Cafe Felix Revisited
by Lee Lawrence
From the February, 2014 issue
Though Cafe Felix has graced Main Street since 1997, I had never stopped in. I'm not really sure why--perhaps I imagined it more coffeehouse than restaurant or perhaps the inset front never attracted my eye the way the sidewalk-hugging windows of Main Street's other restaurants had. However, an October Ann Arbor News article about owner Felix Landrum's drive to revamp and reinvent his restaurant--hiring new staff (including a general manager, chef Joe Van Wagner, and bartender/mixologist Jude Walker), and upgrading service and furnishings--sparked my interest. After a number of visits over this winter's holiday season, I obviously can't say how the new Cafe Felix is different from the old--but I can attest that the reinvention has kindled a fresh sizzle in that part of town.
My first visit, with a group of friends, was during Thanksgiving weekend. The dining room mimics early twentieth-century images of a French bistro--wooden bar, banquettes, brass railings, a trompe l'oeil mural reflected in the mirrored wall opposite. Choosing to sit in the front window overlooking Main Street, we awkwardly crowded around two round tables pulled together.
Our visit happened to coincide with a short, temporary list of new dishes the chef was considering--by soliciting patrons' responses--for the permanent winter menu. First, though, cocktails were in order.
The four men began with exhausting requests for each one's personal take on the standard martini, including one with Two James gin, produced by Felix Landrum's brother at Two James Distillery in Detroit. All declared themselves satisfied. My friend's Cosmopolitan came out lightly tinted rather than neon magenta; neither too sweet nor too fruity, the cosmo, she declared, was the best she had tasted. My Vesper, a mix of New Amsterdam gin, vodka, Lillet Blanc, lemon juice, and Angostura bitters, was exactly what a cocktail should be--an appetite whetter that stimulated rather than sated with too much alcohol or sugar.
Our appetizers did the same. Though I found the crust a bit too doughy, the proscuitto and artichoke
pizza was generous and tasty. The crab cakes, embellished with roasted pepper remoulade and a tangle of microgreens, were standard issue, but still delicious. We also enjoyed a seasonal bistro salad of curly endive, balsamic figs, candied walnuts, and pomegranate vinaigrette.
A couple of entrees, seemingly designed to startle, simply delighted. A bed of white chocolate mashed potatoes--an idea which frankly horrified me--beneath frenched pink lamb chops fortunately had no detectable hint of the candy. Octopus paella happily reminded those of us who love the flavor of the sea why we do. Sauteed sea scallops and duck confit were also nicely executed. Only the uninspired desserts--chocolate mousse and crepes with vanilla ice cream and cognac-apple compote--disappointed.
Our waiter that night seemed a bit overwhelmed by our table--he brought appetizers before cutlery and napkins, entrees before the wine, and we had to ask for the dessert menu--but was friendly and pleasant. By contrast, my waiter at a solitary lunch during the Christmas shopping season was one of the most professional I've encountered in Ann Arbor--solicitous without being overly so, helpful and knowledgeable and quite efficient.
At that lunch, I ordered a croque madame (a traditional French grilled cheese and ham sandwich topped with bechamel sauce and a fried egg), at the time not listed on the menu, though its male counterpart (monsieur, without the egg) was. Definitely a fork-and-knife sandwich, particularly with the crusty bread used by the kitchen, it was a rich, decadent treat, accompanied by some equally sinful crisp, thin fries. Sitting again in the front window, this time at a new, square table, watching the large flakes fall on an already snowy street, I couldn't have imagined a more perfect holiday lunch. A glass of wine, readily available, would have been the cherry on top of the sundae, but I still had a long list to get through, and I didn't want to get too comfortable.
At my next visit, dinner with my husband shortly before the new year, I did relax--sank, really--into a rear banquette. The night before we'd hosted our annual holiday party for friends and family. After a season cooking for others, enjoyable as it was, the pleasure of being served was luxurious.
We began again with cocktails. This time I ordered a Madame Bovary, a wonderful mix of Beefeater 24 gin, St. Germaine elderflower liqueur, lime juice, and a Pernod "gentle melt"--a large solid ice cube infused with the licorice-y alcohol. I had to ask what was meant by the "gentle melt," but I found the ice cube a continuing treat even after I'd sipped all the cocktail.
Handed a condensed and solidified menu, I recognized only a few of the plates we'd tried on our earlier visits. Pizzas made the cut, as did crab cakes and a salad or two, but I didn't recognize the rest of the items--more snacks and small plates than entrees--including popular French bistro standards (moules frites, steak-frites), new trends (pork belly, kale salad), and local sources (Sparrow Market, Werp Farm). With so many options, it took a bit of time--one cocktail--to decide, and we had to leave many interesting possibilities untried, but we finally settled on a mix of snacks, a small plate and an entree, all to share, along with a bottle of wine.
The simple stalwart, fried calamari, arrived perfectly executed--lightly breaded and lightly fried, and nicely complemented by lemon aioli--though a bit pricey at $13 for a small portion. Potato croquettes with sweet onion aioli were also addictive, with crispy coatings and creamy interiors.
Deciding that the season's excesses now demanded at least some restraint, we passed up the pork belly with poached egg and apple compote in favor of the bacon-encrusted shrimp. The seared, wrapped jumbos on a bed of cauliflower-studded risotto were rich without being overly so and utterly delicious. Somewhat less rewarding was the chicken farcis--a chicken breast stuffed with black truffle mousse served on soft polenta with a poached egg, sauteed mushrooms, tomato confit, and chicken jus. Usually I avoid chicken breasts because they lack flavor and juiciness, but the waiter had praised it as his favorite entree; though the dish was indeed savory and beautifully presented, it didn't change my mind about chicken breasts; next time I'll try the sole meuniere or the Muscovy duck with its medley of vegetable accompaniments. Dessert again proved rather disappointing, the warm chocolate bread pudding rubbery and uninspired.
As a newcomer to the pleasures of Cafe Felix, I found the overall experience as exciting as the opening of a new restaurant. And perhaps the sprucing and fine-tuning and redesign has not just reanimated what existed but actually created a new entity. In any case, that last evening, settled deep into my seat, comfortably lulled by red wine and good food, wrapped up in a quiet conversation with my husband and protected against the dark cold of a winter night, I couldn't imagine a better place to be.
204 S. Main Street
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-midnight, Fri.-11 a.m.-1 a.m., (weekdays lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5 p.m-10 p.m), Sat. 9 a.m.-1 a.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-10 p.m. (weekend brunch 9 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m.)
Brunch and lunch $5-$22, snacks, small plates, and salads $6-$18, entrees $19-$28
[Originally published in February, 2014.]