521 E. Liberty St.
11-3pm; 5-10pm, Tuesday-Sunday
Rushing into a restaurant during the first few weeks of its run usually results in long waits, unstudied service, and food still far from hitting its stride. But if you had gone to Taste Kitchen, A2’s latest top-shelf culinary venture, on the same rainy Monday night in mid-October as I did, you would have experienced, for the most part, the opposite. And I would have seen you there. My date and I sat in the 30-seat room—colored with grays and browns and maroons, decorated with a few bright mosaics hanging on the walls, some delicate orange lanterns above the bar, and a number of switched-off televisions, all amounting to the feel of a fancy hotel bar—my date and I sat in that 30-seat room alone.
The small space and sparse decor allow room for the main event: the food. And to further the focus on food connoisseurship, the short menu features only a few small plates, one seasonal soup, two salads, and a few larger plates—enough variety to choose from while also streamlining back-of-the-house operations.
A few herb starters and some decorative orchids sat between us and the rain-streaked windows, and in lieu of cocktails—their liquor license was pending—we sipped hot Oolong tea.
The trend of charging for bread and butter as if it were an actual dish has finally arrived in A2. However, sometimes it is an actual dish. Before our house-baked sourdough, in-house apple butter, and quinnell of cultured butter topped with a pinch of coarse sea salt hit the table, our server brought two Chinese soup spoons, each filled with buttermilk foam drizzled with lemon oil and garnished with a single microgreen. The airy bite promised our meal would be light, straightforward, and thoughtfully presentational.
There is flash-seared tuna with toasted sesame on chef / co-owner Danny Van’s menu—the pink slices of tuna fanned beside a tasty, if one-dimensional, shaved daikon and carrot salad. Bullseyes of soy-wasabi sauce dot the dish. Chef Danny has plied his trade from Dallas to Petoskey, most recently slicing fresh hamachi at the now-shuttered Tamaki. As simple and as enjoyable as the tuna course, chef Danny’s salmon and striped sea bass miso soup dropped anchor next. This is a place to eat seafood.
Once you know where your fish came from and how it was caught, the difference is in how fresh it is. While the traditional seafood supply chain takes six days or more to deliver fish from boat to table, Sea to Table, Taste Kitchen’s seafood purveyor, has built their business on delivering seafood next-day, direct from the dock. The only way to get fresher fish is to go down to the dock and buy it yourself.
A small ceramic cup containing warm orange-miso dressing and a small steel pitcher steaming with hot water arrived at the table. Chef Danny and our friendly, if slightly over-attentive server—we were, after all, her only table—then delivered scallops and hanger steak. A parade of chiffonade orange peels sprinkled across a recessed charger plate which held a bowl of butternut squash, kale, and pan-seared scallops. Hot water poured over the orange peels, releasing an aromatic effect. Together with the rich, buttery scallops, the dish upheld what our amuse bouche promised.
Though chef Danny’s menu features the watery part of the world, the land-based side of the menu is just as refined. While I lament not having a spare stomach—the swordfish dish would have gone to my spare for sure—the butcher’s-favorite hanger steak went down moist and soft at a perfect rare-to-medium-rare. I took it as a good sign when our server didn’t ask how I like it temped. The set: slightly al dente herbed fingerling potatoes, spicy fish-sauce eggplant ragu, and braised kale. Alongside a faintly brushed-on line of cayenne oil, a tiny portion of mustard seeds nestled together in a dollop of egg yolk. Whether the chef intended it or not—I assume he did—a transformation occurred. The mustard seeds became caviar—eggs on eggs.
On the topic of eggs, it is often that the light yet rich, cold while warm, soft and crunchy culinary alchemy of the creme brulee calls to me after a fine meal. The slightly bitter, herbaceous flavor of chef Danny’s matcha creme brulee equalled the rest of the meal in terms of sophisticated elegance, but in terms of execution, it lacked. Cracking through the burnt—“brulee” means “burnt” not browned—layer of sugar with your spoon is a requisite part of the creme brulee experience. And call me high maintenance, but how cool would table-service creme brulee torching have been?
But this review should not end unfavorably. Taste Kitchen provides something that Ann Arborites need (perhaps more than winning sports teams and TVs to watch them on). It serves up Grade A seafood in a way that features freshness in a light, straightforward, and thoughtfully presented manner—in short, done right.