BY GABRIELLE JOHNSON
Downtown Lansing's food scene has been a bit of a revolving door of late. From Brannigan Brothers transition to Suits and back to wine bars and donut shops and the ever evolving Urban Feast franchises, it seems like there's always something new. I don't work in Lansing, so I'm always interested in learning what's new down town.
It was with this intrigue that the fiancé and I recently strolled in to Tavern & Tap for a Friday lunch. The way I see it, downtown Lansing restaurants need to offer two things in order to survive: a quality and leisurely Sunday brunch, and an expeditious, inexpensive and delicious weekday lunch.
As I compose this, I'm 39,000 feet above the north Atlantic on my way to the motherland of culinary arts, Paris. I told you that so I could break out the French a little early and say, "Chapeau!" to Tavern & Tap for their lunch service. I haven't been in and out of a restaurant that quickly at lunchtime in a long time. But we weren't rushed. When we ordered drinks, they arrived quickly. When we ordered food, it arrived within 10 minutes — so fast that I assumed the waitress was mistakenly delivering someone else's food to us.
What did we order? I'm glad you asked. I had the lobster roll ($13.95), which was cool and fresh. This wasn't the last time we'd order it, but lets talk burgers.
My dear companion has a mantra when it comes to burgers from local establishments: "Just don't screw it up and do something with the fries."
Well gang, I am pleased to report that Tavern & Tap has learned from the mistakes of its predecessor, Edmund’s Pastime. The burger ($13.95) was perfectly cooked to the requested medium, and the fries were what French fried potatoes should be: thick cut potatoes, fried golden brown — and seasoned, for Pete's sake.
(Next time you go out, consider the poor French fry, won't you? So many places could do so much with the blank starchy canvas that is the French-fried potato. I see it as the biggest missed opportunity in the restaurant business short of charging for club soda.)
A seat-yourself policy for restaurants is perfectly acceptable, as long as the staff is attentive enough to notice when a new group has entered the establishment. On our second visit, it took more than 10 minutes after we sat down for dinner before someone noticed us. I'll give the staff a pass this time, because we were sitting in the back of the house, formerly known as the Black Rose.
We chose to sit there because of the jazz band that was performing in the front of the house. I normally like live music with dinner, but the group was so offensively loud that the wait staff certainly would not have heard my drink order over the ensemble’s rendition of "Watermelon Man." Maybe the band wasn't the issue, though, Tavern & Tap's acoustic properties do not lend themselves well to this. Maybe less stone and more wood and fabric could be installed if this well-intentioned feature is to continue.
I had a salad, because I always have a salad. My intrepid dining companion had the chicken and waffles ($16.95). The problem here is that the last time he had chicken and waffles, it was at the Root in White Lake, my favorite restaurant in Michigan. While Tavern & Tap's version of the dish was certainly acceptable, it was nothing to write home about. In my opinion, they should start with a boneless chicken breast. If nothing else, it’s just easier to eat.
On our third visit, we started with the prosciutto & truffle bruschetta ($9.50). I noticed the texture of the bread on the first bite. This is one of the few times I've ordered bruschetta where the bread wasn't served toasted within an inch of its life. The bread crumbled in my hands on the first bite — giving me balsamic hand and prompting me to visit the ladies’ room to remove it. I thought the prosciutto was a little on the done side for my taste, and I didn't detect a hint of truffle oil.
A tip of the cap is in order for the Pecan Salmon Salad ($14.95). The salmon was properly seasoned and cooked to perfection. For the price, I thought the portion was a bit small. That isn't to say I'd like to see a bigger piece of fish, just a lower price.
The fiancé had the aforementioned lobster roll — on recommendation from yours truly. He is a guy who doesn't like to order seafood more than 500 miles from whence it came, but he was pleasantly surprised.
For dessert, we split the flourless chocolate tort. Here's a fun fact: It's made by the spankin' new spot right next door, Glazed and Confused. We were told about the dessert by our server, because it was not yet on the menu at the time of our visit. It was rich and fudgy and had no problem passing my "if I close my eyes does it still taste like chocolate?" test. The bacon wrapped figs that accompanied it, however, are barely worth mentioning.
And now, I need to level with you, dear readers. (Dare I call you fans?) I went in to this review fully expecting to report something very similar to Edmund’s. I mean, why should it be any different? Same location, same owners — why would I expect the product to change in any measurable way? But it has. If Tavern & Tap can deliver this quality of food at a reasonable price, I don't see why this place can't be a staple of downtown dining for years to come. Well done, Tavern & Tap. I'll be back.
BY MARK NIXON
“Musical restaurants” seems to be the theme in downtown Lansing, with few addresses shuffling the deck more often in recent years than 101 S. Washington Square.
The former bank storefront became the upscale restaurant Troppo in 2004. About six years later, Troppo moved to new digs across the street. For what seemed a nanosecond (actually about three years), the ground floor space was split into two establishments: the Black Rose and Edmund’s Pastime.
Last year, Edmund’s closed “for remodeling” and never returned. The Black Rose moved into Tavern on the Square’s old digs just a block to the south, and the tavern moved into the entire 101 S. Washington space. It even got a new name to go with it’s new location: Tavern & Tap.
(The Black Rose quietly closed its doors last month. Strike up the band, musical restaurants march on.)
Based on two visits, I’m happy to report that Tavern & Tap’s menu easily surpasses that of the late — but not-so-great — Edmund’s.
Oops. Damned with faint praise. Let’s try again.
Tavern & Tap is not the best restaurant in town, but I admire the kitchen’s adventurous spirit. You don’t find things like the Quebec-inspired poutine or that picnic staple, deviled eggs, on most menus around here. And please tell me if there is another restaurant hereabouts that serves roasted bone marrow. Bone marrow!
The sheer diversity of Tavern & Tap’s menu ought to entice any diehard foodie. We dabbled on both visits, opting for appetizers and small plates.
But let’s start with adult beverages. As the name implies, there are draft beers galore here. If a few sips is all you want, opt for a 5-ounce glass of beer for $1.49. There are more than a dozen craft beers on tap from which to choose.
Now onto the food. On our first visit we sampled the following: marinated warm olives ($6.50), root beer pork belly ($9.95), oven-roasted bone marrow ($9.95), deviled eggs ($7.95) and lobster roll sliders ($13.95).
The pork belly was my favorite, crisp but tender on the inside, with the root beer glaze imparting an earthy sweetness. Fresh dill was folded into the deviled eggs mixture. It was so good; I wonder why folks don’t pair dill with eggs more often.
The lobster roll sliders comprised chunks of lobster tossed with spiced mayo, capers and arugula, all served on a grilled roll.
They were above average (damning with faint praise again), but I’m a bit of a lobster snob. For a beyond-words lobster roll, simply hop in the car, drive 920 miles east to Wiscasset, Maine, and stand in line for a lobster roll at Red’s Eats. Or, for an excellent lobster BLT, drive just 90 miles to Vivio’s in Detroit’s Eastern Market. But I digress. The point is, I’ve never found a place in Greater Lansing that does lobster right.
OK, we just had to try the bone marrow. It looks as one would imagine it: beef bones split length-wise, revealing a gelatinous marrow. I give it high marks for having a true beefy flavor that is sorely lacking in many beef dishes.
The texture was a different story. It was like slurping a spoonful of warm Jell-O that had failed to set up. But, what could I realistically expect? It’s bone marrow, not filet mignon.
Judy liked the marinated warm olives. I thought they were boring.
We dabbled again on the second visit. The best of the bunch was prosciutto with bruschetta ($9.50), which came with fresh mozzarella and Boursin cheeses and tomato chunks, all drizzled with white truffle oil. The flavors and textures were spot on. One minor quibble: I wanted a more pronounced truffle taste.
The guacamole with pepitas and lightly-spiced tortilla chips ($8.95) gets a kick from cumin and cilantro. The guacamole was pureed. Personally, I like my guac with a few chunks of avocado bobbing about.
Being of French-Canadian heritage, Judy couldn’t resist trying the poutine ($9.00). This gravy, French fries and cheese concoction was OK. The menu claims thyme gravy, but they must have run out of thyme. I couldn’t taste it.
I preferred the Swedish meatballs ($8.95), served in a rich brown gravy. Though most Swedish meatball recipes don’t call for garlic, I believe I tasted garlic — I loved it, whatever it was.
If the weather is right and seating is available, opt for Tavern & Tap’s patio. Raised a few feet above street level, it’s a great perch for people watching.
Tavern & Tap has a solid foundation on which to build, but they aren’t “there” yet. In some cases, their reach exceeds their grasp. But the eclectic menu reflects a degree of culinary bravado.
To which I say, “Touché.”