Thursday, December 13, 2012

The chef at a cocktail bar

Seth told us he does not photograph well. This one was fine, but he showed us his driver license. We decided against publishing it.

Seth Bateman, the new chef at Ravens Club on Main Street, has taken exactly one day off since he moved to Michigan a month and a half ago. It was Thanksgiving. He sat in his Dexter home with the lights low, drinking pricey chartreuse and recovering from his new job.

Or so his boss told us.

"Seth has a West Coast swagger and a Midwest work ethic," said Jeff Paquin, the restaurant's managing partner. "He works as many hours as I do. It's  not healthy."

Jeff is lanky and wears black frame glasses. He looks like the kind of guy who could order you a good whiskey cocktail. (Maybe it was the subtle suggestion of his t-shirt: "A whiskey bar with an appreciation for gin.") So BCB and I asked him to surprise us with a couple of drinks.

An Old Fashioned for me, a Toronto (Canadian Rye, Simple Syrup, Fernet Branca) for BCB. That cherry came here from Italy to adorn my drink. The trip was worth it.

"We want to be mature, not pretentious," Jeff was telling us when the waitress walked up with our drinks.

"Huh," she mused, "I always thought we were pretentious but not mature."

Seth was brought in to help the Ravens Club perfect this balancing act. After two years as the chef at a luxury guest ranch in Colorado, where he could walk outside and pick which animal he'd like to cook, he was ready to work the farm-to-table angle in the faster paced world of a restaurant. With his arrival, the Ravens Club pushes forward with its new focus: more small plates in a broader range of prices. You can try bone marrow, a confit suckling pig, fried quail; or you can get Roasted Cauliflower (most popular small plate). You can get a Beer and a Bump for $5 (American whiskey and an American can of beer) or a $40 shot of Pappy Van Winkle. Essentially, Ravens Club is majoring in cocktails with a minor in great food.

Roasted Cauliflower: this is exactly what you want to eat when you're drinking whiskey. Substantial but not greasy; salty but also a vegetable. Fractal (romanesco) broccoli, lentils, hazelnut picada, parmesan. It's the most popular dish on the menu.

It seemed an awkward thing to me, to be the chef at a cocktail bar. Like being a martial artist in a duel, or the dialogue in a Vin Diesel movie.

"Oh, no, it's great," Seth said, shrugging at my rube-ish question. "I get to think about what would complement a drink. Who doesn't like a cocktail?"

Seth studied at the San Francisco Culinary Academy. He worked in New England, at Pesce Blue and Terra Luna on Cape Cod. He helped Meadowood in Napa earn two Michelin stars. Before moving to Colorado, he was the Chef de Cuisine at Whisknladle in San Diego. He was drawn to Ann Arbor for the active local farm scene and the small city life that still allows ample access to nature. (Remember: he's lived for the last two years on a "luxury guest ranch." Quotation marks because, although Seth explained it, I'm still not quite getting the concept.)

"Ann Arbor restaurants rival the stuff in California," Seth said. "There's a lot of good stuff going on here. And I like that people in Ann Arbor have a taste for obscure cuts of meat."

There's a joke in there somewhere, but I'm going to leave it alone.

After he returned to his kitchen, Seth sent us out a few samples from his new menu, which he said will change on a weekly basis.
Charcuterie board: chorizo, tasso ham, pork tureen, garlicky pickles, Brussels sprouts. Prelude to a meal.

Flat bread: apples, bacon, gruyere.

 Roasted Winter Squash Salad: apple, bacon, pistacchio vinaigrette (didn't even know I loved this), sage. And, oh yeah, those are pomegranate seeds. Refreshing, light, snap of sweetness.

I'm looking forward to seeing where the new menu takes this whiskey bar. As either a mature but not pretentious or a pretentious but not mature eater, I think the Ravens Club is really hitting its stride. The dishes are adventurous without being scary, sophisticated without being off-putting. The Roasted Cauliflower could become your new comfort food.

And maybe Seth would even come over and make it for you on a grey, rainy afternoon. It's just that he probably doesn't have the day off work.


  1. Too bad Seth will never know the benefits of a union. If he had been able to negotiate for more than one day off every two months, ravens may have even had to create another job to fill in. Oh well.

  2. I may give this place a shot soon. I rarely go to downtown restaurants I always feel like I don't belong there for some reason, but this place seems ok. Maybe tomorrow after work I will stop by and see what there is to see.

  3. Do it, they have jazz on thursday nights.

  4. Excellent post, EJ. Happy to hear that Ravens' is going through a retooling: it always seemed close to being a great place, I hope this pushes it over the age.