Resolving a conundrum
By Mark Nixon

If cooking is art, then the beauty of cooking is that each meal presents the artist with a blank canvas.

Therein lies the wonder — or the curse — of many a bistro. Cooking can so easily devolve into widget-making. It becomes a daily slog for kitchen habitués, and soon after, attention to detail fades to black.

The customers eventually notice: The droopy lettuce, the overcooked steak, the soup simmered down to the consistency of wallpaper paste (you can almost hear the parched chowder begging for water).

Fortunately, there are restaurants around us where people in the kitchen do give a damn, and care enough to create something memorable, night after night.

That’s my kind of place — Tavern 109 is my kind of place.

More bistro than tavern, Tavern 109 is ensconced in a turn-of-the-century storefront close to Williamston’s four corners. Its high ceilings, exposed brick and planked wooden floors evoke comfort and coziness.

Belly up to the bar, as we did on our first visit, and dive into the detail-driven menu. If you like smoked fish, don’t pass up the sumptuous smoked whitefish chowder. Its richness is based on good stock, creamy but not begging for liquid like the aforementioned paste.

Salads: I sampled my companion’s and devoured my own. Both were excellent. I recommend the baby spinach with apple, pecans, bacon and feta cheese, topped with champagne vinaigrette. The vinaigrette sparkles the way a sturdy vinaigrette should.

Appetizers: Here is a personal conundrum. I have abhorred grits on the theory that this lye-soaked corn mush isn’t really food. Southerners insist it is food, and I believe this is why the South lost the war.

My dinner companion ordered Shrimp and Grits ($12), which uses locally raised shrimp, bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, white wine and a generous glob of, you know, that stuff. I grudgingly took a bite.

Lo, a Christmas miracle! Was there a star shining in the East?

No, the star was right on the table. The grits are blended with cheddar cheese and, when paired with a daub of hot sauce and broiled shrimp, result in a flavor-unfolding wonder. OK, conundrum solved. Grits are food, and they can be great in the hands of a pro.

During the course of three visits, I tried nine different entrees. All had something original to offer. My favorite was Mustard Crusted Whitefish ($20) with garlic mashed potatoes and a ragout of tomato, mushroom and sage. There’s plenty of Michigan’s famed whitefish on Tavern 109‘s menu, including ale-battered whitefish (playfully served in a square metal baking pan) and a smoked whitefish dip. If whitefish is your thing, try one of these.

Lobster mac and cheese was the priciest entree — $22. Small yet substantial chunks of lobster were tossed into a blend of fontina cheese, pasta, chipotle and panko crumbs. Nicely done. My least favorite (but still good) was the 10-inch pear pizza. It had the right mix of salt, sweet, pungent and spicy: roasted pears, walnuts, gorgonzola, bacon and cracked black pepper. Still, I can’t get over the pear’s sweetness as the leading role. If it were possible for Tavern 109 to serve a mini-pizza, as an appetizer or dessert, I bet it would be a hit.

For dessert, I chose a pumpkin cheesecake parfait, served in a half-pint jar. Again, attention to detail: Subtly spiced, not overly sweet, light and silky the way a parfait should be. Yum. (This may be a seasonal treat, since it’s not currently a dessert option on the restaurant’s website).

I noted earlier that Tavern 109 is more bistro than tavern. That said, this place offers a dozen craft beers on tap, many originating from Michigan. There’s also a very respectable wine list, and a number of alcohol-infused fruits that find their way into boutique martinis. And men, if the beer requires a trip to the restroom, carefully read the eye chart on the wall — courtesy of Mark Twain.

On our final visit, I complimented the server on the quality of the food, and asked how the kitchen had developed the menu. Her reply: Since opening last January, Tavern 109 had hired a “restaurant consultant” who recommended changes. Let’s hope it wasn’t TV chef/bully Gordon Ramsay. Whoever it was, and however Tavern 109 made the final call, they made it click. I’ve worked in restaurants. I know a bit about stress in the kitchen. I can only surmise, based on what comes out of Tavern 109‘s kitchen, that someone back there loves to create; loves to bring an “oh-my-God-this-is-good” grin to a diner’s face.

Please sir, I want some more
By Gabrielle Johnson

Going to Williamston during the holiday season makes you feel like you’re in a Charles Dickens novel (the good kind, not the kind where orphans beg for more gruel or the French government guillotines its citizens). Grand River Avenue is lined with little shops, an old-fashioned movie theater, and surprisingly cosmopolitan restaurants. As quaint as it feels walking down the street, that all changes when you walk through the doors of Tavern 109.

Tavern 109 is sleek. The exposed brickwork and butcher paper-covered tables give the interior a big-city feel, which is accented by the intriguing three dimensional fireplace fixture hanging from the wall. A friend and I met for dinner on a recent Friday evening and watched the place become packed while we enjoyed our meal.

We started with the Tavern Trio, an appetizer platter with bowls of hummus, “pub cheese” and spinach-artichoke dip. The dips are accompanied by crackers, carrot and celery sticks and jalapeno/garlic toast that didn’t taste at all like jalapeno but would keep vampires away. Our server informed us that the pub cheese was a blend of white cheddar, cream cheese, ale, green onions and parsley. I found it to be the most tasteless item on the platter and concentrated my efforts on the crispy and flavorful garlic toast.

We chased the appetizer platter with salads and were happy to see that they were a mix of fresh greens and cherry tomatoes. The ingredients were crisp and the salads were small, the perfect size to whet an appetite and prevent a diner from becoming stuffed before even catching a whiff of their entrée. My champagne vinaigrette was tangy and fragrant.

I knew I was going to go home with boxes, since my eyes constantly dwarf my stomach, and I lost all self-control after one look at the menu. I ordered both the chicken and waffles and the pear pizza, which I had been impressed with during previous visits and wanted to reexamine more closely. Just as I remembered, the pear pizza is a marvel. The thin crust is loaded with a gorgonzola blend, big chunks of bacon and walnuts and hunks of roasted lightly roasted pear, and finished with olive oil and cracked pepper. It’s a sweet dish with a lot of strong flavors thrown together, but the chewy, crispy crust and lack of any red sauce let it retain its lightness. The pears aren’t roasted to death and provide a welcome textural complement to the walnuts.

The chicken and waffles came to me on a tray lined with parchment paper meant to soak up the grease. To my delight, there was nothing greasy to be found. Six boneless pieces of battered and fried chicken were nestled next to four wedges of golden-brown, powdered sugar-dusted waffles. The dish was finished with ramekins of maple syrup, butter and a thick honey mustard complete with slivers of bacon. The chicken should be put into buckets and sold on its own. It was juicy, a little spicy, and I loved that it was battered, not breaded. The waffles were standard, but the star of this show was the outstanding chicken.

My companion, who in horror watched me tear through my food like I was preparing for hibernation, loved his lobster macaroni and cheese. His initial hesitation at the $22 price was unfounded after he saw the bite-sized chunks of lobster, of which there were so many that some remained after he stuffed himself. And this is no small dude — plus he’s in the military. The chipotle peppers gave a bit of heat but didn’t make him drain his water glass. The fontina cheese was used sparingly, and all the components of the dish retained their separateness — that is to say, everything didn’t become a melted-together mess. This mac and cheese isn’t creamy, but if you really want to eat a melted brick of cheese, then why don’t you just stay home and save yourself $20?

During our meal, the manager came over and mentioned a hook under the table where I could hang my purse. With those magical words she stole my heart.  We finished our feeding bonanza with bread pudding, a seasonal item that wasn’t on the menu. I’m no great lover of raisins, and this was chock full — information that would have been nice to know before we ordered.

I could wax poetic about a Sunday brunch during which a girlfriend and I gorged ourselves on apple-oatmeal pancakes and breakfast pizza. Suffice it to say that Thanksgiving was the official opener of my eating season, and if you need me you’ll find me on a treadmill. I hope I can find you heading toward Williamston with visions of thin-crust pizza dancing through your head.

Tavern 109
115 E. Grand River Ave.
10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday
11 a.m.-11 p.m.
(517) 655-2100
$14-$20, full bar, online menu, reservations, take out, WiFi