Ann Arbor has long seen itself as a restaurant haven, full of dining prowess, a view best described by the philosopher Erasmus: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
So it’s a welcome shift when someone actually does deliver something really good in Ann Arbor, as is the case with the Ravens Club.
Along with its eclectic American menu, the Ravens Club offers live jazz several nights a week, which warms the place up appreciably. Sadly, venues that combine good food and good jazz have pretty much disappeared in metro Detroit. There’s Cliff Bell’s in Detroit, the marvelous Dirty Dog Café in Grosse Pointe, and that’s about it.
Now, you can add the Ravens Club.
Ann Arbor restaurants have baffled a good number of residents, who wonder why, with all the wealth, a major national university, an international and multilingual community, and all the sophistication, the city has so many uninspired restaurants and poor service.
Restaurants in Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Royal Oak, and Detroit have always been more sophisticated and adventurous — and, frankly, better.
Some have suggested that service in a university town suffers from an overabundance of inexperienced student labor. In Ann Arbor, that’s combined with a small cadre of longtime servers steeped in bad habits and grudging attitudes. Another theory is that it’s so hard to fail in downtown Ann Arbor that mediocre food and bad service go unchallenged.
Overcoming either is a no small task. Overcoming both is quite an accomplishment.
The Ravens Club owners — Jeff Paquin and Chris Pawlicki — are both long part of the Ann Arbor food community, and have made a place that is all-around solid with a flow and overall ambience reminiscent of a pleasant, edgy, Chicago restaurant.
“For us, it was a kind of an evolution,” Paquin says. “It’s our maturity, in a way.”
The partners decided they needed something different. “I wanted to emulate the old cocktail houses of the 1920s and ’30s. I thought (New York’s) Stork Club was cool, so I started playing around with other types of birds and we came up with a raven.”
The current menu is quite recent. Paquin says it was an evolution that came together “four chefs later when Frank Fejeran walked in the door.”
Fejeran grew up in Ann Arbor and studied at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona. He then cooked for a restaurant in Escondido, Calif., moved to Hopleaf in Chicago, then Tribute in Farmington Hills, and back to Ann Arbor as sous chef at Grange Kitchen and Bar.
Paquin says they all decided they also needed to make the Ravens Club a “scene” of some kind. Soon they approached renowned bassist Ron Brooks, who for two decades ran Ann Arbor’s Bird of Paradise jazz club. Brooks quickly signed on, and his group, the Ron Brooks Trio, now plays every Wednesday. The trio includes drummer George Davidson, who played as a session drummer for Motown in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and a brilliant 22-year-old pianist named Ian Finkelstein. Vocalist Heather Schwartz and guitarist Alex Belhaj also perform weekly, on Sundays and Thursdays, respectively.
A bevy of other jazz artists have also performed, including James Dapogny, Ellen Rowe, Ali Jackson (Wynton Marsalis’ drummer), Andrew Bishop, and Sunny Wilkinson.
The menu at the Ravens Club is daringly experimental in spots, with dishes such as a deeply savory chorizo and a round cornbread cake, topped with a poached egg; a delicious, satisfying, and utterly heart-stupid appetizer.
I don’t know of many other places that offer fried pig’s ears, which might be described as a combination of bacon and pork rinds. The kitchen cuts them into strips, aesthetically banishing any resemblance to porker Babe’s cute floppies.
One of the serious measures of the Ravens Club is its charcuterie plate, also a first course, which includes one of the best rillettes tasted recently, and excellent terrine-like pork headcheese. These are all made in-house from what the meat industry calls “offal” — which is to say, any other part of the animal we’ve got left.
A word on the rillette: Many restaurants have used the term for dishes that aren’t even distantly related to rillette. The baseline of real French rillette is very simple: fatty pork belly or shoulder-salted, cured, and slow-cooked until the meat shreds easily. It’s then blended with the warm fat to make a spread. When done right, as it is here, it makes a delicious pâté, worthy of another ring of the heart-stupid bell.
Just as impressive is the pork-based Bolognese on freshly made fettuccine, a rich, round, mouthful of savory sauce somewhere between juicy and moist.
For its steak-frites dish, an item making a return appearance on many metro Detroit menus, the Ravens Club uses an aged Angus beef 12-ounce strip steak dressed with wild green-oniony ramp butter and twice-fried French fries.
Even when a dish doesn’t fully work at the Ravens Club, as happened with a steak tartare, it’s never “bad,” just perhaps a little “manqué.” (In this case, flavorless.) It had the requisite cuteness of a little raw quail egg sitting atop some coarsely ground and deeply red-brown beef, which I’m guessing was filet mignon or another totally lean cut. And therein could be the problem: no fat, no flavor. It was just rather bland.
The menu includes such innovative sandwiches as a PB&J with grilled cheese: medjool date jam, smoky peanut butter, and Morbier cheese. There’s also a chicken-and-waffle sandwich with collard greens, pickled onions, Michigan maple syrup, tater tots, gravy, and honey-pecan butter.
The cheeseburger is 8 ounces of beef dressed with Beemster cheese, served on challah, with house-made ketchup, mustard, pickles, and fries.
The larger dinner offerings include pan-roasted cod with freshly made linguini, clams, watercress, and a tomato marmalade; a plate of pork shank confit with barley risotto, apple watercress, and soy dressing; and a lamb dish cooked two ways — braised shank, belly, minted peas, celery root purée, and a pine-nut picada.
Mercifully, with the Ravens Club and some other restaurants we’ve written about in these pages, such as Mani Osteria, things in Ann Arbor may be changing for the better. The Ravens’ new neighbor, Vellum, is also a potentially great new restaurant. Both are trying very exciting cooking and levels of service not really seen too often since the Moveable Feast reigned on the scene here a decade ago.
The Ravens Club, 207 S. Main St., Ann Arbor; 734-214-0400. D Tue.-Sun. Br. Sun.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org