An Ambitious Combination
Lena and Chef Gabriel
by Sally Mitani
When chefs audition for jobs, they cook. When Gabriel Vera cooked for a group of five owners and investors of what was then just a rough idea for a Latin American-themed dinner restaurant, "I started with broiled sardines topped with tomato tapenade, rutabaga foam, and fennel cream. Then I made a compressed watermelon salad, followed by braised palomo--that's Cornish hen--with fingerling potatoes and escabeche salsa. I ended up surprising them with my food," says the twenty-seven-year-old Ecuadoran, with a certain amount of satisfaction. All of these dishes ended up on the menu at Lena.
Lena and its basement bar, Habana, opened more or less on schedule in the former Parthenon in early September, and an ambitious renovation it is. 2Mission, Lena/Habana's parent company, also owns Grizzly Peak and Blue Tractor locally and a small flock of other eateries around the state. It has a well-established record of classy resuscitation of vintage downtown buildings, but when it comes to installing restaurants in them, 2Mission usually leans toward casual pub.
In Traverse City, 2Mission recently stepped into the deeper waters of fine dining with a locavore dinner house named Mission Table. Lena is their second foray into what one might call the white-tablecloth world--except there are no tablecloths in sight in the modern, minimalist ground-floor restaurant, which seats 130. It's stripped cleanly down to its brick and timber bones, with tables and chairs so functional they're reminiscent of school-cafeteria furniture. The current trend in fine dining is to let the food provide the complexity and use the decor as a palate cleanser.
Downstairs, Habana is another story, all romantic shadows and twinkling baroque chandeliers and gleaming wood, with narrow grotto-like semi-private rooms under the sidewalk. It's worth a trip just to check out an architectural rarity: many buildings of the period have filled in their under-sidewalk caverns, originally built to take deliveries. "Cafe" was dropped from Habana's name when it moved over from Washington Street--through the years it has evolved
into more of a nightclub--but it does offer a short menu of sliders and tacos prepared in the basement kitchen that Vera also oversees.
Vera--or Chef Gabriel as he likes to be called--is as ambitious as the upstairs restaurant. Growing up in Guayaquil, Ecuador's large port city, he was expected to follow in his mother's footsteps and become a doctor, but instead apprenticed himself at the Guayaquil Hilton and simultaneously went to cooking school. When Guayaquil ran out of challenges--"I wasn't comfortable just being a good chef in my country; I wanted to be one of the best"--he came to Warren to live with an aunt and uncle and continued working two or sometimes three jobs at once, all the while finding time to compete in ice sculpture, vegetable carving, and the Culinary Olympics. Also called the International Exhibition of Culinary Art, the competition is held every four years in Germany, and Vera, before he accepted this job, made sure he'd be allowed time off this month to make his third trip there, this time as part of an eight-member Michigan delegation.
Vera has been just as driven in his domestic life. Shortly after getting his green card he met his wife, Melissa, and they're now parents of a five-year-old and a two-year-old. And he still finds time for pop culture. He compares Habana, not to some other restaurant he's been in, but to the rave dance party scene from Matrix Reloaded. Describing his cooking philosophy, he credits not only Escoffier but also the mouse in Ratatouille. ("It's easy to cook food, but it's not easy to love it!" is how he remembers the message, if not the exact quotation.) He adds: "I use best-quality ingredients with the least cooking required. Why would you cook an heirloom tomato? We don't want to kill the food. It should be alive when it gets to the guest."
Lena, 226 S. Main, 994-2773. Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight, Sun. noon-10 p.m. lena-annarbor.com
Habana, 226 S. Main, 994-2774. Mon.-Sat. 5 p.m.-2 a.m., Sun. 5 p.m.-midnight. lena-annarbor.com
[Originally published in October, 2012.]