The Ann Arbor Sampler – The Earle

I love trying new restaurants. When I first moved to Ann Arbor, I asked around about the best and most well-loved restaurants in town, and each time, someone mentioned The Earle. It’s one of the Ann Arbor establishments that has “special occasion” written all over it. In fact, the only other time I dined there just happened to be the night my husband proposed to me. It was a great night, and I was looking forward to bringing my parents there when they visited this past weekend.

The Earle, located at 121 W. Washington in downtown Ann Arbor, is a French and Italian fine dining restaurant that originally opened in 1977 as a jazz club. As you walk downstairs from street level, one isn’t sure what to expect. As soon as you open the door, you witness a cavernous, intimate space that actually sprawls out into 2 separate areas: the main dining room and the wine bar dining space. We were escorted to the wine bar side and seated right next to the wine cellar, adjacent to the kitchen.

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My mom and I got comfortable while the men took on the responsibility of finding parking on a Saturday night. Never an easy task. We got it started with twin dirty martinis, (Stoli straight up, extra olives, of course!) The bar that provides you with a perfect dirty martini is a treasure you must hold on to. We were happy to see the martinis were fantastically made, with stuffed bleu cheese olives, to boot.

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Our server was delightful from the start, sharing stories with us about her kids and her favorite menu items. I have to preface the rest of this post by saying, overall, the way the night ended probably was not her fault. However, a little extra attention to our table would have gotten her the famous “Diane treatment”, a potential 50% cash tip. My mom doesn’t mess around when it comes to stellar service. Too bad for our server!

Once the gentlemen joined us, we put in orders for soups and appetizers. My parents both ordered the traditional onion soup, and my husband and I shared an order of the risotto balls. The soups came out bubbling with oozy gruyére cheese, covering a truly delicious onion broth and moist croutons.

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The risotto balls were a light golden brown, perfectly fried; not too greasy, not too heavy. Inside, the risotto was melted as one with the mozzarella. They did benefit from the marinara dipping sauce, and may have been a touch under seasoned on their own.

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We snacked on appetizers, bread, and booze for quite a while before we even placed our entree order. That was fine with me, since I probably could have walked out satisfied at that point! If The Earle is known for something other than being one of Ann Arbor’s classic restaurants, it’s the richness of the food! When ordering time came, we opted for the salmon in puff pastry, two grilled delmonico steaks, and two more appetizers: the roasted garlic and crab cakes.

I kid you not when I say we waited over 45 minutes for any sign, any word of what had happened to our entrees. Worse, maybe, was that our waitress stopped coming by to check on drinks, including water, and when I attempted to flag her down for another round of drinks, she nodded and then ignored us for maybe an additional 10 minutes. Disappointed? You could definitely say that. If I am having a pleasant dining experience and the food is good, I certainly don’t mind waiting a while longer, especially when the company and conversation is good, like it was. Still, kitchen problem or not, I am a big believer in taking the extra minute to touch base with your table, even if you’ve been overloaded with more tables than you can handle. Just saying hello, just getting us more water would have been comforting and help us feel that we weren’t forgotten. It put a major damper on the meal.

Our food finally came out and thankfully, it was piping hot. The fellas enjoyed their large delmonicos, each cooked the way they had ordered it, with two sauces for dipping. The appetizers were quite tasty, too. I could eat roasted garlic all day long. It was served with all my favorite spreads, including avocado, kalamata olive tapenade, and crispy toasts. We could have probably used a few more than the 4 toasts on the plate. My salmon in puff pastry actually burned the back of my throat going down, it was that steamy. It was cooked with a spinach basil mousse, and accompanied with zucchini, squash, cauliflower, and broccoli. I found the vegetable side to be more adequately seasoned than the salmon. It was good to try, but I probably would return to my original scallops entree from my first visit to The Earle, next time.

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Normally, we like to take our time at a nice dinner together, have coffee, maybe dessert we aren’t necessarily hungry for, but after our experience with less than attentive service, we decided to take our business next door to Sweetwaters for our post-dinner needs.

+ The Earle is charming. The food is consistent, tasty, and piping hot when it reaches your table. The service started out really well, making us feel that we were valued and taken care of. Weekdays, you’ll find a great happy hour special: 5-8PM receive 20% off your wine bar items and drinks by the glass, 5:30-6:30 mussels steamed in a white wine broth for $2.75 at the bar.

The lack of attention as we waited for our dinner was in my book, inexcusable. Customers deserve a little explanation when the kitchen is backed up, and some fresh water, at least. The Earle isn’t a place you’d frequent if you’re on a strict budget. Entree prices range from $18.95 for some pasta dishes up to $34.95 for beef. All items are a la carte.

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