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Wednesday, October 9,2013

He ate, She ate

by Mark Nixon and Gabrielle Johnson

He ate: Verifying the hype

Because of an editing error, this story misstated in what direction the chef moved from Gracie's Place in Williamston to Tannin in Okemos. It should have said west.

Restaurants naturally strive to set themselves apart, but so often fall victim to their own hyperbole. So when another Italian restaurant hits the scene with a motto that calls its food “intoxicating” ... well, as President Reagan once said, “Trust but verify.”

So we recently arrived at Tannin, the 2-month-old Okemos restaurant, with plans to verify if it lived up to its intoxicating self-appraisal.

It’s fair to say that, food-wise, I left Tannin dead drunk. When is the last time you ate a fresh beet salad in an Italian restaurant with braised pistachios, arugula and blueberry vinaigrette? (Outstanding, by the way.) Or seared duck breast? Or raw scallops with a ceviche sauce? Or tomato and mozzarella soup with white miso, which imparts the soup with amazing but subtle smokiness?

I’ll wager Tannin’s menu comes closer to the true roots of Italian cooking, though I’m hardly an expert. It's certainly a far cry from what most Italian restaurants offer in these parts. Tannin calls its menu “Italian-world fusion,” which clearly draws from Japan and Eastern Europe. On the dinner menu, at least, pasta plays somewhat of a supporting role. There’s not a pizza pie in sight, although it does have flat bread pizzas for lunch.

Some may call downplaying pasta heresy. I call it bold, inventive and damn fine eating.

Credit Chef James Sumpter for this inspired menu. Formerly of Gracie’s Place in Williamston (one of our area’s best restaurants), Sumpter recently packed his bags and headed west to Okemos. He brought his amazing talents with him, along with a steadfast devotion to fresh foods from local gardens, orchards and farms.

Our first visit to Tannin was on a late weekday afternoon. The dining room was nearly empty, which accentuated the spare decor and tables — that old blank canvas onto which the kitchen can apply its art. Four of us shared some wondrous dishes.

The beets in the aforementioned beet salad were as earthy as any root vegetable I’ve ever tasted. The pork meatballs with tomato, grilled peach and caramelized onions, accented by a smoky tomato sauce, had well-balanced flavors. (I’ve made a similar meatball dish at home, based on a recipe from the famous Criniti’s Restaurant in Philadelphia. It’s terrific). The meatballs are just an appetizer, but paired with soup or a salad it can be a complete meal.

My wife ordered gnudi. Here, ricotta is worked into the pasta dough before cooking. Add duck confit, beef tenderloin tips, mushroom and herbs and you have a small but satisfying meal.

The entr'e offerings include angel hair pasta with a choice of three types of sauce; I ordered it with the creamy five-cheese sauce. My brother ordered angel hair with butter, herbs and parmigiano reggiano. We both agreed the flavors were robust, but the ingredients were a bit on the cool side and congealed on top, rather than spread throughout the pasta. We both felt these dishes needed an assist: More olive oil, butter or cream to help distribute the tastes throughout the pasta.

I’m not as gaga over desserts as I once was, but folks, definitely consider ordering the tiramisu set atop a layer of honey. It’s one of the best desserts I’ve had in some time. And the olive oil-almond cake was light and not overly sweet, allowing the almond flavor to shine through.

On our next visit, we ordered braised lamb sugo and seared whitefish with parmesan-caper sauce. If you’re a lamb lover, you’re in luck. Tannin pays daily homage to lamb, with a cut of the day offered at market price.

My seared whitefish turned out to be something that looked and tasted like a good salmon fillet. The server described it as ruby trout, a cousin of the rainbow trout. The taste did not disappoint, though I was a tad disappointed the fish was not what was stated on the menu. And obviously, the “whitefish” turned out to be pink.

OK, some thoughts on d'cor: I’m probably the last person qualified to critique restaurant d'cor; I used to think a Day-Glo poster was the pinnacle of interior design. Still, I was put off by the dining room’s ultra-minimalist surroundings. “Cold” is how one dining companion put it. I felt we were dining in a hospital cafeteria.

To be fair, on our second visit we were seated in the bar area, which exuded more warmth. Also, because there were more customers, it felt cozier. While I didn’t make it to the women’s restroom — and this explains why I am writing from home instead of a jail cell — my granddaughter was impressed. She said there is a shelf conveniently located near the mirror, which she informed me is where you can set your makeup while you, you know, fix your makeup.

On my next visit to Tannin, I intend to feast on their extensive list of exoticsounding cheeses and maybe a seared duck breast with marinated artichokes. But perhaps I’ll skip the obligatory glass of wine — I can get well oiled on the food alone.

—Mark Nixon

She ate: Adventurous indulging

Let’s get one thing straight. If you’re looking for traditional Italian food dripping in mozzarella cheese and topped with a breaded chicken breast, Tannin ain’t the place for you. You’d be better served going across the street to the Olive Garden to indulge in their most recent vaguely Italian-sounding concoction.

However, if you’re in the mood to indulge in a little adventurous eating with a Michigan twist and support a local business, Tannin fits the bill. The boyfriend and I met my bestie and her husband for a double date. The menu is small and the price point is high. When one of the men requested a starter of the minestrone soup listed on the menu, our server told us that they no longer had it, but the chef had replaced it with a miso vegetable soup “that he thinks is even better.” The soup was, essentially, a bowl of vegetable stock. To suggest that any chef could think this was better than minestrone was puzzling. (I’ve been happy to see upon return visits that it is no longer an option.)

The boyfriend and I returned a few weeks later for dinner. He started with the soup of the day — braised chicken with coconut milk. He liked that the cup was full of shredded chicken, more like a stew, and the broth had a lightly tangy coconut flavor. I started with a Caesar salad but was disappointed that the white anchovies, which I had enjoyed on my first visit, were no longer atop the salad.

For his entr'e, he chose the lamb sugo — shredded lamb with mushrooms and few gnocchi dressed in a light tomato-based sauce. He hates mushrooms and laid them on the side of his plate for me. I ate a few and stopped after realizing that they were completely tasteless. He couldn’t stop eating the lamb. The meat was tender and the flavor of the lamb came through. The boyfriend loved the gnocchi when he could find them. The potato-filled pasta pillows were sparingly scattered through the dish.

I had the angel hair with smoked tomato Bolognese; the pasta was a few moments past al dente and couldn’t stand up to the heft of the sauce. I was surprised that the sauce contained ground pork. Don’t get me wrong: I am an enthusiastic carnivore and I devoured it, but I think a notation on the menu could prevent potential confusion for vegetarian diners.

I planned a return visit for lunch and hoped that the menu would be more reasonably priced. My seven-month pregnant sister-in-law joined me. She started with the tomato and mozzarella soup, which she slurped down. She said the baby liked it. Roasted red peppers don’t do a thing for me, so I declined a taste of the soup and turned my attention to my Brussels sprout-and-hon-eycrisp apple salad, which included thinly sliced turnips and chunks of bacon. The combination of flavor was remarkable and I cleaned my plate in short order.

Mama and baby continued with the carbonara — orechiette pasta with bacon and cheese, finished with capers and arugula. The pasta was al dente this time and the elements of the dish were well executed. I tasted it and had entr'e envy. My plate was filled with the pescatore — two seared scallops atop squid ink pasta mixed with crabmeat, herbs and butternut squash. The ink gives the pasta its black color as well as a slightly briny taste. The scallops were slightly rubbery and the squash gave a sweet note to the dish that didn’t need to be there. The chunks of crab were large and generous.

She had one more craving to satisfy and ordered the tiramisu. I decided to sympathy-eat and chose the chocolate mousse cake. Our server noticed my sisterin-law’s condition, which might account for the massive portion of dessert that he served her. She said she loved the texture and she finished all but one bite. My chocolate mousse cake was actually three small squares of a thick mousse cake atop a chocolate-and-coffee-crumb crust. It was rich, decadent and still tasted like chocolate when I closed my eyes — my typical test of a chocolate dessert.

Tannin offers specials to its Facebook friends, but inconsistently. I’ve learned that the menu on the website might not reflect the menu being served. Service has been attentive, but frequently intrusive. Our lunch visit put my previous dinner visits to shame; I’ll limit myself to lunch at Tannin until the dinner service settles a bit more.

—Gabrielle Johnson


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