Restaurant dining has been heading toward a new normal, one in which smaller is better. Smaller plates, smaller servings, and — happily — sometimes smaller checks.
Fans of the new normal are mostly younger, professional, more affluent diners, and noticeably female — those my dining partner of many years refers to as “the generation of young women engineered without the gene for cellulite.”
Grape Expectations Wine Bar & Merchant in Plymouth fits right into the new normal post-cellulite world of dining. On a recent visit there, I couldn’t help but notice that I was one of only two men in the entire restaurant, which was populated by small groups of 30-somethings, a post Sex and the City crowd of women.
“I estimate that 80 percent of our customers are women,” says Grape Expectations owner Lisa O’Donnell. “And, frankly, I really want that younger, hipper market.”
Neither has it gone without notice to restaurants that there has been a move toward eating less of one thing, while trying a wider range of interesting and different foods. The overall volume eaten at a meal may not have diminished, but the range of choices demanded is much greater.
Grape Expectations is not about fine or high-end dining, but neither was that O’Donnell’s intent. It falls to the other end of dining: casual and almost occasional. As such, it’s a place for a pleasant and inexpensive midweek dinner for two, or as a casual stop with friends where the food is extremely good, with little-plate selections and a carefully chosen, interesting wine list. The emphasis here being clearly on wine.
Grape Expectations is very sweet, attractive, and warm. Inside the vintage two-story brick storefront just off Plymouth’s grassy town square, exposed-brick walls rise toward a 2-story high ceiling. A long, classic Michigan bar fronted with a dozen large stools occupies one side of the restaurant. To the back, a wide steel staircase leads to a second, loft-like level and another dining area.
A long banquette with granite tables and leather-seat chairs lines one wall. The opposite brick wall features a massive wine rack made of dark wood that’s about 8-feet high with holes for each bottle. A rolling library-style ladder travels its length so that servers can reach hard-to-get bottles.
Grape Expectations, and many restaurants trending like it, have menus that feature a longer list of first-course offerings of small plates and salads with just a few — three or four — large-plate main courses. Others have menus so brief that they read almost like snack lists. This growing trend can be confusing to those who expect the traditional ritual of soup, appetizer, main course, and dessert.
In large part, this shift can be linked to the popularity of the Food Network, Iron Chef, and a raft of successful shows that have opened viewers’ eyes to different ethnic foods, exotic fruits and vegetables, new ways of preparation, and flavors that promise a new experience.
Just look at how our coffee drinking alone has changed in one generation. The normal there has evolved from a can of Folgers to Starbucks lattes, doppios, and gooey-milked caffeine drinks. The breads we now routinely take for granted also have changed across a decade, from Pepperidge Farm to Panera, Avalon, or Zingerman’s baguettes and boules.
All of this came to play in O’Donnell’s decisions about Grape Expectations.
“When I opened four years ago,” O’Donnell says, “I really struggled with whether to do just wine. But I decided to do tapas as some light food to go with it. Since then, the food part has just been growing and growing. It’s to the point that we’re genuinely almost a full-service restaurant.”
Looking around at the number of small plates on the tables, Grape Expectations is obviously something of a grazing meadow, which may also be due to the chef, Joseph Schaffer, a supremely talented cook who has run several top-end kitchens, such as the long-gone Moveable Feast in Ann Arbor, considered in its day as one of the top 10 in the area.
Although the menu is brief at Grape Expectations (tapas-style small plates — some authentic tapas, others more tapas-styled — salads, bruschettas, pastas, and pizzas), the quality stands a cut above what’s found in most places.
Croquettes are one of the basic must-have items on any self-respecting tapas list. Here, they come four to a plate — enough to pass around. Schaffer’s ham-and-cheese croquettes are worth a special mention. I’ve had this dish in countless places, but in one way or another it always seems to be either dry or over-browned. These are moist and cheesy, so much so that, when cut with a fork, the cheese runs slightly onto the plate.
Also a standout is the chorizo-and-potato based “Papas Bravas and Half-Moon Chorizo” in a tomato-cumin sauce. Like spicy, rich dishes? This is one to try. It fulfills the small-bites theory that tapas provide. Most tapas on the menu run $4 to $12 per plate. There’s also a lineup of bruschettas, which come with choices of olive tapenade, warm goat cheese, artichoke-heart spread, and other delights — each $6.
The pasta main course on our visit had a lot of depth and succulence. It was made with shrimp, chorizo strips, sun-dried tomatoes, and roasted red pepper, all bound with a light, creamy finish.
The menu’s three salads include a house version with chicken and toasted walnuts, a Caesar, and an Asian-flavored preparation — each hefty enough to make a main course. Of the three pizzas on the menu, we chose a very adequate “California,” a pesto-based pie with artichokes, black olives, and goat cheese. It was zesty and flavorful.
The wine selection is the center point here. The list has 80 choices of red, white, and sparkling, along with a smattering of ports. What works is that the list is carefully chosen and well priced, both by the bottle and by the glass. About half the wines are available by the taste, and most are priced between $2.50 and $3.50, while most glasses range from $7 to $11. Fifteen bottles are priced $24 to $30.
Most bottles range from $30 to $40, the most expensive being an Il Poggione from Tuscany at $114 and the least expensive, a sauvignon blanc from Argentina at $24.
There are also such classic California reds as Rosenblum and Ridge Lytton Springs zinfandels, as well as Domaine des Sénéchaux Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhone Valley of France.
There has been a sudden burst of these restaurant-market combinations in the metro area, one of the most glamorous being Toasted Oak Grill & Market in Novi, which charges a mere $7 above retail if you decide to drink your wine in their restaurant.
Several times during our dinner, patrons came into Grape Expectations to pick up orders from the deli counter and wandered among the tables along the wine rack looking for a bottle to take home.
Grape Expectations is a high-quality neighborhood place for casual dining where care and attention are evident from the moment you walk in. It should be enjoyed for what it is. Any greater expectations would be wrong.
L and D Tue.-Sat. 555 Forest Ave., Plymouth; 734-455-9463.
Photographs by Joe Vaughn