Traffic completely clogged downtown Ann Arbor, as RVs chugging in for Michigan’s football spring game mixed with cars full of young people anticipating the next day’s Hash Bash. In the face of gridlock, it seemed a good time to head out of town.
I’ve been curious about Fenton, between Brighton and Flint on US-23, reportedly becoming something of a foodie town. Crust Bakery there ships sturdy “Saskatoon Prairie Seed” loaves, delicate pain aux raisins buns, and other treats to Argus Farm Stop, where I’ve been scarfing them up. And long before Crust’s current big baking facility opened in Fenton’s historic center four years ago, its inspired rustic baked goods were a selling point at the Laundry, the downtown restaurant that opened (originally as the French Laundry) in 1997.
Nearly twenty years on, it’s still housed in the same former laundry building at the corner of Shiawassee and S. Adelaide, a place so unassuming you can easily miss it as you drive by. We did, circled around to the back alley parking lot, found it full, and ended up hunting for a spot on a side street. It’s nothing much to look at inside, either, with mismatched vinyl chairs and tightly packed Formica tables under old wooden beams.
Having meandered in on back roads along Kensington Metropark to see spring trees (ironically flowered when we were there with clumps of snow), we were so hungry we ordered the charcuterie board before even perusing the many-page menu. Not a mistake. Spanish chorizo was bright in color and flavor, a smoked sausage more peppery. Whole-grape mostarda provided an Italianesque version of chutney to temper the meats. All house-made, all tasty–and there was more.
Cipollini onions were pickled to a subtler magnolia hue than the grape condiment, retaining good texture. Cute cornichons supplied a standard pickle option, and generous spears of aged Gouda piled on mellowness. The standout was sweet and salty house-made bacon “jam.” Though unappealing to look at, the big cubes of bacon in a caramel-like coating were criminally addictive. Their intensity was best enjoyed in small bites, but everyone kept circling back for another. A comparatively boring pate, Dijon mustard, hard-boiled egg, and a few big slices of good, grilled, diagonal-cut Crust-y bruschetta with a hint of garlic completed the laptop-sized slate.
Two people could make a meal sharing this $17 appetizer. A bigger group could move on, as we did, to the roasted beet salad with charred baby carrots, toasted walnuts, blue cheese, hard-boiled egg (again), and a subtle honey-turmeric dressing. A sprinkle of pomegranate seeds sounded like a great finishing touch, but sadly they lacked garnet-bright crispness; I picked around the soggy critters.
Among main courses, you’ll have pages of options starting with burgers and pizzas with unusual toppings, like beets and kohlrabi greens on one and house-smoked brisket, peppers, onions, and provolone on another.
We went all in, ordering a quartet of gigantic pan-seared “diver” scallops wrapped in bacon. It was a spectacular layered presentation that got more interesting with every bite. From the top, it started with dollops of snow-white goat cheese atop a bed of arugula, centered over the scallops, which had an orange-marmalade gastrique (pan deglaze). Then came a layer of roasted beet pieces and at the bottom, seen initially as only a lacelike fringe at the edge of the plate, a risotto flavored with goat cheese and made beautiful with sunset streaks of juice from the magenta beets and orange glaze (I wondered if there was saffron in the gastrique enhancing the color). Inspiringly beautiful as well as delicious, it’s $34.
Smoked brisket waffles cost half that much; they’d make a decent meal with shredded veggies and cheese but seemed spare in volume. A citrus-brined half chicken, on the other hand, was more than most people eat in a sitting and moist enough to make good leftovers (along with Boursin mashed potatoes and braised kale). The jus was too salty for my taste, though, overpowering its thyme and lemon notes.
“Triple B” bourbon-braised beef short ribs ran a close second to the scallops for awesome flavor and gorgeous plating, this time with sweet potato crisps, sauteed chard, and a bed of cheesy grits. The meat was fork-tender and enhanced but not overpowered by its gravy–very satisfying.
The menu annotates every entree with recommended wine and beer pairings; many of the beers come from the house-affiliated Lynchpin Beer Company. We sampled a draft flight that ranged from a decent pale ale to a “Tiramisu” dessert stout reminiscent of currently popular alcoholic root beers, although thankfully not as sweet. There’s reportedly a lively beer garden outside in the summer, plus a roster of house cocktails year around.
As the meal wound down, with a couple desserts on the way, we ordered coffee. It arrived in a good-sized metallic French press pot, for us to plunge when ready. We did that as a deep dish of nice creme brulee arrived. The second dessert soon followed: a scoop of locally made Uncle Ray’s Dairyland cinnamon vanilla ice cream paired with six little chocolate-chip cookies dusted with sea salt, just like the big ones Crust sends to Ann Arbor–but here they’re baked to order and still warm and gooey.
There’s a Crust to-go counter in the back of the restaurant, with loaves and pastries on shelves and packaged items in a cooler. A frequently replenished sample basket of treats sits on the counter, so we were fully caffeinated and sugared up for the drive home.
Speaking of home, no one has to leave Ann Arbor for good food. But especially with summer coming, it’s nice to have options when you want to–and Fenton’s Laundry is one to keep in mind for high-end cuisine in a casual setting.
125 W. Shiawassee, Fenton
Mon.-Thurs. 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 7 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Dinner starters $5-$18; salads, soup, and pizza $4-$18; main dishes $14-$34; desserts $2.50-$6.50.