I’ve always been an east-west kind of guy. Among restaurants, that means I favor those that run along Washington and Liberty streets to those running north-south along Main. The West End Grill, a fourteen-year mainstay, arguably is the crown jewel of Ann Arbor’s gem-studded east-west traverse.
Roland Pohlman, the Grill’s youthful owner (and U-M MBA grad), sets the tone for his restaurant with his unflagging cheerfulness, lack of pretension, and high standards. Pohlman talks about the “triangle of food, service, and atmosphere” and nails all three parts. No less an authority than Zagat rates the West End Grill’s food in the category of “extraordinary to perfection,” with “very good to excellent” ratings in decor and service. Hundreds of diners from all over the world have raved about their West End experiences on numerous Internet review sites. Ann Arbor diners lucky enough to get a reservation gush over its consistent excellence.
Which–in a yin-yang sort of way–is also its Achilles’ heel, because to be so highly regarded (not to mention expensive) also invites the inevitable “meh” when the restaurant fails to meet a diner’s lofty standards. Some Internet critics, for example, refuse to believe an Ann Arbor restaurant can be as good as one in New York or Los Angeles. Others remark on the small space or complain about the lack of variation in the menu. But for its many fans, the Grill’s consistency is an asset–allowing regulars to anticipate their familiar favorites and to know that they will be expertly prepared on every visit. This is due, in large part, to the thirteen-year tenure of chef Jorge Garduna, who has worked his way through every position at the restaurant to the top spot.
Walking into the West End is taking a step out of time. The decor is dominated by an old railroad clock separating the bar from the front of the restaurant, and the ceiling is festooned with a collection of Tiffany light fixtures. Framed mirrors line the walls. Linen tablecloths and candles adorn the tables, which are just a shade too close together for the Grill to qualify as an intimate restaurant, although the wattage on the Tiffanies is certainly low enough for a romantic dinner.
Welcoming his guests with a friendly greeting and even humor, Pohlman exudes a warmth often missing from the formal dining scene. Servers follow his example, managing to combine genuine enthusiasm with almost Rain Man-like knowledge of the menu and its ingredients. This is necessary because of the West End Grill’s unique (in Ann Arbor) menu system, which involves placing a small blackboard on each table–entrees on one side, appetizers and salads on the other–with only the briefest summary of each dish. The details are filled in by the servers, who meticulously describe each offering in mouthwatering detail. (Paper menus are available for diners who prefer them and for those seated at the bar.)
Starting with a cocktail, dismayed to learn they had neither Hendrick’s nor Plymouth gin, I was nonetheless chuffed by the Bombay Sapphire martini with blue cheese-stuffed olives. Once the servers brought the basket of warm beignets–deep-fried bread dough–I was in no hurry for our appetizers, happily slathering the light puffs with herb butter (the server will substitute equally delicious baked rolls upon request).
The West End’s imaginative starters reflect the restaurant’s straddling of traditional and Asian-influenced culinary worlds. Sesame Tuna features sashimi-grade Hawaiian Ahi coated in black and white sesame seeds, seared rare with a sesame seaweed salad, wasabi, and soy sauce. The presentation was beautiful, and the tuna melted effortlessly in the mouth, neatly contrasted by the crunch of the sesame seeds. Another Eastern appetizer, an occasional special, featured chili-lime grilled shrimp served over garlic buttered udon noodles, a sweet-hot concoction that practically sang on my palate. Nothing could have better symbolized the marriage of eastern and western cuisine than good ol’ butter on those slurpy Asian noodles.
The veal dumplings appetizer purported to be east by southwest, being described on the printed menu as “a blend of ground veal, roasted corn, fresh spinach and Chinese chili sauce wrapped in wonton skins, pan fried and served with a southwest salsa.” But the corn, spinach, and chili were noticeably scant, and the chunky tomato sauce (with unbilled cremini mushrooms) tasted decidedly Tuscan. Still, I moaned with each flavorful bite of hot, juicy veal as I pondered the difference between a wonton wrapper and ravioli. (Not much, though ravioli dough may have slightly higher egg content.)
Other appetizers include a roasted vegetable risotto in a parmesan cheese shell, and a seafood strudel, with scallops, shrimp, and lobster baked in phyllo with cheesy bechamel. The “gourmet biscuits and gravy” are also popular; however, I could not get past the incongruity of seafood combined with brown gravy, risotto, bacon, and andouille. Even though the scallops were perfectly tender, it’s like the poor things just wandered onto the wrong plate.
One could easily make a meal of two appetizers–except it would be a pity to miss out on the West End Grill’s fabulous entrees. This list is definitely old school, dominated by steaks, chops, fish, and seafood. There is only one chicken dish and no vegetarian main course (though they will make a vegetarian or vegan main dish upon request).
I had thought my personal favorite at the West End Grill was their signature filet mignon–butterflied, grilled, lobster-stuffed, and sauced with a perfectly herbed bearnaise. But when I decided to pony up the $42 for the rack of lamb, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven after the first bite. The simple glaze of teriyaki, apricot marmalade, toasted sesame seeds, and a kiss of cayenne is the perfect eastern foil for the New Zealand lamb. (While some restaurants may use a previously frozen rack of spring lamb in order to tout its local origins, at the Grill fresh trumps local.)
Seafood entrees were also consistently amazing. The sweet, flaky halibut was encrusted in potatoes and served over spinach, making good use of my two favorite foods. The prawns stuffed with crab were accompanied by a curried coconut cream with just a little heat that creeps up on you. And Pohlman takes special pride in his Chilean sea bass–he says he can’t even order it anywhere else. Described on the menu as steamed, it is actually lightly poached in ginger and a homemade teriyaki, which gives it a soy-flavored glaze. The fish is just cooked through, resolving like butter on the tongue, and matched well with an equally supple Rombauer chardonnay. I have to agree with Pohlman on this one–I actually tried an Asian-inspired version at another well-regarded local restaurant earlier in the day, but it was not even in the same league as the Grill’s signature dish.
The wine list is expertly selected among boutique estates, with a strong emphasis on California wines, and only a handful of French among the other offerings. While the extensive cabernet, pinot noir, and chardonnay selections are excellent with traditional main courses, and sauvignon blanc pairs well with the Asian-inspired seafood dishes, I would have liked more representation among other spicy white wine varietals, including pinot gris, gewurztraminer, reisling, and viogniers. I did appreciate the red wine choices, including red zinfandels, and Italian, Spanish, and South American wines for the lamb, steak chimichurri, and other distinctive meat courses.
Entrees at the West End Grill are accompanied by chunky garlic mashed potatoes (for meat) and rice pilaf (for fish), along with crisp, lightly cooked vegetables and a choice of soup or tossed salad. All are very good, although some diners may not like the Grill’s penchant for cooking the sides al dente. Those with room for more will be pleased with the dessert tray, featuring some items made by Roland’s wife, Cindy, including the key lime pie and sticky toffee pudding. Other favorites include the chocolate brownie turtle sundae with caramel ice cream, molten chocolate cake (replete with sliced strawberry representing lava), carrot cake, and pumpkin cheesecake. Every one I sampled was elegantly presented and delicious.
Despite the inevitable critics, the Grill’s quality and consistency make it one of the few can’t-miss destination and special-occasion choices in Ann Arbor. It’s also earthy enough to accommodate the appetizer and cocktail crowd in the comfortable bar area. It is at once timeless and contemporary, easygoing and perfectionist–yin and yang, east and west.
West End Grill
120 W. Liberty 747-6260
Tues.-Sat. 5-9:30 p.m. Closed Sun. & Mon.
Appetizers $8-$16, entrees $24-$42, desserts $7
No wheelchair access