On a recent trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, I learned to kayak down cascading water. I watched a performance by a small theatre company that moved me to the core. I learned how to chew wine and make sauerkraut. I met a culinary historian. I found out what community-supported cocktails are. Above all, I discovered that the people who live in Ann Arbor believe in making their city a better place to live. They’re driven by pure passion.
Unlike Detroit, which has suffered a lot in the economic downturn, Ann Arbor is thriving. This city of 100,000+ swells every fall to 150,000 as students arrive to attend the University of Michigan. In fact, many of the entrepreneurs I met are former students at U of M who came to school and never left. They have a deep connection to Ann Arbor, and it shows.
The city itself is cozy yet cosmopolitan. After a couple days, I could picture myself living here. Great restaurants? Check. Cool main street? Check. Nearby nature adventures? Check. Arts and cultural attractions? Check. Friendly folks? Check. Farmer’s markets? Check. Great weather? OK, that may be one strike against Ann Arbor, but winter doesn’t last forever and Michigan’s other three seasons are pretty fine, the locals say.
From the East Coast, Michigan may seem like it’s on the other side of the world, but in fact, it’s just a day’s drive away from Tidewater. After exploring the town, shopping in local businesses, dining in Ann Arbor’s amazing restaurants, and enjoying its cultural and outdoor activities, it’s easy to see why Ann Arbor is a popular place to visit—and, for the lucky ones, a place to call home.
EMBRACING THE COMMUNITY
I take a sip of the Strawberry Blonde beer served straight from the tap and—wow! It’s delicious: hints of strawberry and spice in a medium-bodied ale with a touch of orange peel. I’m taking a beer tasting class at Arbor Brewing Company and learning the intricacies of beer brewing and tasting. First you have to understand the lingo—bitter, malty, roasty, sour, acidic, sweet, mouthfeel, clarity.
The owners, Renee and Matt Greff, started their brewery in1995 after Matt started making beer at home as a hobby. Now they’ve got two brewpubs in southern Michigan and recently opened one in India! Like many of the entrepreneurs I meet, this couple embraces their community and is committed to sustainable business practices. I admire them for combining their passion for making great beer with a vision for creating a better community. And their beer is mighty good!
The co-founder of Zingerman’s Deli, Ari Weinzweig, is another entrepreneur who has made a commitment to Ann Arbor. He and his partner, Paul Saginaw, started Zingerman’s on a shoestring and have turned it into a multi-million dollar business that employs 500+ people. Besides the deli, Zingerman’s makes bread, cheese, candy, and coffee. They also run a restaurant, a mail order business, a publishing house, and offer food tours and special events catering. And in case you want to know the secret to Zingerman’s success, you can sign up for Zingtrain, their seminar and consulting business. Wow!
What makes Zingerman’s unique is the passion that drives the people. “Everything can be better,” says Ari, who looks for ways to improve the customer experience all the time. In fact, that’s the company’s mission: to deliver an over-the-top customer experience. I enjoy a terrific lunch at Zingerman’s Roadhouse , where I can feel the love—not just from Chef Alex Young and his staff, who are amazing, but also through the food: buttermilk fried chicken, mac ‘n’ cheese, and a donut sundae smothered in bourbon-caramel sauce. Ari calls it “traditional, full-flavored food.” I call it yummy!
One of the suppliers for Zingerman’s Deli is David Klingenberger, “chief fermenting officer” and owner of The Brinery, a cottage company that makes sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles. David started his business after a farmer he worked for gave him a good deal on 75 cases of cabbage. After turning the cabbage into sauerkraut, he started selling his product to Zingerman’s, and today he sells to multiple retailers throughout Michigan. I tour his new facility, which also includes an incubator kitchen for other cottage entrepreneurs, built with the help of a USDA grant. David, like so many in Ann Arbor, wants to see others turn their dreams into successful businesses as he has done.
I attend a fermentation workshop at the Washtenaw Food Hub, which houses David’s expanding facility. Young, tatooed and irreverent, David delights in showing us the finer points of making sauerkraut, which in fact is amazingly simple: take a head of cabbage, shred it finely, add sea salt, squeeze the cabbage with your bare hands until enough liquid releases from the cabbage to cover it, seal, and set in a dark place for six months. “It’s survival food,” David says. “It’s how our ancestors survived.” The naturally occurring bacteria in sauerkraut is good for your gut, continues David, whose company’s tag line is “stimulating your inner economy.”
At Seeley Farm on the outskirts, another business is growing. Owners Mark Nowak and Alex Cacciani show us around as they take turns tending to Baby Henry, the newest member of their farm family. Seeley Farm specializes in seasonal organic salad mix, which they sell to local restaurants and at farmer’s markets in the area. They admit farming can be challenging—due to the high cost of land and weather uncertainties. Surprisingly sales is the easiest part of the business. “We have great partners,” Alex says, referring to local chefs who wow their clients with dishes featuring Seeley’s Farm’s salad greens.
It seems most of the restaurants I visit in Ann Arbor feature local food on the menu. Eve Aronoff, a French-trained chef from Miami owns Frita Batidos, which features Cuban-inspired street food. She too sources her meat, cheese, and produce from local purveyors as much as possible. Her brightly lit café on Washington Street in Downtown Ann Arbor has become a popular spot for students and families, and it’s easy to see why. Fresh, tasty food served in a casual, upbeat atmosphere is always a good thing—but when you find menu items like fritas—burgers made with chorizo, black beans, chicken, fish, or beef—and batidos—tropical milkshakes with flavors like coconut cream, mocha, and passion fruit—your senses will swoon. Mine, do!
PASSION FOR QUALITY
Amazing restaurants are everywhere you turn in Ann Arbor. In a nondescript suburban shopping center, we are transported to faraway lands at Ayse’s Turkish Café open since 1993. The owner and chef, Ayse Uras, doesn’t have a menu since she posts her daily specialties on a blackboard. Our lunch includes eggplant kebabs with lamb, okra lamb stew, and stuffed zucchini with lamb—perfect choices for me since I love lamb—but Ayse’s also offers a variety of other choices including vegetarian dishes like savory lentil soup.
At The Grange, Chef-owner Brandon Johns is committed to supporting local business and sources his food from a 150-mile radius. An impressive 90 cents of every food dollar spent at The Grange comes from local farms in summer and 75 cents in winter. “I know everyone who grows my stuff,” says Brandon, who maintains that customer demand inspired the movement. He’s taken the concept even further with his community-supported cocktails. Clients purchase “shares” and get to enjoy specialized cocktails using unique ingredients, many of which are grown locally.
Frank Fejeran, chef at The Ravens Club, another downtown restaurant specializing in small plates and customized cocktails, is also committed to buying local. “We make food we believe in,” he says. Every restaurant owner and chef I talk to in Ann Arbor seems to share this belief. When you dine in their restaurants, you taste their passion for quality and community.
At Vinology, an elegant restaurant with an outstanding wine menu, Chef Jim Leonardo serves terrific local food paired with elegant wines. We taste Old World and New World rosés with owner John Jonna, who instructs us on how to enjoy wine properly using multiple senses. “One, two, three,” he says. One, observe the color; two inhale the aroma; three, taste. “You slurp the wine,” he explains. “Then chew, hold for 10 seconds, then whistle backwards.” Everyone laughs as we try to mimic his example. “There’s a story behind every bottle of wine,” John continues and encourages us to seek out the stories behind the wines we like.
Our wine education continues at Vellum, one of Ann Arbor’s new restaurants, which opened in January. Ric Jewell, director of operations, guides us through a food/wine pairing featuring lesser-known but sublime wines served with delicious dishes likes pea soup with mint, beet salad, and lamb chops. We learn about varietals I’ve never heard of, such as the Juan Garcia grape, found in a stellar Spanish red wine produced by Pirita, and monastrell—known as montevedre in France—found in a supple red from another Spanish producer, Clio.
SO MUCH HEART
Later we find ourselves in The Last Word, a speakeasy that harks back to Prohibition Days. Tucked on a side street without a sign, this popular club features craft cocktails served in an intimate atmosphere—think dim lights and romantic, soft jazz. Here I meet one of the owners, Adam Lowenstein, who just returned from a sabbatical in Europe with his wife. We trade stories, sip on cocktails, and let the world fade away.
One night I attend a concert at another intimate venue, The Ark, where Marshall Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets perform. The Ark is run by a non-profit organization and attracts top names in the music biz. Marshall Crenshaw takes the crowd on a journey to the past with guitar riffs accompanied by his melodious voice. It’s easy to be swept away by the moment.
I lose all sense of reality one afternoon at another performance—this time at The Purple Rose Theatre in nearby Chelsea. Founded by actor Jeff Daniels, a native, this theatre company was once housed in a former garage. It has become one of the nation’s top local theatres, attracting stellar talent and emphasizing the “new American play.” The show, 33 Variations by Moises Kaufmann, is a stunner, weaving storylines from past and present involving Beethoven’s obsession with the Diabelli Variations and a modern professor’s quest for her daughter’s love. The actors play their parts with so much heart, it almost hurts to watch. I’m impressed to find theatre of this caliber in middle America.
Ann Arbor is full of surprises. Tucked away in the graduate studies building of U of M is the Longone Center for American Culinary Research, the country’s largest center of culinary research named after its founder and curator, Jan Longone. A former bookstore owner, Jan began collecting food-related memorabilia—cookbooks, advertising, food magazines, even parts lists from turn-of-the-century cast-iron stoves. Jan, who calls herself a food historian, is a delightful octogenarian full of stories about celebrities she’s met and treasures she’s uncovered through her years of collecting.
Besides food and culture, there are amazing opportunities to enjoy nature in Ann Arbor. A few minutes from downtown, the city of Ann Arbor has created a kayak course on the Huron River. At the Gallup Park Canoe Livery, we rent kayaks, watch a video, and strap on our PFDs. I’m expecting a pleasant float downriver with a few thrills. Turns out the chutes on this course can be quite intense. Happily, I don’t tip over and enjoy some peaceful paddling along the river, watching the world float by.
Ann Arbor offers visitors an escape from the ordinary. In addition to great food, there’s a sense of pride in this town—and no wonder. Commitment to quality, to supporting local business, to making their community the best it can be—all combine to create a palpable sense of passion that simmers just below the surface. I still feel it today.
As we were leaving our lovely wine pairing at Vellum, Ric Jewell said, “A great meal should never end. It’s a memory that lasts forever.” My visit to Ann Arbor—the people I met and their passion and commitment to community—will be with me always.
Other excellent places to try in Ann Arbor:
• The Earle - French and Italian cuisine in an elegant setting with live jazz.
• Gratzi - Upscale eatery with authentic Italian dishes. gratzirestaurant.com
• Logan—An American Restaurant - Contemporary cuisine with a bistro feel. logan-restaurant.com
• Mani Osteria & Bar - Crazy-good pizza in a lively atmosphere with an open kitchen. maniosteria.com
• TeaHaus - Incredible selection of organic, pesticide- and herbicide-free teas. teahaus-annarbor.com
• Morgan & York - Specialty foods and wine. Check out the selection of bitters. morganandyork.com
• Cherry Republic - Awesome products made from Michigan cherries. Love the chili chocolate cherries. www.cherryrepublic.com
For more information about visiting Ann Arbor, go to www.visitannarbor.org