Allen Rumsey Supper Club
What kind of place is this?
by M.B. Lewis
From the June, 2017 issue
Growing up in a tiny Midwestern college town, I relished the special occasions when our family of seven went out to eat at the hotel restaurant. Yes, there was only one--perched on the edge of the campus with landscaped gardens extending expansively to the town square. I remember staring at sophisticated strangers sipping drinks in stemmed glasses as we wound through the big-windowed dining room. Once settled, I'd elbow away siblings to snag one of the tiny banana bread loaves hidden among the rolls in the linen-covered basket. I was Eloise at the Plaza, at least for the day.
I felt an inkling of that old anticipation entering the Graduate hotel on Huron St. I'd read that the Graduate, which opened last year in the former Campus Inn, hoped to create a destination restaurant for Ann Arborites--an ambitious goal in a town already crowded with upscale eateries.
Though the Graduate is part of a chain, it isn't one of those everyplace hotels, mundanely alike from Albuquerque to Albany. As you approach, it telegraphs its school-years concept with a row of blue and yellow bicycles emblazoned with the hotel logo. A long library table and posh chairs crowd the lobby. Instead of blaring TV, squiggly math equations cover green boards, complete with shoulder smudges in the chalk.
Through the lobby and past the coffee and pastry counter, you enter another age. Allen Rumsey Supper Club looks clubby indeed, with dark-paneled walls loaded with framed pictures from the paint-by-number school, a 1950s-'60s soundtrack, and cozy booths.
On my first visit, two of us tucked into a booth and hungrily ordered the "Lazy Susan" mixed appetizer plate. It turned out to be a lot of food for $12, a generous interpretation of the promised "pickles, relishes, salads, and spreads." Unfortunately, most were just so-so. Pickled carrots were crunchy but too spicy from jalapeno, while a slightly sour flavor characterized both the marinated mushrooms and herb-flecked white bean salsa. Simply sweet pickled
beets and feta were the salad option I would have been spinning the big ceramic Lazy Susan to most often--had it spun. Our server fiddled with it until I told him not to bother, because my favorite item was right in the middle: a dense beer cheese. When he told us it was made with Bell's Oberon, I thought I tasted the distinctive fruity tang of Michigan's favorite spring-summer brew. It could also have been the power of suggestion. Either way, it was great on the baguette toasts.
Before the server took away the half-eaten platter, we had chosen two dinners: Lake Superior whitefish and lamb chops, with green beans to share. The generous four chops were nicely cooked to the requested medium temperature, with crusty edges and pink middle. Cherry salsa, sweet and chutney-like, added a welcome note of complexity. With only a few asparagus spears and cauliflower florets half hidden under the meat, we appreciated the generous side of bright green beans with toasted hazelnuts. The whitefish's slight dryness was mediated by garlicky spinach and tomato-onion jam freshened with slivers of basil.
Meanwhile, a bit of tableside theater was kicking in nearby. A middle-aged daughter had brought her mother for a birthday celebration, with Cherries Jubilee for dessert. It was prepared on a portable cart with high-proof alcohol doused awkwardly on an open skillet. The server-cook lacked confidence-inspiring panache, and the flame jumped darn close to mom's head. A server approaching with a drink for another table backed up and found another route around.
So we skipped dessert, settling for the sweet fumes we'd inhaled from next door. Also, we'd already racked up a good bill ($62 in lamb and fish alone, well over $100 with one glass of wine, veggie side, and appetizer).
We began our second visit a week later with addictive chili-lime glazed peanuts--half-price at the bar during Happy Hour, along with other snack and drink specials weekday evenings. The bar also has its own burger and sandwich menu, but we initially passed on those, as well as the Supper Club's chicken, pork, and beef entrees--we were in the mood for salads.
I liked the simple tomato and onion salad, with its creamy-centered mozzarella burrata and big pumpernickel croutons. The lettuce and pear (poached and full of clove flavor) salad was even more pleasing, with fresh blackberries, walnuts, brie, and a thick and seedy pureed raspberry vinaigrette. The lobster roll, on the other hand, came on an untoasted and unbuttered bun and smelled kind of fishy. A squeeze of lemon helped some.
Like the food, the decor is hit-and-miss. The Supper Club's name honors Ann Arbor's founders, but emblazoning the words in red lights in the dining room (twice) felt like overkill. Menu flourishes devoted to trashing Ohio State were more heavy-handed than amusing--"The Buckeye" specialty cocktail, priced at $0, is said to include "Lake Erie's finest arsenic."
Such touches made me feel like I had walked onto a Hollywood set for an Ann Arbor movie, with more surface than depth. When I opened the door to the bathroom and saw hundreds of old snapshots, bluebook covers, and postcards thumbtacked to the walls, I wondered if it was all Michigan memorabilia. I looked closer: Park Avenue here, an Indiana return address there--flea market flotsam. The effect was kind of fun but shallow. As on the dining side, the decor's quality is not yet consistent with the appearance.
Allen Rumsey Supper Club
(Graduate Ann Arbor)
615 E. Huron
Sun.-Thurs. 5-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 5-10 p.m.
Appetizers and soup $7-$17, salads and sides $8-$14, entrees $19-$48, desserts $7-$10.
Partially accessible (main dining room down several steps).
[Originally published in June, 2017.]
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