Options and opportunities
by Lee Lawrence
From the October, 2019 issue
A menu twist can help a restaurant stand out in a crowded pack like Ann Arbor's. Vinology, on Main St., has long offered half portions of its entrees to attract smaller appetites, frugal wallets, and experimenters. I remember once, early on, in rather hedonistic overkill, my family double ordering half portions to run through most of the menu.
The announcement this summer of a new chef, James Sumpter, seemed a suitable excuse to return. Several chefs have helmed Vinology's kitchen since the John Jonna family opened the restaurant in 2005, including Brandon Johns for a year or so before he opened Grange Kitchen and Bar. Looking at the menu now, my husband and I, sadly consigned by age to lighter eating, appreciated anew the half portions (really about two-thirds), which left room to start with an appetizer or two.
The Jonnas founded their entrepreneurial line with Merchant of Vino, and Vinology has always emphasized the pairing of wine and food. In an interview in Current magazine's September issue, Sumpter said he treats "each [wine] aroma as a flavor and ingredient in the dish." It provides him, he said, "with a particular focus when creating dishes for a menu," along with what is available seasonally and locally.
Certainly many of the plates on Sumpter's fall menu are wine friendly but also overwrought, complicated by myriad components that muddle clear flavors; sometimes he seems to be trying to replicate on the plate each possible note in that wine glass.
My square of duck breast (half of a single lobe) arrived a trifle overcooked, cloaked in a pecan-fig sauce and outshone by a lovely ricotta-carrot gnudi, shredded duck confit, harissa-coated carrots, and blackberry puree that encircled it. Whew! I could see some sense to the concept--rich meat, earthy carrot, spicy heat, fruit to cut--but the result was confused, unfocused.
My companions' plates--the filet mignon and brined chicken breast, again with excellent sides--benefited from less complex presentations, though I found the
beef's burgundy reduction sauce rather bitter.
It made me wonder what red wine Sumpter was using when, another evening, I registered a similar bitterness in the Bordelaise sauce coating my friend's ribeye cap. A sumptuous curve of meat that curls around the cut's much bigger eye, the cap is a premium bit of beef and a treat to find at a restaurant.
I'm pretty sure my husband, who tends to eat each component on his plate singly, couldn't fathom the alchemy performed by the various elements of his sea scallop composition (potato-scallion cake, herb yogurt, fennel salad, honey-lemon vinaigrette, carrot chips), but he left nothing to experiment with later. And an overgenerous cloak of cheese smothered any clear flavors in a friend's vegetarian Parisian gnocchi.
The flatbreads, salads, and small plates are a bit more straightforward. Most are generously portioned, and two can easily make a meal for one. The flatbreads we tried (salciccia and margherita) were crispy and flavorful, and our two salads highlighted the local tomatoes still in season. The summer wedge was a nice rendition of the head lettuce classic, with a softly cooked egg, pancetta, and green goddess dressing. A scattering of marinated garbanzo beans perked up the heirloom tomato and burrata cheese salad, though I can never eat too much of either, even dressed simply in olive oil, salt, and pepper. We all found the mushroom tacos delicious, as well as another Mexican-inspired selection--elotes, or corn on the cob slathered, in this case, with cilantro-tinged butter and aioli, spiced cheese, and vinaigrette.
Though desserts look quite interesting, we had room to indulge only one night. Our waiter, experienced and helpful, suggested the "fried" ice cream, which, he warned, wasn't the typical county fair treat--and all the better for that, we discovered. Instead, we dug into ice cream with a bare hint of corn tortilla steeped in, strewn with puffed grains and crunchy honey clusters, drizzled with dulce de leche and miel de cacao--a fruity, tangy syrup made by Mindo Chocolate Makers from the pulp surrounding cocoa beans in their pods.
Vinology takes its beverage service seriously. Cocktails are well made, the beer list highlights craft brews, and the wine list differentiates Old World and New World wines at a range of price points. The wines available by the glass also can be had by the carafe and bottle, offering certain savings. The bar offers changing wine flights, and the second night we visited the featured trio were from the country of Georgia, an ancient and traditional wine-making region.
Using little-known grape varieties, Georgia produces wines by modern production means but also, more intriguingly, by an ancient method using qvevri, clay pots that are stored underground. Mashed grapes, with skins, seeds, and stems, naturally ferment and then age in the buried pots, resulting in intense, complex, and funky wines. I may require a learning curve to appreciate the Georgian "whites" (actually amber-colored, thanks to those grape skins), but the reds, both modern and traditional, were interesting and delicious.
Vinology has made a niche for itself offering options and opportunities. That is certainly to be applauded, particularly when it leads to discoveries. If some things fall short, it's not for lack of effort; the elements of fine dining--comfortable ambiance, easy service, delicious food--continue intact.
110 S. Main St.
Mon-Thurs. 4-11 p.m., Fri. 4 p.m.-midnight, Sat. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. & 4 p.m.-midnight, Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. & 4-10 p.m. Dinner ends one hour before closing.
Small and shared plates: $8-$25
Main entrees: $18-$52
[Originally published in October, 2019.]
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