Lena and Habana
Expectations and realizations
by M.B. Lewis
Initial rumblings about the new Latin-inspired double-decker destination restaurant on Ann Arbor's prime corner were not encouraging. Friends bemoaned high prices and bland food at Lena, the upscale ground-floor dining space. The first dozen Yelp-ing assessments ranged from meh to mad.
Since Lena upstairs has the more ambitious menu, I decided to explore the basement first. The cave-like Habana features a simpler version of the artsy fare upstairs, with small plates created by the same accomplished Ecuadoran chef, Gabriel Vera, but assembled in a satellite kitchen and offered at lower prices.
Once your bat eyes adjust to the stone-walled space, there's a lot to like in Habana, with its campy crystal chandeliers, sparkly tall mojitos that have cute round ice cubes with lime juice and mint leaves frozen in, and other fruity rum cocktails (though the syrupy signature margarita should come with a mega-sugar warning). Big art deco posters from the old Cafe Habana line the intimate side rooms--literally extending under the sidewalks of Liberty and Main.
Habana shares its fresh-tasting shellfish ceviche, a little sweet and totally devoid of unwelcome fishiness, with Lena upstairs. The rest of the menu is mostly high-quality bar food, with "tacos" and "sliders" constructed from ingredients like sturdy grilled skirt steak, watermelon barbecue sauce, and cilantro aioli. The Cuban sandwich in particular is a treat, with thin slices of pork belly, smoked ham, and Manchego cheese and light mustard sauce on wafer-like grill-pressed white bread. Fresh tomato salsa and lettuce adorn most plates. At eight or nine bucks for three portions, this relatively healthy lounge fare seems an awesome value. High-mounted TVs playing sports draw your eyes like beacons in the dark room; for complete distraction, come back on salsa dancing nights.
Habana's pleasant surprises raised expectations for dinner in the showplace space upstairs. Strolling into Lena's large dining room, you immediately feel a sense of good design, reaffirmed in everything your eye lands upon, from the tall white freestanding chimenea fireplace in front
to porthole openings between booths. Elegance exudes from soft white lights and creamy textured walls setting off tropical-wood-toned trim and sculptures.
Though Lena had been open for a month by the time I ate there, the best thing to be said about my first meal was that it showed potential for greatness.
It didn't start out well. The beef empanada had unappetizingly greasy dough and more raisins than beef in the filling--traditional, yes, but not what I expected based on the menu description. A starter of smashed and fried plantain tostones came decked out in salsa and cheese sauce scribbles but tasted mushy and bland.
Then the food got better: An interesting salad contrasted compressed watermelon chunks with arugula and whipped goat cheese. An entree of sea-bass-like corvina was crispy-brown on the outside and complemented by matchstick plantains, peanut sauce, and salsa. Another dish of squashes and bite-size sweet potato gnocchi arrived smothered in a rich brown butter sauce that seemed a bit odd in a dessert-custard way. After a few bites, I checked my handy web printout of the menu for something that might explain the heavy taste of the sauce. Sure enough, as was quickly confirmed by a manager, the olives ("castle ventrano," the menu boasted) had been left out. "Line cook problem," she stated glumly. Her added "I will be sure to tell Chef Gabriel ..." trailed off as she lickety-splitted to the glowing kitchen in back. She returned quickly with a little dish of chopped bright green olives. Mixing them in made all the difference--the salty little devils inspired the sauce to savory complexity.
This experience, and the assertion by our opinionated server that the chef considered the menu a work in progress, made me feel a little guilty about visiting in judgment so soon. Clearly, Chef Gabriel and his crew at Lena needed more time. I vowed to push my deadline to the limit before my final visit.
Nearly two weeks later, I nervously returned. It was a crowded weekend night this time, with twice the number of servers circling the noisy room, now vaquero-costumed in jeans, ties tucked into bright checkered shirts.
Our dinners lived up to the festive vibe, starting with an amazing (and new-to-the-menu) appetizer of seared duck and cilantro-microgreen-topped polenta cakes perfect for sopping up every drop of decadent gravy. A roasted red and golden beet salad with avocado sauce and a crispy parmesan cracker was similarly excellent, although small enough to leave us wanting more. Surf (giant sea scallops) and turf (cumin-and-paprika-rubbed thin-sliced skirt steak) were both pleasing, although the shellfish's robust barley-grain risotto was heavy on salt.
"The service has been pretty much perfect this time," I sighed contentedly to my companion as we lingered over coffee and a berry-garnished sweetly dense flan (also consider the dulce tres leches cake). I spoke too soon, because our still-smiling server arrived to drop off someone else's check and trotted out of sight before I noticed.
Oh well, mistakes happen. And I learned, while reading the stranger's check, that Lena offers a free dessert on your birthday.
226 S. Main
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight, Sun. noon-10 p.m.
Small plates and salads $7-$12,
entrees $18-$34, desserts $7-$9.
Open for food Sun.-Thurs. 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 5 p.m.-midnight, Sun. 5-10 p.m. (bar open till 2 a.m. Mon.-Sat., midnight Sun.)
Ceviches, small plates, and sandwiches $7-$9.
[Originally published in November, 2012.]