by Todd Abrams
It was only five years ago that Ron Jeffries opened Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, a microbrewery northeast of Ann Arbor in the small village of Dexter. In the midst of a craft beer movement sweeping across North America and beer store shelves full of choice imports, Jeffries gambled that regional consumers were ready for beer made with a brewing philosophy closer to 19th century Europe than here and now. He couldn't have been more right.
With a combination of artful packaging and quality beer developed through secondary aging in oak barrels thriving with wild yeasts and souring bacteria, the word about Jolly Pumpkin spread quickly. At first, it was merely the chatter of beer aficionados. Eventually, Men's Journal would place Jolly Pumpkin's light session ale, Bam Biere, as one of the top 25 American beers. Jeffries hopes to parlay his brewing success into two new brewpubs. One is set among the pastoral northern wine country on Old Mission Peninsula in Grand Traverse County, the other in Ann Arbor.
Though we would love to make the trip north and wax poetic on beer and autumn in rural Michigan, we dined at the Jolly Pumpkin Café & Brewery closer to home. It's fair to say that just about anything located on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor is hard to get at for motorists. If you're coming from out-of-town, walk the few blocks from the parking structure on nearby East Washington Street rather than spend your cocktail hour driving in circles.
Like a quaint old English pub gone shabby chic, the inside of the café is a mixture of old, new and regrettable. Dark-stained wooden wainscot lines the lower walls, while a variegated amber-yellow paint scheme coats the upper walls, where beer barrels and photos of Jeffries with his pals hang above the tables. Vintage lamps drop from the beams. Cloth napkins lay on the tables. And amid all this stylish elegance are three odd chandelier-like fixtures whereupon mixed kitchen apparatus dangle up high. A smaller, more intimate upstairs area seems well-suited for casual drinking with friends. Local university students look comfortable but bearded philosophers would not appear out of place. The soundtrack is mellow rock.
While pub-like in atmosphere, the food is a bit more up-to-date. The tofu cracklings appetizer, for instance, consists of crunchy rectangles of deep-fried tofu sprinkled with cashews and scallions with a spicy, fish-sauce-based dip on the side. Our waitress denied any use of pork products, yet they do somehow taste like animal fat is a component. Other starters range from simple French fries flavored with rosemary and truffle salt to a butcher's snack board full of cured meat, cheeses, marinated and roasted vegetables and bread.
There is no real entrée menu as such. A small list of daily specials is offered, such as broiled walleye and mushroom risotto. The rest of the list consists of salads, sandwiches and pizza. Children are considered with an entire section of their own. There is an emphasis on local but it's difficult to tell how serious they are about sourcing from nearby producers. Based on the pricing of some dishes, we would hope that this claim is more than just words on the menu.
The Asian layered salad ($12) is a large bowl of rice noodles, various vegetables, nuts and massive hunks of tofu tossed in a ginger-lime dressing. You would never find this dish at a Vietnamese restaurant, but it is nevertheless fresh and tangy and just about big enough to share. We also tried the sweet and spicy cobia sandwich ($14), a two-hander loaded with pan-seared fish, carrots and radish with a sambal sauce on a chewy loaf of bread. A big surprise that came with the sandwich was a couple of sweet and sour, fresh, pickled zucchini spears — a small detail that makes a memorable meal.
There are just about as many vegetarian sandwich options as not. Even more on the list of granite baked pizza with a choice of sourdough or gluten-free crust. Though unfortunately a bit soupy in the very center, a classic Margherita pizza had the hallmark puffs and scorched bits of a quality crust around the edges. Perhaps a pie with a bit less moisture in its toppings would be a better option. Preserved lemons, roasted garlic, ricotta, arugula and Parmesan on the "white and green" caught our eye more than once.
And, of course, there is the beer. Diners not yet familiar with Jolly Pumpkin beers might want to ease into the experience with something slightly tamer, like a North Peak Amber Ale. But hardcore fans will likely find the cask ale to be the liquid they want in their glass. Along with a few Michigan wines and spirits, and a list of non-alcoholic cocktails, there's a drink for everyone.
Open 11-2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, noon-midnight Sunday.
Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.