Upscale A2

May 14, 2008 at 12:00 am

When a CIA operative conducted a bizarre job interview in 1964 in Ann Arbor with SDS leader Carl Oglesby, he chose the Pretzel Bell for the meeting. Aside from a few homey German restaurants and the new Rubaiyat, Ann Arbor was a culinary wasteland at the time. Indeed, during those days, the P-Bell, a legendary beer-and-burger joint on Liberty, was considered one of the better "restaurants" in town.

Owing to the influx of upper middle-class non-university professionals as well as the increased financial solvency of University of Michigan faculty and staff, Ann Arbor has become a prime destination for demanding diners who flock to such upscale eateries as Café Zola, the two Earles, Bella Ciao, Eve, the West End Grill and Logan, the restaurant under review.

Logan opened in the fall of 2004 in the long and narrow storefront that previously housed the flambouyant Flame bar, a pioneering gay spot. Owners Thad and Ryan Gillies and Kevin Hobart decorated their lovely space that seats just 50 with a brilliant yellow outer facade, soothing burnt-sienna walls, and huge windows that look out at the colorful Ann Arbor street scene. More important, despite their limited capacity, they happily resisted the temptation to squeeze in more people by jamming their white-clothed tables together.

Thad Gillies, who is the chef, worked at Zingerman's and also in New York at the now shuttered Lespinasse and the Union Square Café. His son is named Logan. Thad's brother Ryan is general manager, and Kevin Hobart is the enthusiastic sommelier who will guide you through his extensive wine list, which, fortunately for penurious tipplers, offers a few well-selected bargains from the high $20s to the mid-$30s.

The eclectic fare, which emphasizes Asia and the Caribbean, is reflected in the appetizers. For example, Thad brilliantly executes a platter of four crispy Chinese pork dumplings atop cilantro, laced with a subtle, tamarind-infused tomato sauce ($9). Although the portion size will disappoint those hoping to share, the tuna tartare, a small mound of yellowfin folded into a dijon-thyme dressing, is a pleasing delicacy ($12).

Other appetizers include broiled mussels, crab cake and Gruyére custard.

Thad is so confident in his spicing that you have to ask for the salt and pepper you would expect to find on the table. Whatever you do don't ask for catsup.

The salads and pastas are served in mini and regular sizes. The wonderful salad of shaved fennel in a Parmesan-shallot vinaigrette is more interesting than the Logan greens. But be forewarned, the fennel-mini ($5) is very small. As for the pastas, the shrimp sautéed with fennel and tossed with peppers and roasted garlic over tagliatelle is a keeper, as are the perfectly light gnocchi in a tarragon cream sauce with pine nuts and Parmesan Reggiano cheese. Among the alternates are butternut squash tortelloni and roasted asparagus penne.

It was at this point that I inquired about bread, which was not scheduled to arrive until the main course. It may be that Logan is a bit embarrassed by its house-made warm biscuits. Its sophisticated cuisine would be better enhanced with a crunchy baguette.  

Sophistication is much in evidence in the huge juicy seared Thai scallops floating on a "complex" coconut-milk sauce, replete with shallots, garlic, chilies and kaffir lime leaves "ground by hand," and accompanied by mashed potatoes and pickled mustard greens ($32). Although this dish, the second most expensive main, is well conceived, the menu descriptions are unnecessarily self-congratulatory.

After a "ten-hour cooking process," the confit of duck leg ($26) emerges admirably crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, and is garnished with cute pickled black grapes and a buerre Dijon sauce. The more succulent whole roasted Moroccan Cornish hen, marinated in North African spices and served with carrots and another Dijon sauce ($22), further demonstrates the chef's admirable handling of fowl.

His kitchen, which reaches into most other regional cuisines, also turns out risotto Milanese, bourbon pork tenderloin, short ribs with "an authentic Oaxacan mole," braised lamb shank with polenta, and sunshine bass enlivened with Jamaican jerk spices.

The attractively presented plates appear less busy than their menu descriptions.

Logan's most amusing dessert is a generous helping of freshly baked soft warm cookies that surround a large glass of milk. The milk, of course, is a pale substitute for an after-dinner libation.

Ann Arbor has come a long way from the time when well-traveled and creative faculty spouses prepared the most elaborate meals in town. Indeed, Nancy Perkins, one such celebrated spouse, was an editor of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. In recent years, the restaurant scene, with Logan as a prime exemplar, has improved dramatically. Staffed by professionals who know their food and wine, it offers imaginative cuisine in a charming room, which, as the Michelin would recommend, is worth a journey from Detroit.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].