by Lee Lawrence
From the July, 2019 issue
When it opened about three years ago, I recall Mikette having a fairly standard French brasserie menu--a raw bar and towering seafood plateaus, gratineed onion soup, baseball-sized gougeres, escargots, Lyonnaise salad, steak frites, beef bourguignonne. The menu dropped a few foreign hints--Moroccan meatballs, an eggplant tagine, ginger in the remoulade--but otherwise cleaved to French food standards. The execution was usually spot on; I still dream about the first time I ate Mikette's succulent roast chicken, surrounded by slender fries that drank up the bird's herby, buttery juices.
Owner Adam Baru quickly gave in to customers' preference for orderly service rather than the shared meal concept of his Mani Osteria and Isalita downtown--steak frites and beef bourguignonne after oysters and onion soup, rather than as a mad scramble depending on what the cooks finished first. Quiet meals at the bar, intimately wrapped by its half-wall, became a pleasurable break for my husband and me, weeknights or weekends.
As Mikette eased into the next couple of years, other changes naturally occurred. The crazy busyness of a new restaurant subsided, and reservations became an option. Slow-moving menu items fell off, and new ones appeared, without the list losing its francophone accent. Execution became less sure, whether because Brendan McCall, Baru's chef-partner in all three restaurants, left the organization, or for other reasons. The crowd became older, more suburban, perhaps drawn by its location at the edge of town. Though it remained one of the few restaurants near our house, I became less interested in stopping by. But last winter, having recently visited with some pals, my husband suggested a cozy dinner at Mikette's bar.
Oysters still glistened in the entryway case, and our gougeres, though now split in two, still managed to perfectly wed melted and crispy cheese in each bite. Our halibut with lentils shone. But the half-wall around the bar had disappeared, opening the space to the dining room. It made the bar less intimate, but the bartender
loved the new floor plan, saying it allowed the sun's western light to stream across the room.
It was a sign of things to come. A new menu rolled out in February.
In a March interview on WEMU's Art and Soul, Baru talked about the changes. The original concept, he said, had reflected the time he had spent in Marseille, the Mediterranean port in southern France famous as a cultural and trading crossroads. Its robust Provencal cuisine has been infiltrated by its Spanish and Italian neighbors, as well as immigrants and settlers from France's former colonies around the globe. Street vendors sell panisse, a chickpea-flour snack, as well as tagines and couscous, pizza, merguez sausage, and Asian and African produce.
Although I saw little evidence of such influences in Mikette's early menu, Baru told radio hosts Lisa Barry and Jessica Webster that he wanted to return to a more pan-Mediterranean menu inspired by his Marseille sojourn. He also hoped to move closer to the communal service of his other restaurants. Along with the half-wall, he removed a banquette that had further closed off the dining room--he said it had allowed folks to hide rather than interact with the rest of the crowd. He wanted a space more conducive to creating a buzz, to leaning across aisles to ask what your neighbor is eating.
But the new menu Baru hoped would make the party happen was, to me, just odd. Gone were the raw bar and gougeres, replaced by an array of truly pricey dips with flatbread, along with a few around-the-world-sourced appetizers. A collection of pricey individual kebabs, featuring most of the regularly consumed proteins with assorted garnishes, took up a third of the menu, bulwarked by a handful of pastas and Francophile favorites.
Evidently others also found it a head-scratcher, because by mid-April the menu underwent further reconstruction. While it still didn't evoke Marseille to me, it read more cohesively, with a mix of appetizer, salads, and entrees from Mediterranean countries. Moreover, it allowed you to eat as Baru might suggest, fielding a table of small plates or, more traditionally, in courses. Though the wine list shrank, its borders expanded beyond France, with plenty of carryover cocktails and beers.
Our subsequent dinners proved the best we'd had in some time at Mikette. The oysters returned (East Coast only), as did the shrimp cocktail. Other appetizer options were plentiful. Toasty, fruity, smoky fried cauliflower florets imaginatively played off a golden raisin puree, tahini, smoked paprika, and almonds. Asparagus languished in a red pepper escabeche. A lush crab and avocado toast, the thick bread almost crispy, was downright seductive, and garlic shrimp, brightened with a bit of Calabrian chili, was nicely done. Less successful were the bravas, a stack of rather limp potato slices layered with generous strokes of delicious paprika aioli.
Though listed under entrees, pastas, the toothy noodles made at Mani Osteria, were closer to appetizer size, which meant we had too little of the linguine vongole and its rich, briny clam sauce. Spaghetti aglio e olio gifted us with at least a quarter-cup too much olive oil, but I suspect that was a mistake in execution that night.
For entrees, roast salmon, resting on a bed of couscous surrounded by red pepper vinaigrette, was pleasant, but the clear winner was again a fowl. Partially deboned and all moist meat and crispy skin, the grilled half chicken, plated with perfectly crunchy smashed potatoes and lemon aioli, was a worthy substitute for that long-gone roasted bird and fries.
As the Observer went to press, the menus were still evolving. Following it online, I was disappointed to see the wonderful avocado and crab toast had morphed into a crab-stuffed avocado salad at dinner--though the toast still graces, for now, the lunch and brunch menus. An intriguing falafel salad has been added, and the tricky spaghetti aglio e olio has disappeared.
It's tough striking the balance between vision and acceptance, between what you hope to sell and what people want to buy. Tough, too, to maintain exemplary execution while sailing the public's changing tastes, preferences, and trends.
Baru has opened three restaurants in Ann Arbor in less than ten years. That's ambitious, and if one of them needs a bit of tweaking, that's not really surprising. Here's wishing him the best of luck.
1759 Plymouth Rd. (Courtyard Shops)
Tues.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sun. brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m., dinner
4 p.m.-8 p.m.
Appetizers, soup, salads $7-$36, entrees: $16-$35
Vegan items indicated
[Originally published in July, 2019.]
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