ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Travelers can be a fickle bunch, always looking for the glamor destination — Costa Rica or Croatia, London or Las Vegas — the travel equivalent of a Christmas package all gussied up in glitzy wrapping. By contrast, Ann Arbor, an exurb of Detroit and a blend of Midwest urban and rural, may not have the most eye-catching wrapping. But inside is a jewel of a present.
All I knew about Ann Arbor when I made my first visit last month was that it is home to the state's flagship university. The city's population of 100,000 swells to 145,000 when University of Michigan students are on campus. But after only four days, I left knowing this: If the dictionary had a definition of "cool American town," it would be Ann Arbor.
Consider the following coolness factors: Ann Arbor has five farmers' markets, including one run by UM students; 23 used book stores; the largest collection of antique and heirloom peonies in North America; a hardware store by day that transforms into a beer garden by night, and a local deli that holds an annual fundraiser, Camp Bacon, where events range from the Potlikker Film Festival to the Bacon Ball.
It has a university art museum, which inspires as much civic pride as the university football stadium, known as the "Big House." The stadium is the country's largest, seating nearly 110,000.
It has a musical paean from raspy-voiced hometown boy Bob Seger, who was referring to Ann Arbor when he crooned about "feeling lonely and beat, drifting back in time and finding my feet ... Down on Mainstreet."
Surprisingly, it also has a culinary and craft cocktail scene that is staggering in a town of its modest size. I was here to experience that scene first hand.
Eating in Ann Arbor
On my first night in town, arriving at Mezzevino and meeting Chef Brent Courson, I immediately thought, "Is this guy old enough to have a driver's license, let alone oversee a restaurant kitchen?"
But after tasting dishes such as his Tuscan Kale Ribbon Salad (marinated kale, walnuts, toasted breadcrumbs, raisins and pickled onions), followed by swordfish drizzled with a lemon rosemary marinade, charred eggplant purée, roasted pepper and feta relish, I decided that baby-faced or not, Courson didn't just have a license, he was ready for the culinary equivalent of a Big Rig.
Mezzevino set the bar high, but dining establishments in the days to follow did not lower it a fraction. Another of those high-bar experiences came at a tasting lunch at the aptly named Slurping Turtle — for if only it was as socially acceptable in Michigan as it is in Japan, slurping would have been the order of the day.
Chef Takashi Yagahashi has combined the culinary influences of his native country and his favorite country, France, to the delight of those who appreciate the cuisine of both. His Duck Fat Fried Chicken may sound like the artery-clogging special of the day, but the portion is on the small side so you can enjoy it guilt-free.
Still, if you are looking for something healthier, try the Hamachi Tacos — a tartare of yellowtail tuna with truffle soy.
Don't expect spartan fare at most Ann Arbor restaurants. My brunch at Vinology — a breakfast charcuterie of salmon mousse, scotch egg, black pudding and artisan cheese, as well as a Belgian Waffle with caramelized white chocolate cinnamon glazed peaches, Chantilly cream and mint — was another winner. So were tasting menus at Mani (specializing in small plates and wood-fired pizza) and Aventura, where the emphasis is on traditional Spanish comfort food (be sure to order the paella) accompanied by Spanish wines.
Aventura's owner, Sava Lelcaj, also owns Sava's where the breakfast should come with a warning label — if you eat even a portion of the bountiful platters, you will be set for the day. With such delectable dishes as brioche bread pudding topped with maple apple chicken sausage, fried egg and housemade date ketchup and Red Velvet waffles with vanilla bean cream and maple syrup, the difficulty will be in eating just a portion.
"Zinger" of a food empire
The name Zingerman is synonymous with Ann Arbor's food scene. What began as a traditional Jewish deli more than three decades ago is now an empire dedicated to good taste. The deli, famous for its Reuben, has been joined by the Bakehouse, Creamery, coffee company, candy company and the Roadhouse, where I enjoyed a tasting lunch courtesy of James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Young.
Young may be working his magic in Michigan, but he has a Southern sensibility when it comes to food. Just try his signature buttermilk fried chicken (Amish free-range chicken dipped in black pepper spiced buttermilk batter and fried) or his BBQ plate where the spare ribs and pit-smoked chicken are served with grits and bacon-braised greens.
And even those who normally skip dessert will be tempted by his donut sundae — a housemade donut topped with brown sugar, Zingerman's Creamery vanilla gelato, caramel-bourbon sauce and fresh whipped cream.
As impressive as Ann Arbor's dining scene is, it's matched by its craft cocktail scene. Your cocktail crawl might start at Raven's Club, where an entirely new cocktail menu is introduced every three months, and end at The Last Word, a below-street-level speakeasy that has 62 different bourbons, including 15-, 20- and 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle. Be sure to ask for the Friends List, which showcases the club's rarer whiskeys.
If you prefer tequila, opt for a tasting at Isalita, which has 17 different brands of tequila and mescal.
Beyond the table
Of course, you can't spend your whole visit eating. Ann Arbor provides food for the soul as well as the body. One place no visitor should miss is the University of Michigan Museum of Art. With 18,000 works of art representing 150 years of collecting, this is like no university art museum in the country.
Its emphasis is on Chinese paintings and Japanese and Chinese ceramics, but it also has works from the masters, Monet and Picasso, as well as the moderns, Tracy Emin and Barbara Hepworth. I found the most fascinating exhibition to be the display of architectural glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany commissioned for one Manhattan mansion.
Just down the street from UMMA is the equally fascinating Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, featuring 100,000 objects from the ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Middle East. Exhibits range from an Egyptian mummy to medieval Islamic textiles, but the highlight has to be the large scale reproduction watercolor mural depicting a secret ceremony at the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii.
If you love gardens, Ann Arbor has the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and the Nichols Arboretum. The former has trails connecting individual garden areas, including a wildflower garden, rock garden, knot garden and children's garden, as well as a conservatory designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright to house three major biomes — tropical, temperate and arid.
The latter, affectionately known as "the Arb," may be the most spectacular site in Ann Arbor, at least from Memorial Day through mid-June when masses of scarlet, pink and white peonies, the largest collection in North America, are in bloom.
How spectacular are they? On my visit, local police had been summoned to assist with a visitor who had fallen and twisted her ankle. After efficiently taking care of the situation, several of the officers — cameras at the ready — were spotted clicking away.