Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Ann Arbor (July 2011)

The early wake-up and underwhelming dinner the previous night left me feeling peckish when my flight touched down in Detroit. Not two minutes after I made my way outside, Laura pulled up to the curb and as if she was reading my mind, suggested lunch at the Roadhouse. It had been over ten months since my last meal there, and I was craving hearty comfort food.

We decided to create our own little three-course meal and made it clear that we didn’t want all of the food delivered at once. To start, Laura suggested Hood Canal oysters, which we finished with a dollop of horseradish and a squeeze of lemon. Laura gave me a short description of Washington oysters and explained that the Hood Canal variety should be firm with a bit of a chew to them. These were tenderer than I expected and really quite good.

On to the first course. We were treated to what I thought to be a faultless buttermilk fried chicken with a mustard-based slaw. It’s a dish that is really all about the strength of simple pleasures. As for the BBQ pulled pork with mash potatoes and braised collards, the flavor fell flatter than a pancake. I guess I expected a salty, viscous sauce, but instead all one could taste was gradations of acidity. Laura, an experienced pulled pork preparer, chalked it up to a heavy hand with apple cider vinegar. The side order of rigatoni-based macaroni and cheese is really about all one can eat before self-loathing sets in.

Moving on to the penultimate course, this is where it got interesting. Zingerman’s Roadhouse and its chef Alex Young are James Beard award winners. Surely they know how to cook a burger medium rare, right? No, I’m afraid not. The first attempt was painfully overcooked. As our embarrassed server whisked the burger back to the kitchen, we nibbled on what Laura referred to as sweet potato “daggers” and enjoyed the well-cooked catfish po’ boy topped with a roasted red pepper relish. The side of grits with Vermont cheddar is creamy while remaining toothsome, but like the macaroni and cheese, after a couple of bites, one is forced to concede defeat. Attempt two at cooking a burger to a lightish pink, alas, ended much like attempt one. With an ancillary server standing over my shoulder with anticipation, I cut down the center of the patty to reveal, once more, an anemically gray interior. At this point, I was expecting to hear Laura’s idiosyncratic “oh, no,” but I think we were both dumbstruck. When our primary server came back to check on us, she was incredibly apologetic and insisted we allow the kitchen to try a third time. Laura and I were both rooting for the kitchen to get it right and acceded. As politely as possible, I told the server, “I think the problem is melting the cheese under a salamander,” which she seemed to find plausible.

With both of us approaching satiation, we ordered lighter desserts, and to my surprise they were prepared with remarkable finesse. The scoops of vanilla and chocolate-strawberry-balsamic ice cream were devoid of any ice crystals, and the chilled espresso mousse had an airiness that one doesn’t usually associate with Zingerman’s food. Midway through dessert, our server brought out a third burger, this time with American cheese, and cooked closer to medium, verging on medium well, but we said it was perfect and allowed her to put it in a to-go box. After settling the modest tab, we departed, full and with dinner in hand.

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