As a kid growing up in a college town, I didn't too often brush up against elegant dining. But in 1987, an Italian restaurant with aspirations to grandeur opened on Ann Arbor's Main Street. I'm pretty sure Gratzi was the first restaurant at which I tasted fettuccine Alfredo. Yet what I remember most distinctly --and most inexplicably, since I was still a few years too young to drink -- was the complimentary sambuca offered to adults after dinner. The strong, clear anise liqueur and coffee bean seemed like the height of sophistication and class.
It always surprises me that more restaurants don't make similar gestures. At Mamnoon, the new Capitol Hill restaurant which has already distinguished itself as a beacon of hospitality, guests are served tiny glass cups of warm orange blossom water at the close of a meal. Mamnoon -- the subject of this week's review -- hardly needs a gimmick, since the restaurant's terrific breads, dips and grilled meats are sufficient reason for diners to return, but the free digestif is still a very smart touch. Whether or not you love the sweetly fragrant water (many eaters, including me, aren't crazy about it), it's a great example of Mamnoon's attention to the customer experience and admirable dedication to celebrating Arabic culture.
Restaurants have lately gotten out of the habit of serving free bread, which makes good sense: Bread isn't cheap, and neither are the consequences of letting guests fill up before ordering. But that's no excuse for skirting the culinary tradition of offering a sort of thank you gift, such as the Middle-Eastern gum that Mamnoon gives its guests. Each piece probably costs less than a penny, but it's the kind of gesture diners remember --perhaps for 25 years.
According to Paul Lariviere, general manager of Gratzi, the northern Italian restaurant may have been the first restaurant in Ann Arbor to promote Sambuca and Frangelico, which I'd forgotten were also on the after-dinner tray. At the turn of the century, the restaurant gave up the practice, but revived it about two years ago. "We now serve a homemade limoncello," Lariviere says. "Our guests can now actually see the first step in the limoncello process as we display the lemon peels soaking in the spirit right behind our bar."
The limoncello solution is simple, affordable and memorable. When I casted about for examples of similar restaurant kindnesses, I was again reminded what an impression they make. Although a few folks couldn't come up with anything more exciting than a foil-wrapped Andes mint, one friend fondly recalled the bowl of gummy bears presented with the check at San Francisco's Michelangelo Ristorante. Recent Yelp reviews have derided the restaurant as a source of food poisoning, the "biggest birthday mistake of my life" and "the worst restaurant in town," but my friend mostly remembers the gummy bears. (The restaurant's still serving the gummy bears, but even the nicest gesture doesn't help when a kitchen's slid downhill.)
At Mamnoon, the orange blossom water isn't meant to deflect attention from flaws, of which the restaurant has few; its service marks the perfect ending to a very lovely meal. For more on Mamnoon, read my full review here. Joshua Huston's accompanying slideshow is set to post shortly.