|© J. Adrian Wylie|
by Sally Mitani
When chefs audition for jobs, they cook. When Gabriel Vera cooked for a group of five owners and investors of what was then just a rough idea for a Latin American-themed dinner restaurant, "I started with broiled sardines topped with tomato tapenade, rutabaga foam, and fennel cream. Then I made a compressed watermelon salad, followed by braised palomo--that's Cornish hen--with fingerling potatoes and escabeche salsa. I ended up surprising them with my food," says the twenty-seven-year-old Ecuadoran, with a certain amount of satisfaction. All of these dishes ended up on the menu at Lena.
Lena and its basement bar, Habana, opened more or less on schedule in the former Parthenon in early September, and an ambitious renovation it is. 2Mission, Lena/Habana's parent company, also owns Grizzly Peak and Blue Tractor locally and a small flock of other eateries around the state. It has a well-established record of classy resuscitation of vintage downtown buildings, but when it comes to installing restaurants in them, 2Mission usually leans toward casual pub.
In Traverse City, 2Mission recently stepped into the deeper waters of fine dining with a locavore dinner house named Mission Table. Lena is their second foray into what one might call the white-tablecloth world--except there are no tablecloths in sight in the modern, minimalist ground-floor restaurant, which seats 130. It's stripped cleanly down to its brick and timber bones, with tables and chairs so functional they're reminiscent of school-cafeteria furniture. The current trend in fine dining is to let the food provide the complexity and use the decor as a palate cleanser.
Downstairs, Habana is another story, all romantic shadows and twinkling baroque chandeliers and gleaming wood, with narrow grotto-like semi-private rooms under the sidewalk. It's worth a trip just to check out an architectural rarity: many buildings of the period have filled in their under-sidewalk caverns, originally built to take deliveries. "Cafe" was dropped from Habana's name when it moved over from Washington Street--through the years it has evolved
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