Good food on campus
The Glass House Cafe
by Bix Engels
The U-M's latest restaurant may lack the aged patina of its brethren in the Michigan Union and Michigan League, but it more than makes up for that in wonderful food. The Glass House Cafe opened quietly this past fall in Palmer Commons, at the curve where Huron becomes Washtenaw. It's essentially a lunchroom in an office building-but what a building, and what a lunchroom. A restful and supremely unclaustrophobic space, its walls of glass bring in megalumens of natural light. The superb design picks up and plays off that glow with metallic-textured wall coverings and floating light fixtures in sculptural sheets of translucent acrylic resin. From the low upholstered banquettes to the chairs of steel and blond wood and the sky gray carpet, the graceful, airy furnishings have a streamlined moderne-deco cast, but the real stars in this room are the light and the view. What a lovely place to sit in winter.
The operating times and menu reflect the restaurant's core functions of breakfast and lunch: the dining room service operates only from half past seven in the morning until two in the afternoon, and only during the week. The coffee bar dispenses Starbucks drinks and prepacked edibles through the dinner hour.
The cafe is run by Elizabeth Kennedy, owner of one of my favorite restaurants, Evans Street Station in Tecumseh; Evans Street's chef, Alan Merhar, also heads the Glass House kitchen. I cherish Evans Street so much, in fact, that I was hesitant to try the food at the Glass House, fearing it might fall short of my happy memories of the parent. After my first bite here, I breathed a big sigh of relief. Then I commenced to clean my plate.
Although lunch entrees are on the pricey side, the value is in the careful cooking and the quality of ingredients-where feasible, the kitchen uses local products. The chicken, for example, is a skinless breast, pan seared without a lot of fuss. It comes from Eat
Local Eat Natural, the new Scio Township company that supplies restaurants with local goods. Chicken this fresh translates to a very juicy and tasty fillet. Served alongside are creamy mashed potatoes and simple steamed broccoli from Prochaska Farms near Tecumseh, surrounded by a thin ribbon of light lemony Mornay sauce. It was so light I wondered if, in traditional Mornay style, it had cheese in it, and asked the chef. Merhar told me he adds just enough Parmigiano-Reggiano to give it a creamy mouth-feel but not enough to weigh it down. The sum is a dish that feels straightforward, wholesome, and home cooked.
As down-home as that chicken dinner was, the tuna salad is anything but traditional, and more exotic than local. The star ingredient, a fairly sizable fillet of fresh, high-grade yellowfin tuna, is flown in overnight from Hawaii. It is slathered in white shiromiso paste and black and white sesame seeds and briefly seared, but only enough to form a sort of sesame shell. The miso paste gives it a saltiness and the sesame seeds a nuttiness, and the combined effect is of a flavorful crust giving way to velvety raw tuna. The fish is sliced and fanned over chilled soba noodles (from Eden Foods in Clinton) tossed with julienne carrots, yellow and red peppers, scallions, shiitake mushrooms, and a ginger-citrus vinaigrette.
Garden-variety lunch staples-soups, salads, and sandwiches-are a good value at less than $10, and even these quotidian offerings feel special when plated on white porcelain and eaten with heavy cutlery. The traditional hamburgers are made with Knight's beef and expertly grilled to order with a few choice toppings like Maytag blue cheese and sautéed mushrooms. There are also panini and wraps, but the "Little Italy" panino I tried was a disappointment, despite quality prosciutto and capocollo-the lettuce melted to a mushy state, and the whole thing became something of a greasy muddle. All sandwiches come with either a mixed salad or thick fries dusted with an appealing salt-rosemary-Parmesan mixture, not bad though not made from fresh potatoes. My entree salad, a midsize Caesar, used good crisp lettuces, although the agreeably creamy dressing lacked the garlic-lemon-anchovy punch of a serious Caesar sauce. With those fresh local greens, though, it made for a fine lunch, bolstered by a trim fillet of salmon on the side.
If you have been good with the main course, you still have a chance to let loose at dessert with treats like the gigantic brownie sundae. Our waiter had the kitchen split one for us on two plates, where it was mounded with whipped cream and drizzled with dark chocolate; as the chocolaty brownie merged with vanilla ice cream, it was fully, gooily satisfying. My own favorite sweet is the understated lemon pound cake, baked here and served in slim slices topped with whipped cream and homemade peach jam.
I had just one Glass House breakfast, but it rivaled my lunches: a light, classically constructed omelet filled with fresh spinach, Vermont Cheddar, and sautéed mushrooms. It was exceptional, as were the accompaniments: thick rashers of crisp apple-wood-smoked bacon; substantial slices of toast; and a mound of hash browns that mixed cubed Russets and sweet potatoes with caramelized onions, fresh chives, and sweet basil. My one small quibble would be that the Glass House needs better jams at breakfast-those little packets don't cut it, and I know from other dishes here that the place does a mean homemade jam. Aside from that, even the coffee was terrific, served in a pretty porcelain cup with cream in a sleek angular metal pitcher. The tea water here is hot enough to actually brew a decent cup.
The Glass House has managed to find some of the most personable servers in Ann Arbor, and we were well looked after on all of our visits; recommendations were knowledgeable and delivery was prompt. At one lunch the server misheard our order and delivered a sirloin medium well instead of medium rare. We didn't have time for a do-over, so she tried to make it right, ultimately taking our drinks off the bill. At one lunch our waiter even brought us each a gift-a bottle of Jones soda with a picture of John McCain on the label. The restaurant staff had ordered two cases each of McCain and Obama soda, and though they'd sold out of Obama quickly, they couldn't give away McCain. I really didn't mean to, but when I packed up my stuff to leave, my subconscious left my McCain on the table.
As a townie, I might never have found my way to Palmer Commons if not for this assignment. But for anyone interested in architecture, this dazzling and functional building is worth a trip. And for foodies, the stunning space has its culinary counterpart in the impressive homespun fare of the Glass House Cafe.
Glass House Cafe
100 Washtenaw Avenue
(Palmer Commons); the elevator stop is PL (Plaza Level)
Dining room Mon.-Fri. 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m., counter service & coffee bar Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
Breakfast entrees $6-$9. Lunch: soups & salads $4-$7, burgers & sandwiches $7-$9, entrees $9.50-$18, desserts $4-$6
Fully disability friendly
[Originally published in February, 2009.]