The new black
In food fashion, local is the new black. Chef Brandon Johns put his locovore stamp on Vinology before leaving to open his own uber-local restaurant, the Grange Kitchen & Bar, last summer. Since then, Vinology has been anxious to emphasize that it, too, still uses a lot of local ingredients. On a recent visit, our server said the magic word "local" five or six times in his opening spiel, making me restless to see what all the hype was about.
Starting with the small plates, the tempura-battered squash blossoms, stuffed with goat cheese and resting on a hearty gazpacho sauce, were a highlight--and the best evidence that Vinology makes scrumptious food with local ingredients. I can't say as much for the Michigan mushroom tartlet, with its bland seasoning and tough puff pastry. The "Kobe" beef isn't local, nor is it Japanese--it's a Kobe-style Wagyu-Angus hybrid raised in the Midwest. Perhaps because Angus doesn't achieve the same level of marbling as Wagyu, the Kobe "sliders" were so thick and dry they wouldn't have slid down a linebacker's throat--even when lubricated with a trio of fresh tomato ketchups. My favorite of the small plates was the filet tips, perfectly seared and covered with a slightly citrusy ponzu glaze. Popcorn, seasoned with a snooty but satisfying hint of truffle oil, was a surprising side to the tips.
Among the entrees, the braised Kobe short rib completely redeemed the sliders. Even cooked well done, the meat was still so tender and juicy it nearly melted in my mouth. Lake perch, the most obviously local entree, disappointed me with its soggy breading, but my co-reviewer was pleased that the fish remained moist, a welcome change from most perch preparations.
Vinology's new head chef, Robert Courser, has a background in Asian cuisine that shows up most strikingly in the fish entrees. The black tea leaf tuna, just shy of rare, made a fresh foil to the crispy fried rice cake that came with it. I'd
order the dish again for the cake alone. Crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, with a hint of sweetness, fry oil, and toasted sesame, it tasted like a refined funnel cake. The barbecued salmon was less successful. Coming from Arkansas, I expect "barbecued" to refer to food slow-cooked over an open flame; this was broiled and slathered in a super-cinnamony Asian barbecue sauce. I can forgive the term, since the salmon was perfectly cooked, but the sauce was so sweet and overpowering that I ended up scraping it off.
Besides changing chefs, Vinology is also open again for lunch after a yearlong hiatus. The new lunch menu addresses the local economy as well as local food: all of the entrees are $8, less than half the least expensive dinner entree. Sticking to the local theme, I was most interested in the butternut squash ravioli. Like all the lunch entrees, it came in a generous dinner-size portion. Spiced with cinnamon and sugar, the filling tasted like pumpkin pie, but it avoided the heaviness of a holiday dessert by substituting fresh sauteed mushrooms for a thick sauce. Although the ravioli were a little too sweet for me, I'd order them again just for the beautiful presentation: bright orange carrots with a shock of green stem, saffron-colored squash cubes, and a circumference drizzle of cheery spring-green pea puree. It was a comforting and warm choice for a chilly day but light enough that I could go back to work without a food hangover.
Besides being a good deal, the lunch menu also has a wide variety of options, from Mahi tacos with mango salsa to shrimp po'boys with Cajun remoulade. I tried a thick juicy "Vino burger" with bacon and mild fontina, a perfectly spiced jerk chicken sandwich (also juicy), and a gigantic tuna nicoise. The latter was heaped with fat cherry tomatoes, spindly haricots verts, black olives, boiled potatoes, and slightly dry tuna that tasted canned. The champagne vinaigrette was so mild that the salad needed salt and pepper, but the generous size and gorgeous presentation made up for the dish's minor faults.
Vinology's emphasis on local seems to be all on the food side. Not a single wine recommended on the dinner menu comes from less than a thousand miles away (although servers can recommend a Michigan wine if you prefer, and owner John Jonna says there will be more Michigan wines featured during April, "Michigan wine month"). Nonetheless, Vinology's effort to buy local food ingredients is commendable and pays off in small ways. On the dessert menu, an unassuming berry crisp made the chocolate cake, with its splashy red-wine "ganache," taste downright dull in comparison. Like the squash blossoms and butternut squash ravioli, the crisp showed off local ingredients without touting its trendiness.
Vinology Restaurant & Wine Bar
110 S. Main, 222-9841
Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Snacks $5, entrees $8, soups and salads $3-$6, shared plates $10-$15
Dinner: Mon.-Wed. 4 p.m.-midnight, Thurs.-Sat. 4 p.m.-1 a.m., Sun. 4 p.m.-9 p.m. Starters $8-$12, entrees $18-$28, desserts $7-$8
[Originally published in November, 2009.]