Eat Your Heart Out: Ann Arbor Michigan
The University Michigan campus employs nearly 60,000 people and educates (presumably) approximately 40,000 students. Campus sits in the middle of everything and includes dozens of satellite locations miles a part from each other in a spooky, academic-omnipresent kind of way. And betwixt all the busy intersections of academia, world-class museums and North Shore apparel shops, there is an unbelievable thing happening—some of the most educated and community-minded people I have ever met are getting tipsy and eating some incredible food.
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Back to School
The University Michigan campus employs nearly 60,000 people and educates (presumably) approximately 40,000 students.
Campus sits in the middle of everything and includes dozens of satellite locations miles a part from each other in a spooky, academic-omnipresent kind of way. And betwixt all the busy intersections of academia, world-class museums and North Shore apparel shops, there is an unbelievable thing happening—some of the most educated and community-minded people I have ever met are getting tipsy and eating some incredible food.
The Law Quad at the University of Michigan
Food for Thought
The chef talent in Ann Arbor is surprisingly young, cool and way more into sustainable farming than any hipster I’ve ever met.
The chefs, farmers, manufactures and brewers are doing a lot more than talking about what they eat and where it comes from: they’re actually making a difference in the way people consume their food.
Walk down Main Street and you won’t see much of corporate America. These restaurants are one of a kind and the result of two things: the city’s close proximity to foodie metropolis Chicago; and the steady economic lifeblood pumped by the university.
I sat down with Frank Fejeran, executive chef at The Raven’s Club—one of downtown’s newest additions—to learn a few things about how he ended up in Ann Arbor.
Turns out, Fejeran was an apprentice to famously decorated chef and culinary mad scientist Grant Achetz.
Fejeran described many hard lessons with Achetz in his Chicago-based restaurant—heated kitchens warmed by haughty passions for food and perfection. Long story short, when the competition got tough, the young professionals got moving, and many educated and talented people have wound up in smaller towns like Ann Arbor where it’s easier to make a go of things in such tough economic times.
Another thing people in the Midwest seem to be really good at is making beer. Have you ever had a sour beer? It’s delicious. It’s weird. But it’s good. Some of the best advice I got in Ann Arbor was from the brew master at Wolverine State Brewing: “everyone can enjoy an IPA…if you drink the right one.”
I was skeptical and already buzzed. But even this half-drunk, So Cal stranger found a hoppy friend to call her own: Bells’ Two Hearted. If you ever get the chance, drink it.
Locally Sourced Products are Everywhere
And if you ever get the chance to eat great Cuban food, do that too.
Main Street’s Lena, an art deco flash-back and contemporary cocktail factory, offered up a variety of Cuban confections like Ecuadorian Humitas: Lemongrass-tomatoe stew, chimichurri and melted queso fresco. For dinner, I ordered a traditional Cuban sandwich, press-grilled on Avalon Telera bread with smoked ham, braised pork shoulder, manchego cheese, pickles and mustard aioli.
After a long day of brewery tours, nothing is more satisfying than food without pretense. The Cuban sandwich was the perfect accessory to my margarita infused with hot pepper and peach tequila and fresh peach puree—house-made to order, which I did, twice.
Adding a little celebrity to the culinary scene in Ann Arbor is chef Eve Aronoff, a Top Chef contestant and owner of Frita Batidos on West Washington.
Casual picnic tables lined the interior, encouraging group dinning and stranger conversations. Blue Ribbon cans in the cooler and real guacamole served alongside seriously addictive fried plantains was about all it took to make my list. Hands down a must eat in Ann Arbor. I tired half a dozen menu items and everything was superbly fried and awesomely terrible for you—but, oh, so worth it.
Mix it Up
If you feel like mixing with the twenty-somethings after dinner, the best place to go is Ashley’s.
Ashley’s is the college go-to joint that sits across from the busiest intersection of campus. It’s old, it’s packed and its got more beers on draft than anywhere else in town. They’ve got beers you’ve never heard of and they mix them with other beers in ways you didn’t even know where possible. This is basically where the last day of finals ends
Too Many Good Beers to Mention
I had the privilege of sitting down with local beer historian, David Bardallis, who authored Ann Arbor Beer: The Hoppy History of Tree Town Brewing, to discuss how such an amazing brew scene could go so unjustifiably unnoticed by alcoholics the world over.
He was a really nice guy and I wish I could remember more of what he said, but we had sampled near 40 beers that day and I was lit up like a Christmas tree. I think the gist of it was cold weather equals drinking beer, or major university plus college students divided by beer. Oh yeah, and there was a lot of German immigration to Michigan during early America. I needed something to eat.
For Ann Arbor’s version of Asian fusion a la mid-west, seek no further than Melange Bistro & Wine Bar on Main Street.
This is where the Far East meets steak and potatoes—a fine dining experience set in a sexy lounge-style ambiance that makes you want to drink too much liquor and kiss with tongue. I ordered the nachos: duck confit glazed in hoisin and served on crispy wonton chips topped with manchego cheese, guacamole and Sriracha sour cream. Don’t worry; I ate them with my pinky up.
From steaks to sushi, the menu is a globally influenced symphony of too-hard-to-pick main courses with a unique Southeast Asian flare. I settled on the Short Rib: braised for 8 hours and served with a natural braising reduction, yuzu daikon salad and whipped potatoes. I paired that puppy with a glass of Clayhouse Malbec and I practically fell off my chair from sensory euphoria.
Break some Bread
Places like Ann Arbor romance the spirit with slow changes like the seasons—a tender leaf segment barely able to cling to the graying tree.
Ann Arbor is like a lot of hip, young cities: Portland, Austin, Asheville and so on (insert mustache and flannel joke here). It’s slow, it’s quirky and the community is fairly integrated economically. The result is more cooperative and less cannibalistic.
I’ve never met so many people with Master’s degrees in obscure disciplines I’d never heard of, but they know a thing or two about food and beverage, and for this weary traveler, that’s about all it takes. If you ever find yourself near south Michigan—hungry, thirsty, or maybe a little bit of both—it’s worth the trip to discover this wonderful town, if only for a meal.