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ANN ARBOR — You're trying to make a delicious dish you had at a hip restaurant, but you can't find the trendy main ingredient-- fiddlehead ferns--anywhere.
A trip to the East Coast has convinced you that cobia is the sweetest, best-tasting fish you've ever had. But all attempts to find it at a local store have been fruitless.
You want to get a present for an epicurean friend's birthday, but nothing you have seen has been unusual enough for her highly developed taste.
What do you do? Where do you go?
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Help is at hand, and just a short drive away. Ann Arbor is a food-lover's paradise.
The vibrant and cosmopolitan college town has long been known for its wide assortment of restaurants and bars, from rowdy campus hangouts to sophisticated fine dining, with a host of ethnic restaurants in between. But in recent years, it has also gained a reputation for its diverse selection of well-stocked food and specialty stores.
The town does have a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe's, the well-known gourmet mega-markets that are not found in the Toledo area. Those two stores alone make Ann Arbor a fine-food destination. But a number of independent stores and small, regional chains are also putting their own delicious stamp on the city.
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On the south side of town, not far from Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, is Morgan & York, an emporium of fine wines and cheese. Actually, the store sells more than that: It has bins of candies and chocolate-covered nuts, a selection of salts, high-end pastas, some baked goods, chocolates (including some that are made on the premises), olive oils, and vinegars. Liquor is also sold, along with an astounding array of 14 different flavors of bitters, including grapefruit and rhubarb.
But all of that is what you would find in an ordinary gourmet food store. What sets Morgan & York apart from the crowd, store employee Mackenzie Bull said, is "artisinally made wines and cheeses."
We're not talking about a small selection. The store stocks in the neighborhood of 500 wines, according to supervisor Gazala Khan. Some of these are sold nowhere else in the state of Michigan, she said.
The cheese and meats filling the huge counters in the back room are generally crafted by small producers and are of high quality, Ms. Khan said. The knowledgeable staff offers free samples of all of them, from the decadently creamy Fromage d'Affinois to a big-flavored goat Gouda organic garlic cheese to an assortment of hams and salamis. With baguettes for sale too, they will make you a sandwich of your own creation.
Morgan & York is at 1928 Packard St., 734-662-0798.
The other stores are all located within a few blocks of each other on the northern edge of downtown. Among these is Zingerman's Delicatessen, the granddaddy of them all. Founded in 1982, Zingerman's is what other gourmet food shops want to be when they grow up.
Born as a deli, it is the deli counter that still draws Zingerman's biggest crowds (their Zingerman's Reuben is the best-seller by far). On weekends, the line for it often stretches out the door and down the street.
But where the store really shines is in specialty and packaged foods. Imported anchovies and sardines crowd against sides of salmon, whitefish, and sable that were smoked less than two blocks away. Bread baked fresh four times a day at their own bakery (part of the Zingerman's mini-empire) weighs down a series of shelves.
About 175 different varieties of cheese — the number reaches well over 200 during the holidays — sit inside and atop refrigerated cases; some of them are made from Michigan milk at the Zingerman's Creamery, another part of the mini-empire. Hams and salamis are just beyond them on the counter.
One case is full of nothing but olive oils, another has nothing but balsamic vinegars. None of these is what is typically available at your local grocery store, and some of them are the highest of high ends: A bottle of Maussane olive oil sells for nearly $70 for a one-liter bottle. Less than 3½ ounces of the oldest Acetaia del Cristo balsamic vinegar goes for a staggering $600.
This vinegar is more than 160 years old-- Millard Fillmore was president when it was first made-- and only 10-12 bottles of it are released worldwide each year. Zingerman's has two of them.
Every product the store sells is available for a free taste (see how far you get in asking for a sample of the Acetaia del Cristo), and the enthusiastic staff is always ready to describe each item as connoisseurs would describe wine.
Zingerman's Delicatessen is at 422 Detroit St., 734-663-3354.
Nearby, the People's Food Co-op has been around for even longer, 41 years, and it is like the ultimate health food store. It has all the natural products you would expect, the yogurt, the vegetable patties, and the soy milk (though the cartons of soy milk are outnumbered now by cartons of almond milk).
But the store also has a vast selection of foods in bulk, such as rice, nuts, lentils, oats, grains, and snacks. Large dispensers with spigots pour out soy sauce, olive oil, maple syrup, agave nectar, canola oil, and more. Other bins are full of cashew butter, peanut butter, flour, and spelt. And shelf after shelf is full of herbs, both culinary and medicinal.
If you need red henna powder, here is where you'll find it. Kelp is in this section too, in both flakes and granules.
A large salad bar gets many patrons' attention, and a thriving coffee shop is tucked into one corner. But according to cashier manager Erin Campbell, the co-op is most notable for its produce, which it tries to buy as locally as possible, particularly from small farmers. It is in this produce section that you can find such obscure greens as pea shoots, fiddlehead ferns, and sunflower sprouts.
As a co-op, the store is owned by about 6,000 members, Ms. Campbell said. At the end of the year, each gets a share of the profits depending on how much money he or she has spent there over the year. The store, however, is open to everyone.
The People's Food Co-op is at 216 N. Fourth Ave., 734-994-9174.
At Fustini's, you can buy artisanal dried pasta and a few other items. But this is a store for olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
That's 26 kinds of olive oil, to be exact, all of them extra-virgin. And 31 types of balsamic vinegar.
Some of the oils are varietals, coming from just one specific type of olive, such as manzanillo or picholine. Each one has its own specific flavor — grassy, perhaps, or floral, or fruity. Other of the oils have been infused with flavor, such as garlic or blood orange or Persian lime. Most of the balsamic vinegars have similarly been infused with flavors, from fig to vanilla, from lavender to peach.
The staff likes to suggest combinations of these flavors that go particularly well together, pouring out small samples. The Tuscan herb oil pairs well with the wild blueberry vinegar, for instance, and the basil oil goes with the Sicilian lemon vinegar. The Better Than Chocolate vinegar, a deeply flavored and, yes, chocolatey vinegar mixes well with the blood orange oil.
According to store employee Monica Rico, their most popular oil is Meyer lemon olive oil. But their best-selling vinegar isn't flavored, it is just the oldest: 18-year-old balsamic vinegar.
Most of the 12.75-ounce bottles sell for $15.95, but the 18-year-old balsamic costs $17.95. "A dollar for every year," Ms. Rico said.
Fustini's is in the Kerrytown Shops, 407 N. Fifth St., 734-213-1110.
There are few spices you will not be able to find at Spice Merchants, an exotic store full of big glass jars containing spices, each with its own intoxicating scent.
All the spices you can buy at any grocery store are there, along with harder-to-find items such as brown cardamom, grains of paradise (which is used almost exclusively in brewing beer), and sumac. Even so, what the store perhaps excels at are the other items, such as the 23 kinds of salt, from Chardonnay-oak smoked sea salt to chipotle sea salt to the powerfully heady black truffle sea salt. "A little goes a long way," said employee Quentin Mindel.
Peppers and peppercorns are available in abundance, as are sugars. If you need raspberry sugar, you can get it here, or cocoa sugar, or tangerine sugar. Many of the spices come pre-blended to be used, for example, as rubs to put on meat (a coffee-barbecue rub is good for red meat, salmon, and hamburgers). And tea drinkers will find a huge selection of leaves and styles to make their favorite drink.
Spice Merchants is in the Kerrytown Shops, 407 N. Fifth Ave., 734-332-5500.
The two cases of fish at Monahan's Seafood are relatively small, but don't be deceived: They are well-stocked.
That's well-stocked as in Portuguese octopus. Well-stocked as in two kinds of mackerel, Spanish and Atlantic. Well-stocked as in hake and porgy and Narragansett squid. Well-stocked as in cobia and skate and soft-shell crabs.
As with any seafood store, the options change depending on whatever is fresh and in season. But Monahan's always seems to have seafood that is hard to find elsewhere, along with more easily purchased fish such as halibut, salmon, and shrimp. And naturally the store also has sides of smoked salmon and bluefish, plus whitefish sausage. If you like herring, they sell it five ways, including creamed, roll mops, and in schmaltz.
The store is especially popular from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., when it not only sells seafood, it cooks it and serves it for lunch. It offers fish and chips, salmon burgers, shrimp sandwiches, and more.
Monahan's Seafood is in the Kerrytown Shops, 407 N. Fifth Ave., 734-662-5118.
Real butchers may be rare these days, but Sparrow Meat Market has been going strong for nearly 30 years.
The long cases are full of the aged steaks, bacon, and Amish chicken (whole and parts) that you would expect. But they also have barbecued lamb ribs, French veal sausage, even quail eggs. If you're looking for pheasant or capon, they have it. If it's French veal sausage you crave, they have that, too. And hanger steaks? Of course. Ditto for house-cured pancetta.
Special requests are not a problem, because they work from quarters of beef and the whole carcasses of smaller animals.
Mariam Maksutova, the manager, meat-cutter, charcutier, and pretty much everything else, said, "I'll do anything you want. I can cut anything. I can make anything or get anything for you."
Sparrow Meat Market is in the Kerrytown Shops, 407 N. Fifth Ave., 734-761-8175.
Contact Daniel Neman at email@example.com or 419-724-6155.