Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Bivouac Eats: Lena (Ann Arbor, MI)

(photo source: annarbor.com)

   Bivouac Eats is proud to announce a partnership with the Ann Arbor-based restaurant loyalty app Wise.ly
With Wise.ly, every trip to your favorite restaurant turns into progress towards rewards you can use on 
your next visit, from free appetizers to exclusive dining experiences available only to Wise.ly users. 
Best of all, Wise.ly offers new users a $10 meal credit to many of your 
favorite local eateries - including today's feature, Lena - just for signing up
Bon appetit!

    In 2012, one of Ann Arbor's most famous facades came down. After 37 years in business, a neighborhood Greek restaurant called "The Parthenon" closed its doors, and its iconic location at the intersection of Main and Liberty underwent nary its third change of ownership in close to a century. In August of that same year, a bold new tenant opened its doors at one of the busiest corners in the city. After six months of renovations and darkness, electric letters once again flickered to life on Main Street’s venerable corner. Lena, and its nightclub counterpart Habana (located in the basement of the same space), was open for business.

    Lena is best described as contemporary variations on classical Latin American dishes in an upscale casual environment. Its distinctive seafoam green exterior is painted in homage to Main and Liberty’s original tenant, a 1920’s neighborhood grocer with walls the same hue.

    The interior, however, is every inch as modern as the expertly-plated artisan cuisine - think minimal walls and tastefully-adorned open spaces. Lena is both open and intimate: small booths nestled into the room's alcoves filter out all but personal conversation even on the busiest nights, while big dining tables opposite comfortably accommodate large groups (to the friend reunion with whom we shared a dinner slot - here's to 20 more years!) There's an odd accessibility to Lena that's borderline unfamiliar to most "upscale contemporary" joints. Whether it's the warm glow of patio lights on a summer's night or the soft Latin music wafting over your fresh tostados, Lena has made the typical date night spot accessible. No snobby waiters; no stuffy white gloves. Just incredible food and Latin American hospitality.

    That about covers the environment - now comes the good part. After a paragraph about wall deco and great service, did you really think we wouldn't dive into the "contemporary variations on classical Latin American dishes"? The same ambiance that transforms sterile, modern design into casual amiability again works its magic on perhaps the cornerstone of the Lena experience: the jaw-dropping food. Gourmet contemporary cuisine immaculately presented is often accompanied by soft electronic music and bleached tablecloths, not big smiles and casual conversation. I am not setting the bar too high by saying that Lena was one of the best start-to-finish meals I have ever had. 

    The bar now set adequately high, let's eat!

    Embracing my inner Spaniard, I opted for a late dinner. Great for method acting; bad for my hangry side. I was starved, and the only thing that could quench my appetite was incredible modern cuisine. My date didn't need to see the Snickers commercial that would ensue if we waited for entrees first. Forced to order both the house specialty Charcuterie Board and Spanish Octopus Flatbread, I suffered in silence. 

Left to right: pickled tomato relish, meat, meat, meat, meat, whole wheat picos, meat.

    As any world traveler will tell you, Spain (and anywhere it once influenced) has a tradition of excellent cured meats. Lena's Charcuterie Board reflects this prestigious heritage by pairing select cuts of buttifaro, cantipalo chorizo, and serrano ham with whole wheat picos (to cleanse the palette) and - the real highlight - bacon jam (to both delight and pollute the palette post-pico). That's right - your meat plate comes with bacon jam. This is no aqueous, unstructured 50/50 pork-in-gelatin emulsion, either. Try 70/30. The bacon jam is chunky, salty, savory, and a perfect textural combo to enhance the flavor profile of the marbled serrano. For best results, apply meat to meat and eat both together. 

    Alongside the Charcuterie Board, we completed our first course with an order of Spanish Octopus Flatbreads. Octopus, or pulpo, is a Spanish delicacy best cooked until just tender and eaten hot. A typical octopus dish is served in a sizzling pan, a la fajitas. Remember that whole "contemporary variations" bit from earlier? Executive Chef David Burnell reimagined the traditional pulpo dish as a summer flatbread - light patio fare rather than scorching meat. Watercress, sweet potatoes, and cherry tomatoes all cool down the perfectly tender octopus flesh, and are wrapped up easily into finger food flatbread that literally bursts with refreshment as you eat. We've thoroughly enjoyed a moretraditional octopus dish in the past, so this new take was at once novel, welcome, and every bit as mouth-watering as the dishes that inspired it. If you're any fan of inspired cuisine, you'll feel the same. 

    The first course was modern, bold, and gorgeously presented - or so I thought. Compared to our entrees, Course One was a sunspot. In my opinion, the best judge of a restaurant's character are its house specialties. Like the gullible foodie I am, I let asterik-marked menu entries and open-ended questions to the wait staff determine 99% of my meals. This generates as many eye rolls as it does unforgettable dining experiences, but I don't care: because when my temporarily oafish behavior leads to entrees as delectable as Lena's Braised Short Rib, it's all worth it.

My three keys to a good meal: meat, grains, and veggies, in order of importance. 
Just look at the size of that short rib - Lena is on my same wavelength.

    Juicy, fall-off-the-bone braised beef short rib sits atop a throne of grainy, flavorful polenta and delicately-cooked brussel sprouts. Just how special is this house specialty? The above sentence ended with "brussel sprouts" and still made your mouth water. Short rib is a delicate balance between rubber and raw, and Chef David has zeroed that scale straight on incredible. The reduction combines with the short rib's copious juices to saturate the polenta base and turn the entire plate into a delicious broth of superb meat, top-quality grains, and tasty sprouts. Brussel sprouts are far from a familiar addition to Latin American cuisine, but here, they are a welcome addition: the slight crunch of the cooked veggies offsets the buttery smooth braised beef. I savored every bite, checked my watch, and savored even more slowly - the short rib would be gone before Lena closed for the night, but I fought the inevitable for as long as I could. 

Shrimp, mussels, scallops, and chorizo adorn this beautifully-plated take on traditional paella.

    Not into red meat? Try the Paella. Friends who spent semesters abroad in Spain still rank Lena's as numero uno. The highlight: succulent jumbo shrimp. Oh yeah, and chorizo. The same beautifully-marbled cantipalo from the Charcuterie Board is featured prominently in this hallmark dish that's traditionally sized to share. But come on, you saw the pictures - I don't blame you if you don't.

    By this point in the evening, my hanger had been banished by the beginnings of a Category 5 food come brought on by putting mouthwatering dishes on the table in front of me. I was 2/2 on the night, and any more risked a late game “stuffed” that would risk the perfect meal completion that lay so close. As delirium approached and a satisfied grin was just beginning to form, six simple words yanked my date and I from our collective stupor: “Are you two thinking about dessert?”

   “Yeah, I could go for some,” my reflexes subconsciously fired. She groaned; I scanned the menu.

Choco Taco, you've been served: the Cinnamon Taco at Lena. 

   And with that, a horrible decision turned sublime: the perfect game had been saved by Lena’s signature Cinnamon Taco and seasonal mini-donuts, both wolfed down over espresso shots to shake us from our slumber. The Cinnamon Taco, a flaky, “hardshell” cinnamon-sugar pastry, filled with chocolate mousse, crumbled with each bite until only a smile remained. And the seasonal donuts? At Lena, August is Chocolate Season. I’ll leave it at that.

My favorite seasons, in order: Fall, Winter, Spring, and Chocolate.


    I really can’t describe Lena any better than I did previously – very few restaurants offer as complete of a package as they do. Every bit of my meal, from start to finish, was equivalently excellent. The food is what you’d expect from a downtown fusion boutique eatery; the décor looks like the modern rustic you’d find at a Zagat-rated gastropub. But unlike those environments, Lena is relaxed. Lena is casual. Above all, it is very good at what it does. 

~Alex R. -Men's Fashion


Hungry for seconds? Check out previous editions of Bivouac Eats as we visit The Raven's ClubFrita BatidosMani OsteriaAventura, and The Jolly Pumpkin!

Make the most of your Ann Arbor foodie experience by downloading Wise.ly today! Available for Android and iOS.

Bivouac: Where Outdoor Passion Meets Indoor Fashion.

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