With Ann Arbor’s Spencer nearing two years, it’s become apparent there’s a proper method for doing the Spencer experience:
Go with at least one friend.
If there’s space available at a table, one of you should grab it. Enjoy the other people, a table is meant to be shared and full.
The other diner should go get a copy of the menu – different for lunch and dinner – to bring back to the table.
Choose at least one more dish than the number of diners from the menu of charcuterie plates, small dishes ranging from appetizers and entrees, to dessert.
Head to the counter to place your order. Trust the order-taker to select wine or beer.
Sit back and get ready to eat some of the most joy-inducing food in the city.
It’s not possible to give a full accounting of the Spencer menu, since it changes daily, with produce local, sustainable, and as organic as possible. Encounter a spectacular array of cheeses selected by Steve Hall, an Ann Arbor native, graduate of Community High School and a The Neutral Zone’s early musical stalwart. He honed his cheesemonger skills at both Zingerman’s and Mission Cheese in San Francisco where he met Abby Olitzky, a San Franciscan with serious restaurant chops, including a degree in food anthropology and a stint as pastry chef at the SF mainstay, Delfina.
With plenty of vegetables cooked with lively imagination and thoughtful wit, we began with paper-thin slices of yellow squash carpaccio sourced from Frog Holler Farm — a server will bring your food and explain the ingredients and source. Summer squash can be a dull, flavorless affair, but in the hands of chef Olitzsky and her kitchen staff, it was a tender-crisp delight, ornamented with tiny squares of creamy avocado and the savory crackle of sesame-seed brittle, all tossed in a lemon and oil dressing.
Abby’s heritage on her mother’s side is Italian, leading to homemade pasta in ingenious preparations. On one visit, tender, fat ravioli pockets bursting with a potato-mint filling, surrounded by crunchy green beans in a fresh pesto tasted old-world hand-crushed, with pine nuts and Parmesan maintaining light texture (not a smooth paste rendered by a food processor).
Our meat-eater ordered ribs; sticky, just-sweet-enough, and cooked to the point of melting off the bone. The vegetarian swooned at the browned bok choy, its leaves cooked to translucency, stems still plump and sweet. More razor-thin squash, this time pickled with turmeric, sparkled with sweet tartness.
We saved room for dessert, opting for apricots cooked down to luscious pliability resting in a buttery flaky pastry shell. More genius arrived in the single scoop of ice cream on the side, flavored with the soft contents found deep inside the apricot pits. Who knew?
This beautiful food is served in an unpretentious atmosphere on Liberty between S Main and Fourth, in the former Wafel House location. Unobtrusive, you might miss it if it weren’t for the throngs lining up outside. Inside feels deeply personal and homey; every item on the walls clearly holds personal meaning for Steve and Abby. The couple chose to call the eatery Spencer, an archaic name for someone who dispenses things.
A wine club has two price levels; wines must be picked up in person so Steve can give you a personal tour of the bottles (they don’t ship). And despite a national rave review in The New York Times, Spencer is dedicated to its local patrons; regulars make up a good portion of the house on any given night.
One meal, and you’re likely to become a regular yourself.
113 E Liberty
Lunch: Weds-Mon: 11:00am – 3:00pm
Dinner: Sun, M, W, Th: 5:00pm -10:00pm/ F, Sat: 5:00pm – 11:00pm
Closed Tues. No reservations or call-in orders at this time.