Voted one of the most liveable city’s in North America, Ann Arbor, Michigan, is tree-lined oasis full of independent shops, restaurants and cocktail bars. The University of Michigan injects 42,000 students into the city each school year and liberal-minded entrepreneurs dote on catering to this crowd. On a recent visit, I made it a point to tuck into as many of these establisments as possible.
Here’s my overview, one taste at a time…
Ayse’s Turkish Café – tucked into a strip mall in a decidedly non-trendy area, this café is a treasure. Ayse Uras is from around Cappadocia and her home cooking is magical with lots of vegetarian options. There’s no printed menu because it changes daily. Ayse writes the dishes out on a white board just before lunch and dinner. There’s tons of variety depending on the season but she told me there is always and eggplant dish, and thimblefuls of potent Turkish coffee. The day I went for lunch for appetizers I tried the Atom, friend zucchini and carrot w yogurt and the cold yogurt cucumber soup. There were lots of delicious entrees to choose from and since I was with a group I was able to taste most of them. They included lamb kofte w/potato, chicken with plum (yum), cauliflower with tomatos (double yum!), lima beans with carrots and bulgur pilav. Dessert was a little sample of things including halva.
This is the place to try wines produced in northern Michigan, specifically from Black Star Farms, Good Harbor Vineyards and L. Mawby Vineyards. The wineries are all on the Leelanau Peninsula near Traverse City and their vintages had a northern European edge – flinty yet fruity whites and bold reds. I was surprised they were so good.
Chef Alex Young had no formal culinary education. Instead he learned to cook by working in restaurants all over the U.S. and in London. He has a global approach to food with a passion for local and natural. In Ann Arbor, he helmed the kitchen when Zingerman’s Roadhouse opened in 2003. After 13 years, and a James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region (including Chicago) he went out on his own and opened Standard Bistro & Larder. “Julia Child was my inspirational mentor,” he told me. The restaurant features French Country dishes using seasonal ingredients from local producers and responsibly sourced ingredients from producers elsewhere. The night I was there my favorite dishes were cream of celeriac soup and pot-au-feu French beef stew -–– so tender it melted in my mouth. The walls were hung with distinctive, cubist-style artwork and a larder sold dry-aged and custom cut beef, pork and lamb, charcuterie, and sausages.
A Nightcap at Nightcap
Ollie Food + Spirits
In the neighbouring town of Yipsilanti there’s a little area known as Depot Town. That’s where I met chef Travis Schuster whose seasonal menu featured locally sourced ingredients from area farmers. All dishes were made from scratch using whole ingredients, nothing processed. “The theme here is heartland, Michigan comfort foods,” he explained. I went for an all veggie meal including roasted radish & turnip salad, spiced potatoes, spring salad, and a marvelous spring tartine with grilled Zingerman’s farmhouse bread, topped with cashew beet butter, garlic sautéed veg, spiced local turnips, chorizo tempeh, pickled onion and mustard seed, toasted pepitas, and a spring greens pesto. Wow. Who knew veggies could taste so sophisticated.
This gracious Italian restaurant opened 1987, in what was the Orpheum Theater, a movie house from the 1930s. A sculpture of Orpheus looked down on the bar, and on the back wall was an intriguing, renaissance-style, mural of bacchanal.
I sampled some pizzas – funghi arostiti, smoked salmon and margherita,the spaghetti ratatouille and a delicious filetto di manzo which was a filet mignon with Portobello mushroom, tomato, goat cheese, and crispy fried leeks. Out of this world. I also sampled my friend’s Chilean sea bass. Room for dessert? You bet! Tiramisu.
Founders Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig opened this Americana gem in 2003 with Paul Young (now of The Standard) helming the kitchen. Today the chef is Bob Bennett who worked his way up from Zingerman’s Deli (also owned by Saginaw and Weinzweig) sandwich line where he started in 2002. We started with an old school pimento cheese ball and progressed to Mac Cheese, which was voted best Comfort Food in America on Best Of, Alton Brown’s Food Network Show. The buttermilk fried chicken was crispy and moist inside, the pulled pork melted in my mouth and my dessert of butterscotch pudding was smooth as satin and not too sweet. In 2009 Bon Appetite named this restaurant Top 10 New Barbecue Restaurant in the U.S. I could see why. They’ve kept up the standards!
Chef Raul Cob from Valencia, serves up delicious Spanish comfort food including interesting tapas and a decadent seafood paella. This is a dish he told me he is internationally known for. Everything was paired with excellent Spanish wines.
Chef owner Takashi Yagahashi spends half his time in Chicago (where he has two other restaurants) and half in Ann Arbor. The Slurping Turtle opened in 2014 and the seasonal menu and casual but authentic Japanese. Head chef Tadashi Gaura likes to get creative with his flavourings.
Finally, the last night I indulged in delicious pizza and delightful cocktails at this popular spot. Heaven.
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