Flat Top Grill Dinner, Ann Arbor, MI

I’d been anticipating the opening of Flat Top Grill, a Chicago based restaurant chain, in the Huron Village shopping center at Washtenaw and Huron Parkway for the last several months. I had fun with their interactive website that let’s you “create your own” virtual stir fry. I received a special email invitation last week to make reservations for a pre-opening charity event. They offered preview meals to email insiders for $5 per person before their official opening on Monday, November 15; all proceeds went to Eli’s Place.

My husband and I made reservations last Friday night for 7pm. They were packed when we arrived, but they were well organized and we were seated within a minute or two of coming in the door. The host also gave us a coupon good for a free dessert that night, a nice surprise.

Our waiter, Kurt, greeted us enthusiastically and promptly after we were seated. After learning we were “newbies” to the Flat Top Grill he walked us through their process. From past experience,  Mongolian Barbecue, and similar restaurants, had made me leery of these create-your-own stir fry places because I feel like the customer is often left to fend for themselves, but still leave a tip at the end of the night. Flat Top Grill has a much better system: they have your wait person meet you up at the stir fry station and take you through step-by-step if you need it. They also had additional staff on hand the night were were there to help you put together your ingredients as well.

I wasn’t sure what type of sauce to go with so Kurt was nice enough to ask about some of my tastes and mix a sampler cup of sauce for me to try with peanut sauce, sweet and sour sauce and Jamaican jerk sauce. It was awesome. I added the appropriate proportions to my bowl of white rice, tomato, summer squash and onion. For my protein I chose beef. Shrimp is normally a little extra, but it was free the night we were their for the event so I added that as well. I also added their special bread, called roti prata which was sort of like a thin naan if you’re familiar with Indian cuisine.

One of the best things about Flat Top Grill is that you have a wooden stick with your table number and your name penciled in that stays with your dish while it’s prepared so you don’t have to stand and wait for your food. The waitstaff brings your completed dish back to your table when it’s ready so you get to relax with your drink instead. I also appreciated their strong attention to any food allergies. They have special colored sticks that you insert with your ingredients before they’re prepared to make sure the appropriate precautions are taken to avoid contamination.

My stir fry was fantastic. The sauce combination that my waiter suggested was even better than I had imagined. The beef came out nice and tender, not dry. The shrimp was fresh and delicious. I loved the texture and taste the bread added to each bite. I’m used to eating most breads on their own, but it was a nice change to incorporate it into the main dish.

We chose the Cinnamon Fresh Fruit Roti for dessert. They take their special thin bread coat it in cinnamon-sugar and stuff it with seasonal fruit and creme anglaise. A cherry orange glaze is added to the top and a side of French vanilla ice cream. They also serve two sides of house-made whipped cream. I love fruit based desserts so this was a winner for me. The crisp cinnamon-sugar coated bread and soft fruit on the inside were a nice contrast. The house whipped cream was nice and light and the small scoop of ice cream was just enough without going overboard. For you chocolate lovers they also have an amazing sounding Triple Chocolate Storm dessert to finish your evening.

This is how all create-your-own stir fry restaurants should operate. I never felt like I was floundering to figure out how to make my meal. I was able to sit and relax while my meal was prepared and then brought out to me. I felt like service was incredibly attentive and friendly. The atmosphere was fun and  lively. I definitely felt it was a place I could feel good about leaving a tip for my server despite the fact that I put my own ingredients on the plate because they created an interactive experience.

We’ll be headed their for breakfast tomorrow and I can’t wait to report back on that visit!

Passport Restaurant, Ann Arbor, MI

Passport Restaurant and Lounge recently replaced what was previously the Cherry Blossom on State St. just south of Briarwood Mall. It’s a bit tricky to pull into the parking lot because there isn’t a direct driveway off State Street, the entrance is actually off of Airport Blvd.

When we drove up around 1pm for lunch on a Saturday the parking lot was nearly empty. I began to second guess whether the hours online were correct, but they were indeed open, just quiet. I’m assuming because of their location and newness they do more business during the week with the industrial area nearby.

My husband and I were greeted by the hostess right away who also gave us the option of a booth or table. Our waiter came to take our drink orders while we looked over the menu. I appreciated his tip that the iced tea was Nestea and not fresh brewed. When I ordered water instead he noted that  customers have said they couldn’t tell the difference in taste between fresh iced tea and the Nestea from the fountain; it didn’t sway me. I was disappointed that such a nice restaurant wouldn’t take the time to brew their own iced tea, especially when charging $2.50 for it.

The Passport menu has a variety of dishes with influences from around the world including Asian (lots of sushi!), Italian and contemporary American. The menu doesn’t indicate that the lunch entrees include sides, but they do indeed come with your choice of white rice, butter-balsamic rice or fries and vegetables. I ordered the Hawaiian Chicken BBQ with the butter-balsamic rice (an odd combination, I know) which included julienned squash, carrots and onions for the vegetable. The grilled chicken had a slightly charred exterior that was little bit tough, but the inside remained fairly moist and juicy. The tamarind gave the spicy barbecue sauce a more complex flavor that I really enjoyed. The grilled pineapple on the side was phenomenal and the julienned vegetables were perfectly seasoned and delicious. The butter-balsamic rice was an interesting change, but probably would have paired better with a different dish (I knew that full well going in!). I also appreciated the reasonable portion sizes for lunch. I wasn’t stuffed to the gills afterward, but pleasantly full.

The desserts were a bit on the expensive side, around $10 each, but the presentation was stunning. We tried the Passport chocolate tower. The dessert consisted of frozen chocolate mousse in a tower of white and dark chocolate ribbons and raspberry coulis and a white chocolate sauce. I wasn’t expecting the mousse to be frozen (think gelato in texture) rather than light and fluffy, but it was good. The dessert construction, while visually beautiful, made it challenging to eat. The taste was worth the struggle in the end.

The decor of the restaurant is mostly Asian in feel, but the music from the audio system is a mix from around the world. The room we were in played something in Italian and a bit of jazz. Another room, which may have had an event at the time we were there, was playing contemporary rock/dance music that could be heard where we were sitting as well. They may want to reconsider piping in different music in each room until they resolve the acoustics issues.
I’m looking forward to coming back another time to try some of the other items on the menu. Hopefully, the business they have during the work week and in the evenings makes up for the light business they had the day we were in for lunch. Based on their first visit, I’d like to see them stick around a while.