Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dining in Detroit Windsor

We all know how much better food in foreign countries is...somehow it just is. So why is it that, being native Detroiters, we don't take more advantage of the foreign country that's only 15 minutes away?

Yes, I'm talking about Canada, and specifically Windsor. Back when I was but a lass of 19 years, I was there every weekend. I knew every bar, every restaurant, and despite what you may think there were plenty of occasions where I would go just for dinner. Then I turned 21, and Windsor was instantly forgotten as a whole world of restaurants and wine lists were suddenly within my reach (without having to claim my citizenship).

I've only been back one time, and it was a bit of a FAIL. But over this past weekend, a friend of mine told me he wanted to go investigate Windsor and it sounded like a fun adventure, so off we went exploring.

Much has changed since last I knew Windsor well. Most of my favorite places are gone: The Big Tomato (wonderful Italian place) is now a piano bar called The Whiskey. The Aardvark--a basement blues bar with lots of gritty personality--is soon to be "Lefty's Blues Bar" (a second location for Lefty's Lounge on Chatham Street; I suspect it will lose most of its former grungey charm). But the news wasn't entirely bad: I was anxious to see if my former favorite Chatham Street Grill was still open, and it is...sort of.

Chatham Street Grill is probably the first fine-dining establishment I discovered on my own that I would consider a favorite. I loved the look and vibe of the place, which at the time was almost entirely new to me. Now white tablecloth dining and solid oak bars are old hat, but then...then it was something fresh, new, and exciting. Exhilirating, even. Yes, I loved it, so seeing it still there (directly across the street from Cheetah's, no less) made me happy. Seeing the new vinyl banner proclaiming it to be "C H Streets Gastropub" didn't make me as happy as I could have been, but a peek at the menu (which now includes traditional pub items like buffalo wings and a wide variety of sandwiches and salads) revealed "Camembert Fritters," maintaining something of the gourmet sensibilities of the former incarnation. The look inside is familiar, sans white tablecloths. The decision to renovate/redefine was made earlier this year to offer more casual, high-end pub dining to the 25-50 crowd (i.e., another victim of the recession's low point). While I was sad to see my old favorite gone, it was relieving to see it still alive in spirit.

The Pour House Pub is new since my time there, and seems to be a direct competitor (and also across the street) of my beloved Gastropub. Canada's Pelee Island Pinot Grigio and Merlot was listed and only $5.00 per glass, but the rest of the menu seemed wholly less remarkable (Spinach Dip, Burgers, Wings), and so my friend and I continued our journey.

We passed by La Cuisine, a second-floor shamelessly French establishment with a menu loaded to the gills with terrines, dijon, and mayonnaise. A quick search online tells me that the restaurant is closed (it was closed when we walked by, but so was everywhere else--it was Sunday), though the menu is still posted on the wall outside so I don't know how reliable that information is.

We also passed by Chanoso's, whose outdoor menu board revealed items like stir-fry, hummous, samosas, and sushi. The full menu is an eclectic mix of Thai, Indian, Lebanese, contemporary American, and generic pan-Asian. It is certainly the most versatile menu I've ever seen; part of me hopes to never see it again. The reviews are all favorable, so I am intrigued, but the cultural stickler in me demands that a restaurant decide what exactly it wants to do and try to do it well, instead of trying to do it all.

Junk Pan-Asian Grill tries to do much the same. The overall look is distinctly more "Pan-Asian," but the menu boasts the same little of this/little of that mentality.

The Keg Steakhouse on the river caught my eye; this north American steakhouse franchise has locations all over Canada, including two in Windsor (the other in the nearby Devonshire Mall), and more in the US, but none over in metro Detroit (which is surprising, considering the prominence of steakhouses out in the Birmingham/Troy area). It has the look of a contemporary, upscale, corporate steakhouse (big, flashy) and a menu with Prime Rib in every size, shape, and color. Nothing new to the steakhouse scene, but the view sure is pretty.

After all this touring, we inexplicably ended up at a place called Papa Cheney's Whiskey Well where the Canadian Club is $2.50 all day every day. But they had pizza, and we like pizza, and it came recommended from his friend (I am always hesitant to take recommendations from people I don't know, and with good reason). The menu is deep-fried bar food, pierogies, and pizza. They've got Canadian brew Rickards on tap (the Belgian-style wheat ale called simple "White" isn't bad; better than the Coors on special, at least). There must be some kind of rock T-shirt uniform/theme thing with the staff, because each person there was wearing a T-shirt with some random band name on it (Green Day, Suicidal Tendencies, Nine Inch Nails, the Doors). But the place was comfortable, and OPEN, so we opted for the Pizza Pierogies and Four Cheese Pizza.

Portions were huge and well-priced (once you factor in the exchange rate). The food was merely so-so, but the view was great.

Coming soon to Windsor: the Shores of Erie Wine Festival September 10-13 in Amherstberg, featuring live music (from the Stills!), food from 23 area restaurants, culinary demonstrations, and a wine pavillion featuring wines from 12 Southwestern Ontario wineries. One-day passes are $15.00 in advance, $20.00 at the gate.

As it turns out, there is much to be discovered of our neighbors to the north! (Well, south, technically.) A trip to Windsor is not without its minor inconveniences--one needs a passport, must be subjected to a barrage of questions in customs, and pay $4.00 each way to cross the border--but the once-in-a-while roadtrip is worthwhile, if for no better reason than the stupendous view of Detroit from across the river (markedly better than the factories and casino we get to stare at).