It has been a long, long time since there’s been a restaurant in this town that was the automatic choice for a celebration, or a sophisticated out-of-town guest. Two of the most adventurous restaurants in the area have closed, leaving Dusty’s, which is the “go-to” for many people, but which I have honestly found uneven at dinner service. There are lots and lots of chain restaurants, some, like Mitchell’s are quite good, but particularly in this economy, I’d always rather give my money to the local guy. There are also some brilliant sushi restaurants with attractive setups, including Sansu and Maru, but many people don’t eat sushi (more’s the pity) which removes them from contention for many occasions. Indian, Chinese, Ethiopian, Middle Eastern and Thai food are all well represented in these parts, but mainly in the form of laminated table joints where the food is great, but no one would take visiting relatives for a family dinner. (Well, not my visiting family, anyway). Beggar’s Banquet is a sentimental favorite, but I have had so many badly cooked meals there in the past couple of years that I would not be willing to take a chance on them for an important meal. There are a lot of great choices in Lansing, Troppo and Mediteran are elegant and the food is good, but they are farther than I generally want to go. (I do realize that they are also “local” restaurants, and I do patronize them, but really “local” for me is East Lansing and maybe Okemos). The Soup Spoon Cafe is beyond wonderful, as are Sawyer’s and Mama Bear’s, but none of them is the kind of place one could take a visiting uncle who likes his cuffs French and his martinis dry.
Last summer, The Place We Were Waiting For appeared at a somewhat soulless junction near the City of East Lansing’s soccer fields and acres of cloned apartments and houses, on the road from East Lansing to Bath. On one end of a strip mall sits Enso, which (in my humble opinion) is a restaurant, where one can easily forget the unimaginative surroundings and believe that they have fetched up in the “real” restaurant city of their choosing. It is locally owned, the dream of one owner of the beloved Lou & Harry’s franchise and a partner, and the menu, decor and concept are based on a lengthy study tour of restaurants across the country. It is not a restaurant that would leave a jaded Mannhatanite breathless, but it is beautifully and imaginatively appointed, and the menu shows great care in balancing the local foodie’s need for something new and exciting against the fact that many people in this area just don’t eat Weird Stuff, and are likely to arrive at dinner with children in tow. They have it covered.
Enso’s decor is Asian-flavored, dark, and spare. The light fixtures are elegant, the fabrics dark and rich, and the bar long and inviting. The room a large one, is filled with options – tables for two and four on the main floor, raised roundtops for as many as eight, a lounge located near the coat check, the ample bar and a large room at the back that seems to be large enough to hold at least twenty. I am told that there is outdoor seating in warm weather, and a fire pit. Blazing torches outside the restaurant are visible from the large room at the back of the restaurant, enhancing the sensation of a real “getaway” in the middle of urban sprawl. There is an energizing mix of folks dining and drinking, as well; arrestingly attractive and well-dressed young things from the University, families in casual clothes, City of East Lansing employees in suits having a beer after work, and distinguished older couples discussing the movie they just saw. It is lively, inviting, and not at all intimidating.
The service has been flawless on each of my five trips, including the first when the restaurant was barely a week old. It is clear that there is an on-site human training and supervising the staff, and the ethos is a lovely combination of Beautiful People and Genuinely Nice Kids. They are beautiful; I have not yet seen one who wasn’t, and they are neatly dressed in head-to-toe black with no distracting “flair.” They have also been surpassingly kind to, and patient with my father who doesn’t hear well, groups of children, and requests for more fizzy Coke, a different table, and a reservation for a large party on a busy night. Pretty is as pretty does, and Enso’s staff passes on both accounts. Maybe there are some perks to living in Deepest Midwest?
And the food. Having eaten at Enso often enough to have tried a variety of things, some of which were actually on my own plate, I call it a triumph. Not everything is great (about which more in a minute) but most everything is good, and some things are superlative. The meal starts with a basket of chips which have the texture of thin, deep-fried pita. The chips are served along with a good, rustic salsa rich with cilantro (although it is a little sweet for my taste) and a version of queso dip. A word about plates, here – the selection of plates, bowls and serving pieces has been done carefully and well. Soups and salads are served in large white bowls that tip up and towards the diner from a low pedestal, sushi is served on long, rectangular plates and the chips are served in low, flat vessels with a large space in the center for chips and two half-moon wells at either end for the sauces. I am sure that some of the pieces are standard restaurant supply offerings, but they are aesthetically pleasing, conservative of precious table space, and clean in a way that reflects the Zen-ness of the room.
They are very good with soup – I have eaten the Fire Roasted Tomato, a menu standard, a version of the tomato with crab included, and, on my last visit, Curried Pumpkin Soup. All three were wonderful, but the Pumpkin made my heart sing; rich, thick, spicy but not overwhelming, with clearly discernible pumpkin flavor and some vegetables left a bit chunky for texture. I have also tried the Chop Chop Salad, the House Cut fries in both sweet potato and Portabella mushroom, the Tempura and the Calamari. The fries are very good, appearing at the table in a paper cone on a stand; the large serving with an assortment of three sauces (I particularly love the Smoky Bleu Cheese) would be a filling meal for a couple of vegetarians.
My only disappointment in the arena of soup, salad and appetizers was the Vegetable Tempura, which I ordered as an entree. Although it, and the accompanying sauce tasted good, the tempura batter was far heavier than I had expected, more fritter than tempura. Anticipating the delicate, shatter-y covering found in traditional Japanese tempura I was surprised to find actual density of batter, and ended up peeling off a fair amount of it in a way that (I hope) didn’t mortify my dining companions. I will also warn you that the Sweet & Crunchy Chicken Fingers are very sweet, indeed; there is no false advertising, the texture is great and the flavor is pleasant enough, but if you are dining with children who will expect “regular” chicken fingers, this is not a good choice. My own child, who is pretty game about trying new things, tried manfully to eat them but was so put off by the combination of chicken and sweetness that he gave up and ate my food, instead.
I have ordered or tasted many entrees, including the House Pulled Pork Roll and General Tso’s Chicken roll, the BBQ Pulled Pork Stacked Burger, the Roasted Boneless Stuffed Chicken Breast, and the Grilled Boneless Short Ribs. Everything was good, honestly, and the American Sushi gets major points as an interesting idea and fusion of flavors and cultures. The Stacked Burger, Sam’s favorite, is a wondrous pile of choice burger, sharp cheddar, pulled pork and onions which are apparently grilled and then fried. All of this is served on ciabatta bread, with a hearty side of very good fries. The short ribs are tender and rich with flavor (and not at all fatty), the chicken breast moist and flavorful, and everything beautifully plated. The only entree about which I have heard “a discouraging word” was a pasta special with eggplant which the eater described as “meh.”
Also, they are good with dessert. The Warm Mini Cinnamon & Sugar Donut Bites are not a total novelty; restaurants (including local chain rib joint Smoky Bones) have been serving warm donuts for years. That being said, these donuts are a revelation of all that donuts should be. They are crisp on the outside, light (!) on the inside, and have a delicious and addictive flavor that I can’t quite identify. The elegant addition of Mango Vanilla Cream Cheese Icing and Creme Anglaise for dipping is lovely, but having tried both…I eat mine plain. They are that good. The Mini Ice Cream Sandwiches (three per serving) are nothing exotic, but a great choice for kids or picky eaters – nothing to surprise anybody, but soft, warm chocolate chip cookies embracing vanilla ice cream, with artistic swirls of hot fudge. The gelato is also quite good (because what gelato isn’t?!) and is offered in a variety of flavors to please anyone from the unadventurous (Strawberry) to the foodie (Banana Cashew).
Bottom line: Enso is what every local restaurant diner in the area has been asking for, and if we don’t support it, it will go the way of All Seasons Bistro and Villegas. It is The Local Guy, and that wouldn’t be enough if the food and service weren’t up to par, but they are. Hard work has clearly gone into planning a venue that could offer something for everyone from MSU students to families with small children, and great effort goes into training a staff that treats all comers with respect and kindness. Enso has class without pretension, creativity without triviality, and sophistication without intimidation. Support them.
Enso Logo: http://www.enjoyenso.com/images/logo.gif