BY ANNIE LEVENE
Daily Arts Writer
Published November 29, 2007
Walk through the glass doors and down the wooden paneled stairway, grab a seat at the bar, chill in the lounge or settle into a 7-foot-tall booth tucked into the wall of the main dining room. It seems like a dining experience typical of any large city, but Mélange Bistro and Wine Bar is a few blocks away from Central Campus, a big-city restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor.
The restaurant, which opened a little more than a year ago, is managed by Terry Martin. It's the 10th restaurant Martin has opened in the metropolitan area, but Mélange, he said, is "hipper (and) sleeker." With the support of the owners, Martin takes more chances with the restaurant, like adding sushi to the already different, contemporary, subterranean-based menu. Martin said the opportunity to work with "a hopefully pretty cool regular menu and then sushi as well - in the same building - is pretty fun for me."
The addition of sushi to Mélange's menu came with the arrival of Sam Ness, a chef who once worked for New York City's Nobu, the celebrity-infested Japanese restaurant and sushi bar created in part by the chef Nobu Matsuhisa and the actor Robert De Niro. Ness, who Martin declared "a tremendously talented man," was recruited by one of Mélange's owners to serve as a temporary executive chef before becoming more of a consultant for the restaurant.
Ann Arbor's food scene is home to several popular food blogs (check out kitchenchick.com), and wine-tasting events have become commonplace at many restaurants like Vinology on Main Street. But Martin sees Mélange as a restaurant that encourages further experimentation of different styles and flavors of foods, aiming to be "just a little bit different, as opposed to entrees, salads and appetizers."
The menu -developed by the restaurant's original executive chef and revised by current executive chef John Iverson - is sophisticated but accessible. One of the signature dishes is the "River Rock," an interactive appetizer in which strip streak is served and cooked at your table on a rock warmed up to 500 degrees. Other popular choices include seared scallops in a Tamarind chili Yin Yang sauce and an 8-ounce filet of beef served over whipped potato and haricot vert. Also catching on, Martin said, is the sushi, whether by itself or as part of a meal.
Service is equally important as the food. Martin, who attributes his focus on customer service to his work at the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, said that "it takes a little bit more than just throwing the food on the table" and that dining out should be a memorable experience.
Mélange works to serve everyone, from the groups that capitalize on the restaurant's private party room and 77-inch screen to the stressed-out student that just wants to unwind with a glass of one of the 1,500 bottles of wine in the house.
Martin said the restaurant is very student-friendly. Happy hour, with half-off all appetizers and drinks, is 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and live bands and DJs provide music Tuesday through Saturday with no cover charge.
Feel free to stick to $4 beers all night, but more adventurous students can move on to a glass of wine recommended by Martin, who also serves as the restaurant's sommelier. Go ahead - Tom Colicchio would want it that way.