When Chef Brandon Johns left Ann Arbor’s Vinology a year ago to open his own place, Grange Kitchen and Bar, it had much promise to be something special.
Johns is a talented chef with good ideas and a philosophy that stresses using locally grown products. And he’s not one who skimps on cost when it comes to ingredients.
The start of Grange had its bumps, as often happens with a new restaurant. “We’ve settled in now,” Johns says. A year later, the brief, precise menu has changed only slightly, and the kitchen has clearly hit a confident stride and direction.
Grange is a well-run restaurant with an unusual menu that changes almost weekly.
On a recent visit, everything — from the service to the food — was pleasant and smooth. Most of Johns’ dishes have a rustic quality with a clear Michigan slant — not so much the ingredients, but in how dishes are prepared.
For example, a first course called fried pig’s head, which may sound strange to some, is actually quite tame and slightly delicate. It’s essentially homemade head cheese, as you won’t find elsewhere. “I can’t make enough of it,” Johns says. “It’s one of the bestselling things on the menu.”
Johns doesn’t just buy fresh pig heads off the truck; he purchases an entire 700-pound locally raised hog, butchered, and delivered, skin still on. And he uses every inch of it for stocks, soups, in salads, and in assorted items on the menu, until it’s gone. “I spend way more than other restaurants on what I buy, I can assure you,” Johns says.
“Ninety percent of what comes in here in the summer is local stuff. So, it almost forces me to vary the menu every week to what I can get. It’s a lot more work that way than most people realize. But that’s also the fun of it.”
Pig heads, for example, are boiled. The meat is stripped; the bones discarded, then rolled into a tube shape in plastic wrap and chilled with some of the stock, until it becomes a solid mass. Then it’s sliced into rounds, dusted in brioche breadcrumbs, pan-fried, and served with a gribiche, which is a sauce made with eggs, capers, shallot, parsley, and red-wine vinegar. And, voilà! A delicacy.
Or how about pig’s ear salad with buttermilk dressing and duck egg? For those who’ve never tasted a duck egg, please do. They’re somewhat hard to find, but so worth it. Duck eggs have a more intense flavor than chicken eggs, and have a bigger, more orangey yolk, and denser whites.
Also worth trying is a first course of fried chickpeas that come to the table warm with a crisp, reddish, spicy paprika coating. The inside is soft and sweet and the outer shell crunchy.
For the less adventurous, there’s a roasted-beet salad with goat cheese and citrus dressing, and a thick celery-root soup topped with slices of smoked duck breast.
Grange occupies a brownstone storefront that, for about 25 years, housed Trattoria Bella Ciao, an Ann Arbor institution whose owner decided to retire. The building, with its thin, two-story brick façade and carpeted stone steps, has an interior that, no matter what you do to it, seems to retain the feel of the late 1800s.
Inside the front door, a staircase leads to the second floor, while a narrow hallway opens into the main dining room that fronts the street. Here, the full menu is offered. Upstairs, an abbreviated menu is served at the half-dozen tables in the bar, which has brick walls, oak trim, and windows that look onto the street below — all as it was years ago.
Johns keeps the bar menu going until 1 a.m. on weekends, making it one of the few places in downtown Ann Arbor where you can get food so late.
In the main dining room, Johns has retained the wainscoting from Bella Ciao’s years, but has simplified the look by painting the walls and woodwork cream and blue, giving a warm but slightly sparse feel.
Most of Johns’ two decades in the restaurant business have been concentrated in Ann Arbor. He attended the University of Michigan and may be the only chef around who can claim to have played on a football squad of Bo Schembechler.
But neither football nor academics took root in Johns. Instead, he developed an attraction to cooking, dropped out of Michigan, and went to work at what was then Brandi’s (now Gratzi) on Main Street, just two blocks from where he is now.
Johns worked in several other restaurants around town and, in the 1990s, moved to New York, where he took culinary classes and worked as chef at the Park Avenue Café. Later, he joined its sister restaurant of the same name in Chicago. In 2003, Johns returned to Ann Arbor and became chef at The Chop House and later Vinology, where he first explored the concept of a regional menu.
As with the pigs, when Johns buys beef or lamb, it’s a half a cow or an entire lamb. “And I do goat, too. I can’t get enough of it. I can’t keep it on the menu. People just love it.”
On a recent menu, a dish was listed as Rack of Mulefoot Pig, braised trotters, spaetzle, marinated beets, ramps, and mustard. “Mulefoot pig?” Johns was asked. “Yes. It’s pig that was almost extinct a few years ago, down to about a couple hundred in the entire country. They have hooves instead of toes, unlike most pigs. Then some people decided that to save the breed, they had to make a market for them. I bought one. It’s the best pork I ever had.”
Another eye-catcher was the housemade kimchee stew with Michigan shrimp. Michigan shrimp? Yes. It turns out that a former University of Michigan student, who has worked in the shrimping business here and in Latin America, has started raising shrimp in tanks in a barn in Okemos. “And they taste like shrimp really should,” Johns says.
Grange has become what Johns set out to make it: a restaurant seeking to define and explore regionalism — a term we’ve been hearing a lot these days.
Regionalism is an effort to respect and support local products and meats by purchasing nearby rather than buying what has been flown or driven halfway around the world at a cost of vast gallons of jet fuel.
Grange gets its bread from Avalon Bakery, coffee from Roos Roast, dairy products from Calder and Guernsey dairies and Four Corners Creamery, and meat and produce from Garden Works, Back Forty Acres, Need-Lane Farms, Werp Farms, Eat Local Eat Natural, and other local producers. All but Werp Farms are within 100 miles of the restaurant.
“I was doing some of this at Vinology,” Johns says. “But I would say that now my food has evolved much more, and yet it’s very straightforward and cooked with a lot of care.”
And it shows.
118 W. Liberty, Ann Arbor; 734-995-2107, grangekitchenandbar.com. Dining room: Mon.-Fri. 5 p.m.-midnight, Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m. Bar: Mon.-Thu. 5 p.m.-midnight, Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-1 a.m.
Cook is the chief restaurant critic for Hour Detroit. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org