When I moved to Ann Arbor from the East Coast ten years ago, seafood withdrawal was my only fear. From cherrystone clams on the half-shell to Chinese steamed carp, from Mediterranean seafood stews to mackerel sashimi, from smoked Lake Superior whitefish to pickled herring, I’ve rarely met a fish or shellfish I haven’t loved.
How would love survive? Happily, Ann Arbor’s restaurateurs had the answer. When I have a hankering for good seafood, the question is not whether, but where. While it seems like there’s salmon on every menu and two sushi bars in every strip mall, I look first to three outposts of fabled dining empires–the Gandy Dancer (Muer Seafood Restaurants), Real Seafood Co. (Main Street Ventures), and Zingerman’s Roadhouse.
The Gandy Dancer
The Gandy Dancer proves the old adage, “location, location, location.” The romance of the rails, the stone and woodwork, and the historical authenticity of the 1886 train station combine to make this Ann Arbor’s top destination restaurant. Regardless of cuisine, this would be a prime setting for those special times when the Platinum Card comes out to play.
The Gandy Dancer’s kitchen is more than a match for diners’ destination expectations, with lavish offerings, more-than-adequate execution, and the staid predictability of a top-tier steakhouse. Service also matches fine steakhouse standards, with knowledgeable staff gently nudging us towards overindulgence. At one family celebration we were seduced into a shellfish appetizer orgy–and how we loved the Diamond Jim Brady decadence of it all. Still, that leads precisely to my quibble with the menu: most preparations are just a bit too over-the-top in Gay Nineties / Robber Baron-style. Rich toppings are unavoidable. Are they dressing the sea critters because they think we can’t cope with them au naturel, or is the ornamentation just nice for their bottom line?
All that said, Dynamite Scallops were an impressive starter, a spicy, Asian-tinged retake on coquilles St. Jacques. A lunchtime seafood trio delivered a small, perfectly grilled and sauced piece of salmon, a competent crab cake (though I could have done without the corn salsa topping), and unremarkable macadamia-crusted fried shrimp. For purists there’s Charley’s Bucket, sporting a whole Maine lobster, Dungeness crab, mussels, redskin potatoes, and corn, all properly steamed. The day’s featured fresh fish (the list barely changes) can also be prepared simply–grilled, broiled, or sauteed. My heart belongs to those, and also to traditional items like fisherman’s stews, which enhance the fundamental brininess of seafood. So, when that classic French seafood stew, bouillabaisse, appeared as a special some time back, I couldn’t resist.
Now, the Mediterranean has as many fish stews as it has fishing villages, and the Mediterranean fisher folk who emigrated here brought all their stew-making skills with them. The West Coast has Italian-influenced cioppino, usually heavy on tomatoes and often a bit brassy and acidic. Bouillabaisse, in balanced, French style, should be light on the tomatoes, with a rich, saffron-perfumed fish broth. Except in Ann Arbor. Gandy Dancer’s bouillabaisse had a thick tomato sauce chunky with fennel stalks and no discernible saffron. Tasty? You bet, but I’d peg it as cioppino in a blind tasting. Meanwhile, I’d swear that Real Seafood Company’s cioppino is a bouillabaisse. Go figure!
Real Seafood Company
Sometimes a name does say it all. Real Seafood Company is my first thought when I yearn for American-style fish. The love affair started many years back, at its annual Oyster and Beer Festival. That one-evening event proved I wouldn’t be seafood-starved in my new hometown. You can consume forty dollars’ worth of raw shellfish and twenty dollars in beer, so the salad, entree, and dessert are essentially on the house at this $59.95 event (held the first Wednesday in October).
It’s really, really hard for me to pass up Real Seafood’s cioppino. Fully flavored with a rich seafood stock and lots of saffron, the big bowl is a nearly bottomless pit of clams, mussels, crab leg, shrimp, an occasional scallop, at least two finny fish (typically salmon and swordfish), and redskin potatoes. They float grilled, cheese-covered toast on top, reinforcing the bouillabaisse connection. This is my annual birthday treat, thanks to Main Street Ventures’ birthday special–essentially, free food for the birthday child (bring at least one companion and proof of age).
Another favorite, the Waterman’s He-Stew, is an enormous bowl of heavy cream and oysters, seasoned with bacon, onions, celery, and a pinch of saffron. Can that possibly be bad? Just don’t make the (otherwise delightful) mistake of trying to consume full orders of both this and the cioppino at one sitting.
My wife generally orders simply grilled fish, and it’s always done nicely. Her swordfish special was a thick, generous portion, grilled just right, but juices from the steamed spinach diluted the tasty grapefruit beurre blanc. Besides the usual broiled, grilled, and blackened options for the day’s fresh catch, you can have it steamed Shanghai-style for a small charge, a nice change of pace. Overall, Real Seafood does a better job than Gandy Dancer of dressing up its fish without obscuring it.
Due to my cioppino addiction, I rarely choose the other menu classics or specialties. However, the grilled Mediterranean-style whole striped bass is another story. Yes, this is a whole, bone-in fish, head and eyes included. Don’t be squeamish–if you’re OK with a rack of ribs or peel-and-eat shrimp, maybe it’s time for dissect-and-eat fish. The first time I tried this, they got it spot on, skin nicely charred, aromatic with Mediterranean herbs, succulent inside. When I ordered it again more recently, a perfectly cooked interior just managed to make up for not-quite-crispy skin and a mere smattering of herbs. It was still good enough that it’ll get another chance.
We usually dine out with our five-year-old son, and he nearly polished off a generous, kids-menu portion of fish and chips. With the thick hunk of fresh cod freshly battered and flavorful and the chips beautifully done, it was adult quality.
Recently, Real Seafood has been featuring a 1 1/4-pound $19.95 Maine lobster special. That’s a very good price, though it’s a bit odd to see a six-foot-tall lobster pacing Main Street to promote the deal. Another recession-buster is their 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. happy hour menu (that’s a loooong hour!), with raw oysters at a dollar a pop and steamed mussels (among other dishes) for $5.
Of the three establishments, Zingerman’s Roadhouse is closest to my heart–a onetime Bill Knapp’s diner transformed into an outpost of downtown funkiness. Outside, a landmark aluminum, teapot-shaped travel trailer serves the drive-up trade, an eye-popping neon sign stands above the roof line, corn is inter-cropped among the foundation shrubs, and mounds of oyster shells substitute for redwood bark mulch. Waiting patrons jam the narrow entrance foyer, and diners often overflow three dining rooms, the bar, and–weather permitting–a large, covered patio.
While the Roadhouse menu extends far beyond seafood, fish and shellfish play an unusually large role; a half-dozen fresh fish (usually with more adventuresome choices than the competition), several standards, and an attractive special or two. While it’s only served sparingly over pasta, the San Francisco Cioppino Macaroni is cioppino as it ought to be but rarely is–even in San Francisco. Add the oyster bar with its selection of exotic species, a fine clam chowder with Neuske’s bacon (what else?), and you have a first-rate American restaurant with wide choices for both meat and fish lovers.
Seafood starters include proper crab cakes, with just enough binder to keep the meaty chunks together; steamed mussels done with finesse; wood-fired barbecued fresh oysters (interesting, but why cook ’em at all?); and raw oysters. Standard entrees include even more crab cakes, southern fried catfish, and a plank-roasted featured catch. But my most joyous fishing excursions have been among the daily specials. Some of my favorite catches there include a primo file gumbo, dark brown from its brick roux, and (deep, contented sigh) linguine with white clam sauce.
It sounds so simple–just fresh hard-shell clams, intensely briny clam juice, garlic sauteed in good olive oil, flat-leaf parsley, and a pinch of crushed red pepper–but almost nobody does it right. They may use flavorless tinned clams or steam-open fresh clams and ditch the broth; they’ll chicken out on the garlic, or water the clam juice. But the full-flavored Roadhouse version soars. The big twist is the shower of fresh lemon zest, a magnificent foil for the brininess and garlic.
The Roadhouse does miss sometimes, though. The grilled fresh sardines–one of those adventuresome choices–looked perfect on the menu, but my small portion was mangled, a bit dried out, and missing big hunks of the grilled skin. I didn’t want to delay my companions’ meals by throwing them back, but I should have.
Service at Zingerman’s has a style all its own, part culinary evangelist, part student activist, part deli counterman. Servers are clad in Zingerman’s T-shirts and attentive to a T. You’ll rarely hear one say, “I’ll have to ask.”
And then, of course, there are the baked goods. Among the three reviewed establishments, Zingerman’s own crusty, coarsely cut bread and simple desserts take the cake. The brunch-time pastry basket is to die for. Add a cup or two of their superior coffee…that’s a meal!
All three are worthy establishments, so how does one choose? Gandy Dancer puts the “special” in “special occasion” and delivers the most formal and luxurious experience, all while doing justice to the main ingredient. Real Seafood Company, true to its name, is all about the fish (sometimes the whole fish), and little else but the fish. Zingerman’s Roadhouse is in that uniquely Zingerman’s place, offering far more than fish, a bit of adventure, and its famously full flavors. All three belong on any seafood lover’s list. In the end, the choice may come down to your mealtime mood.
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 4:30-10 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Appetizers $9-$14, soups and salads $5-$8.50, sandwiches and entree salads $8.99-$15.99, entrees $12.50-$49.94, desserts $5.95-$7.95, Sunday brunch $21.95 ($9.95 for children ages 2-10)
Real Seafood Company
341 S. Main
Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 1-9 p.m.
Appetizers $8.95-$16.95, soups and salads $3.95-$7.95, sandwiches and entree salads $7.95-$13.95, entrees $9.95-$35.95, desserts $4.95-$6.95
Mon.-Thurs. 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 7 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Appetizers $6.50-$12.50, soups and salads $4.75-$9, sandwiches and entree salads $9.95-$19.50, entrees $9.50-$32.50, breakfast entrees $7-$15.50 desserts $7-$8.50