Not a week goes by lately that the New York Times, and now The Atlantic, doesn't have a big article on urban farming or local stone-ground flour or artisanal cheese-making. Farm-to-table dining is more popular than molecular gastronomy these days, as people make the amazing discovery that food with a known provenance may be even better than hot carrot foam.
It was really just a matter of time before Ann Arbor caught up to this nationwide movement with its own dedicated farm-to-table restaurant. And last week, Brandon Johns with the support of his family and a couple of partners, opened the new Grange Kitchen and Bar.
The Old Time Grange Movement
The choice for the name, Grange, is perfect. It recalls the era, starting in the 1870s, when Grange-member farmers banded together and organized against the discriminatory practices of the railroads, against low prices for their products, and against rising levels of indebtedness. Started in 1867 by Department of Agriculture employee Oliver Hudson Kelley to improve agricultural practices, The National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry existed originally for educational and social purposes. The financial panic and ensuing depression of 1873 (caused by bank failures resulting from unregulated growth with little government oversight) mobilized farmers to act politically and work collaboratively in what was (still is?) called the "Grange Movement."
Cooperative purchasing of equipment and collective storing of crops helped farmers save money. Pooling savings to avoid dependence on corrupt banks was an early form of the member-owned credit union. All this goes to show that hard times (like now, for example), have the potential to create a stronger social fabric.
The New Grange Movement
What may be surprising is that the grange movement is still alive. Have you been to a Preserving Traditions class at the local Pittsfield Grange lately? With the opening of the Grange Kitchen and Bar, and all that it represents about our little place in history, the time seems right for the grange movement to re-gain momentum.
With this in mind, I was pretty excited to be at the "friends and family" opening of the Grange Kitchen and Bar last Thursday - an event which led us to a dinner reservation for their opening night last Friday as well.
We are really lucky to have some great chefs in Ann Arbor, who have been fighting the corporate power and bringing locally grown and produced food into their kitchens - Janea Makowski of Carson's (although she recently took a job in Ohio, was an unsung heroine at the market every week), Rodger Bowser of Zingerman's Deli, Silvio Medoro of Silvio's Organic Pizza, folks at Arbor Brewing Company, and of course Alex Young of the Zingerman's Roadhouse. I could be mistaken, but Brandon Johns was the first chef in Ann Arbor that I observed putting the names of the farms he worked with up in his restaurant and on his menus. The first person we talked to at the party Thursday night, partner Liam Ayres, told us "Brandon is sincerely passionate about the community and about supporting local farms."
Farm-to-Table Dining in Ann Arbor
Knowing that Johns has been working at building relationships with farms and food producers in the area, I wasn't too surprised to see across the room Stephanie and Larry Doll of Back Forty Acres, with whom Johns has been working for over a year. The Dolls have been re-building the old family farm in Chelsea, bringing back free-range (and heritage) animals for meat. They grow chickens (Cornish Rock), pigs (Tamworth and standard white), turkeys (Spanish Black, Bourbon Red, Slate and Broad-breasted White), ducks (White Pekin), goat (Boer), lamb (Katahdin) and rabbit (New Zealand and Californian). They're currently supplying Grange with their ducks and chickens, and will be supplying other things too.
I got to ask them what it's like to work with a chef like Brandon Johns. They said when he comes out to the farm it's usually with his two daughters, Lily and Alice, ages 10 and 7. They say "He's been incredibly easy to work with, is flexible in understanding our constraints, and he really goes the extra mile." Since a big part of being able to bring locally grown food into a restaurant is flexibility about working with the changing seasons of what's available when, it's easy to see why that quality in Johns matters.
I was curious, too, about what it's like for their business to supply a restaurant. Larry's response was that "Working with the restaurant lets us be more flexible and stick our necks out a little." What I got out of that is that if they know they have a committed customer for their ducks, they have the security they need to try breeding some goats. Or to keep getting more (hard to find) ducks. That connection goes back to the ideals of the grange movement - helping each other lets them both walk a little closer to the line between risk and reward.
Later in the evening we got to meet Erika and John Aylward, owners of the Four Corners Creamery in Tecumseh. They're supplying Grange with their goat cheeses. I learned that the Aylwards will be having cheesemaking workshops, starting January through April, out of their Inn on Evans.
Another main supplier at Grange is Tantré Farm, the certified organic farm in Chelsea known mainly for its wildly successful CSA program, but also for the warmth and personality of owners Richard Andres and Deb Lentz. Johns looks to Tantré as one of the few (organic) produce growers in our area that is working at a scale that makes it possible to supply a restaurant.
A Meal at Grange
At dinner on Friday our server explained that Grange is working toward sourcing 90% of its food locally. Like all the staff we talked to, she was knowledgeable about what was being served, competent at her job, and extremely excited to be on the maiden voyage of this farm-to-table venture. As a small example, she knew that the bread on the table was from Detroit's Avalon Bakery and the butter from Calder Dairy in Carleton. Like her, each of the staff people we talked to made it clear that this wasn't just a regular 'grin and bear it' restaurant job to them. People seemed to be there because they care about food and about the sense of community that grows out of knowing where the food is from. That's a big difference in what I usually experience at a restaurant.
Sitting next to our table for four on Friday was the chef's family. I noticed the two daughters and their lovely mom were enjoying some of the same things we were - so I was happy that we had ordered the "Plate of radishes, butter, sea salt, crusty bread" and "Goat cheese stuffed squash blossoms, green tomato marmalade." Johns pointed out that the squash blossoms are briefly in season now and won't be here long. He says that the menu will change often, depending on what's available - and that things like asparagus won't be there in the winter time unless in pickled form.
Seeing Larry and Stephanie Doll across the dining room again on Friday, I wanted to try their chicken that I knew was on the menu: "Roasted chicken breast, crispy skin, bacon, green bean and potato sauté, grain mustard." The perfectly cooked chicken breast (from the Doll's Back Forty Acres), was served appropriately austerely with a savory mustard sauce under creamy fingerling potatoes and still-toothsome green beans. The simple preparation pointed up the magnificently crisped chicken skin, a rare treat which I adore, and the delicate flavor and texture of the free-range bird. A juicy and succulent chicken breast is a beautiful thing and needs no further fussifications. Why is it so hard to find chicken that tastes like chicken and has actual texture? I blame Tyson.
Even after what we'd already enjoyed (with generous, not gargantuan portions), I somehow manage to have saved room for one of the four fresh-baked desserts. The season of fresh fruit here in Michigan is so beautiful yet brief it makes you consider dessert options carefully. I couldn't resist a slice of gooey, crispy, buttery fresh apricot and raspberry tart - though the blueberry cake drifted with whipped cream and the warm peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream melting on top looked every bit as good. Fresh fruit desserts, with none of the tired creme brulée, chocolate mousse or tiramisu that appear on 90% of restaurant menus now? Thank you Grange!
There's lots more I could say about the food at Grange, the verging on obsessive theme of bacon (which I heartily applaud and which includes a delicious bacon-infused Manhattan with maple syrup, served with a house-brandied cherry), or the list of truly inspired seasonal cocktails that I can't wait to try and which deserves an investigation all of its own. I could talk about the cozy bar upstairs, its separate hours and menu. I could talk about how Johns is planning to be one of the chef/vendors for the HomeGrown Festival, how he graciously agreed to an interview for the Friday Mornings @SELMA podcast, how Slow Food Huron Valley will be holding an after-party at Grange following the September 3rd "Coming Home" event at the Michigan Theater.
And I could talk for a long time about ways in which what the Grange Kitchen and Bar is trying to do is probably 10 times more difficult than what any of the other Main Street restaurants are doing, for the same price and the same clientele. For example, instead of just having a couple of main suppliers that deliver and invoice regularly, working the farm-to-table model means dozens of relationships with small suppliers, developed over time, who often need to be paid immediately in cash. That takes time, energy, organization, and ready capital - all on a regular basis. And the restaurant business is hard enough, with generally razor-thin profit margins.
But everyone has different priorities when they go out for a special meal. For some it's the height and structural integrity of the entree. For most it's the perceived cost/value proposition. When I'm eating out at a restaurant, expensive or not, I'm hoping that it will be an overall experience of warmth and delight. It should be at least as warm and delightful as home, right? But all too often even at an expensive place, it's cold, generic, in and out, with food of questionable health implications and shadowy provenance that I could get in literally any town in this country.
One reason to be excited about Grange is - you can actually taste the food in a pure and simple way and feel good about what's in it and where it came from. That's delightful. But I'm also excited about it because, like a small handful of places around town now, Johns has demonstrated that it's personal, this is a place that matters to him and it's a place where he can feel good about feeding his daughters. He has a commitment to something more than just extracting cash from our wallets. And it's helping farms that grow food for us. Johns says he didn't expect how getting to know people who grow food would change the way he thinks and the way he cooks. I like that.
Monday through Saturday 5:00pm - 10:00pm
(Bar is open extended hours - until midnight I believe)
Starters: $7 - $12
Mains: $21 - $31
Bar menu: $5 - $18