"It's not much but it's ours"

Friday, October 12, 2007


So, after three colon bursting days in Chicago which finished, as all trips to Chicago should, I am told, with a “Burrito as big as your head” I am now sitting comfortably in den of my good friends, Gauri & Giri in Ann Arbor Michigan.

Why Ann Arbor? I know, apart from being the headquarters of Borders Bookstores and the home of The University of Michigan, it doesn’t readily cause a blip on the radar of most people.

That is, of course, unless you are a food freak, because then it has for many Americans, a status akin to Mecca. Not for its restaurants which are, on the whole, well really rather crappy, but as the home of Zingerman’s, a collective of businesses that circle around a now legendary and award winning deli founded by Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig in 1982.

I shall, as I have promised all to often before, be writing more about this on EAT MY GLOBE in due course (and when I have finished writing about Mongolia) as I have spent the last few days with Gauri, who escaped corporate serfdom to work at Zingerman’s some four years ago, touring around the associated businesses of the company trying to find what makes them tick.

Last night, supper at the Zingerman’s Roadhouse, a restaurant that offers “Really Good American Food” and even trumpets it from a brash neon sign above its entrance.

Unusually for our American friends, down home style cooking is something for which they often feel the need to apologise. Too many chefs in this country spend too much time trying to be French, Italian or Pan Asian and not enough trying to be American. Classic American dishes can be sensational. The crisp crunch of buttermilk fried chicken, potatoes smothered in thick gravy, baking of the highest order from coffee cakes to biscuits. It is, or can be, all good.

Zingerman’s Roadhouse predicates its offer on the concept that, if you take classic dishes, from good recipes and use the best ingredients then the end result is going to be pretty good too. As a result, Chef/Managing partner, Alex Young (born in Westbourne Grove, trivia fans) was recently nominated for The James Beard Foundation Award for “ Best Chef in The Great Lakes” losing out to Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea.

There is nothing fancy about the food. Large plates of good ingredients decently prepared. A shared BBQ plate included pulled pork in a Carolina vinegar sauce, brisket (which could have benefited from a little more fat) suitably sauce laden chicken and a mound of mashed potatoes with only the collard greens which were on the bitter side falling short.

Delicate it ain’t

Giri’s ribs were less of a success. As I found out at the recent American Royal, a good rib needs to have the meat able to be pulled from the bone with each bite but not fall off the rib too easily which indicates it is over cooked. The meat on these fell away a tad too easily to be winning any awards.

Another main course of Italian Sausage with macaroni confirmed most people’s prejudices about American food. Not that it didn’t taste good. It did, the sausage had a decent amount of spice and the macaroni was suitably al dente. It is the portion size. Quite frankly, for a person from the land of miserly British portion control, quite ludicrous. So much so that the doggy bag practically took two of us to carry it to the car.

The same with my chicken. The portion size that is, not the doggy bag, because there was little or no chance that any of this was not going to be eaten on site. Moist chicken in a buttermilk cornmeal coating which crumbled on the first bite. Good enough for me to stop yapping for a while and for me to almost totally ignore sides of a salad and mashed potatoes covered in that odd gloopy stuff Americans call gravy.

I would hesitatingly argue that, along with the chicken at Jaques-imo’s in NOLA, this is the best fried chicken I have tried and was probably worth the entrance fee on its own.

Puddings were another challenge with a pound cake being almost a pound of cake. Taken from an old recipe, it was as good a version as I have tried even if a few mouthfuls is enough unless Type II diabetes is a life goal of yours. Likewise gelato made from peanut butter and another from Argentinian Dulce De Leche both came in portions too big to contemplate finishing.

The wine list is small, well priced and well chosen and a Californian Sangiovese stood up well to the strong flavours. Much more so than the proceeding beers which, as always seem to be the way over this side of The Atlantic, were served just cold enough and gassy enough to kill any flavour.

People eat damn early in this part of the world and, by 9pm the place had gone from packed to the gunwhales to looking like the Marie Celeste. We got our bill, a not insubstantial $150 for three and headed out into the increasingly cold night wobbling under the weight of our stomachs and the doggy bag of sausage.

At the moment, America has plenty to hang its head in shame about. But, on this showing, its classic food and cooking, when done as well as this, is not one of them.

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