The Raven's Club, Ann Arbor, MI.
Restaurant Week is a celebration of all things Ann Arbor: community, participation, and, well, food. As you may have guessed by now, restaurant culture is central to Ann Arbor's mystique. UM graduates proclaim it "The Best Food Town in All the Land". Over 470 restaurants populate Trip Advisor's Tree Town rankings. And twice a year, dozens of Ann Arbor eateries craft delicious, affordable tasting menus for the express purpose of exposing as many people as possible to all the fine dining available within city limits.
If you're interested, google how much a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 20 costs. I'll wait.
Restaurant Week is also the great equalizer. Previously off-limit (read: out-of-budget) places are suddenly prix fix. There's an odd democracy in a starving college student bumping elbows with wealthy retirees over the same food, even if it's only for two weeks out of fifty-two. I decided to leverage this invaluable opportunity to visit a place known to insiders and outside of the mind and budget of most college students: The Raven's Club on Main Street.
The extensive drinks menu at the Raven's Club - if you had any doubts that TRC was perhaps Ann Arbor's premier bourbon whiskey destination.
The Raven's Club (TRC) is a modern interpretation of the storied 207 Main Street space that has played host to many previous bar and restaurant tenants. TRC's reputation is twofold: great food and legendary bourbon. A massive wooden bar situated directly in front of the entrance vestibule dominates the room. If the bottles of rare bourbon lining the entrance way didn't tell you already, TRC is first and foremost a whiskey joint. TRC's bottle selection boggles the mind and overwhelms the eye - lit by Art Deco-style lamps made specifically for TRC, row after row of liqours cascade from behind the bar in an unintentional light show that would make Ron Swanson melt.
Interested in a complete list of what they serve? Check out TRC's website.
The interior is antiquated yet far from old: wood and metal furnishings dominate the space, colorful 20's-inspired glass provides dimly-lit ambiance, but everything inside the TRC has an element of intentional refinement on top of the backroom jazz club atmosphere. Sitting at your table feels somewhat exclusive and important without being stuffy: you, because you were tasteful enough to recognize good food and drink, are part of the Raven's Club. It's as if a Prohibition speakeasy had just earned a Michelin star. Table set and my order essentially pre-determined (re: Restaurant Week), it was time to see if the food lived up to the reputation.
Course #1: Mixed Greens salad with buttermilk dressing and pickled radishes.
The first course of the night was a mixed greens salad with buttermilk dressing and pickled radishes. As an ensemble taste, the salad was surprisingly sweet and refreshing - the buttermilk dressing contributed sweet top notes without weighing down the production with excess creme. Fresh greens and a liberal sprinkling of radish garnish added vibrant texture and color to the overall simple production.
Simplicity is not a bad thing - I was just shocked at how cut-and-dry the dish was. Most of TRC's peers feature menu descriptions besieged by commas where fancy ingredients are name-dropped to add a certain mystique to the dining experience. TRC, however, made an A+ salad out of common goods. There was a definitively "down home done right" feeling to it all, a feeling done oh so well.
Course #2: Fried chicken sausage with cole slaw, glaze, and 1/2 sour pickle.
Course #2 was home-cooked to a T: fried chicken sausage served with cole slaw and half of a sour pickle. If I'm being blunt, I ordered this course out of curiosity: I wanted to know how a top-rated restaurant would do something as seemingly non-cuisine as "fried sausage". Remember that whole "done right" part from earlier? Imagine some of the most flavorful sausage you've ever had and wrap it in a deep-fried coating that doesn't CRUNCH; rather, one that crunches. The first kind is your gas station fried chicken - dried out meat, overly-breaded exterior, heaps of grease. Gross.
Pictured: fried food as a delicate art form.
The second kind is TRC's immaculate coating. A light breading with just the right amount of texture to keep the coating present and interesting wrapped around juicy chicken sausage that was cooked, but not desiccated, by the oils it once called home. Drop those heavenly pieces on some Southern cloeslaw, cover it all in a sweet glaze, and add a spear of crunchy sour pickle on the side of it all to complete a plating of perfect complements. Crunchy pickle vs. succulent fried sausage; tangy glazed slaw vs. savory chicken. This is Southern-style comfort food as an artistic achievement.
Course #3: Pork tenderloin with broccoli coulis and ginger butter.
The third and final course was pork tenderloin served with broccoli coulis and drizzled in ginger butter. Anyone who has ever tried to cook pork tenderloin at home knows the knife's edge you walk every time that pork hits the grill. Even a second too long over open flame turns formerly tender loins into overcooked rawhide. Cooking perfect pork is listed next to bomb diffusal under the category "tasks not for mere mortals". The moral of the story: let TRC cook the tenderloin for you. Imagine the tenderest pork ever concocted, then drizzle it in garlic butter.
Juicy meat, with just the slightest suggestion of char on each piece to keep every bite engaging. Submerged in an absolutely sublime sauce and covered in broccoli so delicious and verdant it almost couldn't have been cooked. Every slice of pork I ate was bittersweet: I had to watch some of the best white meat I've ever eaten get picked off one by one. I also got to savor every bite. Win some, lose some.
Dessert: house-made chocolate chip cookies and TRC's own custom-made coffee.
The Raven's Club wins tons of bonus points for providing an unexpected Restaurant Week dessert course at no additional charge - two massive, warm chocolate chip cookies were delivered to our table the moment the third course was cleared. No micro-cheesecakes on asymmetric plates - just the classic sweet indulgence on a plain napkin. To no surprise, it was an incredible cookie. I chased my crumbs with a mug of TRC's house blend coffee, a delicious concoction they developed specifically with Ann Arbor's own Roos Roasters. Melty chocolate cookies and steamy black coffee? "Down home done right" indeed.
The Raven's Club is an Ann Arbor restaurant experience unlike any other: recognizable food made incredible, with ingredients you can pronounce at first glance in a gorgeous retro setting. I'm told it's all even better with a house Old Fashioned, but at the ripe age of "not yet 21", I'll just take their word for it. Bear with me on this one, but there's an "upscale Southern comfort food" feeling to the menu: just like the restaurant's decor, it's refined but not exclusionary. You know the food (mixed greens salad; chicken sausage; pork tenderloin) - you just haven't yet sampled it at its highest expression. Well, until you've been to the Raven's Club. If this is just like how someone's Momma used to make it, I hope they adopt me.
~Alex R. -Men's Fashion
Need some fodder for your winter Restaurant Week brainstorm? Check out previous editions of Bivouac Eats as we visit Frita Batidos, Mani Osteria, Aventura, and The Jolly Pumpkin!
Bivouac: Where Outdoor Passion Meets Indoor Fashion.