There comes a time when comfort food loses a bit of its magic. For the foodies, this moment is followed by a craving for something new, exciting, and unusual, a desire for the fulfillment of a fantasy. We want to see something we have never seen before, we want to be impressed. My first experience at Vinology on South Main was like sitting across from a gorgeous neurosurgeon on a blind date. Intimidating, yet invigorating.
A customer sitting at the table behind me commented to head chef Jim Leonardo that Vinology was his “favorite restaurant in the area.” It is easy to see the appeal. The wine list is extensive, every dish is photo-worthy, and the elegantly decorated private rooms are perfect for hosting both intimate parties and large-scale events. The walls expose original brick and an antique bicycle hangs in the main dining area. With the addition of the modern artwork, the posh dining rooms, and individual wine lockers, the place is reminiscent of a swanky New York City bar. The high prices, lists of rare and foreign wines, and occasionally unpronounceable menu selections, only add to the effect.
The intimidation element seems to thread its way through the food, décor, and wine. Everything seems so complex and exotic, but the owner, Kristin Jonna and her staff do their best to keep things within reach. The multiple menus can be overwhelming but the wait staff, managers, and Chef Leonardo are always milling around happy to answer questions and offer their expertise on the dishes and proper wine pairings. Jonna's goal is not to give people what they know, but to teach them about what they don’t. Educating people in food and wine is a large part of the social scene at Vinology. The restaurant even offers cooking classes and demonstrations, as well as regularly scheduled wine-tastings.
Although the restaurant is primarily considered a wine bar, the owners believe that one of the beauties of wine is its ability to enhance the experience of food. General Manager Vinny Jonna describes the food as “wine-friendly, world cuisine” and stresses the diversity of the menus. “[Vinology] opens the box to everything that’s out there,” he explained. It is natural to be suspicious of places that claim to “do it all,” but the promise is intriguing.
The evening started with a glass of wine, Mascato d’Asti, light, sweet, and wonderfully crisp. But my knowledge of wine stops when I run out of adjectives, so if you are interested in wine, I highly recommend exploring the cellars of Vinology yourself while I check out a few of the wine tastings and try to expand my vocabulary.
The food at Vinology is not comfort food. The restaurant does offer a more approachable and reasonably priced lunch menu which includes gourmet burgers and shrimp and grits, but in general the food is artistic, sculptural, and purposely inaccessible. This is to say that it would be very difficult to recreate the works of art that Chef Leonardo sends out of the kitchen. When I spoke with the chef more directly about his food, he stated that they put a great deal of effort into both the presentation and the balance of flavors. Most of the dishes are plays on popular recipes taken to the next level. The purpose of the food here is not to be within reach, it’s to be something that you can’t get anywhere else. Judging by the unrecognizable column of Caesar salad I sampled, I would have to say that Vinology is accomplishing its goal.
The first dish I had was the Crab Napoleon, a take on the traditional Chinese dish, crab rangoon. True to the structure of a napoleon, large chunks of fresh crabmeat tossed with a soy-flavored cream cheese are sandwiched between squares of fried wonton and stacked into a loose tower. Never before have I had crab rangoon with that much fresh crab. It was delicious, and by far my favorite appetizer.
The chicken liver arrancini, though I’ve found myself referring to it as a croquette, is not as architecturally designed, but the flavors continue to follow the general theme of the restaurant. The filling of the arrancini is like a chicken liver risotto. Though I found the breading of the arrancini a bit thick and the filling to be textually cloying, the prosciutto salad and frozen grapes vinaigrette served alongside it was delicious. I had the dish with red wine, alternating between the two presented to me, a pinot noir and a forchini cabernet. The wine brought out the fattiness of the pork and its acidity along with the sweet vinaigrette helped to cut the rich liver flavor. My only regret was not having more of that vinaigrette. It was fantastic.
The main course section of the menu is a degustation menu, meaning that all of the entrees can be ordered as half portions. Its purpose is to allow people to try more dishes and play with the combinations of different foods with different wines.
The first entrée was the black garlic monkfish. When Chef Leonardo explained the other components of the dish to me, I was a bit taken back: blue cheese alfredo, braised cabbage, and a duo of sauces, one horseradish, one concord grape. I approached the dish with an open mind but the combination of ingredients didn’t work for me. The balance of flavors for this dish may be more connected to personal preference than a universal palate. Each component was good on its own but I found it hard to enjoy all of them together.
The braised veal belly was easily the closest thing to comfort food I had that evening. The meat, stacked in a leaning tower, is served surrounded by sautéed mushrooms and peas, potato puree, and a parsley sauce. It was the perfect cold weather meal, though a few of the pieces of meat were tough, despite the promise of braised veal belly.
Finally, the dessert arrived, a mound of passion fruit mousse held in place by sliced lady fingers. On top were a few shaving of passion fruit granita and at its place sat a disk of basil gelée. It is a simple dessert in theory. The delicate floral taste of the basil gelée and the tartness of the granite were the stars of the dish. Once I ran out of these components however, the mousse itself was a single note of sweetness. But the dish went perfectly with the end of my Mascato. I’d recommend that pairing.
Overall, the food is gorgeous and delicious, but in that order. The proportions of each dish’s components are occasionally sacrificed in favor of presentation, resulting in dishes that are balanced in flavor but not always in their actual consumption.
Final Recommendation: Vinology is a place to go if you are looking for something out of the ordinary. The food and wine menus can seemingly satisfy anyone with their sheer diversity and the dishes that come out of the kitchen are breath-taking. But Vinology represents more than just eating and drinking. It is a chance to expand your culinary education and figure out what the term “full-bodied” really means. It is the opportunity to live the high life for a day, to get dressed up, go out with friends, and be amazed by something as simple as a Caesar salad. It’s a place to satisfy your craving for culture when the rest of the world gets a little too comfortable.
If you would like to learn more about Vinology, here is some basic contact information:
110 South Main Steet
Ann Arbor, MI 48104