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I’ve said it before, and I will continue to say it, Lansing’s east side is hot right now. However, when I heard that Tannin was relocating from a Chi-Chi's location in Okemos to a former KFC, I had some questions. Would the drive-thru remain? It does, for now, although it’s not operational. Would there be booths? No. Would the food be better than the overthought, under impressive fare offered during my early visits to the Okemos location? In a word, yes, but I have a lot more words to say on the subject.
Mr. She Ate and I rehashed our week over dinner recently and were intrigued by the layout of the evening menu. The entrees and pasta dishes are offered in two sizes, which was a wonderful option to construct our meal from small plate selections to shareable plates. We chose the fried lasagna, chicken parmesan and fettuccini alfredo with chicken, plus a side of honey-roasted carrots.
The lasagna was traditional Bolognese style, sliced into half-sized pieces and pan-fried. While the lasagna itself was what I’m looking for, in terms of a richly flavored sauce and layers that retain their structure, the frying lent itself to a kind of shriveled, sad lasagna.
The chicken alfredo got points for dark meat chicken, an unexpected flavor bomb in what can be a one-dimensional dish, but lost points for the thin sauce. It would be nice to have the sauce thick enough to coat the (again, perfectly prepared) noodles and not remain in a puddle on the plate.
We finished our meal with a flourless chocolate tart, and while I generally don’t have high expectations for chocolate desserts at restaurants, this one was exceptional.
On a return visit for lunch, I started with an anchovy-laden Caesar salad per my request. I am down with the pungent, umami-packed little fish. Note: If you say that you hate anchovies but you like Caesar dressing, you don’t know what anchovy tastes like. We moved on to an appetizer of lightly breaded calamari with a tomatoey romesco sauce, and my friend and I agreed that this might be the best calamari we’ve ever had. The romesco brought the acidic hit that the fried dish needed. The amount of breading wasn’t overwhelming.
A word on the lunch menu, it is completely different from the dinner menu. The two sizes of entrees aren’t offered at noon. I knew that if I ate a plate of pasta at lunch, the rest of the afternoon would find me napping under my desk, so I instead chose the chicken parm sandwich.
The chicken itself, was again, overcooked. I wanted a moist cutlet with sauce and cheese. What I got was chicken with breading that was so crispy that it became uncomfortable to eat. The fingerling fries served with sandwich selections were actually roasted fingerling potatoes, but they were crispy and salty, so I was into them.
In short, Tannin has survived its move. This new iteration, with more approachable dishes and price point, will make it attractive to an entirely new population of diners. Yeah, it used to be a KFC. But Mr. She Ate used to consider a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch a complete breakfast, and this morning I packed him up with egg muffins and fresh fruit. The times, they are a-changin'.
— Gabrielle Lawrence
We all love a good show, right?
Then belly up to the bar at Tannin. It’s the only spot in this place with an up-close view of restaurant staff scurrying, crafting and creating, like watching street artists at work.
We watched, we craved, we ordered and we partook. Behind the bar, just a few feet from the barstools, we watched long ribbons of pasta being churned out from scratch. Simultaneously, the bartender fired up a torch and quickly had a dipper of honey liqueur in a roiling boil. Others scrambled from pans to plates, from pasta to garnish.
Before the chow, I couldn’t resist ordering Tannin’s take on a margarita, called the TeKeelan. It’s named after one of their bartenders, Keelan, which also happens to be the name of my father and grandson. How could I resist? I couldn’t.
We started with a pear and arugula salad ($6 as a side). It’s a masterful assembly of fresh arugula, dotted with goat cheese and almonds. Anchored amidst all that are pear slices poached in red wine. Finally, a lemon thyme vinaigrette is drizzled on top.
This is one of the best salads I’ve tasted in years. My only quibble: I loved the vinaigrette so much that I wanted more. Next time, I will gladly pay more.
We chose small, sharable plates for our entrees; steamed mussels ($10), asparagus ($7) and meatballs and sausage ($11). The standout of the three were the mussels, served in a broth of white wine and a smoky marinara, with a hint of fennel. The only thing I would add is garlic. Please know, though, I am garlic-obsessed.
The asparagus in cream sauce did have enough garlic, and just enough parmesan cheese, to add another flavor texture.
The meatballs and sausage were OK. They needed a flavor boost, and were served a bit on the cool side.
On our second visit, my baked lasagna ($11) was a missed opportunity. The interior was packed with pasta but little flavor. The brown-baked top was masked by some type of sweet berry compote. The sweetness doesn’t work without savory counterpoints within the lasagna.
Finally, came dessert, and Tannin rebounded for a victory. We all tried the limoncello creme brûlée ($8). Beneath the thin glaze of caramelize sugar rests a sweet custard that virtually sparkles with lemon flavor. This is certainly one of the best creme brûlées I’ve ever tasted.
Tannin is another bound-for-success story to add to other such dining stories along Michigan Avenue. It was formerly occupied by a Mediterranean restaurant. Before that, it was a drive-through Kentucky Fried Chicken. The drive-through window remains, though it's not in use.
As was the previous iteration of Tannin in Okemos, Tannin II bends heavily toward minimalist decor. As in none at all. Rich, dark-orange paint swaddles the dining room, interspersed only by windows. If a photo or gewgaw adorned some wall, I missed it. The starkness may be intentional, to direct one’s attention to food, drink and conversation. Personally, I’d prefer something besides orange and windows.
Speaking of windows, the west-facing windows catch a lot of sun in summer afternoons and evenings. I had to scooch my chair into the shadows and out of the glare. Recommendation: Blinds that can be raised and lowered.
The window issue is not a deal breaker. I’ll be back for the creme brûlée. And the show enacted daily behind the bar.
— Mark Nixon
10 a.m. to 11 p.m., daily
1620 E. Michigan Ave.