I've written about my experiences at last year's eGullet Heartland Gathering in Kansas City. Between making bread in my hotel room, preparing and eating the dinner we made from shopping at the farmer's market, and the absolutely fantastic outdoor brunch we had at Crum Farm before returning home, it was seventy-two hours of driving, eating, and experiencing some really great food and people.
This year, fortunately, the festivities returned to the same city where I had first attended the gathering back in 2006, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Instead of a twelve hour drive, it would only be three. Seeing as I had a kitchen available to me on the Saturday morning of the feast, I was able to go up a day early to attend a prix fixe tasting at one of Ann Arbor's premier farm-to-table restaurants, Grange Kitchen & Bar. Chef Brandon Johns had prepared a seven course meal for us that highlighted the local, sustainable cuisine that he featured daily at his restaurant. While there would be a wine pairing available for those who wanted it (at an extra cost), I was just excited to try out what looked to be a fantastic menu.
But I am getting ahead of myself. First I should tell you that Grange was located at 118 West Liberty Steet, Ann Arbor, MI 48104 and can be reached at 734-995-2107. Since Grange was essentially located on the campus of the University of Michigan, parking can be tricky. I ended up parking in a garage about a fifteen minute walk from Grange at a cost of only $4.50. However, streetside parking was available if you were lucky enough to snag a spot.
Here was a shot of the street-facing exterior of the restaurant:
Once inside, I was directed up the stairway to the bar area where the staff had set up an extra long table for our group of fifteen or so diners. On each plate, a single piece of paper with tonight's menu had been gingerly placed:
When we finally sat down around 7 PM, we began a three and a half hour odyssey that included some great food, great conversation, and a stop by the chef at our table for each of the seven courses. Before beginning, the chef gave us some background on the type of food they were trying to do at Grange. In addition to having a garden in the back lot of the restaurant, they tried as hard as possible to limit the source of their animal and vegetable products to within a fifty-five mile radius of the restaurant. The chef also mentioned that instead of buying pre-butchered cuts of meat, he bought the entire animal, butchered it entirely himself, and used as much of the animal as was possible. In fact, he added, the menu tonight would reflect this philosophy.
With that, our meal began and the first course arrived at our table:
This was called "Nose to tail house made charcuterie" on the menu and featured a terrine made from multiple parts of the pig, a pig ear aspic, house made coppa, a tomato jam, and pea shoots in the middle of the plate. Everything on this plate was tasty. That being said, the pig ear aspic had a slightly unsettling "crunch" to it that might make the unadventurous eater a bit hesitant. The coppa was nice, being salty and spicy, and the tomato jam added a wonderful sweetness and acidity to the other flavors on the dish. My favorite item on this plate was the terrine.
Our second course were Walleye "brandade" fritters with green tomato jam:
The chef used the word "brandade" not because the fish was actually salt cod, but fresh walleye that he had preserved for one month in the same style as salt cod. He then soaked the dried fish in several changes of water before incorporating the flaked fish with mashed potatoes, formed these tiny fritters and deep fried them to a golden brown. The dish was served with a green tomato jam that added a little sweetness, but mostly the sour flavor from green tomatoes. To say that this was a hit was an understatement. The fritters were delicate and light and perfectly fried and the cured walleye was salty without overpowering the rest of the flavors in this dish. I don't think I would be the only diner tonight to wish that we could've made an entire meal out of this course alone.
The third course tonight was a Fried Pig's Head, mustard, and sauce gribiche:
Not to be confusing, but this wasn't a slice of pig's head, per se, but the meat that had been cooked and shredded from an actual pig's head, formed into patties, breaded and deep fried. While it has been suggested by several friends that anything deep fried is delicious, in this case, it was a bit of a stretch for me. Of course I ate the entire plate, enjoying the subtle mustard flavor running throughout the meat and pairing it with the chopped egg, chervil and caper laden sauce gribiche, but I kind of wish I had gotten to try the vegetarian third course instead: goat cheese stuffed squash blossoms that had been battered and deep fried. That being said, I kept an open mind and an open mouth. I'm glad I tried it, but I don't know that I'd be running back for seconds.
Our fourth course in my mind was an intermezzo, a middle course that separated the beginning tastes from the later ones. Tonight's fourth course was an Heirloom Gazpacho with Michigan Pickled Shrimp Salad:
This was the perfect amount of soup to sate the taste buds; too much would've resulted in tasting fatigue. The pickled shrimp was sour and sweet at the same time and was perfectly cooked and tender. There was a bit of laughter when talking about the fact that the shrimp really was from Michigan, but it smelled quite fresh and tasted even better. Drops of extra virgin olive oil dotted the top of the soup in order to add a bit of unctuousness to the tomato flavor.
In delivering our fifth course, I could tell we were squarely into the main entrée portion of our meal. Here was Duck, Peaches, Coriander, Honey Glaze, and Whole Grains:
The duck breast had been seared to a beautiful medium-rare, sliced, and fanned out on top of cooked wheatberries and spelt. Grilled peaches had been placed atop the duck breast and the entire dish was then sauced with a honey glaze that had been infused with a warming spice, like cinnamon. The whole grains popped in my mouth and gave just a bit of resistance when chewing. The savoriness of the duck breast matched well with the sweetness from both the peaches and the honey glaze, which turned out not to be cloyingly sweet, but fairly subtle. Overall, I'd had to say that this was my favorite savory course, next to the walleye fritters.
Our final savory course, the sixth one overall, was a Whole Roasted Tenderloin, Pickled Oyster Mushrooms, and Heirloom Carrots:
Two slices of perfectly crusted tenderloin sat atop the pickled mushrooms and heirloom carrots. While the outside layer of tenderloin was perfect, the middle was extremely rare (what some might term Black and Blue) and as much as I like beef carpaccio, this was a bit too rare for my taste. Everyone else proclaimed the perfect doneness level to the beef, so perhaps my expectations were off, but I would've liked it at least rare (preferably medium-rare). Nevertheless, the parts that I did eat were absolutely delicious and the acidity from the pickled mushrooms went quite well with the savoriness from the meat. I could also tell that the dish had been finished with a bit of fleur de sel, which I appreciated with every bite.
Dinner now almost complete, our impeccable service staff cleared the table in preparation for the final course, dessert! Tonight we would be having a Plum Upside-down Cake with Goat Cheese Ice Cream:
While it was original supposed to be goat cheese sorbet, apparently there had been a slight change-up at the last minute. I tasted the goat cheese ice cream first and was literally in heaven. The tanginess from the goat cheese paired from the sweetness of the sugar and the creaminess of the ice cream base all came together to make an absolutely delicious combination. I then turned my attention to the upside-down cake. On the top was the crispy cake layer which crunched under my spoon as I cut into it. At the bottom of the cake was a warm layer of cooked plums which thankfully still had some of their acidity in them to cut through the sweetness of the dessert. The combination of the textures and flavors was quite good and had I not already had six courses prior, probably could've eaten another one of these desserts.
Having started dinner at 7 PM, looking at the clock, it was now just a little past 10:30 PM. Dinner service for the restaurant had more or less come to a close and Chef Johns joined us at the end of the meal for a heartfelt round of well-deserved applause. While not everything I was served tonight was something I would've sought out on my own, he definitely expanded my horizons and for that, I am exceedingly grateful. While we didn't have a chance to order anything off of the regular menu, I have no doubt that it is in the same spirit as the menu we enjoyed tonight.
I heartily recommend that if you live in or will be visiting Ann Arbor soon, definitely make Grange Kitchen & Bar a must-stop restaurant for an gastronomic experience that is unlike many others. I will be the first to admit that a meal at Grange isn't inexpensive, but considering the many exciting tastes and preparations you will receive, the value certainly matches the price.