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Posted on Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 10:46 a.m.

Upscale, modernist cuisine of the Americas at Lena

By Kim Bayer

There's a new girl in town since Aug. 30, and her name is Lena. Though feminists might object if they knew the origin of the name, as a restaurant it's the first feminine presence I remember on Main Street since Alexandra's.

After an extensive renovation of the old Parthenon Greek eatery at the corner of Main and Liberty, Lena has opened with a concept that General Manager John Sleamon says is "a kind of a casual, upscale feel, with food that is very delicate and cocktails that are really fresh and intricate. Like something you would find in Chicago, or New York."

The retro-modern feel of the renovated space is appealing and dramatically different from the diner it replaces, although it's also loud (which Sleamon says they're working on). Things that caught my eye include the new "Cunningham green" color (a nod to historic origins of the deco building), the dramatic lettering of the Gotham-style LENA sign uplighted against a dark sky, a floating fireplace as you enter, loft-high ceilings and distressed brick walls along with a sleek bar and an open kitchen in back.

I found the warmth and general helpfulness of the welcome at Lena to be exemplary when we were there for a recent dinner. There was no problem seating us in one of the luxe booths that line one side of the space. Reminiscent of an ocean liner, these romantic cubbies are swathed in white leather, framed in dark wood and feature Herman Miller spaceship lamps illuminating the portholes in between.


226 S. Main, Ann Arbor
  • Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 11 a.m. - midnight; Sunday noon-10 p.m.
  • Plastic: Visa, Mastercard
  • Liquor: Full bar
  • Prices: Dinner entrees $18-$34
  • Noise level: Loud
  • Wheelchair access: Yes
According to our server, the new chef, Gabriel Vera, is from Ecuador but trained in "classical French and Italian cuisine." Truly a world citizen, when I called to talk with Chef Vera I learned that he was in Germany competing for Team Michigan in the Culinary Olympics — and he ended up returning with a bronze medal.

Sleamon described the menu as "taking all the Americas together and spinning it around into unique dishes and adding a little Latin American to them." He also said, "We try to source locally as much as possible," though specifics were hard to come by.

They are meeting a high bar with their cocktails. I was impressed with the special care that they take to use fresh juices and infusions that they make on the premises, and with their interesting ice cubes. I ordered a mojito just so I could try the spherical cubes of lime juice and mint that they say are designed to avoid diluting the drink. It was probably the best mojito I've had, with amped-up lime that I loved and a nice balance of mint.

My husband got the hot pepper peach margarita, which features a large ball of frozen peach puree. Served with a jalapeno astride the glass, the sunset-colored margarita was also wonderfully balanced with sweet fruit and housemade sours, and more than a hint of tingling heat.

The menu is divided into small plates, platters, soups, greens and main plates, with their beverage selection and desserts on the reverse side. As soon as we had ordered, we were treated to a fruit terrine amuse bouche. This jiggly slice of fruit jelly was paired with spicy arugula and a creamy dressing. I loved the concept, but it tasted like the terrine may have been too long in the cooler, and it was hard to tell what fruit was used.

The influence of Ecuador on the dinner menu is apparent with the emphasis on fresh fruit, and items like ceviche, yuca, plantains, empanadas, and corvina. Sleamon says they have included dishes that the chef's mom and grandma used to make, like the humitas served among the "small plates." These delicate little corn cakes are like a cross between a tamale and a soufflé — filled with melted Chihuahua cheese, and served with a tomato-based sauce on top. They were savory and delicious.

We also tried both the charcuterie and the charred vegetable "platters." The charcuterie involving rolled-up cigars of pink Serrano ham, triangles of nutty Manchego cheese, roasted macadamias and chunks of cantaloup melon. The charred vegetable platter offered expertly grill-striped summer squash, roasted red pepper and asparagus sprinkled with garbanzos along with their version of "chimichurri," a white, yogurt-based sauce that is quite different from other chimichurris I've had. Both platters came with generous slices of grilled bread scattered on top.

Usually when I see a roasted beet salad on the menu I need to order it, but the compressed watermelon salad was too intriguing to ignore. Our server said that the watermelon is "dehydrated" so that the flavor is more intense. This composed salad came with large chunks of sweet seedless melon, a couple of pieces of heirloom tomato, handfuls of dressed arugula and a small sprinkling of ground pistachio.

For our main plates, we tried the sweet potato gnocchi, the grilled lomo ancho with chimichurri sauce (a grilled strip steak), and basted palomo (braised hen).

The sweet potato gnocchi seemed to be made in-house and had a delicate sweet potato flavor but a doughy texture. This dish was a puzzling amalgam. Served in a bowl like a small amphitheater, the gnocchi are bathed in a small sea of rich cream sauce and are partnered with overly large chunks of tomatoes and summer squash. Topped with micro-greens, they are accompanied by more well-grilled bread.

The grilled lomo ancho, a generously portioned strip steak, arrives resting on pureed potatoes and topped with their yogurt-based chimichurri. The steak had good flavor, but my husband would have preferred (and thought he was ordering) the traditional style of chimichurri, usually a piquant relish of parsley, garlic, olive oil and lemon or vinegar that cuts the richness of grilled steak. The potatoes were rich, but seem to have been pureed in a food processor, which results in a gluey texture when the sharp blade bursts the starchy cells of the tubers. The color on the plate came from crisp green beans in a medley with carrots and mushroom.

Our server tried to convince me to try the corvino, which she described as the national fish of Ecuador that they have flown in specially. When I asked her if the corvino was from a sustainable fishery, she wasn't sure what I meant. After I explained, she told me that since corvino was caught up and down the coast of South America, if it was overfished in one place it would be plentiful in others. It was the one time I felt that they were trying to up-sell, or push, a particular dish. But I had already decided on the roasted chicken.

I like ordering roast chicken because it is a simple dish that can border on sublime when it is done well. And it is a good test of what a kitchen is paying attention to. I was impressed with Lena's roast chicken, which they call basted palomo. Although crispy skin is not a particular feature in their version, this small bird arrives basted with pan juices and split on the plate into a breast side and a dark meat side. Tender, juicy and flavorful, it was accompanied by roasted blue and fingerling potatoes and the green bean and carrot medley.

Finally, dessert. Lena's deconstructed and "small bite" styles of desserts continue the modernist cuisine theme. Probably the most traditional of the desserts was the flan d'caramel, a dense and rich egg custard served with fresh berries and a pale caramel sauce.

Their dulce tres leches was an ambitious deconstructed version of tres leches, with three heaps of sweet milk-soaked vanilla cake bracketing small green meringues stuffed with fig jam. A bit of cherry sauce and a sugar fan completed the plate. A final dessert was an autumn extravaganza of small bites—including sticky toffee pudding, house made ice cream, a tiny apple pie deconstructed into stewed apple with a crust cookie, and a small pumpkin charlotte.

Overall, Lena seems to be the kind of place that people wandering down Main Street like to find for an upscale dinner out.

Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.


Le chat

Mon, Apr 8, 2013 : 2:37 p.m.

I ate there more than 5 times consistent overall food is good very flavorful takes the grey out of Ann Arbor weather Quality is good excellent for this town The problem : not enought food portion too small One complaint of size indeed!


Wed, Jan 9, 2013 : 8:58 p.m.

I've been there 3 times, sitting in a different location each time and being disappointed each time. The noise level is way too high. The kitchen not up to the overly ambitious menu. The sweet potato fries were cold and limp. We sent them back and they claimed to have warmed and crisped them up but they were still inedible. A pork belly dish came with a huge unchewable lump of fat and gristle. We also checked out the basement, which had only 5 customers during peak dinner hour (not a good sign) and a menu without a kitchen. The food came from upstairs and was only mediocre. The barkeep was friendly and tried to accommodate us but had no backup. We haven't been back and would not recommend this place to anyone. Pretty looking but that's it.


Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 2:31 p.m.

Whoever label this restaurant a Upscale need their head exam!


Sun, Oct 28, 2012 : 12:20 p.m.

We've been to Lena 3 times and the new Cafe Habana twice. Our first experience was consistent with some of the comments, too little food for the cost, but since, portions have increased and the quality has been excellent. Further, the service is always top notch. You cannot beat Cafe Habana downstairs for atmosphere and Lena does have a chic NYC/Chicago feel. Lena is a vast improvement over the Parthenon and a positive addition to the downtown dining experience. The $1.50 tacos on Tuesday night at Cafe Habana would be a great way for a hesitant diner to give them a try. Delicious!


Thu, Oct 25, 2012 : 7:51 p.m.

Liked the food & decor better at the old Cafe Habana, and I miss those really cool fans. I'd go back to the downstairs, but only for drinks.


Thu, Oct 25, 2012 : 2:22 p.m.

Some good comments and some not so good comments here. The place is brand new so give it some time. I wouldn't say it is the best restaurant in Ann Arbor yet but I have eaten there a lot since I work downtown and it is improving every week. Portions were definitely small at first but they have corrected this and I believe the flavors are amazing. Love the new addition to Ann Arbor and it holds tremendous promise. Already very good and hopefully will be great soon.


Thu, Oct 25, 2012 : 4:27 a.m.

My 8 year old has a more adventurous palate than most of you commenters. I suggest you stick with the early bird special at Red Robin. And stop complaining that the Old Country Buffet has closed. There is one in Westland. They might even feature some carp that has been harvested from a sustainable fishery.


Fri, Oct 26, 2012 : 1:20 a.m.

I didn't know Red Robin had an early bird special.


Thu, Oct 25, 2012 : 3:38 a.m.

"asked if the corvino was from a sustainable fishery". If you are so concerned about the food you eat and whether it is "sustainable" or carbon nuetral or ethically raised, treated and killed and if it is Kosher or prepared in a sanitary work space etc etc than grow your own food and prepare your own meals where you would know such things and have a ceremony for every stalk of celery you eat. So truely Ann Arbor of you.


Thu, Oct 25, 2012 : 12:17 a.m.

Walked in, walked out. Not upscale, but absurd. It looked like something out of the movie Spaceballs to me. No thanks, I shan't be back.

Wolf's Bane

Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 11:24 p.m.

Any chance they could close Lina and put an Art House theater in there instead? The "Cafe Habana" bar downstairs should remain though. Thanks.

Wolf's Bane

Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 6:30 p.m.

The restaurant nails the aesthetics department quite well, but the food was served up more as abstract art experiment and what it lacked in flavor and portions, it made up for in high-end pricing and snobbery. Our buss boy also poured water down one of our friend's backs and the noise level (lack of ceiling insulation) made it nearly impossible to hear our dear friends. I will never go there again given that we have fantastic restaurants right down (and up) the street.

Helen Jensen

Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 6:20 p.m.

Yeah I tried this place too, not so great, upscale only where price is concerned. Food is way to salty and nothing really special. Small portions, flavors not special enough to call for the high prices. I won't go back.


Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 5:56 p.m.

This is a must miss for me. I wasn't overly crazy about the Parthenon, but this looks far, far less appealing.


Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 5:55 p.m.

I was under the impression that Cafe Habana was moving into this space. Did they decide to just go in a new direction? I'll miss it terribly.


Thu, Oct 25, 2012 : 2:16 a.m.

they say Cafe Habana has moved into the basement, but it is really just the bar and bar snacks.

Kyle Mattson

Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 6:44 p.m.

Hi Barb- Habana is in the lower level of the building.


Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 5:55 p.m.

Just ate there for the first time last night. It was OK, but not somewhere I would likely seek out a 2nd time. Too many ingredients on any given item always seems to equate to "trying to hard". I had one of the small plates (they all sounded rather enticing) and the roasted beet salad. Emphasis is certainly on presentation - I don't think the flavor matched. Shame that we've kind of lost Cafe Habana (the menu brought forward to the downstairs location is minus the best dishes from the former location - the emphasis is clearly on beverages) - I liked the direction Cafe Habana had taken. I was hoping that Lena would just have improved on that concept.


Thu, Oct 25, 2012 : 2:15 a.m.

I agree with what you say here. I feel as if this place is just trying to hard. It's hard to believe that the chef is so well recognized. the food I had here this summer was pretentious and not so good. I really liked a number of dishes at Cafe Habana, particularly the arroz con pollo and tostones. There's nothing like that in the "new" Cafe Habana in the basement.

Tex Treeder

Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 5:40 p.m.

I had lunch here the other day. I liked the occasional lunch at Cafe Habana when it was on Washington, so why not try its new lunchtime incarnation? The brisket tacos were very good. A little too much sauce for my taste, but definitely tasty. Unlike some, I liked the idea of a choice between a booth and a table. Sometimes a little privacy is nice. A downside to the new place: the prices have inevitably crept upward. I'll probably go back again in the future, but not as regularly as I did in the past. I liked the fish tacos at the old location, so we'll see how that's been translated into the new place.


Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 6:52 p.m.

Fish tacos at Black Pearl on Main Street are excellent!

David Cahill

Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 3:37 p.m.

OK, I'll bite (so to speak). Why might feminists object to the origin of the name? I didn't see anything in the story about that except in the lede.


Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 3:33 p.m.

Doubtless the prices are "upscale", regardless of the food or atmosphere. Not my kinda place, but I'm sure the tourists will hand them buckets of money - or maybe not... who knows?!

Mike D.

Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 3:28 p.m.

Kim, you need to get out of Ann Arbor more. The food is deeply average and overly ambitious for what the kitchen can actually produce. Meats overcooked and under-seasoned, and the ceviches are nothing but salsa with a few bits of low quality seafood. As it is in every Main St. restaurant (not counting Liberty and Washington here), the service is a joke. The server responded, "Sorry, not everyone likes ceviche," in response to my complaint that it was inedible. Drinks at the well lit bar downstairs are the only win here.


Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 3:34 p.m.

I agree... terrible food... but at least they can brag that they spell ceviche right. Maybe with some help they will someday be able to brag that it is edible. I would rate their food below long john silvers.

Top Cat

Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 3:14 p.m.

I walked through Lena and checked out the menu. I've not yet eaten there. But in "trading" this for the good, consistent and reasonably priced food of the Parthenon, I feel a sense of loss.

Honest Abe

Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 3:09 p.m.

I've ate here. This is a good restaurant, not great. But mixing the word 'upscale' with it, is over shooting it by a mile. The chairs are cheap, the tables are particle board with laminate and look like something you would find in the school library, and overall it's too bright inside. Overall, the atmosphere needs improvement. I have been to upscale restaurants in Chicago and New York and all over the world in fact, and LENA has got a lot of ground to cover before they fall into the same league as 'upscale'.


Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 6:49 p.m.

We were turned off by the white plastic chairs at the tables...I agree that "upscale" is not synonymous with was ok, again, not great. Wish they had more mojito selections like Cafe Habana used to have downstairs...won't be going back anytime soon.


Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 3:37 p.m.

It does look like they are trying to get by on having a "neat" looking space (slopped together as cheaply as possible) with the hope that nobody will actually try the food and or report their experiences online or verbally to their friends. I have yet to have a friend or coworker state that they had a good or even edible meal there. The drinks are ok though... I would be really shocked if they could some how mess up pouring drinks though.

Honest Abe

Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 3:35 p.m.

I would like to add, I'm not fond of the booths. That is what they are too, BOOTHS! You can call them whatever you want, but you find booths in hamburger joints, not upscale dining establishments, especially ones that have a 3 wall surrounding.