(Note: First published September 2008, Ann Arbor Observer. In May 2009, chef Brandon Johns left Vinology . )
Since its opening in May 2006, we've taken regular rides on the Vinology roller coaster. On early trips we delighted in the concept and the execution: a beautifully designed space devoted to the world of wine, from elemental viticulture to the actual elixir (and lots of it). The menu was good, too--modern like the decor, and emphasizing small, sharable plates. The food was initially delicious, but over time there were problems with consistency of quality and even bigger problems with service. Still, we kept going back, hoping that Vinology would fulfill that early promise. Besides, it has always been a jazzy, stylish place to have a glass of wine and a chat even if all the parts were not quite in sync.
So we were excited to learn that Brandon Johns had come in as a partner and executive chef. Johns had previously cooked at the Chop House, where I was struck by his imaginative specials and obviously well-tuned kitchen. Johns moved down Main Street to Vinology in May, his start coinciding with the wine bar's second anniversary. When we visited, he'd barely had a chance to sharpen his knives in the new kitchen, but my preliminary impression is Wow.
Okay, I'm a sucker for the new menu concept--focusing on fresh, seasonal ingredients from local farmers--and even if more and more restaurants are charting the same course, I’m always thrilled to see another. And Vinology is doing more than paying lip service to a hot trend: Johns can be seen walking the walk at the Farmers’ Market, and he lists many of the local farms whose produce and products are on the week’s menu. The offerings are serendipitous, like the seasons. One night we lucked into a starter from the chef’s own garden--ephemeral squash blossoms, long delicate buds stuffed with creamy herbed goat cheese, fried with a whisper of tempura batter, and served with a green tomato sauce alongside. On another, we reveled in a plate of gnocchi and Michigan morels.
It’s not all Michiganiana, of course; we’ve grown accustomed to our Alaska salmon and gulf shrimp. But Johns combines even the more exotic ingredients with elements recognizable from our own backyard--and does so with imaginative flair. His seared scallop appetizer comes with a swirl of sweet-potato puree and a really smashing gingery compote built around rhubarb that sprang from Washtenaw soil. To go even more local, try the fennel-and-goat-cheese tart, a flat crisp of puff pastry spread with whipped goat cheese from Four Corners Creamery in Tecumseh and topped with chopped braised fennel from the Farmers’ Market alongside a lightly dressed mound of baby lettuces from one of his steady sources--Chelsea’s organic Tantré Farm, or Prochaska Farms, a third-generation operation between Saline and Tecumseh.
Johns’s kitchen is producing its own terrines and pates to excellent effect--as his staff showed on their charcuterie plate, which makes a fine shared starter and works in perfect synergy with a glass of wine (pairings are suggested on the menu). On the night we sampled it, the plate was arranged with three thin slices of classic rolled prosciutto (from La Quercia, an artisanal producer in Norwalk, Iowa), a tiny terrine of the house’s chicken liver pâté covered in a thin layer of duck fat, a wonderful rough-textured country pâté made with duck, and classic accompaniments--house-made crackers, spicy grainy mustard, and crisp cornichons.
The smokery skills were on display with my favorite main course, a salmon that was almost transcendently delicious: a deeply peachy-colored fillet of grilled wild Alaska salmon, surrounded by a cream sauce with intense, crispy lardoons of bacon hot-smoked in house, and braised lettuce. It was quite rich, but those few bold flavors played together beautifully. The vegetarian plate of ricotta gnocchi in a cream sauce with morels and fresh peas was rich like the salmon, but here the earthy elements brought in with the morels made a sensational contrast. I liked this one so much I went back later on my own dime to try it again; the second time, the staff used a similar prep with a mix of wild mushrooms and snap peas that was equally luscious. (Most of the mushrooms are supplied by Earthly Delights in DeWitt, which has foragers all over the state.)
Chef Johns generally has a fabulous hand with veggies, which occasionally upstage the meat “star” on the plate--we liked the mix of morels and fiddleheads even more than the walleye they accompanied. The Niman Ranch rib eye was good, if slightly overcooked, but the garlicky fingerling smashed potatoes and the sautéed pea shoots were stunning. The pork dish looked swell on paper--roasted Berkshire loin alongside pork belly confit--but both were a smidge extreme: the loin was flavorful but too dry, and the confit a little heavy. But the chicken was wonderful: a chicken breast with a preserved Meyer lemon-garlic puree rubbed under the skin and then pan sautéed. It comes to the table with the meat juicy and the skin crispy, and in between, there’s that symphony of seasoning. The chicken was served with a mix of wheat berries and quinoa, and those crispy pea shoots again.
If it’s on the dessert menu and you’re not alone, split the pound cake, a raucously buttery slice whose richness is cut with a puree of fresh berries.
Service is improved, but still not always where it should be. On two evening visits, we asked to start with a featured wine, but each time the server came back and said there weren’t any chilled bottles. Why promote a wine and not be ready to serve it? Our servers were attentive and efficient on weekday evenings, but on a busy Friday we were left waiting fifteen minutes after we arrived without so much as a hello or a glass of water--long enough for me to go back to the hostess station and ask her to flag our guy. Things perked up sufficiently after that, although he didn’t seem familiar with what was on the charcuterie platter and at the end he left us cooling our heels as we waited for the check. On the other hand, our reservations were honored to the minute, and the charming dining room manager always came to check on us--making me think they’re getting their act together.
Chef Johns made the rounds too, beaming when we pulled him aside to praise the gnocchi. This leads me back to the food. If it’s this good this early on, we’re certainly putting Vinology back on our favorites list. It seems to have replaced the roller coaster with one of life’s great delights: a ramble down a Michigan country road.
110 South Main Street 222-9841
Mon.-Thurs. 4 p.m.-midnight, Fri.
& Sat. 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Sun. 4 p.m.
10 p.m. (Note: hours may have changed. Call ahead.)
Snacks $4-$5, small plates & appetizers $7-$12, shared platters $11-$14, entrees $19-$25, desserts $7-$12
Main floor fully disability friendly