(multiple visits, last in May, 2005)
When Ari Weinzweig decided to open the Roadhouse edition of the methodically expanding Zingerman’s “full-flavored” demi-empire in 2003, American “road food” stepped up a notch. At this awkwardly situated corner where Huron Street turns into Jackson Street crossed by Maple-almost-Stadium Street in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the always-friendly, knowledgeable and upbeat Zingerman’s-trained staff dish up some great comfort food made of high-end ingredients.
Here, the meats, from the pork chop to the braised beef brisket, are from Niman Ranch ($19). Poultry, of course, is free-ranged raised (fried or grilled, $19). Macaroni and cheeses aren’t your run of the mill American (or God forbid, out-of-the box powder plus milk and butter) cheese, Zingerman’s ladles out a hearty bowlful of noodles with Vella Jack or its own aged Vermont Cheddar ($12.50 – $16). Same with the grilled cheese sandwich – diner’s choice of one of the restaurant’s plentiful selection of “American Artisan Cheeses” slapped between none other than Zingerman’s Bakehouse bread with some tomatoes ($9.50). They also have a wonderful selection of fishes, which has expanded considerably since my first visit in February of 2004. Their mussels, when they have them, are from P.E.I. and scallops are from Georges Bank ($26). And so it goes…
The result? If you’ve been reading between the parentheses, you might have guessed that the biggest potential flaw of a Zingerman’s restaurant is “full-flavored” food at equally “full” prices. If you’ve visited the famous Deli, then you’ll know that the comestibles these people peddle ain’t cheap. However, whereas at the Deli, I can buy quality cooking ingredients that I can dispose at my discretion, here, the food is prepared for you – good or bad, that’s what you get for what you pay.
It’s not just the price alone that gets me down about this place. I’ve been known to drop heavy chucks of change on “full-flavored” comfort food without mention. Despite the description, the Roadhouse’s food isn’t that flavorful. I have visited three times over the past year-and-a-half and have been disappointed every time.
The best things I’ve tried at the Roadhouse, besides their bread, have been from their appetizer list. A generous bowl full of plump shell-in-mussels sautéed with onions, diced tomatoes and herbs finished off with white wine and a fine heal of bread could be a satisfying meal in itself. The “real chesapeake bay crab cakes,” on the other hand, give a new meaning to the old beer advert, “tastes great, less filling” ($9.50). The tasty patties aren’t packed with a lot of filling but their diminutive size doesn’t allow for much “lump meat” either.
Their salads have been consistently disappointing. While pricy, they are generous on the cheese. Expect your salads over-dressed with oil – even when you request the dressing on the side. The “warm spinach and wild mushroom salad” would be terribly bland if it weren’t for the golden morsels of aged Quebec cheddar cheese nestled between the over oily mess of greens, sautéed mushrooms, and surprisingly muted diced roasted red peppers and leeks ($9.50). The “arugula and baby oak salad” $9.50 should have been named “goat cheese.” A few gem roasted beets might make their way onto your plate if you’re lucky – between the few leaves of lettuce.
To be sure, entrée portions run on the generous side. Every meat comes with a hefty side of starch. The greens are good, but sadly, seem to figure as mere garnishes. Now, I know that this is how roadhouse food is served, but realistically, even though the restaurant’s within earshot of I-94, you’re not going to find any big truckers eating here. Not only do these fried, pulled, heavily breaded, and encrusted proteins laden with sauces or cheese cost your wallet, they probably take a number of years off your life.
You’re probably better off sharing an entrée with your dinner mate(s) if you can agree on a dish. On one visit, two of my dinner guests did just that – sharing the fiscally friendly “blue plate special” of the day (an affordable rotating option offered Sundays through Fridays). We visited on a Thursday, which features “Barbeque & Blues,” a platter of “Eastern North Carolina pulled pork and barbeque beef brisket, and Roadhouse BBQ free-range chicken wings.” The dish is served with a (nominal) side of greens and (generous) mound of mashed potatoes. ($12.95).
If you feel you’ve got a bigger appetite, you’ll be delighted with the large choice of entrees. Everything I have had and seen have been very fresh cuts, be it from the ocean, or from the ranch. Tuna steak comes beautifully seared-to-order – mine, of course, barely touched by heat: two slightly charred sides with a thick slab of deep red running through the center ($28). A generous fillet of halibut arrives with a beautiful oven-finished crust ($27). Sandwiches, as well, come in more-than-you-should-eat-at-once portions and are served with french fries or chips and a pickle. While pricey, they are a relatively good buy – ranging from the simple “roadhouse burger” ($9.95) to the “bacon & blue” ($13.50) with Nueske’s bacon and point reyes blue cheese. They also have vegetarian friendly options like a “black bean and hominy burger” ($11.00) and the wild mushroom & green chile enchiladas ($17.50).
Desserts, Zingerman’s does well – or at least with a lot of gusto. If you’ve got room left over for dessert, there’s plenty to tantelize the sweet-tooth in you. Generous cuts of cake – like their “hummingbird,” large squares of buttery and rich brownies served with gelato, or their new “doughnut sundae” average around $7. I’ve only had one thing for dessert – and both times, I have been disappointed (I skipped dessert the on the third visit). As you know, I’m a gelato fiend.
Zingerman’s may make cake, pies and brownies very well, but gelato (made fresh at Zingerman’s Creamery), they don’t. They do offer very creative and flavorful choices, like a stellar cajeta (sweet goat milk and caramel), betwitchingly dark espresso, strawberry, and vanilla bean. However, the gelatos are served (you get to choose three) too cold, defeating the very essence and pleasure of the traditionally creamy frozen delight. Like many restaurants that claim to serve “gelato,” Zingerman’s dishes up rock-hard scoops that are much more like ice cream. Also, the richness of the gelato, even at the rock-hard frozen stage, makes me wonder if they’re using cream instead of whole milk. (Personal gripe: they started mixing the chocolate with the coconut – what sounds like a great combo, you often get much more of one than the other – if they are going to start mixing flavors, they need to learn how to incorporate them more thoroughly).
If there’s one thing I can always compliment Zingerman’s on, it’s the service. From the moment you walk in to the moment you roll (or are wheeled) out, you’ll be surrounded by unnaturally, but not overwhelmingly, happy waitstaff. You’ll often see Ari Weinzweig, the owner, standing at the pass (open window where food is “passed” from the kitchen to the waiters) and serving customers.
Atmosphere is “roadhousey” – if there is such a genre. The place is LOUD and space is small – especially in the bar room and the “cozy” room to the right of the reception. The bigger room in the back (the one that opens out onto the patio) is much more suited to my preferences – generous booths and wide tables (meant for larger parties) and generally lower decibels.
If you’re a fan of Zingerman’s, or an out of towner, I say the Roadhouse is worth a try. But for locals, I can see how one (even if you are a fan of the Deli and the company), could tire of the pricey, loud and inconsistent experience.
Zingerman’s Roadhouse **
2501 Jackson Road
Ann Arbor, Michigan
– Miserable: What else do you want to know?
* Okay: Go there if you want edible food, you won’t die, but disappointment is possible.
** Decent: Average food. Nothing to write home about.
*** Good: Memorable. Quality food and service. Would measure up to most standards…
**** Outstanding: Charmed. A jewel of a find and hard to beat.
***** Excellent: Flawless. Seamless, ie. must be very finicky to find something wrong…
****** Speechless: ‘nough said.