ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- In the 2012 rom-com The Five Year Engagement, Jason Segel's character, a budding chef named Tom, follows his fiancée from California to Ann Arbor so she can pursue her doctorate degree at the University of Michigan.
One of the main comedic points of the movie is that Tom, formerly an on-the-rise talent in the foodie town of San Francisco, is now stuck in a total culinary backwater, reduced to making sandwiches at a deli. A deli! Quelle horreur!
A town with a thinner skin might have treated this cinematic slander with outrage. Ann Arbor seems to have issued a "what me, worry?" shrug and quietly gone back to being one of the most understated food destinations in the U.S.
And that deli where Jason Segel had to sling sandwiches?
Only among the most respected and influential artisanal food outlets in North America. But more on that later.
Ann Arbor, about a 30-minute drive from the Detroit airport, is probably best-known as the home of the U of M, the prestigious university with the biggest football stadium in North America. It's a classic college town, with a mix of frat houses and charming craftsman homes on its tree-lined streets, a vibrant art scene and a Midwestern-nice attitude. The strollable downtown is the way downtowns should be, filled with character and lovely little boutiques, bookstores, old-fashioned theatres and tons and tons of pubs, bars and restaurants.
And because it's a college town, the perception is those restaurants cater to students, with cheap, greasy fare.
Certainly, if you've spent the night playing beer pong, there are burrito joints to soak up the alcohol at 2 a.m. But with more than 200 independent restaurants in the downtown area, A2, as the locals call it, has plenty more on its plate than pizza slices and wings.
There are three prime examples on Washington Street alone: Slurping Turtle, Aventura and Frita Batidos.
First, Slurping Turtle, the Japanese comfort-food restaurant recently opened by MasterChef competitor Takashi Yagihashi in a former Borders bookstore.
The decor has minimal, clean lines with homey touches and pops of colour, and the food is similar -- unfussy presentation with deeply satisfying flavours and little surprises.
Take the croquettes, for example -- fabulous, deep-fried balls -- the crunchy coating has a hint of unexpected sweetness -- with a creamy interior of potato and mushroom.
Another treat is the hamachi tacos, with a shell made out of a taro root, pairing the richness of tuna with the tang of miso and masago. The decadent duck-fat fried chicken is a nod to Yagihashi's roots in French cuisine -- the James Beard award-winner has a Michelin star for his Japanese-French fusion restaurant in Chicago, Takashi. The noodle bowls are, as expected, fragrant with rich broth and a warming hit of spice.
Desserts are also French-influenced with a Japanese twist. The fillings of the giant, delicate cream puffs with the caramelized bottoms come in flavours that include green tea and red bean, while the jewel-like macarons come in raspberry-wasabi or yuzu varieties.
Down the road at the warm and welcoming Aventura, the style switches to Spanish. Chef Juliann Botham serves up rustic, tapas-style food whose only downfall is you won't want to share it.
It's tough to go wrong with patatas bravas, that mainstay of Spanish tapas, but Aventura's is a standout version: thrice-fried potatoes topped with honey aoli, spicy bravas sauce and a fried egg -- totally addictive. Other tapas dishes worth hoarding are the alcachofas fritas, the lemony artichoke hearts delicately breaded and topped with boquerone aoli, and the heavenly hamburguesa de cordero, a platter of three small lamb burgers garnished with garnacha caramelized onions, olives and manchego on a brioche bun.
The cafeteria-style Frita Batidos is less formal -- a bright white room with communal seating at whitewashed picnic tables -- but just as delicious. The Cuban chorizo frita is the kind of sandwich -- so harmonious in all its elements -- that makes you shush people around you so you can concentrate on stuffing your face... er, enjoying the interplay of soft egg bun, spicy chorizo burger slightly crisped around the edges, perfectly runny fried egg and tangy chili mayo, with a couple of delectable garlic-cilantro fries thrown in, just for texture. Wash it down with a batido -- a tropical shake made with fruit and ice cream -- augmented with a splash of dark rum. Then have a nap.
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It is difficult to overstate the effect Zingerman's Deli -- the scene of Jason Segel's mortifying introduction to cold-cut cuisine -- has had on Ann Arbor. The deli, established by Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig in 1982 in the city's then-ungentrified Kerrytown district, is now practically world famous. You can get a corned beef on rye or a $56 bottle of balsamic vinegar. It appeals to gourmets and gourmands, 100 Mile Diet adherents and those who would travel the world for the perfect prosciutto. They sell pasta from Italy and sauerkraut from a local company called the Brinery (run by the ebullient David Klingenberger, a contagiously enthusiastic advocate of fermentation).
It's also an admirable enterprise that has spun out organically into the Zingerman's Community of Businesses, which includes, among other things, a bakery, a creamery, a mail-order business, an event centre and a restaurant, Zingerman's Roadhouse.
Roadhouse chef Alex Young is tough to pin down. The James Beard Award winner looks like a farmer -- tanned arms, calloused hands, baseball cap, hipshot stance. He talks like a philosopher, espousing the values of farm-to-table living. And he cooks like a master -- unpretentious fare that makes you want to eat until your pants buttons pop.
His hearty, crusty bread is adapted from a 1600s recipe, made with a sourdough starter the restaurant has been using for 17 years. The buttermilk fried chicken is mouth-watering, as is the barbecue. His mac and cheese -- named best comfort food by Food Network's Alton Brown -- is the ne plus ultra of mac and cheese; gooey and rich and salty and unctuous.
It turns out Alex Young looks like a farmer because he is one -- he and his wife, Kelly, run Cornman Farms, another arm of the Zingerman's empire (she heads up their goat operation and knows the name of all 126 of her bleating charges). On 42 acres, they grow more than 70 varietals of vegetables that make their way to the Roadhouse menu.
Alex is passionate to the point of prickly abut the importance of good food, and by good, he doesn't just mean tasty. He strives to balance environmental concerns with quality; he believes everyone should know where their food comes from. The Roadhouse purchases no prepackaged meat, only whole-carcass animals, including, of course, goats from their own farm. Their heirloom tomatoes aren't shipped in from California; they grow them at Cornman. Whole pigs are smoked on-site. The chickens are free-range Amish birds.
Making the most of Michigan's bounty is a concept one sees wherever one eats in Ann Arbor, from casual cafés to upscale eateries, but there's more to it than that.
Vellum Grill's Peter Roumanis is dedicated to the locavore concept -- his elegant downtown bistro recently featured a Michigan mushroom tasting menu with a to-die-for morel tart -- but points out a good restaurant scene needs more than fresh ingredients and good intentions. "You need chefs who can coax the poetry out of a carrot," he says.
Ann Arbor is home to a multitude of chefs capable of culinary odes. They just don't care if Hollywood knows it.