Friday, August 26, 2011

[EID Feature] Star Lanes Inside Emagine Theatre: It's a Restaurant, Too

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

I have a secret. This secret might shock you. Some of you might be disappointed. Others might even be so devastated they'll choose never to read this blog again as a silent act of protest. I accept these potential consequences because I feel that it is time to unburden myself so I can stop living this shameful, deprived lie. I love food, I do, OBVIOUSLY I do because I'm doing this, but there is something that has my heart even more than all the Neapolitan pizza, craft beer and raclette cheese in the world: movies.

I am a hardcore, unrepentant film and media uber-nerd. So when the $19 million Emagine Theatre in Royal Oak broke ground, as others bemoaned the "big box corporateification" of Royal Oak (something I am prone to do myself) I was silently rejoicing.

It opened on May 16. I saw X-Men: First Class there on June 3. I fell in love immediately. DBOX motion effects! Luxury seating with bar service and 56'' of legroom! Digital posters that play the trailers! Sparkly! SPARKLY!!! Emagine is a movie palace, a SHRINE to movie worship, the Taj Mahal of Michigan movie theatres. It is majestic. And shiny. The 71,000 square foot 10-screen sparkling cinema masterpiece pays homage to the magic of the movies with its grandiosity, and grandiose is certainly nothing new to the Emagine chain: this was the first movie theatre chain in the world to offer all-digital projection, and the first chain in Michigan to offer all-stadium seating (Metromode recently ran this fantastic piece on the chain and its ambitious owner Paul Glantz so you can read about all of their innovations in movie-watching). The chain is also known for offering a full bar at each location (can't really go wrong there), and supporting the local film industry by hosting premieres and screenings of Michigan-made films.

The Royal Oak location is the fifth in the Emagine chain, but it is the first to introduce Star Lanes, an upscale 16-lane bowling alley with three enormous projection screens at the end of the lanes and three flatscreen TVs on each lane (there are over 70 flatscreen TVs throughout the complex, playing everything from Tigers games to PGA tournaments and anything else you might request). And located in Star Lanes is a restaurant, a full-service restaurant with a full bar offering upscale tapas-style bar food. And upstairs is the Skybox Lounge (overlooking the lanes) which can hold private parties for up to 250 people with full sit-down meals, staffed bar and live entertainment, as well as the High Roller Room, which can accommodate up to 50 people with four private bowling lanes, a pool table, shuffleboard, full catering and a private bar.

When you think "bowling alley restaurant" you're probably thinking pizza, burgers, etc. And, yes, you're on the right track ... but how many bowling alleys boast an American Culinary Federation-certified Executive Chef?

"When you go to a bowling alley its greasy burgers and hots dogs. We wanted to get away from that stereotype," says Executive Chef Matthew Johnson. The operation is a full banquet facility which can cater to ANY request. Johnson most recently came from Great Oaks Country Club in Rochester, and if there is one thing a country club chef knows how to do best it's everything (a recent soul food party paired with the film The Help was a huge hit). "We have the chance to 'wow' everyone who comes in the building." Kids' parties, corporate functions, wedding receptions - they can (and do) do it all.

Johnson was recently certified as an Executive Chef through the ACF. He says his has been a "storybook career," starting out as a dishwasher at the Farm in Port Austin and working his way up from there. "I was 16, my parents said 'If you want a car you have to have a job; you can either find a job or we can find a job for you," he explains. "Me being a lazy teen I said, 'Go ahead and find me a job.' They found me a job as a dishwasher at their favorite restaurant in Port Austin."

He remembers the very first day he walked in and instantly knew this was his life's calling. "Sean Loving was there working on his menu" - for what would eventually be the Loving Spoonful in Farmington Hills - "I saw him and the chef who owned the restaurant, I saw the way they talked and acted and lived their lives, how much fun they had cooking ... it was meant to be. I could never imagine myself having as much fun doing anything else."

Loving would end up being Johnson's Intro to Cooking instructor at Schoolcraft College. He would also be Johnson's coach in culinary competitions, and is now a consulting chef for Star Lanes. "It's cool to see it go full circle," Johnson says.

At the Farm, the tiny Port Austin restaurant owned by ACF-certified Executive Chef Pamela Mary Gabriel-Roth, they have a 1-acre produce garden where they grow the majority of their vegetables. "I think that’s a great environment for a chef to grow up in," says Johnson. "If I had to make pesto I had to go and pick the basil!"

He completed his Culinary Arts program at Schoolcraft in 2006. "I would gauge it as one of the top two culinary schools in the country," Johnson proclaims. "The classes only have 16 people so you get more hands-on training with certified master chefs than anywhere else in the world." After the Farm and while attending Schoolcraft, Johnson worked at Great Oaks for almost seven years. With his varied background ranging from remote farm-to-table restaurants to massive country club banquets, Johnson takes his professional training and personal ethos to define the kitchen at Star Lanes.

Johnson demands his vendors source as much from Michigan as possible for him. In the kitchen they make about 80% of the food from scratch - they make their own short ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chicken wings, pizza dough, soups, potato chips, dipping sauces, guacamole, even desserts (like warm chocolate chips cookies served with milk!). The tortillas for their nachos are bought pre-cut and raw from Michoacana in Mexicantown. They have a $40,000 wood-burning oven ("I call it my Ferrari") for their pizzas, and use recipes from Crust Pizza and Wine Bar.

The menu boasts items like Thai Sweet and Spicy Calamari, cheese fondue (win), baked brie (win!), and a variety of hearty salads, but their signature items are the wood-fired pizza and the nine "Celebrity Row Sliders," mini gourmet burgers made with items like Angus beef, crab and shrimp cakes, tuna, BBQ pulled pork, and portabella mushrooms. But the REAL star - the Marilyn Monroe of sliders - is the "Paparazzi:" a hand-packed Angus beef patty stuffed with a braised short rib, covered in Gruyere cheese and their secret-recipe "galaxy sauce," served on a bun that I swear was dipped in butter and grilled up crispy. This burger is AMAZING. As I sampled/inhaled it I could only grunt and moan. "If I can give someone a culinary orgasm, that's what it's all about!" Johnson laughs. Well Matt, it was good for me, thank you.

Coming for a movie? Great; eat here. Just want to bowl? Great; eat here. In Royal Oak and hungry? Great; eat here. You don't have to be bowling or about to watch a movie to enjoy the food; they're open 10 a.m. to 12 a.m. seven days a week, with happy hour specials 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you bring your same-day movie ticket stub, you'll save up to 25% off food and drinks from their "Why Go Home?" menu. This fall they'll also be participating in the Royal Oak Restaurant Week Fall Harvest with a three-course seasonal Michigan-themed prix fixe dinner menu. So it's not JUST a movie theatre. And it's not JUST a bowling alley. It is a welcome addition to Royal Oak's dining scene, and a progressive Michigan-owned chain that thinks outside the big box.

Want to see more? Check out the Flickr set here.

Star Lanes Restaurant & Sports Bar on Urbanspoon