with gallery: Grange Kitchen and Bar demonstrates how delicious farm-to-table can be
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Fried Pig's Head is intimidating to contemplate on a menu but mouthwatering when it arrives in front of you. Crisp greens in a tart vinaigrette garnish one side of the plate, opposite the golden deep-fried dome of meat resting on a sauce gribiche of hard-cooked eggs, mustard and tarragon. Cracking the delicate crust of the brioche-crumbed fritter releases a curl of pork-scented steam and a rush of tender, meaty bits slow cooked from an actual pig's head. The sweetness of the rich meat interspersed with bits of crispy crust is heightened by the palate-cleansing greens.
The fried pig's head, says Chef and owner Brandon Johns, is "one dish that explains what we do at Grange: we buy locally and use everything we can." It's a dish that also defines the delicious potential of the "farm-to-table, nose-to-tail" experience at Grange Kitchen and Bar on Liberty Street in Ann Arbor.
Opened in August 2009, Grange Kitchen and Bar was Ann Arbor's first self-proclaimed farm-to-table restaurant. Much of the locally-sourced menu begins at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, which is a reliable place to spot Johns making the rounds of his favorite purveyors, including Tantre, Goetz, Garden Works and Seeley Farms. His hair may be graying, but the athletic build of the former University of Michigan football player is still evident as he totes produce-filled boxes to fill both the hatchback and passenger seat of his waiting Subaru.
Although it's become commonplace for restaurants to pay lip service to being "all about the local," Chef Brandon Johns is one of the few who makes the effort to build relationships with farmers and to use every part of the animal to be able to source more than 90 percent of his food from Michigan.
118 W. Liberty, Ann Arbor
- Hours:Dining Room: Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday Brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Upstairs Bar: Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-1 a.m.
- Plastic: Visa, Mastercard
- Liquor: Full bar
- Prices: Moderate to expensive - Dinner entrees are $21-$29, bar menu is considerably less.
- Noise level: Moderate
- Wheelchair access: Ground floor dining room is accessible, but upstairs bar and downstairs restroom are not.
Johns routinely orders and breaks down whole chickens, ducks, pigs, and goats rather than ordering "box meat" off a truck, giving him the ability (and the necessity) to make many specialty meats and to offer nose-to-tail dishes not seen other places.
Many of those house-cured and specialty meat items are available on the upstairs bar menu as well. The "gastro-pub" menu at the more affordable (and cozy) bar on the second floor is available until 11 p.m. weeknights, and until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and features duck-fat fries, a crave-worthy fried egg sandwich on soft challah, and a fantastically juicy and delicious burger.
Back downstairs, a large blackboard (with a pig on it) proudly displays the list of farms and ingredients used for the dinner menu that changes as often as every two to three days. That blackboard is one of the updates from last year's minor renovation, which has given the main dining room a sensibility that is somewhere between an upscale farmhouse and an art gallery. Vibrant large-format photographs of fruits and vegetables line white walls above rich brown bead board, and mottled glass pendant lights cast a warm glow over each table.
At a recent dinner with friends, service was warm and attentively professional, starting with a basket of fresh bread and butter delivered to the table and a pink yuletide "Rumtopf" cocktail tasting of house-infused strawberries, rhubarb and other summer fruits.
Cocktails at Grange have their own seasonal menu and, like the Rumtopf, often incorporate local fruits and herbs. To help defray the costs of cases of cherries to brandy or strawberries to infuse, for the past two years Chef Johns has offered a "CSC" for Community Supported Cocktails. Like a CSA subscription, members pay up front in the summer and in return get a significant discount on weekly installations of favorite cocktails at the bar, plus house-brandied local cherries in their Manhattans in the winter.
In addition to the fried pig's head appetizer, we ordered the evening's charcuterie plate with tender and delicious lamb bacon, spiced rounds of lamb sausage, delicate slices of snowy white lardo, and sweet cured beef braesaola. All house-made, of course. A tiny Ball jar of Grange-pickled vegetables and spoonfuls of spicy mustard and sweet onion jam completed the plate that we demolished in minutes. A special appetizer of tacos with shredded goat meat in a mild sauce was tasty but unremarkable except for the chance to have goat.
While taking the order for entrees our server was quick to recommend the special mutton chop dinner, letting us know that only two servings remained. I was dubious about the gamey taste of mutton, but my husband ended up being very glad he ordered what turned out to be two large, well-seared chops and a few ribs. Tender and juicy, the chops were definitely more lamb than mutton in flavor, served with sweet sauteed turnips. These were over a thin broccoli puree that was perhaps the only disappointment of the evening, tasting, according to the DH, "almost like a chimichurri except it wasn't flavorful."
We also ordered a side dish of honey-glazed turnips. The sweet and tender white Hakurei turnips lightly caramelized in butter and just barely coated with honey were delicious.
Pan-roasted walleye featured two smallish fillets expertly seared crisp and brown on top but still tender, mild and flaky inside. The accompanying deep orange carrot puree was silky and gingery, and I wished I had more of it. The duck hash with cubed potato and onion that the fish rested on was deeply browned and savory with caramelization. This dish was very rich, and I was glad that portions were on the smaller side.
By contrast, nearly a whole loin in five or six thick slices was served for the grilled pork. This came with a not-too-sweet, not-too tart tomato-red apple-cranberry compote, a few buttery roasted fingerling potatoes, and local Brinery sauerkraut. A solid dish for a hearty appetite.
The grilled rainbow trout was a large thin fillet of pale pink trout, served with the crispy skin side up. The trout rested on a mixture of roasted bright-green broccoli florets (with nicely singed tips) and crisp-browned potatoes, over a creamy sunchoke puree. The garnish of matchsticked apple-radish salad on top was a nice color and texture contrast, but seemed like an afterthought with the flavors of the rest of the dish.
In contrast to the hearty, masculine straightforwardness of Grange entrees, the dessert menu created by pastry chef Melissa Richards demonstrates the elegant beauty and incredible deliciousness of farm-to-table desserts taken to creative extremes. If you don't get anything else out of this review, hear this: Desserts at Grange Kitchen and Bar are, for my money, the best in town. Maybe the best in the state or even the country. The assumption that a "farm-to-table" dessert would have to be a thick slice of homemade pie or that tired old triumvirate of creme brulee, chocolate mousse and tiramisu is entirely mistaken.
Instead, pastry chef Melissa Richards is crushing the competition with imaginative, satisfying, incredibly delicious multidimensional desserts that incorporate outstanding flavor pairings, contrasting textures and shapes, and usually a savory element as well. In addition, Richards has been making a broad range of perfect ice creams, often in spice or herb-infused flavors, like black pepper, fennel, sage, rosemary-honey, buttermilk, popcorn and more.
Working to come up with a dessert plate that offers novel tastes and textures, Richards says she starts by deciding on "three different flavors that complement each other, and then I work backward to the basic components that I'm going to make with each one... You kind of have to work that way at Grange."
She says, "For example, in the fall I had buttermilk, concord grapes, and rosemary, and I know those go well together. Then I write a list of all the things I could make with buttermilk, with grape, and with rosemary." The ultimate dessert she created that included a silky buttermilk panna cotta, deeply concentrated concord grape sorbet and crisp rosemary meringues made me swoon.
Our winter evening meal included: deconstructed carrot cake in which a small landscape of broken pieces of ultra moist carrot cake were interspersed with smears of cream cheese icing, dollops of dark raisin puree and sunny orange carrot puree, and a sprinkle of crunchy walnut crumbs. Garnished with a whole slice of candied red carrot and a snowball of buttermilk ice cream.
A slice of ultra-rich flourless chocolate cake over a slick of creamy and spicy chocolate chile sauce, scattered with crunchy chocolate crumbles was complemented by a scoop of creamy cinnamon ice cream under a delicate tuile hat.
Gorgeous and light citrus panna cotta with small domes of creamy buttermilk custards interleaved beautiful orange and pink candied kumquats and grapefruit with tiny thyme meringues, and small mounds of lemon cream in a sweet-tart lemon-honey sauce.
The "Cafe Gourmand" option features a selection of tiny intricate treats that change frequently. On the night we were there, an adorably tiny bag of caramel corn was paired with a spicy ginger snap cookie, a small glass of creamy lemon verbena panna cotta and a small glass of icy lemon granita. All served with a cup of dark Roos Roast coffee.
Richards was excited about a new item she was working on, which I can't wait to try: flourless chocolate cake with milk jam, smoked salt, and a milk chocolate Dragon's Milk (beer) ice cream.
Overall, what I love about the straightforward (admittedly meat-centric) approach to dinner at Grange is the reliance on the "terroir" and inherent sweetness in fresh, quality ingredients used to build dishes. It seems to me the culinary equivalent of working without a net — without the mouth-punching seasonings and rich sauces that trick your tastebuds into believing that missing flavor is actually present. Then the way Melissa Richards delivers on the dessert menu carries the experience of the meal over the top for me.
Together with the excellent cocktails, dinner at Grange Kitchen and Bar gives me the what I want from dinner out on the town: the feeling of being well taken care of and the chance to have especially delicious food that I wouldn't (or in the case of the desserts, couldn't) normally make at home.
Regardless of the foodie embarrassment induced by shades of "Portlandia," the servers at Grange are actually knowledgeable about the farms represented on the menu and can give informed details about each dish. I enjoy knowing that the farmers who grow the food are often guests at Grange. The authenticity of the farm-to-table connection, rare even in the brave new "locavore" world, means that the food satisfies on many levels.