I am a fortunate woman. It was my birthday last week, and as such, I’ve had the rather wonderful opportunity to eat out at several really great restaurants to celebrate: Food Dance Cafe, Sushiya, (both in Kalamazoo) and Zingerman’s Roadhouse (in Ann Arbor, of course). I would have to say that, empirically, my least favorite meal was actually at Zingerman’s.
All of us Irwins love to eat, and love to eat well, but none of us are what you’d exactly call foodies. However, we do have some of the best culinary training available: My mom’s (and my Gram Lucy’s, and Great-Aunt Norma’s, and to a certain extent, my Gram Irwin’s) home cooking. It’s easy to snipe at normal restaurant food when you have a long line of Strong Women Who Cook Well in your family.
It being a Saturday night, we called ahead and made reservations for three persons: myself, my mom, and my brother Jim. So we arrive at 7:15 for our reservation, and not only is our table not ready, but it’s so busy that there’s nowhere to sit, inside or out. Mom’s been on her feet for ten hours straight and her feet are about to give out, so I ask the hostess for a chair for her — and only then did the flock of twentysomething girls occupying one of the metal gliders out front realize what was afoot and make way for mom to sit down. So we wait, and we wait. I think we finally got seated at 7:45. We sit down, and they’re out of menus, so Jim and I have to share. We get our water poured by one of the owners. Our server, who’s trying his damndest to keep up Zingerman’s legendary customer service, has obviously either had a rough day or a recent ass-chewing or both, because what would have seemed like charming banter if he’d been having a good evening came across as forced jocularity instead.
We order. I get a single raw oyster (I only wanted a taste, not a whole appetizer), and it was wonderful. The hot sauce tasted exactly like a perfectly-made Bloody Mary, and may have been my favorite taste of the evening. It was also topped with freshly-grated horseradish that I’m pretty sure was in whole-root form five minutes before it became a garnish.
Mom gets the famous Zingerman’s Mac-and-cheese, which is legendary amongst the foodie crowd, and is also a perfect gauge, because mom’s mac-and-cheese is also legendary at our house. Jim gets the deep-fried catfish and hush puppies. I get the crab cakes. We split some onion rings and devour the breadbasket; I may carp on Zingerman’s entrees, but their bread still deserves every laurel thrown at it. None of our entrees came with salad, and only mom felt like paying for one, so Jim and I skipped that course entirely.
So the entrees arrive. Mom’s mac-and-cheese is only so-so, and she proclaims it not as good as hers. I taste it, and immediately agree. We also agree that it’s five bucks overpriced, fancy cheddar or not. Jim’s catfish is whole, tail-on — something we missed, though it was clearly printed on the menu — and instead of being able to eat great satisfying gobbets of tasty fried fish, I was forced to flake it off the bones for him into a distasteful little pile of breading and fish, with plenty bones still in. He ate almost none of it, and paid $21 for the privilege. My crabcakes were tasty, and I probably the best I’d ever had — but considering most of the crabcakes I’ve eaten have been pretty lousy, that’s not saying much. The three cakes arrived prettily plated, each about 2.5 inches in diameter, dressed with a bland but citrusy sauce and accompanied by an icecream-scoop of (delicious and organic and well-prepared but nonetheless plain) white rice, and some nicely-wilted but otherwise unexciting spinach greens that I could (and have) easily prepare by myself at home. When I go out to a restaurant, I specifically order food that would be too difficult or expensive or time-consuming to make on my own, and so this was a definite disappointment, especially for $21. And to add insult to injury, even after plowing through a shared appetizer and two baskets of bread, I was able to polish off my entree in its entirety. No doggy bags for me.
We all left feeling disappointed, underfed and overcharged, especially after waiting an extra half-hour past our reservation time. None of us feel any compunction about dropping $30 apiece on a meal, provided that we all leave feeling satisfied, but this was definitely not that kind of a meal. We didn’t even get salad or drinks for that kind of money. Ridiculous, and the wait and effort was totally not worth the Zingerman’s brand name.
By comparison, my meal with Paul at Food Dance was absolutely lovely, beautifully crafted and made primarily of local food; all the meat, eggs and greens are raised within a hundred miles of the restaurant. I had three delicious pulled-pork soft tacos with house-made citrus farm cheese, a heavenly guacamole sauce, toe-curling jicama slaw and a pot of creamy local black beans for four dollars less than my Zingerman’s entree, and had enough food left over for a full lunch the next day. Salad was also separate at Food Dance, but the Square Dance was incredible enough to justify its $8 price tag, and Paul and I essentially split it because every separate taste-pairing (warm goat cheese and tart cherry! caramelized onion and pine nut!) was an explosion of flavor that needed to be considered in its own mouthful. Actually, *all* of Food Dance’s entrees are like that (ask me sometime about their goat-cheese-stuffed, deep-fried squashblossoms… glaaaghhh); carefully sculpted flavors that pair perfectly with everything else on the plate so that you almost don’t dare distract yourself from the taste combinations by talking to your dinnermates. This is food worth its price tag, and no waiting at all. We walked right in, sat right down, and ate ourselves stupid.
So yeah. For the same money, come to Kalamazoo and eat better. Sometimes the brand name isn’t worth it.