Quick Change

With a new chef and menu, the old Vinology makes a fresh start
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Decanted wine is poured at Vinology, a restaurant that has undergone a dramatic transformation. Photographs by Joe Vaughn

Winston Churchill, the great British statesman, remarked that success is moving from one failure to the next with humor and enthusiasm, an appropriate aphorism for this month’s choice of restaurant, Vinology in Ann Arbor.

Although Vinology was never a failure in the harshest sense of the word, it hadn’t achieved the success that its owners had wanted until a restructuring a few months ago, which included the arrival of a new chef.

Today, Vinology is the most improved restaurant in Ann Arbor. In six months, it has gone from being pretty much ignored to the place everyone is talking about for food and an overall level of professionalism that sets it very much apart from its competitors.

Vinology is a sister restaurant to Vinotecca in Royal Oak, a venture from Detroit’s super-foodie Jonna family. It’s the idea of Kristin Jonna and her father, John, who, with his brother, Eddie, founded the Merchant of Vino stores that were gobbled up by Whole Foods Market when they moved into southeast Michigan a decade ago. John then went his own way with Merchant’s Fine Wine, while Eddie retired and his sons, Marc and Matt, recently launched the hot new Plum Market line of stores.

Vinology opened in 2005, as another of the Main Street restaurant or “retro-raunts,” the flashy eateries that have replaced the old-guard office suppliers, locksmiths, shoe shops, and family drugstores. Vinology occupies a modern storefront, with a long, large bar and high-backed booths of rich, warm wood tones, draped here and there in sheer white fabric. Downstairs is a pretty, warm, and softly illuminated large cellar dining room with old fieldstone walls.

Vinology has improved in large measure because of the direction of newcomer chef Brandon Johns, who came in as a partner and investor last summer.
Out went Vinology’s old concept that was part nightclub, part wine bar with dancing and, oh by the way, did you know we also serve food?

In came Johns’ solid, wide-ranging, and careful upper-end dining menu that’s largely French-influenced but with plenty of other ethnic touches. It’s more of a San Francisco-styled menu, an urbane blend of a lot of experimentation built on French and Asian cooking bases.

Johns is also avid about buying locally, and he really does. Most of his suppliers are from within 200 miles around Ann Arbor. Among them: beef from TMZ Farms, ducks from northern Indiana, chickens from Chelsea-area farms, produce from Tantre Farms, cheeses from Reny Picot and Grassfields Cheeses, coffee from Roos Roast, bread from Avalon Bakery, and milk and butter from Calder Dairy. In the summer, Johns also shops the produce stands at the Ann Arbor farmers market.

Combine a new menu, a new chef, and a well-trained, confident wait staff that exhibits a lot of pride in where it works and knows what it’s talking about — even when it comes to a very extensive wine list — and you have a recipe for success.

The first courses on Johns’ menu, which change not only with the seasons, but also with what he finds from week to week, say a lot about the new Vinology.

On a recent weekday night, I was astounded to find a first course of roasted veal marrowbones, a very European item rarely seen in American restaurants. But there they were, two sliced leg bones, served hot, full of glistening, shimmering marrow, a tiny spoon on the side provided to dig out the luscious milky, slurpy jelly and spread it onto grilled crusty bread with a pinch of sea salt. Go, hedonism!

Most items on the menu are fairly common and often seem uninteresting in other hands. It is what Johns does with them that makes Vinology work.

One of the most exquisite, little, light, and fresh starters is a raw Pacific Ocean oyster from the Seattle area served with an apple chili relish. It’s light, but so delicate, and so zippy-flavored. Or how about medjool dates stuffed with blue cheese and a freshly made warm chorizo? The spectacular combination has flavor, texture, creaminess, sweetness, and hot spice. Then there are crispy sweetbreads with a Camembert crostini and caper dressing. Or a shrimp and white bean stew with fennel and garlic sausage.

Then, there was the slightly misnamed “crostini with pork confit,” which tasted so precisely like a French pork rillette, that it was jarring. The similarity is that while fat is the base of both, rillette is usually terrine-d, as is a pâté. But never mind. It was great!

Pan-roasted locally raised duck breast, confit cake, and caramelized onions. Photograph by Joe Vaughn

Likewise, the main courses show what Johns can do. His skate wing is very simple — pan-fried and served without the flavor clutter of other things that so many restaurants foist on dishes these days. His comes with a salad of fingerling potatoes and arugula dressed with capers and bacon.

Johns can be adventurous, as he is with grilled yellowfin tuna, a common enough fish. His is noteworthy for the accompanying purée of roasted garlic and eggplant, and potatoes fried in duck fat, one of life’s great discoveries, thanks to the French. If you’ve never had them, please know that God made potatoes to be fried in duck fat.

Johns took a circuitous route to this new post, traveling a couple of thousand miles to end up just four blocks from where he started his culinary career.

He was a University of Michigan student and football player for coach Bo Schembechler when he became attracted to cooking and dropped out of school. He started at what was then Brandi’s, now Gratzi, and The Chop House on Main Street, and worked just about every job in a series of restaurants around town. By the 1990s, Johns decided that he needed that big-city experience if he wanted to be better. So he moved to New York, where he attended culinary school and cooked in a neighborhood restaurant. Eventually, he landed a chef position at the Park Avenue Café, and then moved to Chicago to work for its namesake there. He returned to Ann Arbor and, in 2002, took over the ovens at the Chop House, in the same building where he had started. After six years, he moved down the street to Vinology.

While the Chop House, owned by Mainstreet Ventures, was a corporate restaurant, Vinology became Johns’ opportunity to really put into practice all the things he had learned and to design his own menu.

“It’s very different. I can do what I want here, “ Johns says. “For example, I’ve changed the menu at least 25 times since I got here in June.”

Successful restaurants today are those that have on-site owners who are there daily. Family and chef-owned places are more likely to succeed because their owners can make them their lives instead of their jobs. That, and a lot of talent, seem to be what’s making Vinology tick.

110 S. Main St., Ann Arbor; 734-222-9841, vinologyrestaurant.com. L & D daily.

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