“Food travel” is hot. And there are few places where you can embark on a culinary journey around the world with chefs and restauranteurs featuring cuisine from the far reaches of the globe, learn the art of cheese making, sip the world’s finest teas, or sample a selection of microbrews made in the brewery on the other side of the bar where it’s served. Ann Arbor, Michigan, as well as Ypsilanti and the surrounding communities celebrate the seasonal and local abundance. The chefs, bakers and food purveyors share the stories behind every dish, jar of sauerkraut, glass of beer, bottle of wine or spirits they make.
The breadth of the culinary scene is impressive. There are over 363 unique restaurants and eateries in the Ann Arbor area alone, fifteen breweries, three distilleries, six coffee roasters, several wine sommeliers, one of only five tea sommeliers in the US, seventeen artisan bakeries, three creameries and ten specialty food companies.
Added to this are numerous cooking classes offered by leading food purveyors and a vibrant farming community that supplies a year-round farmers’ market including several vendors selling cottage food products, numerous food co-ops and an exclusively local, year-round, direct-to-consumer market and coffee house called Argus Farm Stop. From my perspective, as a small-scale farmer, every town and city in America needs their own version of an Argus Farm Stop so we farmers can get out of the distribution and logistics business and focus, instead, on the growing.
According to the World Food Travel Association’s 2016 Food Travel Monitor Report, 93% of travelers have engaged in a unique or memorable food or drink experience, other than just eating out, in the past two years. They may have visited a cooking school, participated in a food tour, or gone shopping in a local grocery or gourmet store. In the Ann Arbor area, you can do it all – and much more.
“Certain food and beverage products and foodie experiences underscore an area’s sense of place because they can be unique to the area in question,” explains Erik Wolf, Executive Director of the World Food Travel Association. “An area doesn’t need to be famous for a product like Parma, Italy’s claim to fame with ham and Parmesan cheese. It can something as simple as the best burgers in 300 miles, or apple pie still made using grandmother’s recipe. As long as the food, beverage or experience is unique for the area, it can attract foodies.”
“The interest in local, artisanal, craft ingredients and their pedigree has surged in the past ten years,” adds Wolf. “This is partly due to the influence of the media, but also from consumer demand. We want to know everything about the products we buy and ingest.”
The spectacular symphony of often times interwoven food and beverage artisans, cheesemakers, brewers, chefs, farmers and fermenters that call the Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti area home make understanding what we’re eating easy.
Here’s a round-up of just a few of the many culinary hotspots not to be missed, next time you’re passing through the area. If you have a thirst and hunger for global cuisine prepared with local ingredients, leave some time in your travel itinerary to wander from bakery, creamery and coffee house to restaurants, breweries and a bar on wheels as it snakes through the thriving downtown business district, cross-crossing Main Street.
The confluence of residents and visitors attracted to the tidy, tree-lined streets spawned an array of dining options as diverse as those who live or visit here. From Korean to Moroccan, from a Jewish deli to Turkish café with dishes that taste like they came out of a home kitchen, made from scratch, taste buds are tempted everywhere.
For breakfast, Fred’s take on California cuisine is mostly organic, local, super fresh and nourishing. This bright, hipster spot turns out smoothies, acai bowls, avocado toast, sweet potato nachos and breakfast burritos.
Travis Schuster, farmer-turned-chef at Ollie Food & Spirits, demonstrates with every dish his talent for showcasing whatever is in season. Who better to direct the menu than a former farmer? Nature controls the menu here, where he offers heartland comfort foods, like turnip mushroom dumplings and spring tartine of mushrooms, grilled asparagus and radish.
But the roots of the current Ann Arbor foodie scene go back several decades. Since 1982, Zingerman’s Deli, started by Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw, has been a staple of the gourmet food scene in Ann Arbor. Artisanal breads, a spectacular selection of fine cheeses, meats and olive oils are just a few items this global emporium offers (they ship, too). Their meal-sized sandwiches feature from-scratch sauces, dressings and fresh breads, with their corned beef Reuben a top seller. Of course, their sauerkraut comes from local The Brinery, headed up by the jovial David Klingenberger, Chief Fermenting Officer. Besides sauerkraut, his company makes fermented hot sauces and kimchi, all made from ingredients sourced from regional farms.
Nearby, you can visit Miss Kim, a restaurant specializing in Korean and Vietnamese food made with ingredients sourced locally from many farms, food artisans or purveyors. While it started as a food cart and is now among the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, Miss Kim had me with the first bite of their Bahn Mi sandwich stuffed with slow roasted five spice pork shoulder. Like most of the restaurants striving to source locally, the names of the growers and producers are listed right on the menu.
Chef and owner Danny Van at Taste Kitchen serves up his take on global cuisine prepared with local ingredients. Think: braised daikon radish with a green curry or my favorite, roasted cauliflower with fingerling potatoes, grilled zucchini and a red pepper sauce. Or you can watch the show behind the counter at Mani Osteria & Bar with their pizzas made in a wood-fired oven, handcrafted pastas and other Italian tapas. For truly hardcore local and sustainable sourcing, you can’t go wrong at Chef Brandon Johns’ Grange Kitchen & Bar, where 90 percent of their ingredients come from local farms.
I’d argue that dining at many Ann Arbor area restaurants are, in fact, an experience in themselves. Wait staff and servers are eager to share and explain the dishes or drinks, their preparation, their sourcing and so forth. But learning about the craft of cheese making at Zingerman’s Creamery -- which makes all of their cheeses from local cow’s or goat’s milk – or baking scones at a cooking class offered by Fustini’s that focuses on olive oils and vinegars takes it to a whole new level.
As one of only five Tea Sommeliers in the United States, Lisa McDonald can read her tea leaves like few others. Her Tea Haus in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Market & Shops is a cornucopia of aromas and flavors, with an entire wall devoted to air tight containers holding her exquisite black, oolong, green and white teas. Linger here for the lowdown on growing regions, processes and the politics of tea. For an hour, I joined her on the journey to distant lands when sampling her Assam Mokalbari black, Darjeeling Steinthal black, China Milky Jade oolong, Japan Sencha green, China Lung Ching green and China Fancy Peony white teas. Bliss in a cup.
For other tasting “classes,” savor a glass of wine from several northern Michigan vineyards at VinBar or grab a seat at the HOMES Brewery to sample the sour Leafy Leaf Drops, hoppy Same Same Different IPA, King Cold Brew ale and Bang Down stout brewed on site by head brewer Nick Panchame and the rest of his team.
With High Five Pedal Tours, I pedaled my way through the city with stops at bookstores (I’m an author, after all) while enjoying locally roasted coffee from Mighty Good Coffee. Our group of sixteen pedalers finished at the award-winning Ann Arbor Distilling Company, a boutique distillery that goes from grain to the glass, producing gins, vodkas, liqueurs and brandy with Michigan-sourced ingredients. Our nightcap was a white Russian made with Ann Arbor Distilling Co.’s own Spaulding’s Coffee Liqueur.
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine. Read all of John's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.