by Lee Lawrence
Originally, artisans produced vellum by transforming calfskin, with careful and elaborate preparation, into an exquisite, durable parchment suitable for fine manuscripts and paintings. Vellum, the new restaurant on Main Street, is also built on a series of meticulous transformations--of the building and of notions about food and service. Father-and-son restaurateurs John and Peter Roumanis have crafted a restaurant unlike any other in town.
When we entered, Vellum's staff graciously divested us of heavy winter coats and immediately led us to our table without the bar wait still common at many places. Looking around, we marveled at how the Roumanises had renovated both floors of the old Full Moon bar into a restrained, elegant restaurant, with wood floors, fabric-lined brick walls, luxurious banquettes, and gracefully curved light fixtures.
Attentive service continued with immediate queries on water preferences--sparkling bottled or tap poured seemingly perpetually from uncommonly long, narrow pitchers. The waiters were friendly and warm, knowledgeable about the menu and the bar, and the management hospitable, anticipating our needs and desires. Beautifully balanced cocktails whetted our appetites, and the extraordinary wine list, dotted with unusual finds across a wide price range, confounded our ability to select just one or two bottles. The images we conjured from the terse menu descriptions rarely matched the dishes that came to the table, but the food presented was nearly always intriguing. And the prices for the quality and ingredients offered seemed quite low--low enough to make me think eventually they will have to increase.
So I feel cranky saying that I wished that the service had been a little less solicitous, a bit more casual. It sometimes felt strained and awkward, as if the staff members weren't fully comfortable in the roles each had been asked to play. I felt the same about the food, whose substance sometimes seemed lost within the details. (I'm not sure, for example, that the result justifies the restaurant churning its own butter.) I suspect, though, that what
I'm noticing is a restaurant, owner, and staff settling into their identity, their niche within the Ann Arbor restaurant arena. The enormous effort being made is clear, and, given time, Vellum should become the exquisite entity it's striving to be.
Even in development, Vellum offers one of the most interesting and enjoyable dining experiences in town. From a winter menu that's clearly seasonal and evolving, we delighted in much of what we ate. Dinner began each time with an amuse-bouche--in our case, a strangely textured apple "napoleon." Loved by some, loathed by others, it established early that the food would often defy expectation.
The mushroom tart appetizer arrived topsy-turvy, the thin, delicate crust broken over a mushroom medley, a parmesan-tomato sauce spilled alongside on the plate. Cooked in a sous-vide bath, a wonderfully creamy poached egg, covered by another crispy wafer dotted with date puree and vinegar powder and perched atop a celery root mash, highlighted the kitchen's mastery of contrasting flavors and textures. The shrimp-and-grits appetizer was an exquisitely refined version of the southern classic, and a salad of cooked, chilled vegetables couldn't have been more beautifully prepared or artfully presented.
Gingerbread spices marvelously accented the natural sweetness of silky carrot-parsnip soup. But the game mousse, though incredibly smooth and buttery under a cloak of tart cherry gelee, lacked the deep meat essence needed as a counterpoint to the fruit. We missed that same depth of flavor, as well as seasoning, in the bone marrow custard.
Among the larger plates, the agnolotti, tender dumplings filled with sweet potato and chestnuts and garnished with dried plums, amaretti crumbs, and savory fried sage leaves, proved another successful combination. Fisherman's stew paired crispy sauteed fish fillets with an intensely perfumed shrimp broth. A slight smear of aioli smudged the bowl's rim; I wished for a solid dollop of the garlicky mayonnaise. Garnishes of irresistible fried brussels sprout leaves and satiny, pressed eggplant highlighted the plate of slow-cooked lamb shoulder. Four tiny, charming bottles of assorted barbecue sauces, each striking a fine balance of sweet, sour, and spicy, were possibly the best I've ever tasted; they stole the show from the accompanying shingles of tender smoked brisket. Another meager smear of creamed corn alongside the meat barely satisfied our desire for the vegetable.
Unctuous pork belly was, by far, the best part of a plate composed of mixed cuts--the shoulder too mushy, the tenderloin average. Rich, buttery, almost mousse-like, the smooth potatoes accompanying the pork and a perfectly cooked rib eye were simply fabulous. On another entree, the onion broth on the pan-fried walleye tasted as if it had been wrung from a boiled onion. Salmon with chorizo sauce sounded inspired, but while the fish, cooked sous-vide, proved delightful, the drizzle of sauce was puzzling--I missed the sausage's garlicky, paprika-y, meaty flavor, and crispy crumble.
Despite ordering appetizers and entrees all around, reasonable portions and timely pacing left us room for dessert; some of Vellum's, however, veered into interpretations rather than satisfying endings. We ignored the spongy, sour herb bread paired with the cheese course's wonderful, crumbly, nutty aged Gouda; nor did we finish a cherry tart that substituted tiny cherry-flavored clouds for the actual fruit. The first time we ordered, at the waiter's recommendation, the madeleine-and-tea dessert, we were pleasantly surprised at the clever juxtaposition of miniature cake, tea ice cream, and salty-sweet bits of crystallized honey, hidden under warm Earl Grey foam. The second time, though, the pastry proved dry and hard, the bits too few, the foam rather flat. However, the citrus dessert offered bits and pieces of tart, refreshing fruit, and the chestnut-chocolate cake with chestnut ice cream was deliciously recognizable from its menu description. And, like every other detail at Vellum, the coffee and tea were fully considered and carefully prepared, gratifying those who finished their meal with a hot cup.
Pleasingly unique, then, Vellum is a restaurant representative, in ambience and setting, in food and service, of the fine parchment after which it's named, a sophisticated rendering we'll likely continue to prize.
209 S. Main Street
Dinner daily 5:30-10:30 p.m. Bar and lounge Sun-Thurs. 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30 p.m.-1:00 a.m.
Appetizers $7-13, entrees $14-29, desserts $8
First floor is handicap accessible.
[Originally published in April, 2013.]