselves into.

The restaurant, located in the heart of downtown and connected to a Westin hotel, we were greeted by two hostesses in a dimly lit foyer, who led us to an even more dimly lit dining room.  The tables were large booths raised off the ground and carpeted with cushion-y vinyl.  Although it was mildly comfortable, someone must have forgotten that booths are made for eating, as the table seats tilted one back so far that they were no longer in line with the table.

Our waitress greeted us promptly, and quickly handed me the drink menu, all on an iPad.  The list was extensive, and came from an equally impressive bar, finished in dark wood and made to look almost black.  After quickly perusing the beer menu, I settled on Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, and let me say, it was delicious.  A bourbon complimented the beer perfectly, and left me with a thick, almost chocolately drink with a high alcohol content.  Perfect for sipping.

However, we didn’t come for the drinks, so we started in on the menu.  Michael ordered the charcuterie board and the bone marrow for himself, and was excited to try something new.  The provisions board arrived, with a variety of different meats to try, along with pickled onions and honey mustard sauce.  He commented that the board’s offerings were good, but nothing special and eagerly awaited the marrow.  When it arrived, two bones sliced open with the marrow seasoned in the middle, he sopped up the insides with bread, happy to have tried something different.  He was mildly upset, however, that everything he had ordered thus far didn’t have any particular flair to it.

As a vegetarian, I often go into new restaurants understanding that my meal might be significantly different than my dining partners. I have been to many places with great vegetarian offerings, but some seem to fall short and only offer salads and sides.  I am by no means the kind of person that would want a chef to cater to me, as I have chosen to restrict my diet, but sometimes I become bored of the tiresome options that are presented to me.  Roast was no exception, with nary a entree or appetizer for me to chomp on.  I decided on one of two options for my main, a goat cheese salad, and had mixed feelings about it.  I was really pleased to see that the goat cheese was actual chevre, and not just the kind that comes in a tube and often sprinkled over a salad to add trendiness.  The chunks were poured over arugula and mixed in with strawberries and pecans, which were all high quality and bursting with flavor.  My disdain was towards the over dressing, that left my mouth unhappily vinegar-ed and unreasonably salty.  Michael had ordered their soup, which was a white bean, chicken, and ham combination that left him puckering his lips and chugging his water.

Finally, our mains arrived.  My soft polenta side began as a sweet mix of corn bits and cream, but rapidly ended as I realized the only seasoning in the dish was salt.  Salt, salt, and more salt, was suddenly all I could taste.  Michael, who ordered the “beast of the day”, was presented with shredded lamb bits topped with salsa verde and garnished with tortilla chips.  “This tastes really Greek,” he mentioned, pulling out a piece of parsley from his dish.  His dish too was, surprise, way too salty. We also couldn’t figure out why each beast of the day came prepared the same way, as the menu suggested.

Finally, wanting to give the place one last hope, we ordered two desserts.  The beer and pretzels, which came served in a pint glass made me almost forget about the meal I had just had.  Beer ice cream, topped with a caramel foam and mixed in with chocolate covered pretzels, was the perfect grown up answer to a milk shake.  The ice cream was a foamy mix of cold beer and cream, which made me want to take a pint home for myself.  The peaches and blackberries with sweet corn ice cream was another story, though.  I imagine it was supposed to look something like a pie, as it was topped with an incredibly soupy crumble.  When we dug in, it was more soup, and we quickly realized that there were no blackberries, only blueberries.  The sweet corn ice cream tasted more like flavorless ice cream, and the peaches were freezer burned.

We walked out of Roast feeling incredibly disappointed.  The best meals we had had recently came from renowned places, ones that didn’t have fancy chef names or big advertisements.  They were just places where people wanted to make really good food, and wanted you to enjoy it too.  I hate to believe that Roast is this disappointing, given the great reviews I have heard in the past, but feel like we ordered enough from the menu to get a good feel for what they had.  If you really want to give it a shot, I suggest going to the bar and ordering drinks and dessert.  But, if you would rather just drive around and find a place that might tickle your fancy, I advise you strongly to do so.

The Meeting House / Rochester, MI

To celebrate our big move back to Michigan, Michael’s grandma and aunt were kind enough to take us out to brunch at the new downtown hotspot, The Meeting House. In a location that used to serve a holistic restaurant named “Mind, Body, Spirit,” the new establishment went through a lot of trouble ripping out a top floor green house to create a two level upscale, yet casual, dining experience.

Arriving at ten on a Sunday morning, we were quickly seated on the top floor patio, that offered a view of the alley below.  Our chipper waitress handed us our menus, which were printed on tough cardboard that resembled a slab of wood.  The menu offered traditional favorites like Eggs Benedict  alongside more thought provoking choices like “The Fat Elvis,” peanut butter stuffed French toast topped with a banana syrup.

It seemed as though the owners were pushing for an industrial, vintage inspired look, complete with striped hand towels, mason jars, and food atop skillets.  I couldn’t help but wondering as I poured my water from a wine bottle water pitcher that maybe they could have thrifted some of their items.  However, I quickly realized, the overhead costs were none of my concern since I wasn’t footing the inventory bill.

For four breakfast dishes, none of which that complicated, I was a little perplexed as to why we were kept waiting for about a half hour.  When our food finally arrived I was impressed with the presentation, which kept up with the entire ambiance of the place, catchy minimalist.  My wood roasted mushroom omelette was stuffed with chevre, poached garlic, and shallots, and certainly created a winning mixture.  Normally, I am all about an excessive amount of cheese, but I was pleased that the sparing amounts let the mushrooms shine through.  I also ordered a side of house made potatoes, and was a little disappointed that my $2 only bought me a few bites.  I would have been much happier paying a larger amount for a bit more potato.  Their taste left something to be desired, though, and was not unlike something you could pull out of your home freezer.  Michael ordered the peach cobbler French toast and was happy to note that the taste of the actual fruit was what he could taste most, and not the mounds of sugar.  His sausage, on the other hand, came out cold, leaving him feeling a little slighted, as far as breakfast sides went.

His grandmother and aunt fared similarly, ordering the traditional eggs Benedict and avocado scramble, respectively.  Good, but nothing too special.  What stood out most to me was the fact that both the avocado scramble and mushroom omelette were noted as being gluten free on the menu, yet came out with English muffins.  The reason I ordered my breakfast was because it was gluten free and I was upset to see that a) they were tempting my will power and b) a perfectly good food item was about to go to waste.  As silly as it sounds, that one little detail ruined a lot of the experience for me.

All in all, The Meeting House provided a friendly atmosphere and a great alternative to the traditional offerings on Main Street.  I plan on giving the place another shot for dinner, but it’s not at the top of my list. I would have enjoyed the experience more if the chefs had given more personal touches to their menu and the food in general, instead of focusing so much on the small details like napkins and dishes.

Downtown Cafe / Rochester, MI

Well, Hungry readers, I am finally here in the great state of Michigan.  It was a long, hard road, but I  am finally (sort of) settled into my boyfriend’s family’s home.  While my parents were here (they were kind enough to help us move in!) we ate a lovely lunch out at one of my favorite spots, Downtown Cafe.  Here’s why.

One of my mother’s only requests in choosing a place to eat is that there are seats outside.  In a smaller town, and one in such a state where snowfall can reach North Pole quantities (not really, but it feels like it), patio seating is hard to come by.  However, as we strolled down Main Street I remembered one of the best seats in the house, at Downtown Cafe.  Nestled in between the main drag and the Rochester Public Library, the cafe is a favorite among families and business people alike.  

Open for breakfast and lunch only, and focusing heavy on the former, Downtown Cafe steers clear of tired diner traditions.  Of course, you can order the simple eggs/hash/toast if you please, but they have more adventurous options, mostly on their specials dry erase board.  Items like “Michigan Pancakes” that came complete with Michigan’s most popular fruit-the cherry, Creme Brulee stuffed French toast, and quiches are never a disappointment.  My only caution is that the sweeter you go, the more you feel like you are indulging in a dessert, rather than a hearty breakfast.  But if that’s what floats your boat, by all means, go for the gold!

Service at Downtown Cafe is friendly.  Although the servers don’t go out of their way to accomplish this feeling, their pleasant attitudes and cheerful smiles have me believing that this little cafe is a mighty fun place to work.  I really shouldn’t question it, though, because spending a few hours in such a quaint, bright little building could probably do wonders on anyone’s mood.

Michael and I ordered from the specials menu and we were both pleased.  My tomato, fresh basil, and dill Havarti omelette made for an incredible combination, and one I enjoyed even more than the traditional mozzarella.  A mix between a thin crepe of a diner omelette and the bursting-at-the-seams French creations, the egg mixture left me in a perfectly satisfied state between thin and fluffy.  Michael’s raspberry stuffed French toast left his mouth watering for more.  A sugary mixture of berries atop two large slices of Texas toast gave him a bit of a sugar buzz, but I believe that’s the point of French toast.  

My parents both enjoyed strawberry chicken salads, having filled up earlier in the day.  Spinach, feta, and strawberries danced around a vinaigrette that was not too sweet nor savory.  

In Rochester, a breakfast that can please everyone is hard to come by.  If you can snag a table (outside!) at Downtown Cafe you will not be disappointed!

Big Jones / Chicago

ashlyn and dad

It’s hard not to stroll down a well walked Chicago street without stumbling upon a celebrity chef’s post or nationally acclaimed restaurant.  I am just as excited as the next person to try some recognized new flares, but sometimes the hype can lead a diner disappointed.  Ambling down Clark Street in Andersonville with no particular cuisine in mind, my family and I saw the words “Southern heirloom cooking” on Big Jones’ menu and couldn’t pass it up.  We could not have made a better decision.

An unassuming small spot with minimal, bright décor, the windows shed ample light onto our table early on a Monday morning.  Walking in just at opening time, the kitchen staff was already buzzing and our hostess, who later turned out to be our waiter as well, led us to our table.  With a quick glance at the menu, I knew my hard to please, Tennessee bred father would be pleased.

It was my 21st birthday, so my dad and I promptly ordered a George Dickle Tennessee Whiskey and a 3 Floyd’s brew respectively to accompany our pickle tasting and boucherie board.  All four were brought out promptly, by our smiling waiter who explained each bite that we were about to devour.  The pickle tasting included a lot more than traditional cucumbers, ranging from unripened strawberries, ramps, and cole slaw.  The boucherie board, which featured blood sausage, head cheese, pimento cheese, and an assortment of other traditional charcuterie, wowed both my parents and Michael.  With most of the board’s features being made in house, we were all shocked at the caliber of our simple appetizer.

I must admit I was a little disappointed when I realized one of my only options was roasted mushrooms served over creamy grits.  My experience with that combination in the past has been less than desirable, but when my plate was placed in front of me, my fears were lifted.  A heaping plate of steaming cheesy grits, with the classy touch of mixed mushrooms, garlic, and thyme was hard not to finish as fast as I could.  The lunch was something I could eat again for days and not get tired of, and it made a delicious treat for any season.  The grits were not overly cheesy or overly cooked as they often are.  It took me a while to glance over at my companions’ plates, who were all munching silently with smiles on their faces.  Michael loved his smoked and smothered pork shoulder, and my parents were happy with their pecan chicken salad and chicken dumplings.  It isn’t often that restaurants in the North can hit such a high Southern note, but we were all pleasantly surprised with the home cooking we were enjoying.

Our waiter was a delight for the entirety of our visit and even hinted with a bit of pride that he helped prepare some of our dishes.  Many people tend to say that Southern cookeries make them feel like they are at their Grandma’s house, but with the muted contemporary décor, bursting flavors, and wonderful list of beverages, it felt more like we were enjoying a lovely lunch out on a beautiful Southern fare.

Graham Elliot Bistro, GEB / Chicago

Dining at a celebrity chef’s restaurant can be exhilarating, or incredibly disappointing.  For a Sunday lunch at G.E.B. (Graham Elliot Bistro), my dining partners and I experienced the latter.

We arrived right at open and were greeted with the inviting aroma of a promising hearty breakfast.  Biscuits graced the open line and the smell of bacon wafted into the air.  Seated right away on the trendy back patio, Michael and I awaited our third dining guest, Kyle.  Ordering a coffee, orange juice, and sampling of breakfast pastries to tide us over, we looked over the menu.

Our waitress arrived in spurts, and this continued throughout the entirety of the meal.  Sometimes she was attentive, most times she was not.  We often waited over ten minutes for a water refill, and were rarely greeted by the same server.

Our breakfast pastries certainly got us excited for the rest of the meal, though.  Chocolate zucchini bread, cherry pots de creme, cheese scone, and cornbread were each individually delicious.  The zucchini bread was soft and moist, conjuring up memories of something a thoughtful grandmother might make.  The whipped cream on the pots de creme was good enough to be eaten alone, and I certainly took advantage of that fact!  Once Kyle arrived, we eagerly awaited our entrees.

Ten minutes later, a salad that we had chosen to split arrived.  Crisp romaine was topped with a yogurt dressing, golden raisins, and pistachios was entitled the “gem” salad.  Unfortunately, we all thought it was quite the opposite of a gem.  The dressing left a bitter taste in our mouths and the pistachios were smashed, leaving them almost impossible to be picked up by a fork.  There were also a few bits of asparagus, but those were sliced in such a strange way that it seemed like they weren’t even there!

Finally, twenty minutes later our entrees arrived.  I opted for the three egg skillet, as did Kyle.  Farm eggs topped with black beans, salsa roja, and avocado, I was a little disappointed to find that the black beans were under cooked and the flavors, surprisingly, didn’t go together.  Instead of complimenting each other, they seemed to compete, leaving the dish to feel a little jumbled.  The plate of homestyle potatoes had the same effect, biting into some potatoes that were raw.  Michael, diving into the rabbit hash, fared similarly, commenting that many of the vegetables accompanying his rabbit were raw pieces of zucchini and carrots.

Having all fell in love with the Parmesan-truffle oil popcorn indulgence at Graham Elliot’s even smaller scale place in the loop-Grahamwich, I was accepting the same caliber of delicious food for breakfast.  I would like to say that maybe it was a case of ordering the wrong thing, but considering we sampled one of each category, I would say it was a case of bad representation.   I am sure Graham Elliot is a wonderful chef, and can put out a great meal, but I certainly did not see it at GEB.