It’s not exactly a surprise to find a locally supplied restaurant in Ann Arbor. Many boast locally purchased meats and farmers’ market produce. But Grange Kitchen and Bar, a farm-to-table restaurant on W. Liberty, extends this philosophy a little further. Chef and owner Brandon Johns opened Grange as the fulfillment of a desire to cook his own style of food. Chef Johns states that he likes to use local, in-season products for no other reason than he believes they taste better. He argues, quite persuasively, that what we cook should be in line with what is naturally available. Of course, not everything in a restaurant’s kitchen can be bought locally, but in summer months 90% of the ingredients are local and in winter, 70%. The restaurant has ties with many local farms and suppliers, including: Eat Local, Eat Natural, Tantré Farms, and Calder Dairy. “I like buying from people I know,” says Chef Johns. “It’s a whole community that most people don’t have.”
The question of course is how a menu can be shaped around the constant variations of locally supplied products. And it’s certainly not without its challenges. The menu at Grange changes frequently with the ingredients available. To get around the constraints of the less fruitful seasons, Chef Johns pre-makes and freezes sauces, pickles various ingredients, and find creative ways to use lesser known or lesser consumed foods like wheat berries and pumpkin. The restaurant also supports a “whole animal” approach to cooking meat, meaning that they purchase and use the whole animal, preparing dishes like duck liver mousse and fried pig’s head. Although, the restaurant has seen more than one walk-out after customers saw such selections on the menu, Chef Johns is rightly unapologetic. “You should know where your food comes from. If you know where it comes from, you know how serious it is. [Using the whole animal] is a borderline necessity.”
Most admirably, perhaps, is the cooking style that Chef Johns brings to his food. The dishes are not fancy, complicated, or highly technical. “We cook what tastes good,” says Johns. It is a down-to-earth approach - simple, straightforward, delicious. As much as Grange is a high-end restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor, it is just as much a small home kitchen on a farm in northern Michigan.
That is not to say, however, that everyone can make what Chef Johns presents on his menu.
The first dish we were served was a bread plate with cured duck breast, country pork terrine, lamb salami, duck rillettes, duck liver mousse, and a few colorful pickles. The range of textures and flavors was impressive. The cured duck breast, reminiscent of a dry, ruby red prosciutto complete with a ribbon of white fat, was rich and salty. The pork terrine, held together with a cut of bacon, was fatty and a bit smoky. The lamb salami was nicely sweet, the duck rillettes dense and savory, the mousse silky and gamey, the pickles acidic and bold. Along with thick triangles of charred toast, it was a pleasant way to start a meal.
The next dish, more easily determined, was a risotto of wheat berries topped with roasted Brussels spouts, carrots, pumpkin, turnips, and cheddar cheese. Having never had wheat berries before, I found their puffed, slightly chewy texture fascinating. As simple as the dish was in theory, it was impressive in its ability to take usually less than delectable ingredients (i.e. Brussels sprouts, turnips) and just by getting them fresh and applying the correct technique, turn them into to something surprisingly addicting.
But, the favorite dish was the roast duck with spiced squash and quince puree. Perhaps it was its holiday reminiscence, but the sweetness of the spice paired perfectly with that tender, pink duck with its crisped skin. The balance of flavor was all there, the fatty duck, the deep, warm spice of the squash, and the apple-sweetness of the quince.
As college student however, it would be unfair of me not to mention the fact that Grange is rather expensive. Its prices are comparable to other restaurants in the Main Street area, but with entrees ranging in the twenties, it’s probably not the place you want to swing by for a quick snack between exams. Having said that, it’s still worth it.
There is something about eating at Grange that makes this simplicity not only comforting but rather romantic. The idea of farm-to-table cooking, of using all part of the animal, of knowing where your food comes from, is a concept that most restaurants consider unimportant. Yet, it is this connection to and the understanding of the food put in front of you that makes you appreciate it in a new way. At times this kind of deep understanding seems reserved only for the chefs, but Grange strives to break down the barrier between dining out and eating in. Every day at the restaurants presents a sort of challenge. What ingredients are available? What can be done with them? What’s going to taste good? Because of this constant uncertainty, there is no perfection and no stability. No two meals will ever be the same and you'll never be able to order "the usual." But that's the fun of cooking and the joy of eating. Why seek perfect certainty when it’s the unknown and undiscovered that’s always so intriguing?