Sava's Aventura Opens
Tapas under the sign of the arrow
by Sally Mitani
Sava Lelcaj's spacious new restaurant/bar on Washington opened in late November. A gracefully scripted neon sign over the door says Aventura, but it may become better known as "TAPAS," after its other sign, the twelve-foot-high marquee that juts out from the storefront and points the way in with an arrow. Sign maker Mark Chalou says it's composed of "249 eleven-watt light bulbs" and is inspired by a famous 1940s Baltimore Grand Hotel marquee. It's also reminiscent of old diner "EAT" signs. "We wanted to light up the street," says Lelcaj, "and the arrow was [Chalou's] idea. It was just the right cool-slash-tacky touch." Chalou's stylishly vintage signs adorn many Ann Arbor restaurants. In early December he was working on a new one for Fraser's Pub, now undergoing a face-lift.
Inside is an equally striking renovation: a large three-sided bar, earthy clay light fixtures, tiny black-and-white mosaic floor tile in a lattice pattern. Aventura's three separate storefronts (two used to house Mahek and the other an office) are united by wide brick archways.
No one can do tapas as they do in Spain--the little snacks are free there except in the more touristy areas. The idea, says Lelcaj, is "to keep you in the bar drinking--even though "a glass of wine there only costs about three dollars!"
No such luck here. A little plate of candied red peppers with goat cheese or short ribs with fried potatoes and blue cheese--to name two of about sixty choices--will set you back about $5, and the wine, beer, and cocktails are sold at the usual local prices.
Don't forget to look on the back of the menu for the two star items, the paellas and cochinillo (suckling pig). Even these are meant to be served like tapas, in small portions to a large group.
Lelcaj's advice is: "Bring friends, order a ton of small plates, and let us take the lead. We spent so much time training our staff."
She says her current favorite three-plate combination is coca Mahon (flatbread with a semi-soft cheese), lamb meatballs, and spinach with raisins and pine nuts. A passing waiter adds that his favorite is the patatas bravas: "thrice-fried potatoes, with a sunny-side-up egg, and honey aioli."
As for the help, townies of a certain era may recognize David Russell, the elegant Brit who in the early 1980s steered the Old Town from a scruffy dive to an eclectic pub for the conversationally gifted. The restaurant sounded interesting enough to coax him out of retirement from the U-M library system.
On the other hand, Aventura's chef, Juliann Botham, is only twenty-three. "I'm a great believer in giving young people opportunities. I was twenty-three when I started out on State Street," says Lelcaj. Now she's passed the ripe old age of thirty and is finally married to her longtime sweetheart, lawyer William Farah, and living out in the country with their six-month-old Dutch shepherd Stella.
Botham, who goes by "Jules," has very little restaurant experience but says "I've always liked feeding people." After graduating from U-M in environmental sciences, she worked for a while at the now defunct Morels in Farmington Hills: "I asked to apprentice there and worked as a prep cook, but I got tired of the low pay." Before that, she had struck up a friendship with Lelcaj as a customer at Sava. "We kept in touch--Facebook, email, Instagram, all that--and Sava asked me if I'd like to audition as chef here. I guess there's a use for social media after all."
Aventura, 216 E. Washington, 369-3153. Kitchen: daily 5 p.m.-midnight. Bar: daily 3:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Aventuraannarbor.com
[Originally published in January, 2014.]