Saturday, July 3, 2010

J. Baldwin's: Eastside Gets All Uppity...Sort Of.

What happens when a chef who made his name in the kitchens of such noteworthy upscale spots as the Whitney, the Van Dyke Place, and Mac & Ray's, who received accolades all throughout his career in fine dining finally decides "fuck it" and opens his own casual contemporary American eatery in the heart of Clinton Twp.? J. Baldwin's is what happens. (Okay, so I used a little creative liberty there with my description of how this place came to be...I don't actually KNOW that he said "fuck it" in regards to the rest of the restaurant industry, though it would fit and it makes for an entertaining read so that's just what we'll go with.)

Jeff Baldwin has quite an enviable fine dining resume, but five years ago he shucked it all to open his own casual restaurant and catering business J. Baldwin's Restaurant & To-Go. The "To-Go" in the name is an almost intentional rejection of any kind of upscale stamp critics might want to brand it with, given the man in the kitchen. Instead, Baldwin has steadfastly refused any kind of claim of the hoighty-toighty; he has made this an upscale family business, one in which eastside families go out and dine together, where the children's menu is a highlight, where Jeff and his family can often be seen eating together at one of the large tables in the dining room and his wife Rose personally goes from table to table, shaking the hands of every new customer and treating returning customers like visiting family members. I about shat myself when she did this to my gal pal and I, welcoming her with a big smile and a "where have you been" and warmly shaking my hand as if she really were that truly excited that I came. (And NO, I didn't pull the "I think I'm so fucking important" card; to her I was just another punk from Mt. Clemens who took Cass Ave. down just a bit too far. I was just sitting there looking scrubby with flip-flops and convertible hair, hungrily eyeing the pizza oven and putting down my fair share of ice martinis.)

Oh, but what's an ice martini? Well, sir, I'm glad you asked. An ice martini is frozen conical-shaped form of win. A new form of technology to make us better at drinking, the rights to the ice martini making-machine are owned EXCLUSIVELY in this state by J. Baldwin's for the next 15 months...which means if you want to experience this awesomeness, get ready for a bit of a drive. I'll save you the lengthy explanation of how the machine works (largely because I spaced out about 15 seconds into it and was thinking this, as I was drinking this delightful thing called Rumchata and it was empty). But basically, it is a cone of ice placed in a glass with a reservoir at the bottom into which your tasty alcohol treat is poured, keeping the beverage in constant contact with the ice BUT never allowing the ice to dilute it, as the ice melts from the outside in (something something something about the machine) and the melt drips down into the glass's reservoir. WUAH!!!! The downside is you're drinking directly out of an ice cup (it's a little cold, you know), but the upside is that your alcohol will no longer be tainted by that vile thing called water. I was drinking this most amazing creation called a Choco-Chata, which is a blend of ChocoVine and Rumchata (and Rumchata is a most amazing creation that is basically Bailey's meets Captain Morgan's). You can ask for the ice martini glass with any of their cocktails, or even order it with white wine to keep it properly chilled (Rieslings just aren't the same lukewarm and people who put ice in wine make me want to give up drinking).

We ate, too. We started with Jeff's signature calamari, made with diced tomatoes, scallions, and capers in a lemon butter sauce. It was good but not remarkable. I question the "award-winning" descriptor but I guess you never know. Probably the best in Macomb County, truth be told.

Then, salad: the 18th Street Rocket Salad to be exact. Arugula, pesto, goat cheese, red onion, diced tomatoes, and shaved parmesan served on a thin pizza shell with a lemon vinaigrette. Fergilicious. (As in, "tay-stay, tay-staaay.") A strong combination though I picked around the onions which were most fortunately not diced.

And because I'm just so fucking predictable, pizza. The space that J. Baldwin's inhabits was something else before (and goddamnit even though I spent all of my valuable teenaged years in that area -- walking to the 7-Eleven at 17 & Garfield to buy Slurpees and smokes, hanging out in the back of the Anthony B's parking lot waiting for my boyfriend's older cousin to buy us booze -- I can't for the life of me remember what), and that something else had a stone-fired pizza oven which was specifically why Baldwin wanted this space. The advantages of wood vs. brick vs. stone vs. coal vs. gas are up for debate, but J. Baldwin's does crank out some crispy crusts. I attempted a design-your-own and basically tried to recreate Supino's "Smoky" on a square deep dish: smoked gouda, roasted garlic, and prosciutto. The effect, though tasty, just wasn't the same. Deep dish and thin crust are just two separate beasts. That being said, the crust was crispy without being too greasy (my biggest bitch-fit when it comes to Buddy's deep dish) and had a good flavor. The prosciutto tasted a bit too suspiciously much like straight-up bacon (they would do well to use some that isn't so heavily salt-cured), but the ample fat cloves of roasted garlic more than made up for it. The sauce was a bright, thick red, sweet with a little spice. Overall, not bad...and that's coming from the mouth of a pizza snob. Next time I'll definitely veer towards the thin crust where I belong, and here's an extra bonus if you made it this far: all during the month of July J. Baldwin's is offering 9 new thin-crust pizzas for $9. Don't let the word "thin" deceive you: these pizzas sport a whole lotta bacon and ranch dressing (there's a Hani pizza, a BLT pizza, a Caesar pizza, a Cheesesteak pizza...). Because counting carbs mean fat grams don't exist! Also, for health-nuts and gluten-phobes, they now have whole wheat and gluten-free crusts.

Speaking of which: just when in the hell did gluten become an allergy? Did people in the '50s have gluten allergies (or lactose intolerances, for that matter)? No. No, they did not. This is a brand-new conspiracy of pharmaceutical companies creating diseases to medicate with costly treatments and prescriptions (they're in bed with all those overpriced organic food companies, too, BTW, and probably L.A. Total Fitness too--seriously, have you SEEN that new monstrosity in Royal Oak???) and whiny white people who thrive of modern-day medical paranoia. I say give 'em all fucking smallpox and let them have a field day.

Where was I now? Ah, yes: about to make fun of the eastside. (I can do this: I'm from there.)

My eastside brethren historically aren't known for their culinary acumen. The whole cluster of Mt. Clemens, Clinton Twp., Sterling Heights, Fraser, Roseville, Utica, Shelby Twp.,'s all kind of a gourmet void. The greatest contributions to cuisine came from the likes of Mr. Paul's and the Brewery (same owners) and Luciano's and Rosebud (the chef from the former defected and opened the latter, which is now closed). In other words, old people food. Yes--Macomb County is brimming over with endless dining options for the olds. Diners and coneys and buffets and "family restaurants;" all of it catering to the geriatric crowd. Nothing hip or trendy; if the young folks wanted a place to party, they were left with skeezy biker bars and pool halls where there was always a cover band cranking out your favorite Motley Crue and Lynyrd Skynyrd classics. Now, I'm not saying J. Baldwin's has totally changed this--I mean, you can lead a horse to water and so forth--but given some of the other adjustments that have happened on the eastside (the Emerald Ballroom and the Bank providing an actual nightlife vibe, if that sort of vibe is what you want in your nightlife; Mt. Clemens transforming itself into a hip little downtown area; mid-life-crisis bar Ernie's developing a fully decent contemporary Mediterranean-American menu instead of old people food and now attracting the same lip-pursing crowd as Crave and South Bar), I think it's safe to say that our auto-plant-workin', hockey-lovin', 'Merican car-drivin' friends are trying to class it up a bit. J. Baldwin's is a solid indicator of this shift while still maintaining the same family-friendliness and isolationist humility that is truly one of the finer points of eastside culture--they know you make fun of them; they just don't care. And that's the kind of attitude I like to see. EAST SYDE!