When we walked down the steps into The Earle’s dimly-lit, brick-lined cellar, we felt like we were getting in on a secret. Founded in 1977 as a jazz bar, it became a restaurant in 1979, making it one of the oldest surviving restaurants in Ann Arbor. For perspective, this is three years older than Zingerman’s, and older than most eateries downtown besides The Heidelberg. During that time, The Earle has pretty much stuck to its format: traditional French and Italian cuisine served at dinner, with a spectacular wine cellar. Shelly Adams has been the chef for more than 20 years. And something’s working: The Earle is still here, doing its thing, while trendier restaurants have proved less enduring.
We can see why. It’s not that things don’t change at The Earle, it’s just that the pace of change is deliberate and any changes have to stay in line with the core theme. Menus rotate every 6-8 weeks, with around five entrées shifting each time. Some core items don’t ever leave, such as the roasted garlic and mushroom caps appetizers, the (spectacular) sautéed duck breasts with a fruit-based sauce (though the fruit varies seasonally) and the beef tenderloin with Roquefort. The dishes probably won’t change before this review comes out, but they may shortly thereafter…
Before we launch into the dishes, a note. If you have heard The Earle can be a bit on the pricey side, you may not know that the restaurant also has a wine bar (at the bottom of the stairs, turn left instead of going straight past the host station). At the wine bar, you can get items for 20% off from 5-8pm Monday-Friday – not just from the wine bar menu (which does innovate a bit more) but also from the restaurant menu.
Roasted garlic, a classic here, features a head of garlic with accompaniments like sun-dried tomatoes and avocado, and crostini to spread it on.
Fried calamari are cut into delicate pieces with a light crisp coating and served with an addictively delicious aioli. We wound up requesting more of The Earle’s in-house baked bread to sop up the aioli, but would caution couples expecting a romantic evening to make sure they share it, as it’s very garlicky.
The beef tenderloin appetizer features thin slices of tender, grilled marinated beef served with a nice acidic tomato salad. It could make a small-plate meal, especially if paired with another appetizer, soup, or salad.
The Caesar salad is a true Caesar with anchovies in the dressing, and was not too heavily dressed.
Panzanella was a fresh mix of cucumber, onion, tomatoes and toasted cubes of bread, olive oil and vinegar, with basil, capers, and anchovies. While we didn’t notice the anchovies so much, we did notice the garlic. (not necessarily a bad thing.)
Lamb chops are the most expensive item on the menu, which could put some people off. It shouldn’t; they’re excellent. Sautéed in a port wine and tarragon sauce, they are served with turnip-potato purée and a small side of vegetables. The lamb, a true medium-rare, was well complemented by the sweet port wine sauce; while the creamy turnip-potato puree provided a nice contrast to the richness of the lamb and sauce.
Salmon en croûte is a large square salmon filet, topped with mushroom duxelles and Dijon mustard, enclosed in very tasty puff pastry and served with a tarragon-cream sauce. This is rich, somewhat subtle compared to the bolder-flavored dishes on the menu
(see, e.g. the sautéed duck breasts), and truly excellent. (If you’re looking for a lighter fish dish, the scrod served with a tomato-basil sauce, is great and often overlooked.)
Sautéed Beef Tenderloin with Roquefort with a baked-on sauce of cream and Roquefort and a Madeira glaze, is a rich and flavorful dish. The beef was perfectly cooked, very tender, with a nice balance between the earthiness of the beef, the tang and cream of the cheese, and the crunch of walnuts and pine nuts.
One of our group called the Sautéed Duck Breasts “heaven on a plate” saying “The Earle is the one restaurant that I always trust to do duck well.” The type of fruit in the sauce changes with the season – with pears, strawberries, or apples. This time it was pears in a ginger brandy sauce. Again, turnip-potato purée provided a nice background to the richness of the duck and fruitiness of the sauce. Melt in your mouth good.
Of the two pastas we tried, the Linguini with Garlic Sausage was hands-down our favorite. A hearty mix of garlic sausage, Capicola ham, sliced hot peppers, ham, olive oil, and Romano cheese tossed with firm linguini—when a dish mentions ham twice, you know it’s going to be good. (If you like ham, obviously.) Flavorful and mildly spicy.
They’re all made in house and all available at the wine bar too. On any given night, what’s on the dessert tray will vary. The Crème Brulée is outstanding, beautifully creamy. The Tiramisu and Tuscan Torte are also crowd favorites.
Honoring its jazz bar origins, The Earle offers live music most nights. Tuesday-Thursday, there’s either jazz piano or jazz guitar, and a trio plays on Friday and Saturday nights. Handicapped access is available via elevator.
Lisa and Joe have been blogging about food in the Ann Arbor area (and points beyond) since 2004. Check them out at www.kitchenchick.com.