If you've been waiting for someplace interesting and different to open this winter, you should plan on dinner at downtown Ann Arbor's new Vellum, the place with the bold red façade on South Main Street.
The restaurant opened just three weeks ago, so it's too soon for a review. As chef Peter Roumanis says, "We are still getting our feet wet and learning how to stand."
But it's already clear that Vellum -- whose chef-owner is only 25 -- doesn't intend to blend into the dining landscape. With its modern approach to food and its unexpected presentations, Vellum aims to surprise, innovate and stand out.
You'd expect no less from Roumanis, whose background is anything but average.
The son of veteran Ann Arbor restaurateur John Roumanis (owner of Ann Arbor's Mediterrano and Carlyle Grill), Peter grew up in Greece and Ann Arbor, cooked in his father's restaurants and knew as a youngster he wanted a culinary career.
At 16, after his sophomore year at Pioneer High School, his father sent him to Paris for two years to work at Taillevent -- one of France's most famous restaurants. Owner Jean-Claude Vrinat "was still at the door then," Roumanis says. "He was a front-of-the-house man, and he inspired my lifestyle, living above the restaurant and being here for every service."
Roumanis was a commis, or apprentice, doing the lowliest jobs. "This is exactly what I asked for. ... A commis picks parsley and chops onions and makes sure the garlic is fresh. And cleans -- lots of cleaning," he says. By the end, he had worked his way up to working with some vegetables on the line. "I was really happy about that. ... I got to touch the plate."
After returning home to graduate from Pioneer, Roumanis attended Cornell University's hotel program and interned at Daniel restaurant in New York City and at Mario Batali's elegant Del Posto.
His father eventually enticed him back to Ann Arbor by saying he had found a building he thought his son would like. His interests had shifted to the front of the house, but back in Ann Arbor, he returned to the kitchen. "The chef has become the visionary of the restaurant, and I thought I had to go back there ... to achieve what we are trying to do," he says.
"What we are trying to do with the food is work with the American flavor palette and mix in both traditional and modern techniques and do very composed and very stylized plating. I want (guests) to read the menu and feel familiar with the flavor profiles -- and then the plate comes out and they are surprised because the food looks so different."
For the pan-fried walleye entrée, for example, the fish is cut into smaller, squarish sections that are plated with a savory onion jus; spoonfuls of brandade (a purée of potato and salt cod) sprinkled with toasted brioche crumbs; a roasted shallot and marble-sized spheres of chile-infused pear.
It was delightful and entirely surprising -- even though I knew by that point in the meal that nothing at Vellum is likely to be or look like what you expect.
We'll be back in several weeks for a full review based on more of the menu. Appetizers range from $6 to $13 in price; entrées are in the teens and $20s. Tasting menus offer five courses for $40 or seven courses for $70, with wine pairings available. (209 S. Main; 734-929-4929 and http://vellumrestaurant.com)