At Spencer, Upmarket Cheese, Over the Counter

. August 1, 2016.

There’s no host stand obstructing the entrance to Spencer. Guests’ intellect is trusted to guide them through the incandescent mood-lit space. Visitors walk past the communal dining tables of distressed wood, wine bottles (for sale) adorning the shelves and toward the abbreviated deli case with its rotund cheese wheels and salamis. The tablet register sits near a wall adorned with oil portraits of Old World gentry in baroque frames. 

Considering the culinary pedigrees of owners Abby Olitzky (former head pastry chef at James Beard-recognized Delfina in San Francisco) and Steve Hall (a Cheesemonger Invitational finalist who has put in time at Zingerman’s Deli), both of whom used to run pop-up caterer Central Provisions in tandem, the counter service of Spencer’s dining experience makes sense. Why sully the food with cloying table service? But that’s not to say that a) this is just another high-brow fast-casual eatery or that b) the staff is ill trained. Quite the contrary.

Assorted selection

The aproned cashier delivered a nuanced report on the differences between the cheddar-happy Wisconsin plate and the omakase monger board before offering us wine pairing suggestions. My dining companion and I went with the monger board ($25) and single glasses of Messanges Rouge ($11) and a Tuscan Unlitro Ampeleia ($7), respectively.

The board featured wedges of a soft-ripened brie that, as our monger pointed out, taste uncannily like buttered popcorn, a prologue to a generous portion of semi-hard, earthy gruyere. On recommendation, we modified the gruyere’s subtly sweet apricot finish with a quasi-bitter daub of stone-ground mustard for an added granular texture. Caveman Bleu, aged in an Oregon cave renowned for its distinct mold, took the board’s third cheese position. Our monger suggested we temper this deep and smoky bleu with an accompanying schmear of strawberry preserves. (We were pleased with his suggestion.) 

Two varieties of salamis and small trunks of pickled asparagus punctuate the board. The first, a thinly sliced northern Italian “kitchen sink” style, arranged like a veritable meat blossom, had a dank quality that excited the back palate. The second variety–– a chewier southern Italian salami–– finished with a certain lipidity.

Other delights

Charred garlic scapes ($7)–– best enjoyed alongside an entrée rather than as a lone starter–– boast an occasionally brittle crunch accentuated by rich walnut purée and flowering sage leaves drizzled with honey.

Each bite of creamy buckwheat dumplings of ricotta & chard, tossed with fava beans and snap peas ($13) sang with a squeeze of lemon. 

Hanger steak with sunflower cream, charred spring onions & grilled red butter lettuce with anchovy vinaigrette ($20) featured a harmonious flavor medley that again evidenced the consistent calculation put into each menu item. The hanger steak’s light seasoning rub highlighted the juxtaposition between the meat’s exterior crust and the bovine flair of its tender strawberry-magenta interior grain. The sunflower cream (with a texture similar to a well-made tahini) and charred spring onions added a sweet component that balances the hinted bitterness of the grilled red butter lettuce. 

The off-menu shaved Italian ice ($8), garnished with tiny dark raspberries was a sour trip redeemed by a Meyer lemon cream, mollifying the ice’s intensity and making its use in the dish possible without scaring off casual dessert goers.

One of the caveats of employing a counter-service model for table-service food is that I hadn’t noticed the self-service station near the entrance. Like a rube, I asked our monger for share plates, which he pleasantly obliged us. We soon caught on and fetched our own silverware and water glasses. 

Though some diners ready for an upmarket affair might be taken aback by Spencer’s counter service, the kitchen staff’s personal delivery of each dish should offer some consolation. If the most important metric is the quality of the food, then tally Spencer among Ann Arbor’s important culinary happenings. 

Spencer is located at 113 E. Liberty St.


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