Autumn always brings lots of restaurant openings, but in the last few years they have been mainly sandwich shops and cafes. This fall, though, three ambitious new restaurants (and one ambitious remodel) have opened downtown. All represent young talents making a huge investment in their own visions.
The first to open, the Grange Kitchen & Bar, aspires to be a Midwestern version of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. Any restaurant serving tomatoes in August or asparagus in May can claim to be in tune with seasonal and local produce, but Brandon Johns, the Grange’s chef and co-owner, is pursuing local seasonal food with Alice Waters-like seriousness.
At forty-four, Benton Harbor native Brandon Johns has been working his way up the ladder of important area restaurants most of his adult life (Real Seafood Company, Saline’s Rightside Cellar, the Chop House, Vinology). He trained formally in New York and worked for awhile in restaurants in New York and Chicago, and in training and ideology he’s the perfect candidate to fill Bella Ciao’s spot in the most prestigious restaurant block in town, alongside the redoubtable Pacific Rim and West End Grill. And his Grange Kitchen & Bar is perfectly pitched to the locavore moment. This time of year, he says, “90 to 95 percent of the dollars I spend are within a couple hundred miles.”
Johns tends to dart through the dining room quickly in his chef whites, like a very handsome ghost, watching but not talking much. He’s a dead ringer for Kirk Douglas and once played football for U-M (“I played for about a minute,” he says modestly). His wife, Sara, also sometimes appears tableside and helps with marketing. They met thirteen years ago when they were both at Real Seafood and now have two children.
Much of the Grange’s produce comes from Tantre Farm and much of the remainder from other Farmer’s Market regulars. In her review of the Grange in this issue (see p. 87), Bix Engels says she’s looking forward to seeing what Johns does for local food come winter. He’s already freezing tomatoes and pesto, and will be getting fresh greens from area hoop houses and greenhouses.
Johns makes his own pates and terrines and sausages. Appetizers are beautifully, perplexingly simple, like a dish of radishes, butter, salt, and bread. A grilled pork main course with crispy pork confit, cauliflower pale ale puree, and fried brussels sprouts will set you back $25.
While Bella Ciao was all romance and warm shadows, the Johnses have made the space as bright and clean as a Shaker farmhouse, painting the walls and ceiling bright white and the wainscoting sky blue. They have opened the upstairs bar that Bella Ciao reserved for private parties. The bar has its own menu and is open two hours later than the dining room.
Grange Kitchen & Bar, 118 W. Liberty. 995-2107. Mon.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m. (bar open until midnight), Fri. & Sat. 5-11 p.m. (bar open until 1 a.m.). Closed Sun. www.grangekitchenandbar.com
Next door to the Grange, a large transformation that took place very quietly over the last year was unveiled in April, when Pacific Rim moved into the former Ehnis & Sons store, doubling its footprint and increasing its seating from fifty-five to 105.
Owner Duc Tang designed the new space himself. It features a bar with its own menu that’s open a few hours later than the dining room, a private dining room that can be closed off, and, finally, an ADA-compliant bathroom. All the booths–in the new space and the old–are now made from bamboo wood, as is the bar.
Tang built many of the booths himself. Woodworking is “a hobby I picked up over the years,” he says. “It’s like cooking–I love the physicality of working with my hands, and the creativity.”
Pacific Rim, 114 W. Liberty. 662-9303. Mon-Thurs. 5:30-9:30 p.m. (bar open until 11 p.m.), Fri. & Sat. 5:30-10:30 p.m. (bar open until midnight), Sun. 5-9 p.m. pacificrimbykana.com
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