Get out your scorecards, because we’re again assessing changes at the stylish, big-windowed eatery on the ground floor of the Sterling 411 Lofts, the student high-rise at Washington and Division.
In early 2013, I reviewed takeout from babo, a grocery-deli where trendy comfort food like mac-and-cheese croquettes and turnovers (with bacon and turkey) filled the hot and cold cases. Then, last fall, Sava Lelcaj Farah reinvented it as a white-tablecloth restaurant. My meals at babo v.2 were more inspired, I wrote in January, but the hefty price tag didn’t fit with prepay ordering. Farah apparently reached the same conclusion: she decided that what the student demographic really needed was the mostly organic and vegetarian menu that her brother, Fred Lelcaj, had featured at his eponymous cafe before construction took over South University.
Now Fred has taken the baton and run with it, offering food that’s health-conscious but doesn’t sacrifice taste to virtue. Six overhead menu panels list all-day breakfasts, plates, and bowls (big and small), and toast-based mini-meals with influences from many cultures.
Only four of the thirty-some offerings are built around meat–though “organic hormone-free turkey, pasture-raised chicken, organic rosemary ham, and grass-fed bulgogi beef” can be added to many items. Make Portlandia jokes if you must (and Fred’s pink-candle altars and peacock feather design accents do invite them). But meat as a condiment is a socially responsible culinary wave I can get behind.
On my first visit, the turmeric hummus and pita sounded appealing, and it was. The turmeric brought aromatic heft to the dense-textured hummus, and its yellow color deepened the contrast with panini-grilled spinach flatbread triangles. I was full before finishing–this would be a nice appetizer for two.
Next I’d suggest a salad, maybe the big “winter kale” bowl. It’s hearty with roasted butternut squash and pumpkin seeds, and shiny, perfect, and plentiful pomegranate seeds create a Christmas color scheme against the forest-green lightly dressed kale. It’s substantial and well balanced, again probably best suited for two.
The $5 chickpea salad stands out as a great lunch value; it comes pre-dressed in a creamy yogurt ranch dressing, with citrus and cucumber tones pre-cooling afterburner heat from pepper flakes. The $7.50 avocado toast was a hit as well, made pretty by more red pepper flakes and yellow curls of lemon zest atop thin slivers of purple pickled onion and slices of avocado draping over the “toast” (actually panini-grilled bread). A couple places over on Liberty just mash the avocado; their versions are also tasty, but not as lovely as Fred’s.
On a second visit, I sampled sandwiches. The magenta beet-quinoa veggie burger looked amazing on its tall (though slightly stale) brioche bun. A thin slice of sweet potato added some firm texture to the soft patty, while a smear of avocado helped hold it together.
A good-sized chunk of salty chicken breast was the main building block in the spicy chicken sandwich, its heat derived from a pink and peppery mayo. The grated cucumber relish was heavy on the cucumber skins, and the thin layer of melted cheddar got a bit lost (as did the Manchego cheese on the veggie burger).
That day, it seemed like every other customer was eating Fred’s picture-perfect acai bowl. A server confirmed it was their best seller, so I made a final brunch-time visit to try it.
A frozen fruity slush of purple berries filled the bottom half of a glass bowl; the top was a mandala-pretty array of banana and apple slices, blueberries, strawberries, coconut, granola, and pumpkin seeds. It had a little too much Michigan honey for my taste, but a roomful of young fans liked it just fine. Other bowls feature everything from yogurt to greens, hemp, spirulina, and matcha leaves.
Special orders that edit standard ingredients, in my experience, had a fifty-fifty chance of coming through as requested. Desserts are gigantic bumpy-cake cupcakes and multicolor macarons. Cream arrived curdled one day for the otherwise appealing Hyperion coffee, and we found empty self-serve water urns at busy times. We also found crumbs on the seat-yourself tables–along with the pretty little succulent plants that match the atmospheric paintings on the wall of pink skies over a field of cacti.
The reading material scattered around on coffee tables includes large-format Danish fashion magazines and Annie Leibovitz photo books. The website is just a placeholder; all the action is over on Instagram.
I would describe the soundtrack as electronica and Euro-pop, only because I am clueless on more recent genres. But despite being several decades beyond Fred’s target demographic, I never felt unwelcome. If I’m feeling cubicle bound and light deprived in the months to come, I’ll likely make my way back.
403 E. Washington (Sterling 411 Lofts)
fredsannarbor.com is still unconstructed; try @fredslol on Instagram
Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Salads, starters, and bowls $5-$11; sandwiches and entrees $9-$13.