After walking the streets of Ann Arbor for the past several weeks, I finally realized that Lena, the new restaurant on South Main is not a diner, but a swanky culinary establishment. Its outside facade is reminiscent of a traditional greasy spoon, which was purposely kept as homage to the building’s history, while the inside has been redecorated with a modern flair. Inside, Lena is crisp, clean, and casual: a pleasant environment for the jean-wearing foodie.
Chef Gabriel, the executive chef, described Lena as a Latin American fusion restaurant, built upon rustic dishes and strict techniques. In order for a dish to pass the standards of Chef Gabriel, the initial ingredients must be topnotch, every step in cooking those ingredients has to be executed perfectly, and the dish must be presented beautifully. As a true quality over quantity believer, I was very anxious to try the food.
Ask and you shall receive.
The dishes Chef Gabriel presented were two entrees from his dinner menu. The first was a pan-roasted corvina, which is a fish flown in fresh from Ecuador. It was served with rice, plantain chips, salsa, and a peanut sauce. The star of the dish was definitely the corvina. Even if you aren’t a fan of seafood, this little fish is so fresh that is has no “fishy” flavor at all, and as cliché as it sounds, it really did remind me, texturally at least, of chicken.
The second dish was the basted palomo, which is described on the menu as “braised hen with roasted vegetables and a light mustard sauce.” The meat was incredibly moist and flavorful and the vegetables were well cooked. I couldn’t help but think that this dish would belonged in Mario Batali’s Thanksgiving dinner. This dish ended up being Mary, the photographer’s, favorite, while I preferred the bold, fresh taste of the corvina.
The only downside to these dishes? The price. Yes, unfortunately, Lena is not exactly a college student’s go-to place. The entrées on the dinner menu range from $18 to $34. The small plates are cheaper in price but given the portions of the entrées, you probably aren’t going to walk out with a full stomach. The lunch menu is a saving grace, with its highest meal at $12. Simply put, yes the food is delicious, the décor is tasteful, and the service seems impeccable, but unless you are willing to throw down the big bucks, I would stick to the lunch menu or split an entrée with a friend.
However, Lena is only half the experience. It turns out that just downstairs is Habana, the nightclub version of Lena. Here in this dark, yet modern environment, bartenders serve up Latin-influenced mixed drinks. The whole place is a wonderful example of contrast, with soft light from a half a dozen chandeliers shining on the gritty concrete walls. One of the highlights of the club, so I’ve been told, is Salsa Night, every Thursday starting at 10pm. Unfortunately for me and my fellow minors, the club is closed to those under 21 after 9pm. So I guess I won’t be kindling my inner Latina anytime soon. The good thing is that even if they kick you out at 9, you can still come for some delicious, and considerably more reasonable, bar food. The chips and dip, tacos, and sliders are all made with the same high-quality ingredients as the food at Lena, but at less than half the cost of the dinner menu.
Final Recommendation: Lena is a great place to impress someone without feeling like you have to marry them. The cool and casual atmosphere of Lena combined with the fine-dining quality dishes takes the stress out of a black-tie affair without diminishing the enjoyment of the actual food. The prices are high, so this is a special occasion kind of place or maybe a “bust day” restaurant, as my roommate and I call it. Habana is a little more suited to the college scene and budget. If you are old enough to try the cocktails at Habana, let me know how they are. I was getting thirsty just looking at the drink menu, while still salivating over the food. A good sign for any restaurant.
Check out more photos from SHEI’s trip to Lena here.
If you are interested in visiting Lena or Habana, here is some basic contact information:
226 S. Main, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Monday- Thursday 11am-11pm
Friday & Saturday 11am-12am