It is hard to believe that with the sheer number of times I’ve been to Ann Arbor – football and hockey games, interviews, art shows, concerts, shopping – I had never been to any of the establishments in the Zingerman’s empire. With a focus on fair business practices and all that is local/sustainable plus a Beard Award nominated chef I promised to rectify this situation on my most recent visit to Michigan…and rectify it I did, with visits to every single one of the Zingerman’s establishments during a particularly gluttonous day in Ann Arbor with my mother and aunt.
Arriving early in the breakfast service (7:30am) to the front steps of Zingerman’s Roadhouse we found ample parking and made our way into the restaurant after snapping a few pictures of the oyster shell garden and signature neon sign (featured on the website and formulated using antique glass and neon techniques from the 50s.) Greeted by a friendly young lady we were led almost instantaneously to a large four-top in the main dining room and presented with menus, a cheese list, and even a list of the daily oyster selection. Standing up after the server had walked away to snap some pictures of the kitschy interior the name “Roadhouse” certainly fit – from the collection of hundreds of salt and pepper shakers to the unique posters and knick-knacks found throughout the interior.
Settling back into my seat and ordering coffee – a thick, bold blend with heavy notes of cocoa and floral tones while my aunt opted for tea we perused the menu and discussed how best to sample a multitude of options amongst the three off us. Fielding questions was our pleasant server, Catherine, and after a few moments decisions were made and orders placed. I will note that Catherine was frequently present throughout the meal to check in on us and make sure beverages were filled – between her and the rest of the team there was never a moment where our glasses dropped below 1/3 empty.
Sitting and talking for a while before the food began to arrive it took quite some time before I noticed the benign soundtrack and despite the restaurant being approximately 1/2 full the tables were well enough spaced that the sounds from other tables went largely unheard. Perusing the cheese menu as well as some of the baking classes, lectures, and information regarding the other pieces of the Zingerman’s family we asked our waitress the best way route to the various shops and she gladly provided us a highlighted map. Moments later our food began to arrive and like the service it too was top notch.
Beginning first with the daily pastry basket we were provided with four items for a bargain $6.95. Featuring a steaming hot and crispy cinnamon donut fresh from the fryer, a large chunk of spicy gingerbread, and two types of coffee cake – hot chocolate and sour cream with walnuts – I found each item to be a nearly perfect version of its respective type. While my aunt didn’t fancy the donut as she felt it wasn’t fluffy enough I loved the cakelike texture of the interior as it contrasted to the cinnamon crisp exterior. The favorite of all three of us, however, was the hot cocoa coffee cake – a textbook dense and flavorful cake with hefty notes of smooth chocolate and a thin frosting that tasted like perfect drinking cocoa.
For our main courses my mother selected the “Grits & Eggs” - Stone ground grits topped with two fried eggs, Nueske's applewood smoked bacon and 2-year aged Vermont cheddar and was instantly overwhelmed by the portion the moment it was set before her. Requesting her eggs scrambled this was easily accomplished and although I didn’t sample the eggs, the bacon was remarkable both in firmness (not too crispy, but well done – smoked as opposed to pan fried) and texture – on par with the agave bacon at Frontera Grill. The most remarkable aspect of the dish, however, was the grits – hearty and toothsome, creamy yet sharply accented by the cheese, and plethoric in proportion.
For my aunt’s main course she selected the “Pain Perdu “Fasten” - A Bakehouse French baguette dipped in batter and fried then topped with fresh bananas mascerated in brown sugar and all I can say was that this could have easily doubled as dessert (as a matter of fact, with ice cream it did just that at NOLA in New Orleans.) Only mildly doughy on the interior and crispy with notes of cinnamon, vanilla, and brown sugar on the exterior my aunt loved her dish while I rather wished the bread had been a little more thoroughly soaked. Delicious for sure and substantial in portion the bananas were a liquor-less Foster’s style and complimented the bread nicely.
For my main course I decided on the “Roadhouse French Toast” a dish comprised of cinnamon raisin bread from the Bakehouse soaked through with vanilla bean batter and griddled. Served with a hefty portion of butter from the creamery and pure Michigan maple syrup this was invariably some of the best French Toast I’ve ever tasted – not too thick, not too heavy, toothsome yet delicate – and the combination of mildly grassy butter and thick maple syrup only acted to enhance the vanilla tones to a whole different level.
As an addition to our feast I opted to take a chance on the Biscuits & Chocolate-Bacon Gravy featuring "Gravy" made with bacon, cocoa and milk, served alongside house made buttermilk biscuits and after a single bite I knew I’d made the right decision. Sweet yet savory, salty yet bitter, buttery but texturally complex this dish is an absolute must order for anyone visiting Zingerman’s and currently ranks very high on my list of favorite dishes of 2010. While my aunt, an admitted “boring” eater, didn’t fancy the amalgam and my mother felt it was too decadent to eat much of I personally didn’t mind one bit as I gladly enjoyed both biscuits and every last drop of the wonderful topping.
Settling the modest bill and finishing what was likely my 6th cup of coffee we made our way to the car after a short chat with the hostess about our meal, their other locations, and small talk such as the weather. From start to finish I really can’t say enough about the food, service, or experience at Zingerman’s – and there is no doubt I will be back on my next visit to Michigan for lunch, brunch, or dinner.
Full but not overwhelmingly so (neither mom nor aunt finished their plates) we made our way to the car and set the GPS to the complex containing the Bakehouse, Creamery, Cake House, and Coffee Shop. Choosing to take the back streets as opposed to the highway as suggested by the GPS we weaved through some of the more expensive neighborhoods in Ann Arbor en route to the unexpected warehouse-esque district and found ourselves arriving in front of the Bakeshop shortly after 9am.
Making our way first into the bakeshop we were greeted by a friendly young man who offered us samples of chocolate and vanilla hand-cut marshmallows while we browsed the store. With an innumerable selection of breads, cakes, cookies, and pies we were told we could sample anything we liked and in the duration of our visit browsing books, cookware, and baked goods I did indeed sample a smooth and luxurious olive oil cake, a crispy ginger snap, a “magic” brownie that tasted much like the cocoa coffee cake. In addition to the samples we watched a class through the glass window as they learned to kneed bread and I picked up a hummingbird cupcake to go while my aunt elected to purchase a pretzel roll and my mother picked up a spoon for portioning out cookie dough. Consuming the cupcake later in the day I will note that the flavor was very traditional – hefty notes of banana, pineapple, and raisin with a delightfully light cream cheese frosting.
Moving next to the cakery, a studio of decadent and luxurious looking fondant cakes, and subsequently to the creamery where I tasted a smooth and grassy cheese entitled City Goat (and was offered at least 5 more samples of various cheeses by the helpful staff) we continued to be enthralled by the open access to watching so much of the processes at Zingerman’s – from draining aged cheeses to pulling mozzarella. Finally, making our way to the coffee house we watched (through enormous glass windows) the process of roasting beans, blending the coffees, bagging the finalized product before ordering a cup of a smooth and balanced estate blend from the friendly barista and picking up a modestly priced pound to go.
Heading away from the warehouse complex we next went and wandered the streets of Ann Arbor, stopping in at various stores along the way, before later visiting the oldest of the Zingerman’s establishment - Zingerman’s Deli – and the expanded seating of Zingerman’s Next Door. Entering the deli just before noon I will first note that parking is not readily available – as a matter of fact we circled the block thrice before finding an open meter. When we finally did park and make our way into the small deli we were quickly met with a large (and rapidly expanding) line snaking up to the deli counter. Making our way to the right on entry we soon found ourselves face to face with one of the largest olive oil and vinegar selections I’ve encountered in some time – complete with samples. Tasting a few olive oils and a fantastic raspberry vinegar we next made our way to the deli cases – each containing a vast variety of locally sourced meats as well as luxury imports such as Iberco ham, duck confit, and any number of unique chorizo sausages. A second set of cases contained both Zingerman’s collection of house-made cheeses as well as imports ranging from France to Italy to Spain and West Coast varieties including Humboldt Fog and others. Browsing the sandwich menu (and enormous portions) I understand the appeal of the deli and the hot/prepped foods looked equally delectable.
Making our way out we schlepped next door to, conveniently, Zingerman’s Next Door – essentially the bakery and dessert wing of the deli with additional seating for persons choosing to enjoy their sandwich indoors. Entering the large converted home we found a large collection of chocolates from Amadei, Vosges, Scharffen Berger, Valrhona as well as Zingerman’s Creamery Gelato and a number of bakery items not available at the bakeshop including samples of a smooth and creamy tiramisu and a large, fluffy almond croissant that I had to order despite being quite full.
Paying the modest tab we managed to find a seat and divided the croissant amongst the three of us...and after a single bite each I’m rather certain we all smiled and let out a sigh – what a fantastic croissant. Crisp and flaky exterior, soft and giving interior, crunchy almonds and lightly sweetened on the surface and with a pure almond compote spread thinly within – on par with Payard and Petrossian for best Almond Croissant yet to grace my palate.
When it was all said and done our trek across the Zingerman’s Empire entailed nearly 12 miles, 4.5 hours, and a minimum of 30 tastes – each unique yet somehow familiar, delectable, and served with a smile. From their business model to their execution there really isn’t much that can be said about Zingerman’s that hasn’t already been stated. Sure the prices are not bargain basement and the wait may be a bit longer than average, but what you get in exchange in unabashed quality, commitment, and a dedication to the community – with those things in mind, Zingerman’s is a bargain and an absolute gem for the city of Ann Arbor.