No-Frills, Fine Food

A small but mighty Spencer is making an impression on the Ann Arbor restaurant scene

 Once in a while, we will deviate from the main track and away from our usual target, which is to say the full-service, fine-dining restaurant.

In those rare instances, the place must have food so exceptional that it effortlessly hits the fine dining bell, even though its interior accommodations and amenities may be very basic.

This month’s choice fits that bill.

It’s called Spencer, a darling little place we found in Ann Arbor that serves splendid food. It has just two long communal tables with a capacity of 32 inside, with another 20 seats outdoors. Food orders are placed at the counter in the back of restaurant, you take an order number flag stand, grab a seat at one of the tables, and the kitchen staff delivers your food.

The restaurant is full of daylight, simplicity, fresh flowers—a beehive of energy. A fine exposed-old brick wall boasts two large oil portraits of a stoic-looking 19th century man and a woman, which the restaurant’s owners Abby Olitzky and Steve Hall bought at a downtown Detroit gallery.

Spencer’s owners exposed the brick and also brought sunlight streaming into the small space by inserting two sizable windows into that wall, giving the space a lively and open feel.

The restaurant’s location also happens to be just inside the footprint of the Art Fairs, which crank up this month, and are expected to attract the usual half a million-plus visitors.

Photographs by Joe Vaughn

Since it opened last October in a storefront formerly occupied briefly by The Waffle Shop and Café Japon before that, Spencer has generated buzz around town for its superior French hot “traiteur” deli dishes to go, baked goods, and charcuterie.

So, what do its owners call this hybrid of eatery, restaurant, deli, and bakery?

“I don’t think it fits into an ordinary restaurant concept,” Olitzky says. “I tend to tell people it’s really a cheese and wine bar that offers small plates” of some pretty exceptional food.

The food comes at good prices. Most of the items range from $5 to $10, and the three main dishes are from $18 to $21.

Hall tends to the dining room and the front of the house, and Olitzky is the chef. The couple met in San Francisco.

Olitzky is from New York City and studied cooking at a culinary school in Brooklyn. Hall is from Ann Arbor, but had gone to San Francisco with the idea of studying cheese making.

Olitzky landed a job at Delfina, a trendy, modern, and popular restaurant in San Francisco. Hall found work at a Mission District cheese company.

Soon after they met, the discussion turned to moving to Ann Arbor and finding a spot to open a restaurant. Once back, Hall worked at Zingerman’s, where he also studied cheese and wine, while they looked for a location for their restaurant. Once they found it, they began the arduous process of stripping it and doing a fresh build out.

With the restaurant complete last October, Olitzky and Hall began developing relationships with area farmers to provide them with local produce, dairy products, and meats.

The food at Spencer is bright, fresh, and often surprising. The menu is seasonal, ever changing, always imaginative, and very French and brief.

For example, a recent menu—which changes biweekly—listed just 10 items, including: marinated olives with tarragon and citrus; French radishes with butter, salt and baguette; chicken liver mousse with violet mustard and grilled bread; roasted potatoes with truffle aioli and pickled ramps; carrots in crème fraiche, chervil, and croutons; and orange duck confit with North African spices, orange blossoms, and a mache salad.

A pot-au-feu of beef cheeks, turnips, and shiso (an Asian green herb that is related to mint) was the only slight letdown of the evening. There was nothing wrong with the cooking. The dish simply lacked any pep: a spice that could have kicked it upstairs, a spiky vegetable flavor—just something to complete it.

We did, however, enjoy a crisp, warm pastry topped with delicately pungent wild mushroom duxelles to which fresh thyme had been added.

The roasted bone marrow with grilled bread and frisee salad was also a success: not one of those large forelegs you often see, but a short, small dainty bone sliced lengthwise, dotted with little glistening delicate marrow lobes.

Spencer also offers wine and beer.

Spencer has generated buzz for its bright, fresh, and often surprising food.

Ann Arbor’s two- and three-story cityscape, in which most of its restaurants reside, is changing, altered by the construction of towers that are 8 or 10 or more stories high. They’re offering costly new high-end condos and rental apartments to a specific strata of University of Michigan student: the offspring of the well-heeled.

As a result of these vertical giants, the whole feel of the city is changing.

The old town/gown atmosphere is changing. The stereotypical disheveled professor in old tweeds driving a rundown 10-year-old Volvo station wagon now competes for parking with Prada in a Porsche.

This means the demand for a greater variety of restaurants is also on the upswing. And Spencer arrives into this market.

While the change has brought many new residents and more places to eat, virtually no attention has been paid to where to buy food to eat or cook at home. Party stores don’t stock much in the way of fresh produce, and supermarkets such as Kroger or Busch’s require large space, and have not found their way into downtown’s expensive real estate market.

Several long blocks away there is the semiweekly farmers market, under the permanent sheds in the Kerrytown Market area.

The main building also houses a butcher, a fishmonger and a fresh produce market. But in nearby downtown, on the other side of Huron Street, the only sellers of fresh produce have been two recently opened small high-end grocery stores.

It seems that until something changes, restaurants such Spencer will continue to be the main suppliers of food to downtown Ann Arbor.

Which is not a bad way to eat daily, if you can afford it.

113 E. Libery St., Ann Arbor; 734-369-3979. L & D daily, closed Tue.

Christopher Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: