Michigan has become a craft beer hot spot, and its southeast got another pin on the map when Salt Springs Brewery opened in Saline in July. A local partnership, backed by fifty citizen investors, built the brewery and artisanal pub in a former Methodist church just south of downtown (fermentation tanks take up half the former altar).
Twenty years ago, tasting IPA, porter, and Euro-style seasonal ales as good as Salt Springs’ would have had customers running to a pay phone, summoning friends to quick jump into the Saab 900 or Ford Tempo and get on over. If said bar also served up homemade fare in a creatively renovated historic space shimmering under big stained-glass windows, well, those friends might pull the whole family away from Friends for a shot at an inspired meal.
Crowds in Salt Springs’ noisy dining room suggest Saline is embracing its new gastropub enthusiastically. But with an embarrassment of options jading foodies and their brew-imbibing compatriots in Ann Arbor, anyone hearing a Salt Springs buzz travel up Ann Arbor-Saline Road may be wondering: Is it worth the drive? Can former Zingerman’s Roadhouse chef Justin Dalenberg’s promising menu keep delivering well enough to warrant a visit?
Our search for answers began with beer and appetizers in mid-September. Cheery server Jasmine, seeming confident on what she later revealed to be only her first week on the job, launched into Salt Springs’ story with verve. “We’re all about farm to table and being as local as we can get,” she said, adding that almost everything in the kitchen comes from Michigan except spices, hazelnuts, and things like that.
Jasmine had some trouble keeping brew varieties straight on a crowded tray full of tiny goblet-shaped glasses in our four-beer sampler, but there wasn’t a loser in our quartet. The “Kids in a Candy Store IPA” was more subtle than the name suggested. Mill Pond Pale was the choice for fuller taste–imagine a Sierra Nevada Torpedo with a fresher air. Porter was smooth and nice; likewise for the Saison, whose sour notes were less complex than the Jolly Pumpkin’s famous Belgians.
We moved from beer to food, bypassing wine-sauced mussels, opting instead for the beery ones. Turns out mustard and bacon dominate all other flavors in the platter, with lots of sauce making the bread-dippers happy (FYI, Jasmine, the mussels are from Maine). We also ordered the little urn of creamy house-made beer cheese, which had horseradish zip, itsy-bitsy curds, and richness that spread well over fresh, crusty bread.
I was a bit turned off by the menu’s goofy category headings (“stuff on bread” for sandwiches? “tasty critters” for fish and meat?), and an aversion to capital letters made the guessing even harder for unfamiliar ingredients like finocchiona, mvr, and levain. (Siri can tell you they’re a Tuscan salami flavored with fennel seeds, a malt vinegar reduction, and rustic bread.)
Maybe the goal is to get us talking about the food? Jasmine was up to the challenge, and right-on recommending the popular tarte flambe. Nowhere near as sweet as the name suggests, it’s a savory, slow-food flatbread extraordinaire, with an oddly charismatic just-shy-of-burnt crust generously topped by creme fraiche and mild goat cheese, then spiked into complexity with sweet onions and enough thyme that it’s not completely overwhelmed by house-smoked pork belly. With a bit of jammy fruitiness, possibly from a wine reduction, it could even make a lovely meal–in the same flavor ballpark as the North Beach Bianca pizza (with gorgonzola, figs, balsamic, and arugula) at Ann Arbor’s NeoPapalis, but more sophisticated.
Among entrees, a generous helping of intensely flavorful exotic mushrooms and “lemon shrimp butter” sauce turned bland sauteed walleye into a satisfying meal. For the salty smoked pork loin entree, the extra interest came from complementary contrast between crisp slivers of fresh radish and soft big kernels of stewed posole hominy. Dessert was simple fresh blueberries and whipped cream, a combo that never fails–but will be harder to execute when winter comes, at least with local food. Peaches have been canned, and other preparations are being made for the cold season, Dalenberg says.
A second visit a week later made me wonder if the crowds were a mixed blessing that might be straining the young business. The ballyhooed Michigan wines “on tap” were having some mechanical or supply problems–our server wasn’t sure exactly which but offered to try to search out what we wanted. We turned instead to the known good beers. If I had been intent on wine, I would likely have gone straight to L. Mawby bottled sparkling options anyway. And the supply of those was reportedly fine.
I had heard the truffle fries were good, and they didn’t disappoint. Thick cut and flecked with pepper, herbs, and aged cheese, they had just the right amount of truffle oil flavor, with a little ramekin of black truffle-flecked mayo on the side. A competent, finely chopped kale salad went well with the rich fries.
More of the kitchen’s wonderful way with fungi showed up in an intense dollop of duxelles, which together with caramelized onions topped a generous portion of ribeye. The meat tasted fine, but right alongside was too much fat. More successful was the hearty mustard-crusted fresh-tasting whitefish, which had replaced the previous week’s walleye.
Dessert this time was an unusual porter-laced chocolate cake, which was super-moist and plenty for two to share. I hoped to enjoy a cup of Mighty Good Coffee’s custom Saline blend with it but had to wait nearly five minutes between the arrival of coffee and cream. We could see our server hovering at the altar bar, waiting to get the little creamer pitcher filled.
That seemed like a work flow problem. Looking at the bustling open kitchen, I reminded myself the restaurant was new, ambitiously creating much in house, performing well in most ways, and still growing. By the end of September, weekday lunch service had debuted; in early October, a Facebook post announced weekend brunches with live jazz. There’s even an above-average kids’ menu, with veggies and a sliced whole apple.
The dining experience isn’t seamless, but the food’s high points are high, the beers are good, and the local provenance is a welcome touch. Even in a world awash in great brewpubs, Salt Springs is worth the trek during Michigan’s bountiful harvest season.
How it weathers the first frosts remains to be seen. Freshness can ironically be a casualty of the emphasis on local food in our winter, and even raspberry season may be done by the time you read this. But the resourceful kitchen staff is pickling, preserving, and getting creative with root vegetables and poutine.
Not even the farmer’s almanac can guarantee what’s next, but if you go, there’s plenty of free parking out back for your 4-series or Fusion.
Salt Springs Brewery
117 S. Ann Arbor St., Saline
Soup and starters $6-$15; salads, small plates, and sandwiches $10-$15; entrees $18-$24
Hours: Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-midnight, Sat. 10 a.m-midnight, Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Mon.