Lunch and Las Vegas
by Bix Engels
This has been a notable year for Eve Aronoff and eve, her eponymous Kerrytown restaurant--and not just because she added lunch service in July. Already a culinary star in Ann Arbor, Aronoff had a brief and brutal stint as a national television celebrity on Bravo's Top Chef: Las Vegas.
But long before the letdown in Las Vegas, there was success here at home. Eve's always given credit to her restaurant team, and in January she strengthened it further by adding general manager and minority partner Rick Halberg (former owner of the well-regarded Emily's Restaurant in Northville) and sous chef Max Sussman (coauthor with brother Eli of Freshmen in the Kitchen). The new lineup was firmly in place when, in April, she disappeared from Ann Arbor for several weeks.
She had signed a secrecy contract with Bravo that was so strict she couldn't even tell her staff where she went. While she was competing in Las Vegas, they thought she was visiting Israel. The cover story, she explains, "had to be somewhere where I couldn't call in twenty times a day like I usually do when I'm gone. And it had to be somewhere where people couldn't reach me easily."
The secrecy continued: she had to get Bravo's permission to talk to me on the phone in late July. One of the show's associates set up the call and monitored the entire conversation from her office in Manhattan to make sure no spoilers leaked.
So when I reviewed her new lunch menu, I didn't know how Aronoff fared against her sixteen rivals (the season kicked off as we went to press). As most interested locals know by now, she was booted off Top Chef in round two. But having followed her restaurant's progress since it opened in 2003, the show didn't affect my assessment of eve: it is cooking better and running more smoothly than ever.
Halberg is "a chef, and he's comfortable in the kitchen," Eve says of her new GM.
"It's been fun for me to have somebody to brainstorm with on food and menus." Their collaboration appears to be a creative one: new dishes like a barbeque degustation and cured grilled wild salmon with Asian spices have joined old favorites like inspired nachos and Thai chicken on the dinner menu.
But I'll focus here on the new lunch service, which officially launched July 30. I was already an eve fan, but lunch knocked my socks off: this food is simple but exceptional.
Aronoff studied at the most prestigious culinary school in France, Le Cordon Bleu. On my recent visits I'd just come back from nearly three weeks in France, so I still had France on my mind and on my palate. Eve's style is more international--and more her own--than French, but it reminds me of what Julia Child said about French chefs: they are masters of method, and they take great care in the kitchen.
The method part involves learnable skills, which Eve has down pat. The careful part is more of a temperament thing, and Eve has it in spades, too. But careful is not the same as cautious. Her food is perfectionist but at the same time exuberant and surprising. It is also--and I know this is a weird word for food--heartfelt.
The lunch menu is short and still evolving but includes a soup of the day, a few sandwiches, salads, and a couple of more traditional entrees. Our soup was gazpacho, a tomato base with chunkiness added in the form of red onion and more tomato. A dab of cooling creme fraiche contrasted with the spiciness of the soup, with crunch coming from two crispy slices of toasted baguette spread with pesto. The soup tastes delicious and feels like a megavitamin; I could live on this all summer. Even my drink--an Arnold Palmer made with black currant tea and freshly squeezed, barely sweetened lemonade--was exceptional.
Aronoff is mining her proximity to the Farmers' Market. The fluffy omelets are made with fresh local eggs. A chopped salad features greens, scraped corn, and tomatoes from purveyors like Tantre Farm, Goetz, Donahee Farms, and Garden Works. Add cubed Gouda, crumbled bacon, hardboiled eggs, avocado, and herb vinaigrette, and it's very nearly perfect.
The local vegetables in the PBLT--pancetta, bacon, lettuce (really arugula), and tomato--come together on a wonderful Cafe Japon demi-baguette with a smear of aioli. The bacon-pancetta combination made for a multilayer experience--crunch into the thick, smoky bacon and slide into the softer, milder pancetta. My only complaint is that it's so thick it's cumbersome to eat.
"The hamburger meat comes from Bob," Eve says, meaning Bob Sparrow of Sparrow Market next door. My burger was cooked expertly to medium rare, capped with thick melted Gouda, and served with sliced tomato and red onion. The accompanying house-made potato chips are extraordinarily good, simple, thin, and fried in duck fat. I know it sounds unhealthy, but duck fat is one of the better animal fats, and it helps raise the level of "good" cholesterol.
The sweet of the day was a cup of dark pots de creme, an almost fudge-thick, deeply chocolaty custard, paired with a cup of whipped cream barely sweetened with brown sugar. Try it with an espresso for an experiment in luxurious mouth feel--dark chocolate, bitter coffee, sweet cream.
Both my visits were in the first week of lunch service. With the place only moderately busy, the waitstaff gave us the full-on eve experience, with solicitous attention. Occasional hiccups, like a stained coffee cup, were quickly dispatched.
Lunch isn't inexpensive, but it is roughly half of what you'd pay for a dinner entree here. The bottom line is even less if, like us, you skip wine.
Top Chef: Las Vegas turned out to be a momentary diversion. I can't help but think they didn't see the real Eve Aronoff, whose emphasis on using exquisitely fresh, mostly local (and even hyper-local) ingredients defines her kitchen. A unique approach never fits well into a stylized format. No matter what the art, creative people can seldom be forced to perform on cue without their own tools and materials. Aronoff is one of a kind; her eve is a distinctive destination in a quirky neighborhood in the only Ann Arbor there is.
415 N. 5th Ave. (Kerrytown Market & Shops). 222-0711. www.evetherestaurant.com
Lunch Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner Tues.-Thurs. 5:30-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 5:30-11 p.m., Sun. 5-9 p.m. Closed Mon. Wine bar (abbreviated menu) open 5 p.m. till an hour after dinner ends.
Lunch: soup $6, salads $7-$16, sandwiches $11-$12, entrees $11-$15, dessert $8
Dinner: appetizers and shareable plates $10-$26, soups and salads $7-$14, entrees $26-$38, desserts $4-$12
Fully accessible to disabled
[Originally published in September, 2009.]