The Grange Kitchen reviewed
by Bix Engels
The Grange Kitchen and Bar has been the hot dining ticket in town from its first service on Thursday, August 6. We managed to snag a seat at prime time on its inaugural Saturday. It was intended as a curiosity visit--normally, I'd wait two to three months before making a review trip, to give a new place some breathing room and a chance to shake the kinks out of its systems. But, what the heck--the Grange seemed ready enough, my editor was curious about it, and after five years I'm moving on from reviewing restaurants for the Observer. Carpe victus, especially while it's still a paid perk.
Outside, the aesthetic is promising: a splendid logo of roots in earth and the most gorgeous, understated restaurant sign in the city. Inside, the bright, clean minimalist space conveys a sort of Puritan farmhouse chic, with a blond wood banquette lining one wall and brick arches setting off the high ceiling. On all four of my visits, the room was packed.
There's just one hitch. When Bella Ciao had this space, the ceiling was draped with fabric that cushioned the noise. It looks much better now, but that material soaked up sound. The absence of acoustic cushioning was a problem in Grange's first few weeks, when communicating with the servers sometimes felt like a game of charades. By September the owners had installed ceiling tiles that absorb a good deal more noise. Still, I prefer to sneak off to the small, brick-walled barroom upstairs, which is more intimate and better for conversation.
Although there are three partners plus a slew of actively involved relatives, Grange's principal is definitely owner and head chef Brandon Johns. I feel like I've spent the past twenty-four months following this guy around downtown Ann Arbor. I first noticed his creative specials at the Chop House, then was wildly enthusiastic about the changes he brought to Vinology during a twelve-month sojourn there (a stint that, curiously, is omitted
from Johns' bio on the Grange website). Now he has landed his own restaurant, and I think we're finally getting to see Brandon Unbound, with a greater purity of vision combined with a more exacting and exuberant execution.
"Grange" evokes the agricultural-cooperative movement that flourished in the late nineteenth century. While the restaurant is a fine example of the farm-to-table genre, it's far from the only one in town that makes a concerted effort to use the products of local agriculture. Still, the Grange definitely raises the bar. And its aim is to keep raising it--the eventual goal is 90 percent local sourcing. A good chef could meet the creative challenge of winter in Michigan in all kinds of interesting ways. I can't wait to see what the menu looks like in February.
Right now, it's simply gorgeous. At the height of the harvest season, we see the pinnacle of locavorism: who needs meat when you have homegrown vegetables so beautifully textured and intensely flavored? Nearly all the appetizers (and at least two main dishes) are vegetarian friendly. Stuffed squash blossoms were superb--tubular flowers filled with fresh goat cheese from Tecumseh's Four Corners Creamery then submerged in a tempura-like batter and fried. A tomato and goat-cheese tart was a study in contrasts, pitting the soft, ripe fruit against the tangy cheese and a crisp pastry shell flavored with pepper. Green beans in a creamy, intensely tarragon-flavored dressing were accompanied by psychedelically colored, beet-juice-dyed pickled eggs that looked like something from Peter Max.
These big, bold veggie flavors create a synergy in the main dishes: the northern wilderness flavor of slow-roasted wild salmon is set off by an accompanying sweet corn relish and punctuated by a tomato-ginger jam. A genteel sweet lake perch is simply complemented by brown butter, but tartness comes via capers, earthiness from roasted fingerling potatoes, and saltiness from lardoons of smoky bacon. Heartily portioned food arrives carefully but not fussily composed on warmed plates.
The Portuguese seafood stew seemed like the least local dish with its preponderance of fish that had never seen a Great Lake--halibut, muscles, shrimp--but potatoes from Tantre Farm in Chelsea and a house-made chorizo added a dash of Washtenaw. The halibut, grilled before it entered the stew, was on the dry side, but the light broth helped overcome that deficiency. Oddly, the only entirely unsuccessful dish for me was the steak: on two separate occasions the grass-fed rib eye was tough, overcooked, and under-seasoned. The Grange needs to learn how to do as well by Michigan beef as they do with out-of-state seafood.
The wine list--pulled together quickly according to sommelier and dining room manager Lauren Trendler--needs strengthening. For me, most of this food would work better with Old World wines, and, while some Michigan wineries are represented, most of the wines here are from the West Coast (closer to local, I guess, but in terms of carbon footprint, actually a little worse than French wines, because of land use and methods of transport). The Grange does have a very good selection of regional beers and a list of elaborate "artisanal" cocktails.
The bar menu, available only upstairs, has just eleven dishes. Johns does bar food wholeheartedly but wholesomely, as in one-bite stuffed dates--dates threaded on a toothpick with gooey warm blue cheese from Carr Valley Cheese in Wisconsin and that house-made chorizo. This was a very shareable plate, as was the charcuterie platter with a rough country pate, chicken liver pate, sausage, and a mix of tart pickled carrots, cauliflower, and beans. The charcuterie was a fine effort for starters, but I'm looking forward to more exciting smoked and cured meats as the restaurant gets going; these things need time. I liked the cornmeal-breaded whole smelt deep-fried, crunchy bones and all. A real Great Lakes treasure, smelt is alas nowadays a rare one; these were terrific.
Chef Johns has also reinvented a junk food classic with his duck confit poutine. It's crazy, and crazy good (and maybe crazy fattening, too). For those unfamiliar with poutine, it is a Quebecois specialty of French fries, gravy, and cheese curds--sometimes with meat and peas added. Johns uses shredded duck confit from white Pekin ducks raised at Back Forty Acres, hand-cut potatoes deep fried in duck fat, a relatively light dose of brown gravy, and a sprinkle of cheese curds. Formidable!
Desserts are the work of Jennifer Green, Johns' sister-in-law. The ones involving fruit and pastry were off the charts. The only true dud was a panna cotta that was like mushy Jell-O, but blander; the semi-dud platter of local cheeses ought to have been more carefully composed. But I'd make a special trip for the raspberry-peach crumble, soft baked fruit with a rich, scone-like topping, accompanied by a scoop of Calder Dairy ice cream.
The service was reasonably smooth for a place that had been open so short a time. Some servers were better informed than others (one couldn't name a single item on the charcuterie platter and another misidentified a soft goat cheese as a cheddar). On my last visit, the server was slow, distracted to the point of rudeness, and forgot to bring the basket of fresh bread (from Detroit's Avalon Bakery) that we'd enjoyed on earlier trips. And although I prefer the barroom, food does take somewhat longer to schlep up those stairs.
But, in the main, on three out of four visits, the floor crew was tight, well schooled, and seemingly in sync with the kitchen. Johns hired experienced line cooks--all of whom he'd worked with before--and he prowls the dining room making sure everything is as it should be. His wife, Sara, is often present as well. I recognized the capable bartender from Vinology. Trendler, the knowledgeable sommelier-manager, has a background as a wine distributor and knows her plonk.
I've loved reviewing restaurants, but now I look forward to cooking more and eating out less. I'll keep writing and exploring. One of the best aspects of this gig has been the adventure of seeing our corner of Michigan through the lens of food. The interesting, odd, exotic, down-home, mediocre, sometimes awful, and occasionally excellent eateries in and around Ann Arbor all say a lot about the community. We are lucky that we still have not been overrun by chains. But even among our many indie restaurants, it is rare to find many that combine skill in preparation, exceptional ingredients, service, and atmosphere. Grange Kitchen and Bar is one. What a great addition to Ann Arbor.
Grange Kitchen and Bar
118 W. Liberty
Mon.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 5-11 p.m. (bar open two hours later nightly). Closed Sun.
Main menu starters $4-11, entrees $18-$31, desserts $8
Bar menu (sandwiches; shareable and small plates) $4-$16
Main dining room is accessible by wheelchair, but the bathrooms are down a steep flight of stairs and the bar upstairs is not accessible.
[Originally published in October, 2009.]