I felt as if I had stumbled onto a film set. Up on a trailer stage in the center of Main St., maybe ten musicians walloped out rollicking covers, fronted by two women with big-time voices. One singer, raven hair teased into a vamp silhouette, strode the platform in black stilettos, her red dress cut to show off long bare legs and sleeve tattoos. The other, blonde, heavily pregnant, sheathed in a tight black dress, balanced on red spikes. This was the Milwaukee Tool Shed Band, playing the block party after the UA Plumbers and Pipefitters Annual Convention 5K race, and it was easy to find stereotypes of the trades in the heavyset, Hawaiian-shirted men swinging along.
Earlier, we had watched the race, with locals and visitors looping from Main St. up Liberty to campus and back from our sidewalk table in front of the Ravens Club. That evening, the talent exhibited on the street and on our plates was equally uneven–an odd mix of amateur, professional, and valiant effort.
We came to the Ravens Club at the suggestion of my editor, who had noted a kitchen transition–in April Matt Downarowicz had been promoted, taking over the stove from former chef Frank Fejeran, now in the driver’s seat of his Ricewood barbecue truck.
The Ravens Club opened with a themed food and drink menu set vaguely in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, but it later dropped the more elaborate food offerings, settling into its role as a craft bar with snacks, charcuterie, and a few entrees. A blog posting on the restaurant’s website suggested this approach and philosophy would continue unchanged under the new chef.
As always, the cocktails (martinis and GTGs–grapefruit, gin, and homemade tonic) shone. Less impressive were the accompanying snacks–a sweetish chicken mousse; bready smoked whitefish fritters; and fine, if rather plain, chicken sausage patties. Nor did our “large plates” dazzle. My colossal pork shank was icebox cold, though the side of baked beans was delicious. Our friend’s young son, famished, pounced on their New York strip, but neither found the meat, strewn with roasted mushrooms and scallions and a slick of herb butter, very satisfying. Dredged in cornmeal, my husband’s fried game hen was moist and nicely cooked, but the flavor could have been significantly enhanced by a savory brine. Best of the bunch was another friend’s Michigan-sourced bacon-blue cheddar burger, coupled with a generous pile of matchstick fries none of us could keep our fingers off.
Service was rather slow and indifferent, though the restaurant was by no means overrun, and we hesitated to order the one dessert, an individual sour cherry tart. But I find cherries irresistible, so I went ahead. I was eventually presented with a warm, under-baked crust, filled with custard and a spoonful of cherry compote. I suspect the kitchen had run out of prepared tarts and, rather than disappoint with no dessert, it had disappointed with a half-baked one.
But I sensed better possibilities from the kitchen, so my husband and I went back for another visit. Again the cocktails–martini and cucumber Collins–were spot on, and the small cheese-charcuterie board, highlighted by the house-smoked pork rillettes with pistachios, proved a wonderful starter. Even better was the plate of smoky deviled eggs, which, judging by the number I saw going out, is a consistent crowd-pleaser. A beautifully fresh side salad with radishes and carrot-ginger dressing was delightful and unique, and pork tacos with corn salsa tasty and filling. The grilled corn with mayonnaise and Parmesan was absolutely addictive, if rather pricey at $3 for half an ear. Equally wonderful was the gnocchi with carrots and fennel–light, flavorful, and nicely accented with fresh herbs. If the first evening’s dinner had ended in sad disappointment, the second had delivered a glowing impression.
Now check out another local stalwart, my editor said, where new chefs have taken over–Dexter’s Terry B’s. Both chef Chris Huey and sous chef Jeffrey Sartor have worked in many area restaurants, including Tribute, Sava’s, Vellum, Mediterrano, and Logan. (Terry B’s longtime chef, Doug Hewitt, had moved to the kinetic Detroit scene, and he now helms the back of the house at Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails.) I’ve always enjoyed Terry B’s and find the value particularly impressive, so I certainly hoped new personnel wouldn’t alter the restaurant’s basic attributes.
The evening my family and I visited, the restaurant was hosting a reception for the Plein Air Festival–an event where artists gather together to paint scenes, in public, of the picturesque village and its environs. With sightings of tattoos and Hawaiian shirts decidedly fewer than at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Convention, the combination of festival and food again seemed apt.
As at the Ravens Club, the bar at Terry B’s is usually excellent, and we indeed enjoyed a fruity Hell on Heels (vodka, St. Germain, grapefruit, and cherry syrup), a bitter-edged Shakedown Street (Campari, Lillet Blanc, lemon, and soda), and a couple of Chef ‘N’ Tonics with cucumber water.
The food menu has taken a decidedly Asian bent, perhaps due to Huey’s sojourn under Takashi Yagihashi at Tribute in Farmington Hills. Initially, I was put off by some of the menu listings–pork bi bim bap as a small plate?–but often found the execution quite good, sometimes even stellar.
Rather than a bowl of rice with toppings, that pork bi bim bap arrived on a plate, a small crispy rice cake topped by a perfectly round fried egg, mated with a succulent cube of pork belly, a pile or two of marinated vegetables, and strokes of sriracha vinaigrette–inspired! Equally tasty were the sushi offering (a spicy shrimp crunch roll), the chorizo-potato tacos with goat cheese sour cream, and a pork bun appetizer taken from the Trio Tuesday prix fixe offerings.
My mother stuck with the Trio Tuesday options and continued with a luscious seafood and corn chowder. Some of us ordered salads, and the house salad, as usual, was generous and fresh. However, the grilled watermelon salad with greens, feta, smoked nuts, pickled onions, and buttermilk dressing was as strange and incoherent as it had read on the menu; the chef had no secret up his sleeve with this one. We were also surprised that one of the most intriguing-sounding entrees–roasted chicken breast and thigh with chorizo polenta, braised kale, and achiote demi-glace–was not terribly interesting. Better were my brother’s walleye with smoked fish and lentil cake, all dressed with a coconut-kafir lime sauce, and the coconut shrimp my mother had as her Trio entree.
Dessert also proved a mixed bag. The molten Almond Joy–“liquid” coconut cheesecake matched with chocolate cremeaux and almond brittle–was unpleasantly dense, overly rich, and unsuccessfully ambitious. But both key lime pot de creme and buttermilk panna cotta were light, tart, and creamy, nicely complemented with fruit and sauces.
Festivals of fun and festivals of food. Except for their bars, neither restaurant shares much in common; nor did the two events. But I enjoyed them all. Even if it’s a cliche, there’s no doubting the truth in the observation that variety is the spice of life. Give me a little down-home, a little highbrow, a bit of energetic teasing, some quiet satisfaction, and always the pleasure of a cocktail.
The Ravens Club
207 S. Main
Sun.-Thurs. 5-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-midnight.
Snacks, sides, and small plates $2-$30, large plates $13-$20
7954 Ann Arbor St., Dexter
Tues.-Sat. 5-10 p.m. (opens at 4 p.m. in summer). Closed Sun. and Mon.
Soups, salads, and small plates $6-$35, entrees $17-$39. Trio Tuesdays: $30 for three courses from a prix fixe menu.