In the Kitchen

The Pastry Chef & The Cheesemonger

By / Photography By Fresh Coast Photography | September 22, 2017
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So this pastry chef and a cheesemonger fall in love.

Native San Franciscan Abby Olitzky, then pastry chef at highly rated Italian restaurant Delfina, walked into Mission Cheese a few blocks from her restaurant. Behind the counter was native Ann Arborite Steve Hall.

“At some point, I told him I really wanted to learn to make a great rye bread,” says Olitzky. “So that’s how he courted me: with onion rye he ordered from someplace called Zingerman’s.”

“I kept peeking into Delfina, looking for this girl,” says Hall. “I knew she worked there and had to be somewhere.”

They quickly became a team and “started daydreaming,” he says. “There was a sheep farm in the picture at one point.”

They landed instead on creating a restaurant of their own. “We knew that San Francisco wasn’t going to be the place for us,” says Olitzky, “so we thought, ‘What about Detroit?’” They relocated to Michigan in 2012, settled in Ann Arbor near Hall’s family and then decided to give Ann Arbor a try.

They particularly loved the fact that they’d be able to interact with area farmers. “Despite San Francisco being so much about farm to table, it’s a big city, and the farms are really far away,” says Olitzky. Here, both are regulars at the Kerrytown Farmers’ Market, buying the freshest possible produce for the night’s bill of fare.

The process that would ultimately lead them to create Spencer started with the couple’s pop-up restaurant, Central Provisions, which had limited runs in various locations around town. All prep had to be done from their tiny apartment kitchen. “It was the most laborious, infuriating and exhausting experience,” says Olitzky. She smiles. “I love that time, looking back at it. We learned so much. We still make some of those recipes.”

Finding the right restaurant space proved more difficult than either had imagined. Despite the notoriously astronomical rents of San Francisco, the city is used to restaurants opening; more or less turnkey situations are available if you can just find one.

But the space in Ann Arbor turned out to be the former Wafel Shop on Liberty, and it needed an overhaul. What Olitzky describes as “a weird sort of diagonal counter” had to go, as did the dropped ceiling. When Hall took a hammer to the drywall, he uncovered beautiful old bricks and windows added at different times in the building’s history. The mismatched sizes completely synced with the couple’s love of quirk, evident in the eclectic, clearly personal items that decorate the finished restaurant.

Today when you dine at Spencer, don’t ask for a wine list. Spencer is very serious about wine and delights in providing wine lovers with new discoveries. In fact, the place feels dedicated to getting you out of your rut and into exploration mode for both drinks and food. Wine bottles line one wall; the prices scrawled on them range from under $20 to three-digit splurges.

Featured reds and whites are available by the glass or bottle. You won’t find a house Chardonnay or Merlot, but why would you want to when you can try a Sicilian Albanello or simply pick the wine labeled “SURPRISE: one of our current staff favorites”? There’s even a Spencer wine club that doesn’t ship; you come to the restaurant to pick up your monthly selection in person.

You can easily make an evening of tasting wine with the right cheese to go with it. Optimally, come hungry enough to start or end with cheese and move on to the small-medium plates. You order at the counter, after finding a spot at one of the community tables and spending some time with a menu that changes daily based on whatever is freshest.

You might find a Sardinian-esque pasta redolent of mint or lamb chops or a half chicken with North African overtones. Peak-season vegetables feature perfectly harmonized accents, like a radish salad sparkling with orange, feta and sesame or charred garlic scapes showered with pistachios and drizzled with sage pesto and honey.

Dishes are complex without being fussy, balancing delicacy with sturdiness. Authenticity rules—authentic Olitzky and Hall, that is, rather than slavish adherence to someone else’s ideas.

“We did a polenta wrapped in cloth,” says Olitzky. When people asked her where she learned her technique, she said, “My great-grandmother did it that way, and this is how I’ve been told by my grandma, by my mom.”

“Abby has a sense of context for everything,” says Hall. “She’s playful.”

And with the arduous work of getting up and running behind them, Spencer is starting to feel more and more like play—the couple’s favorite game, with their favorite partner. “Early on, we saw each other maybe 30 minutes a day,” says Olitzky. “We’re figuring out how to divide and conquer. We’re really best when we’re together.”

“We love people who love food, and we’re learning all the time,” says Hall. “Learn with us. It’ll be fun.”

Learn more at SpencerAnnArbor

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