by Lee Lawrence
From a street of wide-eyed front windows, it felt peculiar to descend the dark stairs to Melange's subterranean recesses. Once seated in a roomy semi-circular banquette, though, we appreciated the intimate sophistication of its chic, urbane design--as if we had sneaked through a secret door, leaving behind Ann Arbor Birkenstocks and khaki for big city silk and strapless sandals.
Melange's self-conception, according to the menu, is an "interpretation of fusion ... with a flair for the eccentric and eclectic." One needs a very sure hand to make that work, but work it does with the duck nachos, hoisin-glazed shredded duck confit piled on crispy wontons and decorated with Manchego cheese, guacamole, and sriracha sour cream, a deliciously gutsy tangle of flavors. The tuna duo appetizer--a combination of tuna-mango tartare and seared tuna tataki slices--features the fine, clean flavors of raw and almost raw fish, delicately seasoned. The scallop entree--jumbos perfectly seared and served in a mushroom-ginger broth with spinach and roasted fingerlings--rather than an Asian starch more instinctive with the broth--also works surprisingly well.
Not all of the menu, though, lives up to the sleek simplicity of the cosmopolitan decor: some dishes need pruning and tweaking, a greater refinement and deftness in the combining of flavors and textures. One evening's pork chop, though marinated in a gingery tamarind sauce, had been grilled dry. (The lean pigs we breed in the U.S. have made pork loin a difficult cut to keep juicy.) The soba noodles, tossed with Asian slaw and peanut dressing, which I had assumed would be chilled, surprised me--in a tasty if sticky way--by being warm. A friend's special pasta, sauced with a very mild Thai curry, was too bland for her but featured wonderful, plump mussels. Lamb chops, nicely grilled to medium rare, highlighted a mishmash of flavors--rosemary and thyme mingled with a gelatinous chili-soy glaze, roasted potatoes, and sauteed Brussels sprouts. A third friend's Chilean sea bass, though beautifully plated and nicely seasoned, was less
fresh than it should have been.
Fortunately, we were there on a Wednesday night, an evening, along with Mondays, when wines under $70 are sold at half price--a real deal. We experimented with three lovely bottles, suggested by the knowledgeable staff and new to us, from Melange's extensive collection, housed in a striking contemporary glass partition along one side of the dining room. A trio performing in the bar added a celebratory backdrop to our long, leisurely meal, making us all feel as if we had slipped on those strapless sandals.
Many dishes that don't try to blend global flavors also proved successful. A warm mushroom salad with spinach, bacon, long threads of raw beet, and smoked sea salt, lightly dressed with truffle vinaigrette, provided a wonderful change from many restaurants' mundane greens choices. Tuna as an entree, this time with an Italian flair that included a Parmesan crust, pesto risotto, olive salad, and a balsamic reduction, did both the fish and the country proud, though the prosciutto chip seemed a bit gratuitous. And beef short ribs, accented with Asian flavors and braised until meat and seasonings became one, were savory and succulent.
Perhaps one reason the dishes aren't equally successful is the sheer size of the menu--too many ingredients and too many dishes for the kitchen to track and execute well. (In addition to the extensive regular menu, there is also a page of sushi, which we didn't try.) Scoozie--flatbread filled with blue cheese and fried--is vaguely cheesy but not as pungently cheesy as the name might suggest. "Chicken osso bucco"--wings advertised as cooked Szechuan, or spicy, style--were merely okay, as was another appetizer of sauteed tofu and vegetables scooped up in lettuce cups. Raw tuna floating in a ginger-ponzu sauce, seared at the table on a heated river rock, also fell flat, neither marinade nor dipping sauce providing sufficient interest.
Melange changed hands in January, and new owners Laura and Christopher Wanke are working hard to bring the restaurant to its full potential. The waitstaff is well trained and friendly without being stiff. Desserts are improving--the tray has mercifully disappeared--though not as seasonal as I would prefer them to be. Although the front lounge still drives the operation with its music and longer hours, the Wankes are reinvigorating the dining room with its own special events, lunch, and catering. I'm hoping that with a bit more editing and tweaking of the menu, the food will become as polished and sophisticated as its setting.
312 S. Main St.
Mon.-Wed. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight. Closed Sun.
Lounge with late-night menu open 2 hours later each evening. Appetizers, salads, and soups $6-$12, entrees $14-$32, sushi $6-$15.
Wheelchair accessible through
elevator in the Ark (notify hostess).
[Originally published in July, 2012.]