A colleague of mine who worked at Newsweek many years ago once described turmoil in the newsroom there as a “Wallendatorium,” after the Great Wallendas high-wire circus act. It was, he said, a perch from which to watch one senior editor after the next stumble and fall, as they were shown the magazine’s front door.
Fine dining has been something of a Wallendatorium of late. We’ve watched many high-wire dining acts tumble out of the scene, only to be replaced from the level below by brasserie-style places and Nuovo-Italos — those charming, big places with accordion music, grape-arbor murals on the walls, and passable food.
Ann Arbor suffered the Wallendatorium effect as much as any area. The dining-experience, magnet restaurants of white-linen and expense-account fame, such as Escoffier and Moveable Feast, closed some years ago, and the top end has remained vacant — until quite recently.
Logan is the first in ages to successfully attain the upper-category distinction. It’s now one of only a handful of fine-dining restaurants in the broader metro Detroit region. The food is excellent; the wine list is original, smart, and solid. Yet, Logan has the look and informality of a casual restaurant.
Success did not come early or easily. It was gradual, say the three owners, each of whom brings a skill from another discipline. Their common culinary bond was Zingerman’s, the great Ann Arbor gourmet deli, where they all worked at one point or other.
“I think we learned as we went along,” chef-owner Thad Gillies says of Logan, adding that when he looks back at some of his early menus, he often wonders what he was thinking.
As an aside, I first visited Logan in 2006, soon after it opened. I went for dinner twice and, frankly, I didn’t think it was all that good. Nor did I think it could survive very long.
But in recent months, I’ve been invited to dinner there three times and have been so impressed with how refined the cooking has become, that I returned twice more. The menu is new American with strong French culinary influences.
In many restaurants, new American is often an excuse for anything-goes cooking. I once experienced canned peaches and a sweet-cream sauce on veal scaloppine in an area new-American restaurant — an utterly ridiculous combination.
At Logan, there’s a strong culinary discipline that wanders from the classic but respects boundaries. Take Gillies’ first course of sweetbreads, a dish in which the texture can be problematic for a chef. Some diners are put off by the mouthfeel, which is similar to a fresh oyster. Gillies’ sweetbread preparation is delicate and crisp, slightly firm, and not at all wobbly. He pan-fries them to a crunchy golden-brown exterior and serves them with braised endive and a hoisin sauce, toasted pistachios, and bits of applewood-smoked bacon. Really a delight.
Likewise, Gillies’ first-course lobster roll is a contrast in flavors between the roll and sauce, a dance of kissing cousins on a plate: a crisp and light dough exterior filled with fresh lobster, pickled daikon, sautéed cabbage, and a creamy rich, soft-lobster reduction, a sauce that’s slightly sweet and lightly aromatic.
The same goes for a pork belly daily special we tried. On its own, it’s rather gamey and, texture-wise, chewy, fatty, and rather primal. In this handling, it’s pressed, condensed into a square block with all the texture issues eliminated by pressure, and then pan-fried and served on a dark reduction sauce, like a layered tart.
In the pastas, the outstanding dish for us on previous visits has been an unusual wild-boar Bolognese, made from Texas wild boar, braised in red wine, served with house-made pappardelle pasta, and garnished with parmigiano cheese.
The distinction in Gillies’ veal scaloppine succeeds, again, by the contrasting, rather than the blending, of flavors. Thinly sliced, pan-seared veal cutlets are served with herbed spaetzle and mushrooms (providing one side of the flavor equation), while braised cippolini onions and a deep-brown, rich reduced-game sauce complete the spectrum on the other side.
Likewise, a Moroccan-spiced, roasted Cornish hen (the term “Moroccan” was the only thing at Logan we disagreed with) is superb. It arrives with a crisped orange-brown skin and served with ginger confit of carrot, a whole-grain Dijon mustard sauce, and crispy carrots. Gillies’ short ribs are also worth trying. They’re slowly braised in red wine, veal stock, and aromatics, and served with light and creamy polenta, carrots, and red-wine braised shallots.
The menu, which is seasonal, is the culmination of Logan’s interesting journey. It has always had ambitions for the fine-dining level, which was Gillies’ original inspiration. He and brother Ryan, the second partner, grew up in Milford, where their parents owned a farm. By their teen years, they had outgrown their mother’s simple home cooking, and curiosity led them to experiment with other foods. But there would be diversions. Thad got a business degree from Eastern Michigan University; Ryan joined the Navy.
Thad’s business degree and his interest in food were enough to create a fit with Zingerman’s. The delicatessen trained him as a line cook. “Ari Weinzweig [one of the founder-owners] taught me about the importance of quality ingredients,” Thad says.
When Thad’s wife was accepted to graduate school in New York City, he went with her and found a job in the kitchen of the Union Square Café in Lower Manhattan. “I worked every position and hunted around for another job at the same time,” Thad says. He ended up at one of the best, Manhattan’s Lespinasse, as Chef Gray Kunz’s fish specialty “entremetteur,” or under-chef.
In 1998, Thad and Ryan, by then a consultant to the Navy in Virginia, met at the now-defunct Del Rio bar in Ann Arbor across from where Logan is now, and began planning a restaurant.
“It was one of those moments when you feel the cornerstone for something has just been laid,” says Ryan, who returned to Virginia and started taking courses at a hospitality school in preparation for a move to Ann Arbor. “I arrived on Thad’s doorstep Sept. 1, 2000, ready to go,” Ryan says.
At that time, Zingerman’s, which was also gaining much success with expansions into a bakery, a creamery, and online sales, began planning a wine shop. Kevin Hobart, Logan’s third owner-partner, joined that new venture. Hobart had started his career at Dusty’s in Okemos, the only serious wine shop in the East Lansing area in the 1990s. He then moved to Seattle, where he worked for several wine shops and eventually moved back to Ann Arbor and to Zingerman’s, where he met Ryan.
The Zingerman’s wine venture never took off, and after brief stints at another wine shop in Ann Arbor, the three future partners finally put together funding and found the present space, which they decided to call the ACME, for American Cooking with a Modern Edge. The problem was the reaction to the name. People would say: “I don’t get it.”
“It went over like a lead balloon,” Ryan says. It was renamed Logan, after Thad’s baby son.
Logan sits half a block off Main Street in a row of three- and four-story brick storefronts. Its windows look onto the street. And from the street in the evening, Logan has something of an inviting Edward Hopper city-nightscape feel. Thad’s wife, Ann Turner, an artist, is responsible for the décor.
Vivid-yellow details highlight the exterior. Inside, the walls are painted a warm orange. Gracious, modern still-life paintings dot one wall, lending a simplicity and grace to the dining room. To the rear, a pea-green wall facing the dining room is lighted by three pendant lights over a small bar. It’s simple, warm, and welcoming.
It takes guts these days to run a white-linen restaurant. The names of those lost since the 1990s are many. Several surviving former white linens began in fine dining and remade themselves with simpler menus and lower prices in order to survive.
Logan is daring and capable and worth a look, with a realization that it’s something quite unusual these days.
Cook is chief restaurant critic for Hour Detroit.
115 W. Washington St., Ann Arbor; 734-327-2312.
L&D Tue.-Fri. D Sat.
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|Moroccan Hen: A roasted Cornish hen marinated in Moroccan spices and served with ginger confit of carrot, a whole-grain Dijon mustard sauce, and crispy carrots.||
Thai Scallops:Seared jumbo sea scallops accompanies by Thai coconut milk sauce, consisting of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, chilies, and kaffir lime leaves.
Crispy sweetbreads are pan-seared until golden brown, served with braised Belgian endive and a Japanese hoisin sauce, then garnished with toasted pistachios and applewood-smoked bacon.