Eat at Grange! you won’t be sorry 1

grangeMASTHEAD2The Grange Kitchen and Bar is officially opening up on Thursday night in Ann Arbor and we were fortunate to get invited to attend a preview the other night.  Our friend Brandon Johns along with his wife Sara is at the helm for this new eatery on W Liberty in the space formerly occupied by Bella Ciao. Brandon and the crew have transformed the interior of the place from old world Italian to something with a bright, airy country kitchen feel.  That’s appropriate given Brandon’s emphasis on locally grown, seasonal ingredients. That also means that the menu will be changing up regularly as very elements of dishes become available and go away.

One example is the squash blossoms filled with goat cheese that were lightly battered in an almost tempura like coating and fried. These were amazingly tasty and didn’t feel at all greasy. Another of Brandon’s signature appetizers is the date, chorizo and blue cheese which always go quickly when he caters a party.

In spite of the fact that Brandon keeps the menu deliberately short, you’ll find yourself struggling to choose. Personally I went for the grilled halibut with a Portugese style seafood stew. The fish was perfectly cooked and sat amongst a bed of mussels, shrimp and house made chorizo sausage. The best part was the broth that surrounded it which was full of all the flavors combined.  Max had the grilled pork loin with chorizo and buckwheat dumplings while Sofia had the roasted chicken breast with crispy skin and Jules had the steak. The fillet was covered in a bacon-blue cheese crust and accompanied by whipped potatoes and red-wine syrup.

This may have been the first time that the kitchen staff worked together for customers other than the Grange team, but it didn’t matter. All of the food was perfectly prepared and beautifully presented. Our server was also very professional and very well prepared. She was able to explain the various items on the menu and what made selections like the squash blossoms special (that is that they are only available for about two weeks a year).

At Brandon’s last establishment over on Main St, the main courses and starters were also typically well prepared, but desserts were often a bit of a disappointment. This time, Brandon and Sara have taken the feedback to heart and Sara’s sister (this is definitely a family business) is now responsible for preparing desserts. Here again we could find nothing to complain about other than the fact that we were too stuffed to eat more. The blueberry roll, chocolate cake and the fruit and nut tart were all outstanding.

We haven’t had a chance to try the menu at the upstairs bar yet, but for those looking for something a bit lighter than the main menu, it looks like there will be great choices there too. Grange will be open for dinner every night except Sunday and you should definitely check it out.

Changes in the local restaurant scene

Just over a year ago coworker and friend Sara Johns and her husband chef Brandon Johns bought into the Ann Arbor restaurant Vinology. Brandon made tremendous progress with his attempts to create a dining experience based around fresh locally sourced foods.  Food went from being something of an afterthought to the wines at Vinology to coming front and center. Unfortunately the partnership with the majority owners didn’t work out and Brandon has moved on to a new project.

He and Sara along with my boss Rob Cleveland and another partner have bought Bella Ciao on Liberty St and will be transforming it. Bella Ciao will shut down later this month and then re-open in August as the Grange Kitchen and Bar. Brandon plans to continue the local food effort with a rotating menu based on what is available at different times of the year.

Hopefully with full control this time, things will work out better and the Grange will become a permanent fixture on the local restaurant scene.

By the way if you happen to be in downtown Ann Arbor around lunch time, you might want to hit Kerry Town and check out Monahan’s seafood market where they have a daily special that you can find posted on their twitter feed at Sparrow’s meats is also doing sandwiches and salads at lunch now over by the checkout counter.

Vinology re-born, food now on a par with wine!

For wine lovers, Vinology has been one of the best places to go in the Ann Arbor area since it opened on north Main St. a couple of years ago.  With a big cellar and knowledgable wine specialists they held regular wine dinners and could always recommend the right wine to go with a meal.  Unfortunately, until recently the meal side of the equation was a bit of a mixed bag.  The menu had too many options and was of inconsistent quality.  For those who have equal or greater interest in the food rather than the wine, there is now great news.

My work colleague Sara Johns and her husband Brandon, recently bought a stake in Vinology.  Brandon was formerly the chef at the Chop House and practises his culinary craft in the kitchen of Vinology. The menu has been drastically pared down and several new dishes have been added.  We went to Vinology for Jules’ birthday dinner the other night and all the dishes were excellent.  The gnocchi with morels that I had was especially good and Jules loved her pan roasted chicken with a whole grain salad.  The asparagus salad with poached duck egg was also a fabulous appetizer. Brandon prefers to use local ingredients wherever possible and the menu will be adjusted periodically to take advantage of in-season produce.

If you’re looking for a great meal and you haven’t been to Vinology since the beginning of June, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Cuban food in Manhattan

I was on the road again this week, having spent a couple of days in Manhattan covering the New York Auto Show.  I can say with complete certainty that although New York and Chicago have better facilities than Cobo Hall in Detroit, we definitely have the best show in North America when it comes to newsworthy content.  One particularly annoying aspect of Manhattan is trying to catch a cab.  Although countless taxis drive by when you’re looking for one, finding one that doesn’t already have passengers can take forever.  After the Kia reception in Wednesday night I stood out in the rain for twenty minutes trying to get a cab.  However, once I finally got one and got back to the hotel it was worth it.  My Autoblog colleagues (John, Damon, Alex and Chris) and I walked about 6 blocks to one of Alex’s favorite restaurants in the city, Victor’s Cafe.  Alex lives in Connecticut and goes into the city fairly regularly.  Victor’s is a Cuban restaurant on W. 52nd and both the food and the service were absolutely outstanding.  I had the most amazing Paella that had shrimp, mussels, lobster, and chorizo.  The coconut flan for dessert was a great finish.  Even John who is a vegan and often has a hard time finding something he likes in restaurants enjoyed the Frijoles Negros.  If you’re ever in New York and looking for a great meal, check out Victor’s Cafe.

Zingerman’s must be drinking their own Kool-aid 4

Jules and I stopped by Zingerman’s Roadhouse today with the intention of grabbing some lunch. The food is generally really good at the Roadhouse but it can be erratic at times. Fortunately we had to wait about ten minutes for a table so we perused the menu while waiting. Their prices have really gotten out of line. $9.95 for a burger and $2.50 extra for cheese? Please it’s not that great a burger. Frankly the Sidetrack burgers are better. $19.00 for a sampler plate of five mini-burgers or brisket? After a couple of minutes of pondering these prices we got up and decided to try the Quarter Bistro a few hundred yards away. It was an excellent decision. The food was really good, the service was excellent and the prices were much more reasonable. Franky I have the feeling the Ari and Paul and the team might be reading a little bit too much of their own press. If the quality of the food at the Roadhouse could always be counted on to be outstanding, the prices might justifiable. The reality is that they are not.

Vote for local businesses as the best 4

I got an email from Kate Conat tonight that Channel 4 in Detroit is running a poll right now called 4 the Best with all kinds of SE Michigan businesses nominated in various categories.  Locally we’ve got several nominees including Cafe Luwak for best sandwich shop, the Sidetrack for best burger and Smokehouse Blues for best wings.  Zingerman’s Bakehouse is also in the running for best bakery.  Head over to and cast your votes for some local businesses.

Shadow art fair a success again! 8

water towerCongratulations to Mark and all the other organizers of the Shadow Art Fair! This weekends second edition of the fair was another huge success. Apparently the Corner Brewery was packed all night on Friday, so Jules and I went over there early today, and got some Christmas shopping done. We had some great coffee roasted by John Roos, and picked up a print of the Water Tower from Matt Callow (of pinhole fame). The new mayor, Paul Schrieber, Linda French, and other local luminaries (including a rather odd looking Santa) were all in attendance. It was great to see so many dedicated and talented people being rewarded for their efforts. Afterwards my lovely wife and I had some lunch at the Sidetrack, where I had the best fish and chips around. All in all a great day. Don’t forget to go down to the Sidetrack on Tuesday for Dinner and Drinks to support Growing Hope.

TK WU – enter at your own risk

We stopped in to eat at TK WU on Liberty Street in A2 this afternoon and left wishing we hadn’t. About the only thing we had that was halfway decent was the salt and pepper calamari for an appetizer. After that it went downhill. Sofie had the almond chicken which came smothered in a rather unpleasant tasting gravy and that was probably the least unpleasant dish. Max tried the mu shu shrimp and in spite of loving shrimp he was unimpressed. Jules had some hot and sour soup that a really funky flavor and shrimp lettuce wrap that consisted largely of frozen peas and carrots and wet iceberg lettuce. My szechwan beef was the last to arrive and was practically inedible. The black pepper was totally over-powering, but even with that the other spices just tasted all wrong. I’ve had lots of szechwan before and never tasted anything like quite like this, and hopefully never will again. Sometimes when you try a new restaurant you find a pleasant surprise like Taqueria La Loma, other times you find one you never want to see again like Tk Wu.

CiCi’s is a NoNo!! 9

We unfortunately made the mistake of trying out CiCi’s Pizza on Ellsworth tonight. It’s located in the new structure in front of Wal-Mart. First let me get this out the way. The “food” sucked. There tag-line is “The Ultimate Pizza Experience is a Gourmet Buffet”. This place has no business using the word gourmet in any description of their food. I’m not going to get into all the details of the culinary experience because Jules is planning on writing about that over on YpsiBites. Suffice to say that if you think Tios is a good Mexican restaurant, you might appreciate CiCi’s. If on the other hand you prefer your Mexican food prepared by people who originated south of the Rio Grande then avoid CiCi’s at all costs.

Our experience at CiCi’s brought another thought to mind. I don’t often carry much cash with me these days. When possible I prefer to use a debit card. I believe that this is a pretty common practice these days. One thing I never, ever do is withdraw cash from ATM’s that don’t belong to my bank. A few years ago banking regulations were changed to allow banks to charge non-customers for using their ATM’s and charge customers for using some other banks machine. That means that if you use the ATM at bank where you don’t have an account you get charged twice, once by the owner of the ATM and once by your own bank. This can often cost you as much $4, $2 per bank. I make a point of trying to avoid these egregious charges.

Now back to my story. When you walk into CiCi’s there is cash register where you pay in advance before proceeding to the “gourmet” all you can eat pizza buffet. Mull that concept in your mind for a moment! Prominently displayed adjacent to the counter is an ATM. As I place the order and hand the cashier my debit card I am informed that they don’t take cards at the moment, only cash or check. I was also informed that I could use the ATM behind me. I declined to pay the extra fees that would go along with using an ATM that didn’t belong to my bank. So we ran over to Jules’ bank which was right nearby and got some cash. When we returned Jules noticed the little notice on the machine about the fees, and it stated that the machine was owned by the pizza company. All this got me thinking about all the ATM’s you see in gas stations, convenience stores and every other business. It occurs to me that since all these machines collect a transaction fee, these businesses are almost certainly getting a cut of the action. I wonder how much of that dollar or two they are getting? So it seems highly probable that CiCi’s is getting a cut of every time they tell someone they can’t use their debit card, and they turn around to grab some cash. This is ridiculous. Jules told me that New York Pizza Depot which used to take credit/debit cards has informed her the last couple of times that she was there that their card machine was broken. They also happen to have a conveniently located ATM.

It seems that more and more business are taking part in the hidden fee economy. That includes all the assorted regulatory recovery charges you find at the bottom your phone bill under that low advertised service price. There are more and more of these bogus fees popping up everywhere. Companies get your business by advertising really attractive prices and then end up nickel and diming you with all kinds of little fees that add up to a pretty significant percentage of your total cost. I will simply decline to patronize businesses that insist on applying these hidden costs.