by M.B. Lewis
From the April, 2019 issue
Expectations were high for Jim Brady's, which finally opened in late 2018 after the new owners' multiyear overhaul of the Main St. space that had already housed an upscale restaurant, Vellum. When I called for a reservation, I was told to call back, because only the manager could make them. I did, got a reservation for the following day, and duly settled into a cushy booth edged by globe lights on old-fashioned brass lampposts.
My first impression was composed of equal parts luxury and nostalgia. Two of those lampposts sport street signs for Greenfield and Seven Mile in Detroit, where the first Jim Brady's opened in 1954. An ethereal wavy pattern imprinted on a huge mirror is much better than the actual smoke that would have filled the restaurant in the Mad Men era.
The menu, like the walls of the restaurant, is full of photos and quotes commemorating the original eatery. Tom Brady Jr., grandson of the eponymous founder, is banking on family cred and building on the success of his first reincarnated Jim Brady's, in Royal Oak. Items carried over from the original menu, marked with a geometric diamond icon, include burgers, wedge salads, and the wonderfully oxymoronic jumbo shrimp cocktail (less wonderfully, those jumbos cost $6 each).
We started with an appetizer: crispy brussels sprouts. Outer layers were flash-fried to blackened edges, helping them stand up to thick maple vinaigrette made even sweeter by dried cherries. A sprinkle of toasted pecans provided a mellow crunch, and the sum was irresistible.
Feeling virtuous for beginning with veggies, we went heavy on meat and carbs for dinner. A delicious "Shroom King" thick classic burger had a foundation of lean coarse-ground beef, its seasoning amplified by a generous topping of juicy mushrooms and a blanket of melted Swiss cheese. Whoever beer-battered and fried the mild fish for our giant tacos did a good job; they arrived wrapped in flour tortillas and accompanied by cilantro sour cream and slaw.
I asked our server which of three mac-and-cheese varieties to try; he recommended the "Main Street" over plain and steak-chunk options "because the vegetables make it more interesting." The smoky cheese pasta sauce was just right for dunking the big cavatappi pasta curls and catching up little peas in each bite (asparagus and cherry tomatoes required spearing). This is a monster portion, plenty for two to share.
The menu made Grandma Brady's original "Amazing Grace Carrot Cake" sound, well, amazing--and not just because her grandson donates a feline meal to the local Tiny Lions cat adoption center for each slice served. But the listed "pineapple, toasted coconuts, and pecans" were elusive, and the generous blanket of cream cheese frosting was less tart and thick than expected. The flavor was fine, though, and the portion was huge, so this may be the dream fluffy carrot cake for diners who don't like versions that verge on fruitcake texture.
The Vernors-flavored ice cream in the Bodacious Banana Split was refreshing, but the rest of it, in the words of one of my companions, was "kinda all over the place." Partly melted when served, its combined toppings of pretzels, rainbow sprinkles, and burnt "candied bacon" added up to less than the sum of the parts.
I was getting that feeling about the atmosphere, too. The origin story was so ubiquitous--in the menu, decor, even the servers' spiel--that it almost felt like we'd crashed someone else's family reunion.
On our second visit, it felt more like a real family place. My Facebook feed had heralded Sunday evening entertainment by southeast Michigan's own American Idol star Jena Asciutto--who's also a bartender at the Ann Arbor Jim Brady's. It seemed like a good chance to switch it up and join a crowd.
This time we bypassed the reservation rigmarole by arriving early. We watched a steady stream of people arrive, many commenting on the full-on decor. Most headed up to the second-floor dining/entertainment space, which itself opens up to a third-floor overlook with two cushy opera boxes (Brady calls them "gangster booths").
The tribute photos are less prominent here, and, as we watched the parade and sipped drinks, we enjoyed an excellent meal. I had a fresh and well-plated salad of grilled salmon atop a bed of baby kale, feta, walnuts, beautiful watermelon radishes, avocado, and super-sweet grapefruit sections, all made even brighter by lemon vinaigrette. I also tried the classic chili, which reminded me of how my grandma made it, the broth thickened for more heartiness. My partner let me try his golden-roasted chicken with lovely thyme "pan sauce" over riced cauliflower and butternut squash cubes.
When the Motown soundtrack gave way to Asciutto's sweet, haunting ballads, the staff seemed genuinely excited. As we lingered over dessert--a freshly made cinnamon waffle topped with ice cream and crisscrossed Sanders hot fudge and caramel sauces--the sense of otherness faded. It may be gone entirely next time.
209 S. Main
Appetizers, soup, and salad $5-$16; sandwiches and dinners $11-$32;
Daily 11 a.m.-midnight (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.)
First floor wheelchair accessible.
[Originally published in April, 2019.]
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