Smaller than Cleveland, bigger than Kent, Michigan’s Ann Arbor
is a haven for foodies, with its weekly Kerrytown Farmers’ Market, a downtown crammed with sidewalk cafes, and of course the Zingerman’s
juggernaut, including The Deli, The Coffeehouse, The Bakehouse, The Creamery, and The Roadhouse -- where executive chef Alex Young was a 2007 Beard nominee for Best Chef in the Great Lakes, along with our own Michael Symon.
So we packed up our our ice chests and appetites, and headed out over a recent weekend to taste for ourselves. Our conclusion? It made an entirely pleasant road trip, but we can’t say that any of it blew us away.
Take the Saturday morning farmers’ market, filled with the usual lineup of herbs, flowers, fruit, breads, and honeys. Our North Union Farmers’ Market on Shaker Square probably attracts three times the number of vendors, and offers a wider variety of locally grown goodies. Got a hankering to see a real farmer? Save your gas and go there instead.
The shoebox-sized Zingerman’s Deli, launched in 1982, has been grabbing gushing national press for years, and they have the quotes to prove it, plastered all over their multiple catalogues and menus. “A national treasure!” raves NYC chef Mario Batali; “One of the top 25 food markets in world!” coos Food & Wine.
When we landed in town at noon on a Saturday, the lunch line stretched out the door and around the corner. Yet when we finally elbowed our way in – past the small deli case, the tiny bakery counter, and the tall but narrow shelving units lined with olive oils, imported jams, and flavored vinegars, it was so underwhelming we wondered where they hid the rest of the store. Local joints like Miles Market, West Point Market, the West Side Market, Chef’s Choice Meats have Zingerman’s selection beat by a mile, at least in terms of shelf space.
Finally, we did get our teeth into one of the deli’s famous Reubens --- “one of 22 sandwiches that will change your life,” according to professional foodie Ed Levine, writing in Details magazine. It was a damn fine sangwitch at that – plenty of lean, tender meat, mild yet tangy kraut, a nice shellacking of melted Swiss, some sweet and creamy Russian dressing, all piled onto good, honest Jewish rye, grilled to a golden brown – though not anything that a reasonably conscientious home cook couldn’t assemble on her own. We ordered the small size, which still set us back $10.50, making us suspect that its transformative powers might be more financial than metaphysical.
We also stopped next door, at the Coffeehouse, where we snagged a disappointing ham and butter sandwich on a stale baguette for about $6; the Bakehouse, where we stocked up on smallish, $13 coffeecakes (in case Mario should drop by), the Creamery, where we scored some Zingerman’s goat cheese (nice, but not quite as good as that produced by our local Lake Erie Creamery), and finally, the vaunted Roadhouse, which we were surprised to find settled in the parking lot of a slightly rundown strip mall on the edge of town.
Here, we chowed down on entirely too much of the well-prepared eats – classic Americana like barbecued brisket ($19), pulled pork ($17.50), buttermilk fried chicken ($19), and macaroni & cheese ($12.50) – featuring organic produce, free-range meats, and even salad fixins’ picked from the chef’s own garden earlier that day. A whopper of a wine list, too, augmented by a great choice of craft-brewed beers (including some from our own Great Lakes Brewing Company); and some of the most friendly, knowledgeable, and welcoming service we’ve ever experienced, from a notably young staff --- all in a laid-back, down-home setting as suitable for the wee ones as for the college crowd and their grandparents.
In fact, we’re guessing that – more than price, value, or selection – it’s that rare combination of broad appeal, high quality, and warm, welcoming service that is key to Zingerman’s mystique – and it’s certainly worth hyping.
Still, next time we’re craving a change of food scenery, maybe we’ll just take one of those coffeecakes out of the freezer and switch on The Food Network. -- Elaine T. Cicora