Small Plates, Big Ambitions
Graham's Restaurant reviewed
by M.B. Lewis
With its large sign at I-94's State Street exit and full-page ads plastered across prime space like the back of the 2010 Ann Arbor Summer Festival program, Graham's Restaurant is hankering for attention. Marketing director Erin Cebulski says the menu was heavily revised in the spring to appeal to both hotel guests and other diners who might want something light and unusual--including duck and venison year round, a lot of seafood, and rare fare like sweetbreads--while keeping traditional dishes hotel diners expect.
Graham's still has chops and filets but distinguishes itself with a huge array of small plates. We sampled not quite a third of the twenty-seven on Graham's dinner menu, and not one was a dud. Calamari steaks nearly the size of Post-it notes capture your fancy? How about savory-sweet pressed polenta cakes flanked by gorgonzola and fruit? Or broiled prosciutto-wrapped gnocchi floating in basil cream sauce? We're just getting started.
One reason the list is so long is that Graham's dinner menu has no "appetizer" section--the small plates include starters like shrimp cocktail, mushroom caps, bruschetta, and oysters. Others are mini entrees, including hearty fare like beef tips with mushrooms and onions, crab casserole, and pulled pork sliders.
It'll zoom in on those little pork sandwiches to give a taste of what Graham's does so well with its small plates. They start off with two sweet little buns, dry-grilled for a slightly crispy surface. Each gets a hearty dollop of henna-colored, cinnamon-spiced, but not-too-sweet slow-cooked pork, shredded tidily and gristle free in my sampling. A few fresh dark salad greens and a slice of tomato provide the finish. Voila!--an appealing miniature meal for just $4.95. No wonder I saw a businessman trying to order them again at lunch--off the menu at that time of day. He was accommodated, although it was funny watching him instruct the waitress how they should be served, with garnish to match what he had the night before.
This scenario echoes familiar moments from
all my visits to Graham's and is part of the reason the place grew on me. Paper-covered linen cloths and fresh flowers set a pleasant atmosphere, and the bread basket includes house-made corn muffins.
Though the dining room wasn't nearly full during my visits at weekday lunch and dinner and Saturday dinner, my eavesdropping on other tables uncovered repeat patrons. I spied an elderly couple praising the truly hot coffee they had come for, a party of four relishing premium California red wines by the glass, and a half-dozen or so singleton male diners (some with laptops open), clearly traveling businessmen. Whether typing away between forkfuls or cradling stemless wineglasses and gazing into the distance, they seemed content. I noticed several of these solo diners also ordered the dishes I liked best: the aforementioned sliders, a light but flavorful chicken Caesar wrap at lunch, and a great Mediterranean meatloaf dinner perked up with pancetta and parmesan and served with a side of real mashed potatoes. Comfort food with a bit of flair is what many a traveler needs most.
Unfortunately, except for that yummy meatloaf, the full dinners I sampled didn't sustain the appeal of the small plates. Gummy fettuccine made a mess of pasta primavera, veal scallopine could have used a good pounding, and the heavily advertised Spanish paella was bland and dry, as if overcooked or under-loved. Though real saffron threads were discernible, along with strips of calamari and white-meat chicken, it wasn't anywhere near as special as paella should be. We ordered it twice just to be fair, but it was even drier the second time.
With twenty-four dinner entrees along with those twenty-seven small plates, Graham's menu is over-ambitious for a restaurant that's open all day. Add a quartet of house-made desserts to the to-do list, and you're really pushing it. I thought the chocolate version of tres leches cake was on the heavy side, though my dinner companions liked it; raspberry sorbet was a welcome light option.
Still, Graham's wraps lemon halves in cheery yellow cheesecloth so seeds don't squirt onto your fish. It serves coffee in Fiestaware-style mugs. And those small plates make for happy grazing.
Management says traffic is up, as are catering requests. Graham's is comforting weary travelers and winning over some local folks as well.
610 Hilton Blvd.
Daily 6 a.m.-11 p.m.
Lunch $3.95-$7.95, dinner small plates $3.95-$8.95, dinner entrees $12.95-$19.95, desserts $3.95-$4.95
[Originally published in September, 2010.]