Jolly Pumpkin keeping things fresh and delicious
Each week, close to 3,500 people dine at Jolly Pumpkin Cafe & Brewery. Maggie Long, managing partner and chef, who has been with the restaurant since it opened, said she didn't have any expectations when it launched. But she's nonetheless pleased by its popularity.
"We just try to be better the next day than we were the day before. That's the magic of this place. You work really hard, treat people well and hopefully they come back and visit because they just want to be here," she says.
The restaurant seats 200 indoors, 16 at tables outside on the main floor and another 97 on a roof deck that was added two years ago. Sometimes restaurants that start out opening to rave reviews and early buzz have a difficult time maintaining the momentum. That cannot be said about Jolly Pumpkin, which I enjoyed immensely when it opened four years ago. It continues to turn out interesting and high-quality food.
311 S. Main St., Ann Arbor
- Hours: For main floor: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-midnight; Saturday, 10 a.m.-midnight; Sunday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Hours slightly differ for the upstairs bar and rooftop deck.
- Plastic: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover.
- Liquor: Full bar.
- Prices: Moderate. Many dishes are in the $12-$14 range.
- Noise level: Loud when busy.
- Wheelchair access: Yes, but on main floor only.
Known for its house-made ales, Jolly Pumpkin serves beer brewed at its production facility in Dexter. While 16 beers are offered on draft, roughly two dozen are available by the bottle. Servers are happy to give you a sample of any you choose.
I tried one of the seasonal beers, Baltic black: a dark brew with a rich, full taste. I also sampled one of the restaurant's enticing cocktails, the ginger Cosmo. Adding fresh ginger to simple syrup, Old Mission vodka, lime and cranberry juice made this a satisfying summer libation.
At some brewpubs, food is a modest accompaniment to the alcoholic beverages, but that is not the case with Jolly Pumpkin. American fare is the mainstay, with a variety of burgers, sandwiches, pizza and salads. Long has changed up the menu a few times. Most recently, she added a walleye po' boy and swapped the lower-selling three cheese and Mediterranean pizzas with a market pizza that allows her to make use of more seasonal offerings. She also now offers a spinach pizza.
Concerned she didn't have enough for those with dietary restrictions, Long added a topping for her seasonal fruit crisp that's now nut, gluten and dairy free and is also vegan. The menu isn't large, but what Jolly Pumpkin chooses to offer, it does well.
Every time I visit, I order the truffled french fries as an appetizer (they're also offered with many of the main dishes). Served in an artful cone-shaped container, these elevate fries from an accompaniment to a featured dish. Sprinkled with sea salt, they're thin and slightly crisp, and are made even better when dipped in the addicting rosemary aioli.
I'm impressed by the way Jolly Pumpkin pairs different types of exotic, healthful ingredients, making typically standard dishes special, and yielding mouth-watering results. One example of this is the red chicken nachos. Instead of the typical nacho which heaps cheese on tortilla chips, meat, vegetables and beans, this is a less rich—but no less satisfying —version. It pairs chile marinated chicken, pickled red onion, black beans, vella dry jack, aged cheddar, tomatillo salsa and sliced avocado with a cilantro garnish. My only complaint is that the chicken seemed to be in short supply and was lost among the other ingredients.
Margherita pizza was simple, yet first-rate. Oven dried tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil topped a fresh, spongy crust for a tasty dish. If you prefer a more hefty spread of tomato sauce doused with cheese, this may not please, but I thought it was very good.
The JP Burger takes the cheeseburger to a whole new level. Perfectly cooked meat was made even better by the addition of cambozola cheese, fresh crimini mushrooms and a generous piece of applewood smoked bacon. I also enjoyed the grilled chicken sandwich, where dried apricots, served on melted brie, added a sweetness to the moist chicken. The rosemary focaccia bread provided a flavorful foundation.
Even the traditional po' boy undergoes a makeover here, with a crispy, tempura-battered walleye as the featured fish instead of shrimp or catfish. Served with a vegetable chow-chow (a traditional southern pickled vegetable relish) and a chili-spiced mayonnaise that provided some kick, this sandwich was a winner.
Pumpkin whoopie pie was a twist on the popular dessert, substituting mini pumpkin cakes for the usual chocolate exterior. The pumpkin combined nicely with the creme anglaise for a sweet ending to our meal, and the frosting was thick and creamy. The only disappointment among everything we ordered was the vegan chocolate cake, which was dry, while the vegan chocolate coconut ice cream, served with it, lacked the texture of the real thing.
Though our server was cheerful, the place was very busy on a Saturday night, and we waited quite a while for our food. Still, if you're not in a hurry and happen to stop in at a busy time, the food is worth waiting for. Jolly Pumpkin continues to be one of my favorite restaurant destinations in Ann Arbor.
Julie Halpert reviews restaurants for AnnArbor.com.