with gallery: Real Seafood still able to deliver top-notch experience
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So many people have flocked to the Real Seafood Co. over the span of its 37-year existence that it's almost become an Ann Arbor landmark. Even so, my past experiences have been mixed, with sometimes excruciatingly slow service and a few pricey dishes that are mediocre at best. For this assignment, I decided to put the restaurant to the ultimate test: visiting on a Saturday night of a home University of Michigan football game. And on this occasion, the restaurant was at the top of its game.
I made a reservation in advance, and the moment we arrived, we were quickly seated in a comfy booth. Those who didn't have a reservation were told there was an hour wait for a table.
The coolest part of my recent visit was Real Seafood's new modernization: electronic menus. We were each handed Android-based tablets to sift through our menu choices on a touch screen.
The tablet runs off of a menu management software program and allows the chef to easily upload menu changes. Real Seafood paid $30,000 for 100 tablets, but will eliminate $25,000 a year in menu printing expenses, says Eric Arsenault, president of Menuvative, the software developer that worked with the restaurant. He said it's also greener; Real Seafood was printing 300 paper menus a week. Eight other Main Street Ventures restaurants have the tablets, with four more currently in the works.
Arsenault says the menus provide a richer experience, with lifelike photos of dishes, extensive descriptions of each item—even an interactive element that takes the wine list and provides automatic suggested wine pairings for every item. The menu also has larger fonts, so it's easier to read. Arsenault says the reaction has been positive, even among the technologically challenged, who have found it very intuitive and easy to use. I would agree that it was a nifty way for my family to order.
341 S. Main St., Ann Arbor
- Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 1-9 p.m.
- Plastic: Visa, Mastercard , American Express, Discover.
- Liquor: Full bar.
- Prices: Expensive. Most dinner entrees begin at $20.
- Noise level: Loud when busy.
- Wheelchair access: Yes
Seafood and fish, of course, almost exclusively dominate the menu. Except for the lone filet and New York strip loin steak, there's little here for devout carnivores, or, for that matter, strict vegetarians or vegans. Pasta can be made gluten-free upon request.
One of the regular highlights is Real Seafood's melt-in-your-mouth bread, baked fresh daily. The chef uses hand-rolled multigrain dough, then rolls it with salt, pepper, oregano, thyme, and poppy seeds. It's then brushed with a garlic and basil olive oil. We always fill up on this before our main courses arrive.
On this visit, we started with steamed Blue Hill Bay Maine mussels. Brought to our table in a deep pot, they were fresh and slithery, seated in a sensuous butter sauce. Even better was the pepper-seared tuna. Cooked the least bit too much, this dish won't shine. But ours was fresh and perfectly cooked, served rare in tender sliced medallions with wasabi and ponzu sauce that provided a slightly spicy accent. Even the ordinary white rice, served on the side, was far from bland and provided a great complement.
We ordered the house salad with a blue cheese dressing, which was applied liberally, but we enjoyed it nonetheless because it was so rich and creamy, accented with big chunks of blue cheese crumbles and fresh vegetables.
The creamy New England clam chowder, a staple here, is not to be missed. Just slightly spicy, it's full of big chunks of seafood and served in a hearty broth.
The steamed Maine lobster and petite filet mignon, while not the most interesting dish, was solid. I appreciated that our server offered to crack the lobster, saving us the arduous task of teasing the lobster out from the shell. The filet was basic, lightly brushed with olive oil and seasoned with just salt and pepper, but was mouth watering, cooked to perfection. The only item missing was our side vegetables, which the server neglected to include.
One of the best entrees was a non-seafood choice, the walnut pesto fettuccine. Designed for the garlic lover, the dish also had pieces of fresh, leafy spinach sprinkled throughout. This dish was so heavenly I happily ate it cold from the fridge the next day.
The maple-glazed salmon was also great, and the sauce provided a sweet, syrupy accent to the very fresh fish. I also enjoyed the varied assortment of seasonal vegetables that came with it: red onions, sweet potatoes, carrots, brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, butternut squash, shaved fennel and apple.
The only slight miss we encountered was the seafood fettuccine alfredo. Though it was full of big pieces of salmon, shrimp and scallops, it was virtually unseasoned. Even a touch of salt or pepper would have improved it.
Despite the hearty portions here (we took home seven leftover containers), don't skimp on dessert. Items on the pastry tray were inviting, and we decided to sample two new additions to the menu: the chocolate brandy mousse and the pumpkin cheesecake.
We all drove our spoons into the chocolate mousse. The brandy flavoring made the mousse absolutely delectable. Though I enjoyed the overall taste of the pumpkin cheesecake and thought the pumpkin praline topping added a nice touch, I thought the consistency was a big wiggly; I prefer my cheesecake with a thicker texture. I couldn't complain about the several-inch-high coconut cream pie, though I would have preferred slightly less of the fluffy filling, which dwarfed the meager crust.
Despite the crowds, we experienced impressive service and didn't need to wait long for any portion of our meal — including what is often an interminable lag before the check arrives. The server was cheery and helpful.
Based on this most recent visit, range of delicious entrees justify the prices. Real Seafood continues to deliver on its long-won positive reputation.