Young Chefs' Big Bets I & II
The first to open, the Grange Kitchen & Bar, aspires to be a Midwestern version of Berkeley's Chez Panisse. Any restaurant serving tomatoes in August or asparagus in May can claim to be in tune with seasonal and local produce, but Brandon Johns, the Grange's chef and co-owner, is pursuing local seasonal food with Alice Waters-like seriousness.
At forty-four, Benton Harbor native Brandon Johns has been working his way up the ladder of important area restaurants most of his adult life (Real Seafood Company, Saline's Rightside Cellar, the Chop House, Vinology). He trained formally in New York and worked for awhile in restaurants in New York and Chicago, and in training and ideology he's the perfect candidate to fill Bella Ciao's spot in the most prestigious restaurant block in town, alongside the redoubtable Pacific Rim and West End Grill. And his Grange Kitchen & Bar is perfectly pitched to the locavore moment. This time of year, he says, "90 to 95 percent of the dollars I spend are within a couple hundred miles."
Johns tends to dart through the dining room quickly in his chef whites, like a very handsome ghost, watching but not talking much. He's a dead ringer for Kirk Douglas and once played football for U-M ("I played for about a minute," he says modestly). His wife, Sara, also sometimes appears tableside and helps with marketing. They met thirteen years ago when they were both at Real Seafood and now have two children.