Upscale, modernist cuisine of the Americas at Lena
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There's a new girl in town since Aug. 30, and her name is Lena. Though feminists might object if they knew the origin of the name, as a restaurant it's the first feminine presence I remember on Main Street since Alexandra's.
After an extensive renovation of the old Parthenon Greek eatery at the corner of Main and Liberty, Lena has opened with a concept that General Manager John Sleamon says is "a kind of a casual, upscale feel, with food that is very delicate and cocktails that are really fresh and intricate. Like something you would find in Chicago, or New York."
The retro-modern feel of the renovated space is appealing and dramatically different from the diner it replaces, although it's also loud (which Sleamon says they're working on). Things that caught my eye include the new "Cunningham green" color (a nod to historic origins of the deco building), the dramatic lettering of the Gotham-style LENA sign uplighted against a dark sky, a floating fireplace as you enter, loft-high ceilings and distressed brick walls along with a sleek bar and an open kitchen in back.
I found the warmth and general helpfulness of the welcome at Lena to be exemplary when we were there for a recent dinner. There was no problem seating us in one of the luxe booths that line one side of the space. Reminiscent of an ocean liner, these romantic cubbies are swathed in white leather, framed in dark wood and feature Herman Miller spaceship lamps illuminating the portholes in between.
226 S. Main, Ann Arbor
- Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 11 a.m. - midnight; Sunday noon-10 p.m.
- Plastic: Visa, Mastercard
- Liquor: Full bar
- Prices: Dinner entrees $18-$34
- Noise level: Loud
- Wheelchair access: Yes
Sleamon described the menu as "taking all the Americas together and spinning it around into unique dishes and adding a little Latin American to them." He also said, "We try to source locally as much as possible," though specifics were hard to come by.
They are meeting a high bar with their cocktails. I was impressed with the special care that they take to use fresh juices and infusions that they make on the premises, and with their interesting ice cubes. I ordered a mojito just so I could try the spherical cubes of lime juice and mint that they say are designed to avoid diluting the drink. It was probably the best mojito I've had, with amped-up lime that I loved and a nice balance of mint.
My husband got the hot pepper peach margarita, which features a large ball of frozen peach puree. Served with a jalapeno astride the glass, the sunset-colored margarita was also wonderfully balanced with sweet fruit and housemade sours, and more than a hint of tingling heat.
The menu is divided into small plates, platters, soups, greens and main plates, with their beverage selection and desserts on the reverse side. As soon as we had ordered, we were treated to a fruit terrine amuse bouche. This jiggly slice of fruit jelly was paired with spicy arugula and a creamy dressing. I loved the concept, but it tasted like the terrine may have been too long in the cooler, and it was hard to tell what fruit was used.
The influence of Ecuador on the dinner menu is apparent with the emphasis on fresh fruit, and items like ceviche, yuca, plantains, empanadas, and corvina. Sleamon says they have included dishes that the chef's mom and grandma used to make, like the humitas served among the "small plates." These delicate little corn cakes are like a cross between a tamale and a soufflé — filled with melted Chihuahua cheese, and served with a tomato-based sauce on top. They were savory and delicious.
We also tried both the charcuterie and the charred vegetable "platters." The charcuterie involving rolled-up cigars of pink Serrano ham, triangles of nutty Manchego cheese, roasted macadamias and chunks of cantaloup melon. The charred vegetable platter offered expertly grill-striped summer squash, roasted red pepper and asparagus sprinkled with garbanzos along with their version of "chimichurri," a white, yogurt-based sauce that is quite different from other chimichurris I've had. Both platters came with generous slices of grilled bread scattered on top.
Usually when I see a roasted beet salad on the menu I need to order it, but the compressed watermelon salad was too intriguing to ignore. Our server said that the watermelon is "dehydrated" so that the flavor is more intense. This composed salad came with large chunks of sweet seedless melon, a couple of pieces of heirloom tomato, handfuls of dressed arugula and a small sprinkling of ground pistachio.
For our main plates, we tried the sweet potato gnocchi, the grilled lomo ancho with chimichurri sauce (a grilled strip steak), and basted palomo (braised hen).
The sweet potato gnocchi seemed to be made in-house and had a delicate sweet potato flavor but a doughy texture. This dish was a puzzling amalgam. Served in a bowl like a small amphitheater, the gnocchi are bathed in a small sea of rich cream sauce and are partnered with overly large chunks of tomatoes and summer squash. Topped with micro-greens, they are accompanied by more well-grilled bread.
The grilled lomo ancho, a generously portioned strip steak, arrives resting on pureed potatoes and topped with their yogurt-based chimichurri. The steak had good flavor, but my husband would have preferred (and thought he was ordering) the traditional style of chimichurri, usually a piquant relish of parsley, garlic, olive oil and lemon or vinegar that cuts the richness of grilled steak. The potatoes were rich, but seem to have been pureed in a food processor, which results in a gluey texture when the sharp blade bursts the starchy cells of the tubers. The color on the plate came from crisp green beans in a medley with carrots and mushroom.
Our server tried to convince me to try the corvino, which she described as the national fish of Ecuador that they have flown in specially. When I asked her if the corvino was from a sustainable fishery, she wasn't sure what I meant. After I explained, she told me that since corvino was caught up and down the coast of South America, if it was overfished in one place it would be plentiful in others. It was the one time I felt that they were trying to up-sell, or push, a particular dish. But I had already decided on the roasted chicken.
I like ordering roast chicken because it is a simple dish that can border on sublime when it is done well. And it is a good test of what a kitchen is paying attention to. I was impressed with Lena's roast chicken, which they call basted palomo. Although crispy skin is not a particular feature in their version, this small bird arrives basted with pan juices and split on the plate into a breast side and a dark meat side. Tender, juicy and flavorful, it was accompanied by roasted blue and fingerling potatoes and the green bean and carrot medley.
Finally, dessert. Lena's deconstructed and "small bite" styles of desserts continue the modernist cuisine theme. Probably the most traditional of the desserts was the flan d'caramel, a dense and rich egg custard served with fresh berries and a pale caramel sauce.
Their dulce tres leches was an ambitious deconstructed version of tres leches, with three heaps of sweet milk-soaked vanilla cake bracketing small green meringues stuffed with fig jam. A bit of cherry sauce and a sugar fan completed the plate. A final dessert was an autumn extravaganza of small bites—including sticky toffee pudding, house made ice cream, a tiny apple pie deconstructed into stewed apple with a crust cookie, and a small pumpkin charlotte.
Overall, Lena seems to be the kind of place that people wandering down Main Street like to find for an upscale dinner out.