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drawing of Lena's facade, Ann Arbor

Brunch at Sava's and Lena

A new look and a new cook

by M.B. Lewis

From the May, 2015 issue

Bridging strong morning coffee to the treat of a midday meal out, weekend brunch stays deliciously in style: your house can stay cluttered and you can stay calm while still enjoying a leisurely meal with family or friends. As the days grow longer and brighter, it seems like a good time to check in on the mid-morning scene.

An unscientific survey turned up numerous recommendations--Grange, Gandy Dancer, Zola, and Weber's--but Sava's buffet was mentioned most often, sometimes with a gush of awe. For contrast, we also chose Lena, a menu-only spot that has undergone a chef change since our last visit.

Sava's reopened in midwinter after an intense two-week makeover, which ended with a frenzied rush-hour delivery of new yellow upholstered banquettes from a van double-parked on State St. Patterned tiles in primary colors in the entryway open onto the high-ceilinged, glass-walled dining room, now featuring pastel chairs and chrome chandeliers. It's half sun-drenched seaside resort, half Grand Budapest Hotel, but it sets a festive mood.

The buffet is set up in the far end of the dining room on Sundays from ten to two. On one visit, it offered an eclectic spread that ranged from traditional sausage gravy and a half-dozen egg dishes to specialties like steak in mint chimichurri sauce, homemade little salmon cakes, and a fresh apple kale salad with wonderful Moroccan spiced garbanzo beans roasted crunchy on the outside but still soft inside. On another day, main dishes included pulled pork and coleslaw, with pasta primavera for vegetarians. Standard breakfast protein options like sausage and bacon are always present alongside peel-and-eat shrimp and platters of roasted vegetables. This array shows a real Sava strength: the buffet works for every picky eater in your party (and the non-obvious options, like gluten-free, are labeled).

Everything is generally so good that a few missteps really stand out, like the cardboard-textured, basically flavorless bagels piled along an otherwise fine spread of capers, onion, and lox. Just move along to dishes

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like Sava's rainbow chard, sauteed just enough to keep both its full flavor and colorful charisma, or a roasted beet and shaved fennel salad with big chunks of feta. That dish could have been the star of a satisfying brunch at home, but at Sava's buffet you can still choose from a couple dozen more hashes, salami platters, potato bakes, and cheese plates.

Leave room for desserts, a celebration of parfaits and homemade pastries baked daily across town at the company commissary, the latest outpost in the growing Savco empire. Standouts in the multi-tiered display of bonbons include pretty little meringue swirls (lemon one time, mocha the other), rich peanut butter cookies amped up with chocolate chips and pretzel chunks, and Sava's unique take on PopTarts, whose barely sweet chocolate crust is set off by rich fudge filling and swirls. Even more perfect are bite-sized lemon puff cupcakes, which melt in your mouth and taste like sunshine.

Service is friendly and professional, and the all-you-can-eat buffet is a decent value for $19, including non-alcoholic beverages. Actually, I made it into a bargain via endless refills of the good Ugly Mug coffee and more food than I had planned to enjoy.

The outsize brunch experience here has won a loyal following. On a typical Sunday, Sava's feeds 450 people. For the Annual Brunch Holiday--also known as Mother's Day--they expect 600.

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For a lower-key option, we moved on to Lena at Liberty and Main. Lena too offers a windowed dining room and has a new chef, David Burnell.

If we were looking for contrast to the boundless buffet spread, we found it in Lena's focused menu, which seems somewhat more mainstream under Burnell. Lena has seven brunch entrees, none particularly Latin American, but all incorporating its influence. Reasonably priced, they range from a simple garden omelet to trendy shrimp with plantain grits. One of our favorites was the duck confit poutine, Burnell's inspired upgrade of Canada's signature junk food. Seasoned fries topped with flavorful, crispy-edged duck pieces, a sprinkling of crumbled cheese, colorful corn and tomato salsa, and just the right amount of gravy, it's a comfort food feast to chase away any last spring chill.

Also pleasing was the Spanish eggs Benedict, with bacon flavor melting into thick corn torta cakes at the bottom and topped with a generous helping of a slightly sweet and peppery pink cream sauce. And the chicken and waffles are a creative, south-of-the-border take on this newly rediscovered American classic (from either southern plantations, Pennsylvania Dutch kitchens, or Harlem nightclub origins, depending on which culinary lineage you're tracing). The blue corn waffle batter has an almost-hot quotient of cayenne, while the fried chicken batter is sweet, but it works well as a whole.

In addition to these rich specials you can order anything from the regular menu at brunch, served from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. We added salads to get more fruit and veggies into the mix. Grilled pineapple and greens was my favorite, although others at the table adored the "Chavez" with anchovy Dijon dressing atop roasted tomatoes, brioche croutons, and greens.

The list of desserts is short, and a chocolate taco recommended by our server didn't quite work. Its runny chocolate mousse and homemade marshmallow pooled together, swamping a no-longer-warm deep-fried taco shell sugared with cinnamon. The big chocolate mint sticks at the register, on the other hand, are a treat to grab early and enjoy with last sips of coffee (good quality dark roast and fair trade here, as at Sava's).

Cushioned lounge chairs outside and spacious seating in the dining room make Lena's brunch more serene than Sava's bustling buffet scene. Parking isn't exactly convenient at either place, but that's fine. You'll want to take advantage of these longer, brighter days and go for a brisk calorie-burning walk after indulgent brunches likes these.

Sava's

216 S. State

623-2233

savasrestaurant.com


Brunch Sun. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Buffet, $19 (menu breakfast items $3-$13.50, available 8 a.m.-3 p.m.)

Generally wheelchair friendly, but tight around the buffet

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Lena

226 S. Main

994-2773

lena-annarbor.com


Brunch Sat. & Sun. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. $9-$12 (appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and tacos from the lunch menu, $7-$12)

Wheelchair friendly     (end of article)

[Originally published in May, 2015.]

 

 
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