First, the elephant in the room that is Ann Arbor, Michigan — Zingerman’s Deli. On one hand, this Ann Arbor-based nationally known retail giant has put this small college town on the gastronomic map. On the other, it is challenging to compete with such a successful business on their level, so what else could Ann Arbor offer for foodies except a series of (amazingly tasty and well-curated) Zingerman’s experiences?
As I found out on a trip to the city this December: quite a nice mix of things, actually. The most interesting little finds revealed some key strategies for standing out in the heart of Zingerman’s home turf. (For details on this press trip, see the end of this story.)
1. Just Don’t Care
Perhaps an unexpected approach, but the old-school doughnuts and shakes offered at Washtenaw Dairy (a business that hasn’t bothered to replace its missing sign for 20 years) take you right back to the small town Ann Arbor must once have been.The doughnuts were light but yeasty, classic American breakfast fare, perfectly executed.
Newer on the scene, Ayse‘s Turkish Cafe offers complicated flavors, simply prepared and nicely executed, finished off with Turkish coffee and Middle Eastern desserts. Fresh acid flavors (pomegranate seeds, olives, lemon juice) give its food a zesty kick.
2. Go Super Local
The Ann Arbor Farmers Market in the Kerrytown neighborhood (above) stands as a local food mecca and also an incubator of new food businesses. Close relationships between businesses make for great innovation — The Brinery, featuring naturally fermented vegetables, is a natural offshoot from local farms (like Tantre Farm), which often have a glut of cabbage or cucumbers perfect for preservation. Brandon Johns, chef / owner of Grange Kitchen and Bar, shops the market, works with local farmers, and serves a nearly unbelievable 90 percent local menu. (For comparison, most serious locally sourced restaurants are striving for a 50-70% local share). Of the collaboration, Johns said, “Now we are a community.” Smart use of local farm ingredients (like a fried pig’s head and popcorn dessert) make Grange stand apart from other high-end restaurants in downtown.
3. Go Simple
Chef / owner Eve Aronoff (above, right) opened Frita Batidos after running a fine dining restaurant for years in Ann Arbor (she was also on season six of Top Chef). The cuisine of Frita Batidos might be best described as Cuban street food, filtered through Miami, and translated to the Midwest. Simple, bright flavors and a casual vibe make this a stand-out restaurant — and it was packed with a mix of students and locals. Guacamole (below) was like tasting fresh, perfectly ripe avocados (in mid-December, mind you). The flavor was simple, pure, unfooled-around-with, and fresh with a little heat.
Comet Coffee (above) serves serious, world-class coffee, and that is pretty much all they do. Their cappuccino is beautifully full flavored without much acidic bite, leading to a pleasurable sipping experience.
Sweet Gem Confections (below) is making specialty truffles and sweets with many local ingredients. TeaHaus (also below) features a huge selection of teas, many mixed in house, as well as locally made pastries and jams.
4. Go Complicated
The downtown of Ann Arbor features several high-end dining experiences, including a surprising amount of molecular gastronomy. Case in point: the skirt steak from Vinology (below — top left), which features layers of thinly cut meat bound together with an enzyme, creating a thicker steak, then cooked sous vide and served with porcini powder. A classic meat and potatoes dish in a Midwestern town, but also a well-executed dish that would stand up anywhere.
Several of the dishes at Logan (below — top right) feature a mix of local flavors combined with French-inspired sauces and foams. (Fun fact: Chef Thad Gilies, below, is close friends with our own Stewart Woodman — Logan and Heidi’s take a similar approach to fine dining.)
5. Go Alcoholic
That is right: Zingerman’s Deli doesn’t sell alcohol, and in a Midwestern town (and a college one, at that) you will need to find the libations that are right for you. Ann Arbor seems to be on the forefront of the growing sour beer trend. These are beers that bring yeasts into the fermentation process, resulting in an intentionally tart flavor. (Soured Belgian lambics are the style most new drinkers are familiar with). They range in flavors from very acidic (think “drinking vinegar”) to a pleasantly refreshing alternative to hard cider or wine with a meal. Great Ann Arbor examples can be found at the Jolly Pumpkin (their Oro De Calabaza is the New York Times #1 Belgian Golden Ale in the world) and at Arbor Brewing (their Flamboyant Wild Red).
Starting a specialty food store in Ann Arbor seems fraught with comparisons, but Morgan & York features a well-curated cheese and meat department, houses local candy maker Sweet Gem Confections, and boasts a great selection of wines.
If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them
This is what makes Zingerman’s so killer: They foster and spread innovation. Their sisterhood of businesses (creamery cheese plant, roadhouse restaurant, bakehouse bakery, mail order, etc.) have all sprung organically out of the needs and interests of the Zingerman’s Deli staff and have created a community of independent but interrelated businesses that grow and innovate alongside each other.
A meal at Zingerman’s Roadhouse (head chef and managing partner Alex Young, below, won the 2011 James Beard Foundation’s Award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes Region) makes you feel like you are returning to the the front porch of your Southern grandmother’s cottage for a home-cooked meal complete with grits (from South Carolina heirloom grain purveyor Anson Mills), house-made BBQ ribs, fried chicken, and house-made butterscotch pudding.
All the meats (with the exception of the chicken and short ribs) are from locally raised animals, many from the farm of Chef Young. In fact, when we visited, Chef Young’s wife had just purchased a herd of milking goats. In time, the goat milk may even be sold to Zingerman’s Creamery, to be made into cheese sold by Zingerman’s Deli through Zingerman’s Mail Order.
*Geiger & Associates and the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau planned and guided my four-day itinerary, and arranged for the donation or purchase of my round-trip ticket to Ann Arbor, lodging, and meals.