I'Haute Cuisine: Main Street Welcomes College Students with Restaurant Week
As to be expected, most University students spend their time on a perpetual budget; however, as residents of Ann Arbor, students are also surrounded by incredible culinary options to satisfy their perpetual cravings. It is a dilemma that has plagued the undergraduate Wolverines for years. Restaurant week presents an annual solution that doesn’t involve waiting for a birthday or an anniversary to pop up, and it’s also the most delectable way to dine for less. With $15 lunches and $28 dinners, each to be split for two, it’s not a bad excuse to make the trek to Main Street, an area held to very high standards, and chock full of amazing upscale restaurants. This year, SHEI Magazine took to the town to experience this appetizing celebration first-hand. A quality restaurant experience includes several facets: beautiful food with bold and unexpected, yet harmonious flavors, a warm, inviting ambience away from the daily perils of life, and a social experience that brings diners closer together. When all these elements work in cohesion, a truly marvelous eatery is born.
Café Felix on S. Main Street is a bistro-style restaurant with rustic accents that instantly create a nostalgic image of a Parisian afternoon. Its towering columns and 20th century artwork create a Fitzgerald-esque scene. As the name may suggest, it is a vision of romanticism layered over a contemporary dining experience.
Owner Felix Landrum and Head Chef Stephanie personally deliver the Restaurant Week specials. Despite their history in the restaurant business, they give off an air of modesty and warmth. Felix is a firm believer in the communal aspect of dining. Growing up in a French family, Felix remembers how his parents always made sure the family had a proper sit-down dinner every night, where the food was savored and the familial bonds grew stronger. He carried these values with him into his young adult life, and they eventually led him to opening a café. What started as a small pâtisserie is now a full-fledged fine-dining experience. “What we’re trying to do is classically inspired French cooking with a modern twist,” Felix said.
There is certainly a European elegance to the menu. It’s an ode to the French way that would make Julia Child proud. Stephanie and Felix work together to elevate traditional French cuisine into contemporary dishes that suit all palettes.
Several elements of the entire menu are presented over the course of Restaurant Week, and everything is plated beautifully. The meal presentation begins with a gorgeous duck ravioli followed by a steak and tuna tartar duo. Both are evidence of a true kind of culinary expertise, and the dishes have been described as both inventive and texturally perfect. Customers have also commented on the portion sizes for restaurant week. Despite the budget constraints, the portion sizes remain plentiful, and the menu from restaurant week is very representative of what the menu looks like during regular service. The main event, and the café’s specialty are the beef short ribs braised in red wine. Set on a bed of cauliflower risotto and crispy Brussels sprouts, this is certainly a combination of contemporary innovation and French classicism.
The presentation continues with the entrée, which is usually served as an appetizer. Originally conceived as a “pumpkin hash,” the dish incorporates the more in-season sweet potatoes and russet potatoes sautéed in a rich sage butter sauce during the winter. The flavors are wonderfully earthy with a nice bite; while the herbs de Provence are mellow, they provide depth to the base of the dish. The dish is topped with a fried quail egg, which gives it a much-needed savory touch, ingeniously combined with mushroom foam. The touch of prosciutto adds a crispy final note to the course.
It is a perfect glimpse into the care the restaurant puts into every dish. A visit to Café Felix is a guarantee of a meal prepared with finesse, love, and appreciation, with matching service to boot. It is a captivating experience of the amour of Paris within the mundane hustle of everyday life.
A longer tour of Restaurant Week may bring guests further up Main Street, to Shalimar. The restaurant is not boastful, but tasteful. The décor is simple, including traditional paintings of Rajasthan and other parts of Northern India that depict a life in luxury as it was in the ancient times. Scenes depicting women playing the game of dice or churning butter keep the walls alive without distracting from the meal ahead. The name Shalimar is taken from the gardens built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who also commissioned one of the world's most famous buildings, the Taj Mahal. It fits the concentrated cuisine from the Mughalai areas of India, where the center of the Mughal Empire once was.
The jolly manager Shivi Raj is truly enthusiastic and professional. As the courses make their way from the kitchen, Raj expresses sincere appreciation for his boss, restaurant owner Chef Jeet. “Everything created and developed in this kitchen comes from his genius," Raj said. "He starts with a strong base from his North Indian roots, but experiments and incorporates several influences from other parts of India, as well as the West.”
This is one of the most striking things about the restaurant. Most Indian cuisine attempts to please all corners of the land by including food from the North, South, East, and West of India, but tends to end up doing a shoddy job overall. Chef Jeet’s commitment to the mastery of his culinary craft has kept Shalimar from becoming one of these mediocrities. While he continually frequents 5-star Indian restaurants to sharpen his skills, he also explores different parts of India to master a specific dish to add to the menu periodically. He treats his food and his team with both care and discipline, and his years of wisdom translate into the food he puts on the table. The menu offers authentic Tandoori items, as well as spirits and wines to be paired with each course. Raj remarked with genuine nostalgia, “I have been to many restaurants, but I have not eaten food that reminds me this much of home anywhere else.”
He could not have been more right. The meal is softened by a spicy-sweet masala chai. Even those who do not like tea will appreciate this chai; it balances the deep notes of Darjeeling black tea with the sharp lift of cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and ginger, mellowed by a satiny milk finish. It is heaven for any native Indian, but it would be absolutely exotic to anyone who has never tried food from another culture. There is no better start to a meal.
In preparation for the entrée course, the appetizer is a warm tomato shorba, an Indian take on a classic tomato soup. It brings an unexpected zest to a Western comfort food, and slight creaminess keeps it flavorful.
Chef Jeet then sends out a round of dishes for the main course, accompanied by an unusual choice in bread and rice. While most restaurants, and often homes, would offer the leavened white flour naan with white basmati rice, these dishes are paired with flaky wheat parothas and jeera (cumin) rice with onions and peas. Almost two dishes on their own, these make for excellent partners to the incredible principle part.
The first of the dishes served is a dynamic kadai paneer, a dish made from reduced peppers and onions tossed with cubed cottage cheese. This kadai paneer is so excellently assembled that it's impossible not to savor every bite. Its two companions, navarathan korma, a name meaning "a blend of nine gems," for its nine vegetables, dried fruits, and nuts, and dal makhani, or lentils simmered in a cream gravy, are respectively savory-sweet and hearty. The array of appropriate spices and garlic is not overpowering and provided a gentle zing (pardon the oxymoron) to the whole course.
The finale to this spectacular cuisine is something the manager correctly guesses that most guests will enjoy immensely, no matter what their preference is regarding the dessert course. The last presentation is gulaab jamun, or fluffy fried rolls of cheese bathed in rose syrup. If time travel were possible, most guests would likely choose the moment this course was served to revisit.
The harmonious blending of spice, sugar, rich creams, and warmth make the food at Shalimar seamless from beginning to end. If there is ever a reason to leave Ann Arbor and visit a foreign country, even for a short while, it is the perfect place to go.
Restaurant week is an opportunity to become someone new, as cuisine has the power to create visions of longing, nostalgia, and satisfaction. It becomes the outlet for undergraduates to develop a taste for the finer things, and keep their pockets safe from running on empty. Will you join the rest of the city for a return to Main Street in June? In the meantime, channel Tom Haverford and “treat yo’self” to a fabulous meal at either Café Felix or Shalimar. You won’t regret it.
Café Felix (734) 662-8650
Monday-Thursday: 11am-12am, Friday: 11am-1am, Saturday-Sunday: 9am-1am
Shalimar (734) 663-1500
Lunch: 11:30am-3pm, Dinner: 5pm-10pm (11pm on Friday and Saturday)
Stay on the lookout for Shalimar's branch in the new Ross building, which will be open every Tuesday!
Photos by Gwen McKee