On Saturday night, John and I went to Melange for dinner with Mark and Claire. This was a pretty big night out for us (no kids!), so the restaurant was going to have to bear some extra burden to justify our investment. I think my response, for good and for ill, is pretty fair (and shared by Mark and Claire who’s children are grown up, so they’re foot loose and fancy free and not nearly as worried about choosing the Right Restaurant). Claire and John both did their research before we went and told us that the reviews said to try the River Rock and avoid the duck. Mark advanced the theory that the duck was the thing to order because restaurants read the reviews too, and so the kitchen would be trying really extra hard on the duck. John said all he cared about what was the rumor that they used Reidel O wine glasses and he’s been wanting to try those.
At any rate, the restaurant was pleasantly crowded. We were seated right away, despite having changed our reservation at the last moment because of a babysitter snafu. It’s big in there, way bigger than you’d think from the narrow street level door, with several distinct seating areas, and it’s really quite lovely. It’s dim and sophisticated and has a sleek, modern brown and rust ambiance, with a lot of exotic wood and some big glass expanses. The clientèle is pretty too and, for the most part, a little chic-er than you see in most places downtown on a Saturday night.
We were settled into a horseshoe booth with a comfortable banquette but a most unfortunate draft. The staff acknowledged this with some chagrin and assured us that “he” was working on it. He who? Anyway, he succeeded for the most part, although once in a while the cold air kicked back up with a vengeance. We four relatively thin folk fit easily in the booth, but the big trifold menus caused some jostling and bumping once we all had them open.
When it came to ordering, the men pursued their preoccupations. John requested a Reidel O glass and was told a bit frostily that they were “designated” for the bar. Mark asked after the duck. The waitress gulped and said “I’ve served three tonight” but did not direct us to the patrons who had ordered them so that information didn’t help much. Claire and I stuck to the womanly task of getting dinner on the table and saw to the orders. The de rigeur River Rock and some unfortunately named Crabby Cakes for appetizers to share around, some edamame and a pea pod salad for intermission, and then our respective entrees.
Mark chose us a nice Coppola Merlot (I neglected to note label or year) that went down so easy that a second bottle was required in no time at all. It arrived with three stemmed glasses and — wait for it — a Reidel O glass, so our waitress, who was really quite good (attentive and not one bit obtrusive) must have somehow gotten around the house rules. The River Rock came next, in all its sizzling glory, along with stern warnings to Not Touch The Rock. It arrives with beef and chopsticks and sauce, and the trick is to flip the beef on the rock for a few seconds and then dip it in sauce and pop it into your mouth. It’s a fun little event, but I wouldn’t do it again, as in the end it’s just some seared shaved beef and a nice dipping sauce. The Crabby Cakes (I noticed that none of us at the table actually called them that; I guess the Spongebob resonance was too great) were respectably meaty and fresh and nestled on a nice little bed of vaguely Asian noodles. The salad course was nice to have but nothing really to write (home or even in the blog) about. That may have been my fault; edamame is probably more waiting-to-be-fed food than intermezzo food. The requisite sucking and popping just weren’t the right rhythm at this point in the meal.
Without coordinating, we had selected a good range of entrees. Mark’s duck was perfectly cooked (no doubt by a kitchen he had cowed into submission by his pointed questions), but he was furthest from me at the table, so I didn’t really get to investigate his dish. I was flanked by two seafood entrees, John’s sea bass in crazy water on one side, Claire’s Marlin special on the other.They reported, respectively, that the first was underdone (and the bite that John passed me was almost sushi-like) and the second overdone. Claire, having neglected to ask the cost of the Marlin, was struck in the first bite or two by the fear of the over-priced special, and we swapped stories over the entrees about specials that had sent us into sticker shock. My filet of beef in ping sauce was just right, the sauce a little plummy and a little salty, with some mashed potatoes that struck a nice balance between lightness and substance.
There were desserts shared around . . . a nicely done creme brulee and a whimsically named but fairly ordinary zebra cake (some luxe version of chocolate and vanilla) and then the bill. I can report that at twenty dollars the Marlin was in keeping with the lower end of the entrees. And that John says the Reidel glasses are nice for minimizing chance of spillage but don’t seem quite the right form factor for a glass of wine.
Despite the fact that there were no real stand-out dishes and a couple of disappointments, we all liked the place and were glad we’d gone. The solidly good quality of a lot of the food and the great style somehow made everything add up to more than the sum, etc. But when John and I compared notes on whether we’d go back, we both decided probably not. There was nothing intimate about the place or anything that made it feel rooted in Ann Arbor. I’m not talking about Maize and Blue themes or pictures of Bo or anything like that; I just want a sense that a restaurant respects its locale and community and connects with it. Melange felt like it could be in any city. If I had found Melange when I was out of town at a conference, I would have been pleased and felt like I’d had a nice dining experience. It just isn’t the kind of place that I want to make part of my life. Perhaps in the end I’d say it’s a nice place to drink, but you wouldn’t want to eat there . . .