Vellum: The Snazzy

There are so many high-class restaurants in Ann Arbor it’s sometimes hard to differentiate one from another.  So when upscale, American cuisine-focused, Vellum, joined Main St. in January, it didn’t seem a particularly novel addition. But Vellum, named after an archaic form of paper made from calfskin and occupying a building that was once a printing shop, isn’t going for new.  With its rough brick-stacked walls, antique typewriters, wrought iron railings and copper-pounded bar, it’s a kiss to nostalgia.

Photo by Shawn Quek

I say this, because it is clear that young owner and chef, Peter Roumanis, is a hopeless romantic.  He is the host of the dinner party and Vellum is his two-story Manhattan apartment.  One of the first things he told me was that he wants people to feel comfortable when they walk into Vellum, as if “you’re going into someone’s home.”  Peter explained that he didn’t want his food to be considered “elevated” cuisine, but rather “a pleasant discovery,” starting with a dish that people recognize but then making it the best they’ve ever had.

And there I was, at this classy dinner party, feeling rich but never underdressed or underappreciated.  With Peter, charmingly poetic and his knowledgeable, well-dressed, and equally charming staff, the wall between waiter and customer is virtually nonexistent.  I found myself on more than one occasion wishing that they would all stop running around for a bit and share a drink with me.

Typically with such an amusing environment, the food has to work hard to compete, but at Vellum, with its modern, yet elegant presentations and fresh, appreciable flavors the balance between the two is achieved.

Photo by Shawn Quek

The fresh oysters, cleanly shucked and topped with a potent shallot jam, were notable for their impudent freshness without any unpleasant taste of fish or sand.  They finished with tang from the jam and a cleanness that only encouraged more food.  In my opinion, they were the perfect amuse bouche.

Palate properly prepped, we were served two cold plate dishes: the beef tartar and the crab salad.  Although my photographer, Shawn, preferred the light, sweet crab salad, my entire attention was devoted to the beef.  Beef tartar does not always find a receptive audience due to it essentially being a raw beef salad.  But, if you've never had beef tartar before and are open to try it, I highly recommend Vellum to be your first stop.  The beef, tender and sliced to be as smooth as silk, is served in a black truffle dressing and coiled around a raw egg yolk.  The dish is garnished with fresh greens, mushrooms, slices of parmigiano-reggiano, thin crusts of bread and a spoonful of Dijon mustard.  It is important to note that no matter what you do, you must have all these components in every bite.  Don’t get me wrong, the beef alone is sensational, but together with the sweet pop of the mustard, the saltiness of the cheese, the crunch of the bread, and creaminess of the yolk, it is transformed from momentary to memorable.

Beef Tartar Photo by Shawn Quek

Eager for the next course, I found myself a little disappointed with the mushroom tart served with bright orange tomato sauce.  It was fine, but textually not my favorite.  The snack of fried beets were also good, but dense and a bit heavy for me.  Though, I chalk this up to the vegetable, not the preparation.  Maybe I’m just a meat-lover, but my favorite out of this set was the pork belly skewers- fatty, salty, and served on top of a cut of fried bread.

Vellum boasts an extensive, and apparently award-winning wine list, notable cocktail menu, and more-than reasonably priced happy hour – Monday-Thursday 4-7pm – where you can get small plates like the pork belly skewers and fried beets as well as discounted wines and $2 beers.  I’m not much of a red wine person, but the Aglianico del Vulture that was served with the mushroom tart and pork skewers was interesting and not unappealing.  A wine connoisseur may be able to give more approval to the wine selection, but I was thoroughly impressed by the softly tart elderflower lemonade, the earthy chocolate flavor of the African cocoa rooibos tea, and the deep, bitter fruit notes of the espresso, folded in its cup like black satin.

Photo by Shawn Quek

But as much as Vellum is fashionable enough to be a very profitable bar, it will have to be known for something else as well: its desserts.

Anyone who knows me a little knows that I love desserts so I will try not to be too biased in my description of Vellum’s.  Let me first say that I made a significant discovery this week.  Most decent restaurants serve dishes that can be considered good.  Some restaurants serve dishes that are so good you have to hit the person next to you to temper your excitement.  And some restaurants, though very, very few, through some magical combination of flavor, technique, and presentation, create dishes that you just can’t seem to get out of your head.

So what am I talking about?  Expertly styled on crisp white plates, we were presented with two dishes: the Madeleine and tea, and the chocolate and caramel.  Please bear in mind that these unimpressive names are purely for the ease of ordering and do not at all do the dishes justice.

The chocolate and caramel is a collection of chocolate items interlaced with a salted caramel mousse and garnished with abstract chocolate designs and points of caramel glass.  It sounds good already, but no matter how many words I pull out of the thesaurus, I will never be able to explain how good that caramel mousse is.  Yes, the chocolate components are good, but the mousse!  If I could, I would go there right now just for this dessert.  But if you haven’t had it, there is still hope for you.  Perhaps you will choose not to suffer my sweet misfortune.

Chocolate and Caramel Photo by Shawn Quek

And that brings us to the second dessert, the madeleine and tea.  Shawn and I again debated over which dessert was better and finally decided that it really depends on your mood.  If you want something comfortable, familiar, and oh so decadent, the chocolate caramel is the way to go.  But if you’re up for an adventure, if you feel like you want to try something that’s unlike anything you’ve tasted before, you have to go with the madeleine and tea.  At this point, I will also warn that part of the magic of this dish, at least for me was not really understanding what I was eating, so if you would like to keep this part of the mystery alive, I recommend skipping this next paragraph.

For those of you who don’t know, a madeleine is a French sponge cake, typically prepared in small shell-shaped pans and flavored with vanilla, almond, or lemon.  Vellum’s madeleine dessert is the strangest, most alluring dessert I’ve ever seen.  When it comes out all you see is a soft Earl gray tea foam, the flavor of which could not be more tastefully pronounced.  Underneath this cloud of foam is a madeleine cake, a scoop of madeleine-flavored ice cream, and additional texture from crunchy sea salt and molecular gastronomy-engineered honey gels.  I’m not going to tell you what it tastes like because quite honestly, that doesn’t seem like the important part of this dish.  The best part is the mystery, the confusion.  I actually had the manager, Matt, explain the dish twice because I just couldn’t figure it out.  I was intrigued.  As a foodie in this day and age, how often do we come across a dish that we can’t make heads or tails of?

I told Shawn upon leaving Vellum that I felt like the Queen of England.  I felt rich, intelligent, and perfectly satisfied.  It was not just the food, it was the atmosphere- intimate and romantically old-fashioned, expensive and contemporary.  It was a wonderful experience, and though it was also my own romanticism that helped to glorify the evening, I do not think it is possible to leave Vellum unhappy.  They won’t let you.

Photo by Shawn Quek