Big-city elegance and refined warmth at new Vellum restaurant
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A restaurant meal and experience can take so many forms. At one end of the spectrum, the mad dash for fried bits handed to you in the car from a drive-through window. At the other end, the leisurely intellectual consideration of gastronomic experience at a well-padded temple of pleasure and food. The opening of the beautiful Vellum restaurant, with its cardinal red facade on Main Street, has given Ann Arbor a sophisticated new destination to enjoy an evening out.
At Vellum, the former Full Moon pool hall has been completely, and elegantly, re-designed from the bare brick walls and studs out. The high-ceilinged space feels airy but warm, with dark bespoke wood, parchment colored walls, and leather banquette seating.
A 16-20 seat communal table fashioned from the thick plank flooring of the earlier space is a focal point of the downstairs dining room. Chef Peter Roumanis says the communal table is "a kind of social phenomena that really gets guests excited .although we were fully prepared to take it out if guests hadn't responded as they do in other cities like New York or Paris."
209 S. Main St., Ann Arbor
- Hours: Dinner: Daily 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Bar and lounge: Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m.
- Plastic: All
- Liquor: Full bar
- Prices: Moderately expensive. Entrees $14-$29
- Noise level: Moderate - good attempt at sound management here.
- Wheelchair access: Yes, downstairs only
Upon arrival, you face a phalanx of mostly young, hipster-attired waitstaff who will welcome you, check a coat, and seat you first in the "lounge" with bench seats and low tables looking out over Main Street. You'll be invited to order a drink as you catch your breath and take in the sleek bar and the elegantly understated dining room divided from the brightly-lit kitchen by a brick archway. If you peer straight back into the shiny glow of the kitchen, you will likely spot the young tousle-haired Chef Roumanis at his expediting station, where he can inspect each dish before it leaves the kitchen and simultaneously survey the diners at their tables.
Vellum, whose name is a reference to the print shop past of the 1800s-era building, is the brainchild of Roumanis, together with his father and partner, restaurateur John Roumanis. Although he is only 25, Peter Roumanis has been back in Ann Arbor for a year and half after stints at big-name places in Paris and New York, where he apprenticed in the kitchen (Taillevent) and developed training and hospitality for the front of the house (Del Posto). That experience, coupled with what he estimates at 30 restaurants that his father has opened, have given Roumanis pere et fils a vision for their joint venture.
Peter Roumanis says of his dream for Vellum, "In the traditional sense, as my old chef would say, fine dining is dead. But good food has never been more alive. It's not just older people who are interested — college students are talking to me about sweetbreads and the latest fried chicken recipe from David Chang and what umami means. It's pretty mind blowing.
"The ritual and pomp are dying, and that's a good thing. The goal of what this restaurant wants to do is deal with flavor profiles and ingredients that are pretty simple, humble and classic. And what we want to do is coax out as much flavor as we possibly could, and present them in a way that grabs people's attention."
Consider my attention grabbed. Although Roumanis says he tries to combine only three or four classic flavors on a plate and rejects the suggestion that there is a molecular gastronomy undercurrent here, a surprising number of foams, gels, crisps, pastes, powders and tiny tiny balls of carrot appear. Perhaps the raw ingredients are simple or humble, but consider what it takes to turn olive oil into a powder or yogurt into a round translucent crisp.
Roumanis' explanation is "total technique-driven food is not what I'm interested in. Flavor is king. If I can find a way to include flavor with technique, I'll definitely do it." With food that is working this hard intellectually and sensually, both analysis and enjoyment are natural responses.
When first addressing the large-format menu — which lists what appear to be familiar choices — questions about the chef's approach to technique and flavor are not immediately apparent. The front page of the newspaper-formatted document offers a brief a la carte selection at the top, and five- and seven-course tasting menus at the bottom (at $40 and $70). Small plates ($6-$13), pasta and risotto ($14 - $24), and meat-based main dishes ($14-$29) make up the bulk of the small, focused list. An extensive selection of wine, beer, and a few cocktails occupy a double page spread inside, and on the back page a cheese plate, sweets, coffee, tea, and postprandial wines and spirits.
Many of the small-plate starters are wonderfully delicious. For example, a simple green salad, each leaf lightly glazed with vinaigrette; a deconstructed mushroom tart with a meltingly tender pastry crust perched over tiny seared whole mushrooms; a lovely silken carrot-parsnip soup, sweet with gingerbread spices poured into an artfully prepared bowl squiggled with nitrogen-frozen herb crema and scattered with tiny perfect carrot marbles. Except for the nitrogen and carrot balls, it's all recognizable and nothing too technical.
But then there's the poached egg, described on the menu only as "poached egg, celery root, dates, cider vinegar " This dish turns out to be a whole egg custardized in a sous-vide bath at 145 degrees for 45 minutes, nestled together with celeriac puree and dates, hiding under a crisp lucent round of brik dough that is dotted like a Marc Jacobs handbag with date puree and dusted with vinegar powder. Cracking the round crisp cover of the dish is necessary but feels somehow transgressive, spoiling the perfect composition and revealing what is underneath: a very interesting meld of creamy textures, earthy flavors, sharp and sweet counterpoints from the vinegar and dates, and the crunch of the broken lid. Roumanis describes his poached egg as "the simplest thing ever," and says he is shocked that this most experimental item is also the most popular on his menu.
I enjoyed this dish in part because I find the element of surprise at a restaurant to be hugely enjoyable. But we experienced a number of unexpectedly pleasant niceties of service along with items on the plate that were out of the ordinary.
Moving down the menu, I would categorize the food as falling into categories of: wonderful, delicious, and a little weird. Highlights included the hand-made agnolotti pasta. These toothsome little envelopes are yellow with egg yolk and posted with sweet potato and chestnut inside, bits of dried plums (aka prunes), amaretti crumbs and fried sage interspersed.
The "smooth potatoes" are satin-rich and shiny with butter, cream, and more butter. They are brought to the table in an individual cast-iron cocotte that catches the tines of your fork and deprives you of the last buttery bits. It would appear that Roumanis subscribes to Julia Child's famous dictum, "If you're afraid of butter, use cream.” Except he's not afraid of butter (which, in fact, they make themselves to get the right color and flavor and so they can add a particular sea salt).
The deliciously (over?)wrought cherry tart is a disk of shortbread pastry supporting a caramel-stout ice cream nest with a clutch of macerated sour cherries in the middle. The ice cream is surrounded by tiny pink peaks of cherry and white chocolate ganache with a crisp halo spun from sugar and yogurt resting on top. A quenelle of rich and nut-buttery Sicilian pistachio ice cream is a disconnected sidecar off on its own.
At the other end of Vellum food experience, either my own thinking and taste have not adequately evolved to understand them or some dishes need additional work. The artisan cheese plate in particular was puzzling. For this dish, broken chunks of crystallized caramel-y aged gouda are paired with a strange, pale green and pillowy "herbed sponge bread." I'm still not sure what this was about.
The Proustian meditation of the Madeleine and tea dessert is tasty, with hidden honey cream, lemon jelly and a soft pouf of Madeleine — if only you can get mentally past the unfortunate resemblance that the dusky Earl Gray (sic) foam creates mounded in its white bowl. Perhaps it's a comment on a different kind of remembrance of things past?
Still, for the most part, everything we tried at Vellum was delicious, if not consistently perfect. I want to emphasize that the imperfections I observed were mostly a matter of degree for someone who happened to be looking for them. For example, the poached white chicken breast against a stunning black trumpet mushroom sauce was under-salted and under-heated to my taste, but the tiny glazed vegetables with it were straight out of an artwork.
The lamb shoulder, which Roumanis says is sourced from Elysian Fields, was full of flavor but a bit too chewy. The pork shoulder was intricately cooked, shredded and re-formed, but a bit dry. The risotto had a wonderfully umami savor from its creamy marrow-enriched sauce, but the rice was slightly grainy rather than al dente.
Still, Vellum succeeds in so many ways that it would be a mistake to see these as anything but hiccups. The game terrine with its cherry gelee, the sous-vide salmon with its stripes of sweet pepper and nutty barley, the perfectly cooked ribeye with a meaty demi-glace poured on at the last moment, the tender brisket with its tiny quartet of regional barbecue sauces, the flaky walleye with its fluffy brandade, the rich chestnut cake with its shiny chocolate ganache are all things I would gladly order again.
In addition, the level of hospitality alone would compel me toward returning. From the moment we arrived the staff seemed genuinely concerned with our comfort and experience, watching to see and anticipating when we would need something next. On our first visit we didn't order wine with our food, but the sommelier sent small complimentary tastes of wine to our table, individually paired with each of our entrees — which everyone thought was genius.
Water glasses were constantly re-filled. Each course was well-timed for maximum enjoyment of the food and the conversation. And house-made macarons and orange-infused chocolates are sent for guests at the conclusion of the meal.
And as with other aspects of the attention to detail, the tea and coffee offerings are not afterthoughts, they are "programs." The "coffee program" includes coffees from three well-known roasters — including Counter Culture. They have an experienced staff person who is devoted to choosing, preparing and serving their coffee and espresso drinks (which are excellent). Several of the teas come from our local TeaHaus and the "warm fruit and almond tea" was like a fresh berry pie in tea form. I loved it.
A warm welcome to a beautiful space, delicious drinks, an excellent meal, fine service, and a sweet and sophisticated ending make for a wonderful evening out in my book. Open barely a month, I'd say Vellum is showing a very strong start.
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.