Fresh Start

Bold decision to revamp an Ann Arbor eatery results in a delightfully sophisticated Taste Kitchen
Vietnamese Berkshire Pork with rice, kale, fried egg, nuoc cham Photographs by Joe Vaughn

It has been a while since Ann Arbor produced a new restaurant of note, but Taste Kitchen, which opened in April, has hit a strong stride.

But its backstory is that of trial, failure, and redemption — a rocky start under a different name and menu, and a difficult decision that paid off.

Just steps away from the edge of the University of Michigan’s main campus, and a few doors down from the lavish 1930s Michigan Theater with its great Hollywood marquee, Taste Kitchen is churning out a constantly changing, brief menu of delightful dishes.

The menu is the antithesis to the usual ethnic pigeonhole. It’s not Italian or New American, nor California or Thai. It’s all or any of those and more, with a menu that leans slightly into fish and vegetables more than toward meat.

“To us, it doesn’t matter where it’s from, it’s the cooking that counts and it’s just a lot lighter,” explains General Manger Chene Peña.

In that vein, Taste Kitchen mimics somewhat a string of other recent successes around metro Detroit that are also essentially ushering in a new and lighter world of dining: The Root in White Lake, Antietam in Eastern Market, and others.

The road to becoming Taste Kitchen, however, was anything but smooth. It began at the same location more than a year ago as Tamaki, a casual eatery with Asian-themed dishes and sushi. But the owners noticed that while they were doing very well at lunch, nothing much was happening at dinner.

Ann Arbor’s lunch trade, says Peña, seemed to be “oversaturated with places to eat,” which made the market competitive.

Profits were small compared to what they could be if they captured the evening crowd. Restaurants generally have one of highest failure rates of any business, and the dinner hour is the all-important and most lucrative segment of a restaurant’s day.

For a place in a high foot-traffic area in a town as pedestrian as a small European city, Tamaki’s inability to catch on at night was a head-scratcher.

Thus began the admission that Tamaki wasn’t working, sushi was not a particularly strong dinner attraction, and something needed to be done.

Peña and chef/owner Danny Van, the day-to-day kitchen overseer, and partner/restaurateur Frank Cheng made a quick decision to give Tamaki a new identity and a restaurant reconstruction, then aim for that elusive dinner crowd.

Tamaki became Taste Kitchen, a restaurant version of the Hans Christian Andersen children’s yarn of the ugly duckling that morphed into a handsome, elegant swan.

After Tamaki closed, everything was scrapped and — with the help of the entire staff and some contractor friends — they started over again.

“Our whole staff was here painting, reupholstering, patching walls, sanding, installing coolers,” Peña says. “From our sommelier Kelsey (Wonsavage) who is almost as good at carpentry as she is at pastry, to our sous-chef (David Wachsberger), to the servers and hosts.”

The result is a graceful, sophisticated, Euro-styled blend of the brasserie — a kitchen and modern dining — set in a storefront in a good evening dining location with heavy evening traffic, plenty of boutiques, and hip brand stores and coffee shops.

The new look that emerged is a blend of whites and grays that dominate the small dining room that can seat about 52 people, plus 10-12 at the bar.

The walls have been built up with thin long pieces of rough cut slate, offset by dark birch wood flooring, and orange cloth mandarin-style lanterns hanging over the bar and augmented with recessed spot lighting here and there.

Tables are set with white cloths and napkins overlaid with gray bamboo mats and stylish little flared glass vases bearing a single flower.

With its new image and menu, Taste Kitchen is far more in step with a smart, knowledgeable, dining clientele, and, as Peña says, “more fitting to Ann Arbor.” They’re experiencing that elusive pedestrian traffic streaming through its front door all evening.

What is immediately apparent, in the food overall, is the attention to freshness along with insertions of bright flavors, all arranged in form and flavor patterns that suggest a Japanese and Asian influence.

Bar snacks include the standard pork belly, served here with a Vietnamese accent that includes pickles, scallions, sriracha, and hoisin sauce. Other starters include an appetizer-sized risotto with asparagus, mushrooms, Parmesan, and truffle oil, as well as a shrimp spring roll, Vietnamese-style with rice noodles, carrots, cucumber, herbs, and peanut sauce.

On the fish side, the appetizers also include a salmon sashimi with garlic, scallion, and truffle soy sauce. Not to be missed is the two mahi-mahi fish tacos appetizer with a perky pico de gallo, smoky achiote cream sauce, cilantro, and avocado.

And last, in the first courses, an adventurous seafood stew of shrimp, mussel, squid, tomato, basil, jalapeno, and lemon.

True to the intent of its creators, when I visited earlier in the summer, the main dishes on the menu were a mix: a seafood bouillabaisse with a Thai broth infusion, a departure from the standard Mediterranean style; a Moroccan chicken tagine, with the traditional dried yellow raisins and couscous; a good-old American rib-eye steak with gratin potatoes; a Berkshire pork chop done in a Vietnamese-style with rice, kale, nuoc cham sauce (sweet and sour spicy sauce with red pepper flakes), and topped with a fried egg; red snapper with kale, morels, fiddlehead fern fronds, a piquant sauce, and a sorrel vinaigrette (highly unusual).

“The response has been just huge,” Peña says, specifically to the emphasis on fresh and light-style cooking, which come so naturally out of Van’s Asian background and eating experience. “The customer reviews on Open Table have been insanely generous to us, and that’s very gratifying,” he says.

Many restaurants start with a similar story of trial and error, but if they run into trouble they tend to become paralyzed by a seeming failure. So it’s refreshing, and even instructional, to see the flip side in which the owners had the courage to just toss out what doesn’t work and try something new.

At minimum, they’ve also blown a hefty gulp of fresh air into a stale market that needs it.

521 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-369-4241. L & D Tue.-Sat., D Sun.