Come together

By Joe Torok

Restaurant-nightclub fuses Midwestern tastes, big-city style and global cuisine

Along a red carpet, they stood in line last Wednesday, dapper-dressed guests invited to the private opening soirée of Enso, a new upscale restaurant that doubles as a lounge and nightclub after dinner hours.

Inside, a large twisting, decorative helix is suspended just below the ceiling, spanning the length of the main dining area; waterfall walls and jutting geometric shapes blend elements of the natural world into the interior; and a set of heavy double doors open to an enormous patio, equipped with its own kitchen, full bar and wait staff, along with posh pits of fire that shoot flames from what appears to be a bed of ice.

Fusion is the dominating concept at Enso, where Midwest fare synthesizes with cuisines from Asia, the Mediterranean, even Manhattan and Chicago. Co-owner Dennis Branoff has traveled the world extensively. He said the idea behind the food at Enso is to pull tastes and flavors from afar and introduce them to the region. "We use the best of the Midwest, and the rest of the world meets what we have to offer,” Branoff said.

For example, sushi may not be at the top of every Midwesterner’s list of musthave foods, but the colloquial impulses of Michiganders won’t discourage the chefs at Enso, who were also recruited from around the world.

"We make an American sushi," Branoff said. "Everyone loves sushi, but not everyone in the Midwest. So we thought, let’s put in foods Midwesterners like — pulled pork, crispy onions — but still offer standard sushi, too."

At the opening, the throng of guests snacked on sticky rolls of sushi wrapped in a mild tapioca rice paper instead of seaweed. They dipped smoked pulled pork rolls and General Tso’s chicken rolls into a sweet and tangy sauce. The pulled pork rolls have a bit of crunch with crispy onions and bits of Enso’s hand-cut fries wrapped along for the ride.

A DJ mixed live electric violin with recorded music, thumping inside and out. Guests shuffled sideways between clusters of happy revelers. Outside, the crowd thinned as dusk fell; a group of four sat around a black granite fire pit, like elegant campers relaxing into the twilight.

"Lansing needed a new kind of restaurant, and this certainly fits the bill," patron Bill Wesley said, his face reflecting licks of nearby flames. "You can leave Lansing when you walk in the front door and enter New York or Chicago."

Also basking in the glow of the fire, Tim and Cathy McKenna (whose son is the general manager of Enso) agreed with the assessment. "I remember places like this in Scottsdale (Ariz.)," Cathy said. Her husband continued the thought: "It’s another dimension for restaurants in Lansing," Tim said. "It’s different from what you’ll find in downtown, and it’s nice to have a place like this in the area."

Back inside, sample triangles of a Midwestern favorite — grilled cheese — were being snatched from silver trays. Like Cinderella after a tap from a magic wand, the buttery toasted sandwiches have been transformed from their typically mundane existence with brie and slices of apple and prosciutto. The house-cut fries come in four varieties: portabella mushroom, seasoned waffle, shoestring and sweet potato. Choose from eight sauces for dipping, from smokey bleu cheese or garlic aioli to Vietnamese pineapple mayo or sweet & sassy barbeque.

The rest of the eclectic menu offers steak, chicken, ribs, sandwiches, seafood, pasta, pizza, soups, salads and plenty of appetizers. When dinner hours end and nightlife begins on the dance floor, a lounge menu offers selections designed to be shared in groups, including quesadillas, sweet and crunchy chicken and an assortment of hummus with flatbread. For more intimate parties, large sections of wood paneling can be installed to create semi-private spaces.

While the Lansing-area dining scene might not be considered the most chic of environs, Branoff said the region is ready for an infusion of cosmopolitan living. "I’m so grateful to the community for the support we have received," Branoff said, expressing confidence his venture will thrive. "Tonight they’ve told me they can’t wait to come back, and that’s the best thing in the world."

Enso. 16800 Chandler Road, East Lansing. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m. Sunday - Tuesday; 11 a.. - 2 a.m. Wednesday - Saturday. Dinner menu served until 10 p.m. Lougne menu until 1 a.m. (517) 333- 1656.