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Five reasons to visit Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Food Dude describes the surprising allure of the home of the University of Michigan.
by Dave Cathey Published: March 10, 2013
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We call them getaways, but sometimes there's nothing more relaxing than a little familiarity on vacation.

That's just what any Oklahoman whose ever been to Stillwater or Norman will when they visit the home of the University of Michigan will find.

But you will also find plenty of inspiration in Ann Arbor, which has a lot more to offer than blue-and-gold trinkets.

While you'll find the same kind of team spirit pasted all over town, you'll also learn Ann Arbor has embraced food culture in a way that's an inspiration and is home to an arts culture for young and old.

Ann Arbor town is not only a great college town, but a terrific place to visit whether the Wolverine football team is playing or not.

Here are five reasons to visit Ann Arbor Michigan:

Food

As you might suspect, I don't pick vacation spots that don't have interesting places to eat. If Ann Arbor doesn't come immediately to mind when you think of great food towns, it's only because you've never visited.

The uncanny food culture can be traced back to the opening of Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 when University of Michigan students Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig decided they couldn't go another day living in a town without real deli. What started as a simple niche-filler became the keystone in what is now bountiful community-supported agriculture, farm-to-table allegiance that borders on zealotry, leading to a legion of shops, markets, restaurants and watering holes that only increases the momentum of the movement. The tiny original deli on the corner of Detroit and Kingsley streets just expanded into a third building, including a next-door coffee house.

The offerings are stunning in the context of deli. Cured meats, exotic cheeses and every imaginable accouterment hang either from the ceiling or are stacked high on the shelves. House-made corned beef, pastrami, chopped liver, chicken salad, free-range chicken and turkey highlight sandwiches I tried a Meat Cone, which includes an ample sampling of assorted delectables in one convenient receptacle. I'm pretty sure they pass these out on the first corner you pass after entering the pearly gates.

In my four days and many visits with local purveyors, I didn't meet anyone who didn't pay a debt of gratitude to Zingerman's, which more than two decades after its founding now boasts an industrial bakery, coffee roasterie, candy manufacturer, and creamery, a food tour operation, training consultancy, and restaurant (Zingerman's Roadhouse), which features meats smoked on site by James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Young. Weinzweig is also a prolific writer, issuing more than 200 issues of the “Zingerrman's News” newsletter, contributed to top food magazines and written “Zingerman's Guide To ...” titles that include bacon, vinegar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, great service and two volumes on business leadership.

The influence of Zingerman's is no more apparent than at Logan

At Logan Restaurant, 115 W Washington St., where chef Thad Gillies has operated since 2004. The success of this farm-to-fork American bistro has its roots at the deli in Kerrytown where Gillies was executive chef for ten years. Gillies foundation is classic French technique applied to global influence and interpreted the freshest, seasonal ingredients. Named for Gillies' son, the restaurant is adorned with artwork by his wife, who is an art professor at the university.

The first meal I had in Ann Arbor was at Ayse's Turkish Cafe, 1703 Plymouth Rd., a casual haunt that features authentic Middle Eastern fare. Ayse's rallying cry is a familiar one in Ann Arbor: We use local, seasonal ingredients when possible and offer a revolving menu to reflect it. But the caveat at Ayse's is Turkish cuisine. The menu is a series variations on simple themes: cold salads, pilavs, boreks, stews, seafood, lamb, chicken and dessert. And the variations are many. Ayse's offers more flavor than fuss, and is an introduction to what Oklahomans will find familiar and approachable thanks to our strong Lebanese heritage. Common ingredients include bulgur wheat, chickpeas, eggplant, potatoes, lentils, grape leaves, rice and yogurt.

Perhaps the coziest dining of the trip was at Pacific Rim by Kana, 114 W Liberty St., which started as a family-owned Korean eatery and has since evolved into an upscale contemporary Pan Asian concept under the direction of chef Duc Tang. While Tang shies from the term fusion because he feels it connotes a clash of unwilling participants, the Vietnamese-born chef bases his service on classic French technique while drawing inspiration from his home country, Japan, Korea, China and Thailand. Duc never intended to be a chef, as indicated by his degree in Biochemistry from Yale University and the graduate degree he earned in Theology and Biblical Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., in Canada. But don't let those fancy degree fool you, the man is a cook with the heart of an artist.

Perhaps the granddaddy of all Ann Arbor's farm-to-table concepts is Grange, 118 W Liberty. Chef Brandon Johns is a veteran of Ann Arbor's dining scene notwithstanding some time spent in New York City and Chicago to further his culinary acumen. Chef Johns' passion is local ingredients farmed naturally and sustainably. Grange offers a menu that changes to daily to reflect seasonal ingredients and everything is made from scratch, including pasta, breads, pickles, pancetta and preserves. Johns' propensity to use whole animals means the revolving menu will often include unusual cuts, a celebration of bone marrow and house-made charcuterie. Fans of Ludivine would be well pleased at Grange.

Ann Arbor also is home to former “Top Chef” contestant Eve Aronoff, whose Frita Batidos is one of the hottest fast-casual concepts in Michigan. The menu promises Cuban-inspired street food and does so with aplomb. A Frita is a griddle chorizo patty served on a lush egg bun with fried shoestring potatoes. While chorizo is the headliner, fritas come in beef, chicken, fish or black bean patties, too. Fritas can be topped with Muenster cheese, a sunny-side-up egg, salsa, tropical slaw or guacamole. If you want all of the above, order it “loco.” Batido is a tropical milkshake made with fresh fruit, crushed ice and vanilla ice cream that come in coconut cream, lime, passion fruit, cajeta (caramel) or mocha. Having a bad day? Ad a shot of rum and make everything better.

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by Dave Cathey
Food Editor
The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene.
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