Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup: Like a Food Blanket

My goodness, sorry for the long absence! Holidays, holidaze, call it what you will...yeah, I've been slacking off. My apologies; it is my sincerest hope that you all were able to gforge through the holidays without my guidance and expertise. I'll never leave you hanging like that again; pinky swear.*

So last week I found myself out in the Farmington Hills area...looooong way from home, I know, but I figured what the hay, I'm out here, I might as well check out a place I've been meaning to investigate for awhile but could never ever ever force myself to make the drive without being under other pretense. Well hello there, other pretense!

It was a blustery day when I pulled into a strip mall parking lot off Northwestern Highway, just south of 14 Mile Rd. (right by the Home Depot and Sam's Club; ah, suburbia)...perfect for some bonafide comfort food.

Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup offers exactly that: hearty, wholesome, nutritious (...that may be up for debate...) and delicious comfort food. I mean, the name says it all--grilled cheese and tomato soup are pretty much the comfort food elite, the very embodiment of belly-and-soul-warming consumables that bring back warm memories of cold winter days at Grandma's house snuggling under a blanket and watching Disney movies.

At Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup, you might as well be in Grandma's industrial-sized kitchen with walk-up ordering, complete with loud paintings of big blotchy vineyards, antique-esque curio cabinets with ceramic ramikins displayed inside and Americana-classic blue and white porcelain vases on top, and comfort food classics made with more butter than you can shake a stick of butter at.

There are a number of options available to order--a wide variety of soups (ten daily), generous salads, baguette sandwiches (the Slow Roasted Pulled Pork with warm Brie, candied onions, and garlic aioli spoke to me), and a host of clever variations on the standard grilled cheese classic (spiral ham and Gruyere, tuna and American, etc.). There are also the hardcore "Grandma's World-Famous Homemade Recipes" for the real comfort food aficionados: chicken pot pie, meatloaf, pot roast, mac & cheese. Real rib-stickin' goodness, right there. Hearty. Definitely hearty.

Well, when in Rome, right? I decided to go with the namesake Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup combo: $6.95, and you can choose up to three different cheeses for the sandwich (choices include American, Cheddar, Provolone, etc.). I went with the HeartSmart Special; Gruyere, American Bleu, and Smoked Gouda.

But first I was served with what might be my favorite tomato soup ever. A rich bisque slightly pinkish from the heavy cream, and the oils from the abundance of butter separating ever-so-slightly, this tomato soup had a distinctive creamy sweetness to it, totally lacking the tartness and acidity of more average tomato soups. Now, maybe this is because they've cultivated only naturally high-sugar small tomatoes for their homemade soups, or maybe they just add in a butt-ton of sugar, but either way I likey. The end result is creamy, soothing, and soul-warming (chicken soup, pbffft). And also, it's served in a HUGE bowl, more than you could possibly eat in one sitting and certainly a generous portion for the price.

My HeartSmart grilled cheese was perfection. There is an art to grilling the sandwich just right, so that the cheese is warm and melty without being too hot and gooey, and the outside has a slight buttery crunch without being dry or burned. These golden triangles were grilled cheese mastery, and every cheesy-salty-buttery bite was bliss.

"GCATS" propietor Jeff McArthur earned his culinary creds at Schoolcraft College's well-respected culinary school, though with this charming walk-up/carry-out location he shirks the implied hoighty-toightiess that comes with words like "cuisine." All the food here is old-fashioned homestyle goodness, made from family recipes.

I wish my family cooked like that.

You can dine-in and enjoy the quaint atmosphere, but it seems like this place does a mean carry-out business and all the soups are available in to-go pints and quarts. The portions are huge, the prices are low, the options are plentiful, and the food is just simply snuggly-fuzzy-nummy.

While Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup may be a bit out of the way for, well, me, I encourage my Oakland County readers to see this place as a superior alternative to similar lunchtime hotspots like Zoup! and even Panera Bread. Sure, it may not have all the same glitz and glamour, but do those corporate competitors serve food that feels like stomach Snuggies? I rest my case.

PS, it's just now really effing cold outside. It's high time for comfort food to make a comeback. Because sushi won't keep you warm at night. No, sushi won't.
*I was totally crossing my fingers when I said that.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Biggest Moments in Detroit Dining 2009

It's that time of year--when everyone with access to any kind of public grandstand hops up on it proudly and proclaims what they believe to be the most relevant blah blah blah of blah for this year of blah. And who am I to mess with tradition? Here it is: the most significant events in Detroit (and surrounding areas) dining of 2009:

(1) Detroit Restaurant Week launches. AKA, the Best. Week. Ever. 10 days and 27,000 diners later, I'd say it was a whopping success. And I'm not just saying that so that I can secure my involvement with the next installment coming this spring. (*Ahem*) But in all seriousness, this is probably the best thing to happen to Detroit dining since...well...

(2) ME!!! Yaaaaaaaaay ME! Yes, Dining in Detroit, the little blog that could, officially "launched" in January 2009 (the archives from 2007-2008 were transferred over from a previous blog), which has opened the doors to me bombarding you from some eight different publications and counting now.

Well...technically it was launched in Dec. 2008, but we'll just go ahead and say that the "Grand Opening" was in 2009...okay? Okay, then. Don't argue with me.

(3) Mercury Coffee Bar and Zaccaro's Market both end up epic FAIL!s. After both opening with a whole lot of fanfare and hullabaloo, both closed within a matter of months due to mismanagement and a serious miscalculation of demographics. (I.e., a gourmet grocer where even everyday items are at about a 20% mark-up compared to a regular grocery store and a trendy coffee bar that charged $7.oo for a bite of grilled cheese just weren't meant to be in the middle of a recession in the city with the highest unemployment rate in the country.) C'est la vie.

(4) Michael Symon wins a James Beard Award--though it was for Cleveland's Lola, and not Detroit's Roast, which only makes it a half-win...but it's an honor just to be nominated, right? Better luck next time, Brian Polcyn.

(5) Tribute closes. Next time, just shoot off my kneecaps. It will hurt less.

(6) Detroit dining gets some national love. Pizza, burgers, BBQ, and pizza again. And thanks once again to David Landsel for name-dropping me in the New York Post...still waiting for that royalty check, B-T-dubs.

(7) Me again! :D My taco cart crawl story and my often-imitated, never-duplicated crepe story take top billing for the year for their respective publications. Boo-yah. I said BOO-YAH.

Okay. That's 7. That's enough. Because 5 is too few (then I couldn't include myself twice), and 10 is just cliche. There you have it, kids. The biggest moments in the metro Detroit dining scene, according to moi. And since this is most likely going to be the only list of its kind, that makes it the BEST list of its kind.

Until the Metro Times does their own version. Ooooohhh...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas Cocktail Concoctions

Oh, the things I do for you. Trudging from bar to bar in a desperate search for metro Detroit's most scrumptious sippables in the swankiest lounges...this, THIS is commitment, people. Anything you've heard from ex-boyfriends about me being a commitment-phobe is lies, dirty dirty lies.

'Tis the season for tasty treats, and I've got 'em all for you right here:

Ah, the holidays. Jack Frost nipping at your nose and shorting out your car battery. Long lines full of angry people willing to trample each other just to get their hands on the [insert name of latest popular and limited-quantity children’s toy]. And let’s not forget, more concentrated family time over one month than the whole entire remainder of the year combined.

It’s no wonder so many people view the holidays as an opportune time to get their drink on.

Luckily, there are scores of trendy places all over metro Detroit just waiting to help you through your holiday “Cheers!” Some are even offering clever Christmas cocktail concoctions specifically in the spirit of the season. So when you feel yourself getting a case of the holiday hum-drums, head to your nearest upscale watering hole and remember: Christmas comes but once a year!

Read the rest of this story on Metromix here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Toast to Toast (Redux)

It's been nearly a year since my last visit to Birmingham's gastro-casual bistro Toast. Those of you who follow this blog regularly know that I don't too often venture beyond the confines of the city--not in that, "Detroit is so great, it's so much better, I hate the suburbs" kind of way but in that "Detroit is so great, it's so much closer, the suburbs are so far" kind of way.

However, as luck would have it, I found myself at Toast this weekend enjoying a proper dinner there for the first time.

I loved this place before, and I must say I still love it now, maybe even a little bit more.

When I first walked in (on-time for my reservation, whaaaaat?), the manager greeted me by laughing, "How about this heat wave?" (it was in the mid-30s, after a few bracing 20-degree days). He was extremely polite and charming all the way to my table, and a few minutes later made rounds to inform all the guests that the servers were busy "conferring" on the evening's specials with the chef and would be around shortly. Yes, I waited a few extra minutes--which was really not an issue at all as my dining companion was late, if you can believe that someone actually arrived to something later than me!--but the fact that he took the time to forewarn everyone and was so congenial and friendly while doing so made all the difference.

Our server Tony arrived just as my friend did, and he was fabulous. Tony is the consummate service industry professional, striking me as someone who has been working in the business a long time and continues to do it because he truly enjoys it. He was quick to offer wine recommendations based on my partner's preferences (she likes Merlot, and offered to bring her a taste of their house Merlot which he strongly recommended, and later, during a discussion of Malbecs with which she was unfamiliar, offered to bring a sample of this as well). When she ordered the Fried Chicken and Waffle--classic comfort food if ever there was--then asked for his suggestions, he raved about the Carnitas Waffle, explaining their process for pulling the pork and exclaiming that it's his favorite thing on the menu. Based on this endorsement, she went the Carnitas way and loved it.

Tony also took great pains to make sure we were satisfied with everything, telling us about their Wine Down Wednesdays, encouraging us to check out their lounge, and even apprising us of his regular schedule so that he could take care of us again. He was friendly, knowledgable, and an absolute pleasure to have as a server. Service industry professionals everywhere could take a few cues from him, though his casual, personal demeanor works well in this location which seems to thumb its nose at the concept of being a Birmingham restaurant (this place has all the fun, casual, down-home hip vibe of the original Ferndale location, and none of the seemingly requisite B-ham pretentiousness--their $18 dinner entrees also scream "Fashionable Ferndale!" much more than "Biiiiiiiiiiirmingham").

Now celebrating their one-year anniversary, Toast in Birmingham is also welcoming a new chef. Chef Jeff Rose has worked in some of metro Detroit's finest and most eclectic restaurants, including Sweet Lorraine's, Big Rock Chophouse, Iridescence, Tribute, and most recently served as Executive Chef at Michael Symon's Roast during which time it was awarded "Restaurant of the Year" for 2009 by the Detroit Free Press. Rose is committed to making everything he serves (including stocks, soups, and sauces) from scratch in his kitchen, and tries to source as much as possible from no further than 100 miles of the restaurant. His commitment to local, sustainable cuisine echoes the availability of Michigan wines and hand-crafted beers already in the restaurant (they most notably carry Bell's, Short's, and Detroit Beer Co.'s seasonal brews on tap). They even carry their own blend of Fair-Trade custom Breakfast Blend coffee roasted at Beanstro Specialty Coffee in Waterford. While Toast may not wave their "local or bust" banner to the same extent that some other places do (you know who you are), make no mistake: hardcore locovores will be quite satisfied here.

So, how is Chef Rose faring so far? My dining partner and I, both lovers of all that which is pumpkin, both started with a cup of the Pumpkin Soup. Served with crumbled candied walnuts and Granny Smith apple slices, the consistency was almost that of a puree, and there was a slight spiciness (like heat from a hot pepper, but without that flavor) that just barely tickles the back of the throat. This satisfied the pumpkin itch, and also made me feel all warm and fuzzy and wintry.

Next I tried the Cassoulet with duck confit, flagolet beans, bacon, celery, carrot, and onion in a rich duck sauce. A "cassoulet" is a classic French comfort food, more of a stew or casserole made with meat and beans. Rose's cuisine is French-inspired and this dish does well to fuse his cooking style with the comfy-cozy identity of Toast. This hearty dish was thick, rich, and very filling. The cassoulet itself was full of tender, flavorful duck meat, and the perfectly-cooked duck medallions on top were flavorful without being overpowering. (Word to those unaccustomed to duck: it is a very fatty meat--this just comes with the territory.)

While my ability to sample various menu items was restricted due to time constraints, other notable menu items include the Butternut Squash Ravioli (you just can't ever go wrong here), and the homemade Mac & Cheese--made with goat cheese and smoked gouda. :O The cheese plank, which offers a heaping helping of different cheese varieties (cheddar, gouda, bleu) was also calling my name, but alas, it was not meant to be. (At least not this time...next time, look out!)

One thing I immediately loved about Toast was their creative cocktails, and they continue to impress. I sampled a season-appropriate Polar Bear Martini, made with Stoli Vanil Vodka, Frangelico, and Godiva White Chocolate Liqueur. Tony also told us about the bartender's specialty concoction, "Make Me Something Good" (inspired by people asking him to do precisely this). Three Olives Bubble Vodka, Zodiac Black Cherry Vodka, grenadine, sour mix, and 7-Up. "Something good," indeed!

Toast further entices diners with a number of weekly specials, including their "Wine Down Wednesdays" which I mentioned earlier. All glasses of wine under $10 are half off, and lucky you: this is one of Tony's regular nights! Tuesdays are $2 Taco Tuesdays, further cementing Toast's identity as a wholly casual and welcoming place. Much like their food, which is cleverly trendy yet completely comfort at its base, Toast is a comfortable, casual establishment which may look the part of upscale retro-chic Birmingham bistro, but plays more like a friendly (dare-I-say Ferndale?) diner. This is simply a great place to meet friends, have a few scrumptious cocktails, and enjoy some hearty food served with a smile by a fast new friend.

The Lounge at Toast, from the website

If you're still looking for New Year's Eve plans, Toast is hosting a Parisian-inspired celebration, complete with a six course meal, French wine pairings, live gypsy jazz and a champagne toast at midnight. The reception starts at 8:00PM with dinner served at 8:45PM on Thursday Dec. 31, 2009.

Following is the full menu with wine pairings:

Chef’s Selection of Passed Hors d’Oeuvres
Pierre Boniface Brut “Les Rocailles” Savoie Bubbles

Roasted Cauliflower Soup; Crispy fried oysters, chives, pumpkin seeds
Domaine de Lancyre Roussane, Languedoc 2007

Grilled Hamachi; Frisée, grape tomatoes, green beans, green onion vinaigrette
Chateau Haut Pasquet Blanc, Bordeaux 2007

Cassoulet; Bacon, mushrooms, duck confit
Domaine Bois de Boursan Chateauneuf du Pape 2006

Braised Beef Short Ribs; Fingerling potatoes, caramelized onions, red wine reduction
Château Moulinet, Pomerol 2005

Ricotta Cheesecake; Candied pecans, lemon curd, vanilla
Château d'Orignac, Pineau des Charentes

Fromage – A Selection of Cheese

Django’s Tiger, a Parisian-style Gypsy Jazz band will perform throughout the evening. A champagne toast and countdown will ring in 2010. This whole event costs $95 per person, not including gratuity. Call (248) 258-6278 to make reservations; seating is limited and this event is expected to sell out, so don't dawdle!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Supper Club Holiday Party at Cliff Bell's

Photo courtesy of website

Hello readers. Perhaps you already knew, but I do this little thing called "Supper Club." It's fun. We're doing a thing on Dec. 15. You should come. If for no other reason than the fact that you get to hang out with me! Read on, wayward diners...

After a one-month hiatus, Detroit Synergy’s Supper Club is back just in time for a jazzy holiday celebration! On Tuesday December 15 beginning at 6:00PM, Supper Club will head to Cliff Bell’s (2030 Park Ave.), downtown Detroit’s hippest jazz club, for an evening of mixing, mingling, and holiday jingling in this fully restored art deco nightclub, with an equally impressive menu designed by Executive Chef Matthew Baldridge (formerly of the Rattlesnake Club).

Supper Club continues to evolve with another “non-traditional” event: since we all need a break from some of the holiday burdens, this four-course dining event will cost ONLY $26.00 per person, inclusive of tax and gratuity. An affordable evening of dining and good cheer(s) with some of our favorite Detroit dining partners? Let the eggnog flow!


Fresh-Baked Artisan Bread and Butter

First Course (choice of):
~Cornmeal Dusted Flash-Fried Calamari
~Prociutto di Parma with seasonal fruit & balsamic glaze
~Duck Confit on a buttermilk biscuit with Traverse City cherry compote

Second Course (choice of):
~Wedge Salad with bacon, Roquefort, cucumbers, garbanzo beans, cherry tomato & bleu cheese dressing
~Roasted Beet Salad with horseradish vinaigrette & pistachio crumbs
~Griffon Farms Heirloom Tomato Salad with balsamic drizzle & basil granita

Third Course (choice of):
~Honey Lemon Roasted Chicken with green beans & herbed jus lie
~Barley Wine and Honey Braised Short ribs with green beans, spiced cashews & crispy scallions
~Shrimp and Grits with roasted chilies

Dessert Course (choice of):
~Grilled Peach Melba a la mode with sea salted caramel
~Creme Brulee du jour
~Chocolate Delight

Cliff Bell’s has a trendy yet welcoming ambiance unmatched by other lounges, nightclubs, or jazz restaurants in the city. There is live music almost every night, as well as monthly events such as the popular “Open City” entrepreneurial discussions and the vaudeville burlesque troupe “Torch with a Twist.” There is no venue better fitting a Detroit holiday celebration, and we are thrilled to be taking Supper Club here to experience their underappreciated cuisine! Their kitchen has only been open about 9 months and has earned rave reviews, though Cliff Bell’s has yet to cement itself as a dining destination as much as it is known as an entertainment oasis. In addition to being a great place to meet friends and see live music, it is also a great place to dine. Join us as Detroit Synergy Supper Club discovers yet another hidden culinary gem!

And as we look towards a new year, there are many exciting new things to come. Keep an eye on your inbox to stay posted on all the upcoming dining events!

Tickets to this event must be purchased in advance and are available on the DSG online store only at http://shop.detroitsynergy.org/ (+ $1.00 service fee). All ticket sales are final, but tickets are transferrable. Ticket sales will end Monday, December 14 at 9:00PM. If you have any questions, contact Nicole at supperclub@detroitsynergy.org.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Annual Sparkling Feast at Shiraz

Back when I was a resident of the O.C. (by way of West Bloomfield and later Waterford), I enjoyed attending many of the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group's monthly wine tastings, and dined frequently at such MPRG restaurants as Northern Lakes Seafood Company, No. VI Chophouse, and Shiraz. Those days (and the boyfriend with the deep pockets) are long gone, and nowadays it's quite the challenge to convince me to cross Detroit borders for any reason.* (And when I do it is usually after weeks of planning, a lot of heavy sighing, and a palpable sense of irritation, but I digress.)

Of all the monthly wine tastings, it is the December event which deserves the highest honors. This annual "Sparkling Feast" features a six-course menu with sparkling wine pairings. Remember, a proper champagne must actually be from the Champagne Region of France in order to be so named; otherwise it is simply called sparkling wine. Rob Lowe gives a great explanation of this lession in vinology in Wayne's World; please reference the film for further clarification.

Everything I ever needed to know I learned from movies.

At this year's feast, which will be held Friday, December 11 from 7:00PM-11:00PM at Shiraz in Bingham Farms, MPRG's Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon (and one of only 14 female Master Sommelier's in North America) will be pairing bubblies from Michigan, California, Spain, and the Champagne Region with each course on the menu. Wait--Michigan? Yes: Michigan. Lawrence Mawbry is the envy of his Michigan winemaking peers and is considered by winemakers and enthusiasts across the country as an unmatched genius. He produces nothing but sparkling wines under his two eponymous labels: perhaps you've heard of Sex?*(that's a good reason)

Six courses with wine all for only $75.00. Suit up, and celebrate the holidays sipping bubbly and feasting on an amazing champagne-themed menu. Take a look:

Annual Sparkling Feast

First Plate
-Vol au Vent with Wild & Exotic Mushroom Ragout, Morel Mushroom Sauce-

Soup Course
-Maine Lobster & Sweet Corn Chowder with Yukon Gold Potatoes & Fresh Chives-

-Poached Sekel Pear with Micro Greens, Toasted Walnuts, Red & Yellow Grape Tomatoes, Champagne Vinaigrette & Basil Oil-

Fish Course
-Sauteed Orata with Lemon, Chervil & Fresh Oregano atop Carmelized Leek Fondue with Champagne Sauce-

Principal Plate
-Blanquette de Veau atop Housemade Pasta Wild Mushrooms, Cipollini Onions & Fine Herbs-

-Warm Chocolate Souffle Cake with Champagne Crème Anglaise & Champagne Cured Berries-

Reservations are required and can be made by calling Shiraz at 248.645.5289

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My Love Affair With Foran's

Photo ripped from website...apparently I have no pictures from inside this place. Inconceivable.

I've always liked Foran's (now officially known as Grand Trunk Pub, though still Foran's in the hearts and minds of every Detroit drinker), but recently I've found myself being quite the verbal proponent of the place. Why?

For starters, the people. The people there are quite simply the best. From manager Dave and his staff right down to the regulars, Foran's is the kind of place where you will always find a friend (either one you already knew or one you'll meet during your visit). No pretense, no BS, just good people getting together and drinking some good beer.

(And, blessed be, the Chotchey McChotch Tigers crowd has yet to discover this place...probably because they don't have $1 drafts of Bud Light on tap but regardless, let's hope it forever remains this way.)

Second, the beer. Foran's carries an ever-changing variety of Michigan brews on tap, and don't let the term "craft brew" scare you: a pint is only $5.00--in other words, what you'll likely pay for a pint of Bud in any other bar. Some of the best breweries in Michigan have found a home in Foran's, including Founders, Shorts, and New Holland. (On my last visit just a couple of days a week ago (I really need to write these posts faster), they ran out of New Holland's Poet Stout, which made me very sad, but which led to my discovery of the ultra-hoppy Founders IPA, which made me very hoappy.) There aren't many bars where you can find such a wide selection of Michigan craft brews on tap (save for the breweries themselves), so this instantly makes Foran's one of the best places for beer--especially since you get such a wide selection of different brewers.

But wait, there's more: Foran's has long served some of Detroit's favorite corned beef sandwiches and Sunday brunch, but now they're expanding the restaurant side of things even further: please welcome Foran's Delux Diner, located in the space where once stood Eph's (Eph's, under new ownership from its original and well-loved Corktown location, will be relocating to the Bohemian National Home né BoHouse).

Foran's Delux Diner will be serving "gourmet comfort food," according to owner Tim Tharp. It will combine the pub favorites of the Grand Trunk (a name born from the space's former identity as a GT ticket office) with the deli favorites of Eph's and a unique emphasis on sustainability (i.e., locally-sourced, seasonal items). From the Model D blurb, "If it's not from Michigan, we'd really rather find something else."

Right now the Diner is open Mon.-Fri. 11AM-3PM, and has already started hosting dinner events with the intention of eventually having a full menu with regular dinner hours. And because I like to tease you, take a looky-loo at the menu from last week's "dinner club":

Charcuterie table, featuring Detroit Corridor Sausage made with fresh pork sausage, sage, apple and maple country pork terrine, pork tenderloin inlay, fig and pistachio; beet-cured Canadian salmon, lox-style cure; assorted sauces and cheeses.

1st Course
Jerusalem artichoke soup served tableside; lemongrass chutney

2nd Course
Poached pear with grilled Romaine and radicchio atop raisin baguette and sweet vanilla vinaigrette

3rd Course
Braised short ribs, horseradish whipped potatoes, roasted baby beets, and confiture of red wine onions

4th Course
Chocolate almond torte, whipped cream and raspberry sauce

And as if all that weren't enough, each course is also paired with the best local beer and wine. All for--wait for it--$35.00 per person. That includes the booze, people. That's a damned good deal. Shoowt.

In time, Motor City Wine Bar will also be opening on the other side of the Grand Trunk (I will be bringing you the details soon enough, pets)...between all these places and Enoteca Campo Marzio on the north end of the same building, I will never have reason to leave this particular corner of Detroit. Never. Not ever, ever.

But back to Foran's, or whatever you should choose to call it. How about "AWESOME"? Okay then. This is my favorite place to wind up at the end of the night, but be warned: Foran's is a dangerous place to be for last call. When Dave looks at you and says, "Jameson's," it is not a question but a statement. You do not have the option of saying "no." And then "Dead Skin Mask" by Slayer will play. And it will be good.

BUT WAIT! There's more: Foran's is also known to host some pretty cool techno nights, and always at a totally reasonable price...such as the one coming up tomorrow evening, as in the day before Thanksgiving, as in "Humpsgiving" (for "Hump Day," 'cuz it's Wednesday, get it?). No matter where the night starts, this is where the night will end, bet. I will be surrounded by people I am Facebook friends with but don't actually know in real life. And then Dave will look at those of us still left at the end of the night once the ravers and suburbanites have left and he will say "Jameson's," and it will be good. Oh yes, it will be good.

Keep eyeballing my Twitter ticker to find out when the next Dinner Club will be held, and I will see you there, and we will become friends and eat good food and drink good beer, and then it will be last call, and we will drink Jameson's and listen to Slayer. Hey, I'm Irish and was raised in Macomb County, bust off.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How Do You Do, Midtown?

Yes. Midtown. It's so much better than anywhere else in Detroit. We get it now. Here ya' go.

"People who live in Midtown like to talk about how much they love living in Midtown. And what's not to love? Midtown is the cultural and intellectual hub of the city. And thanks to some new and improved restaurants and bars, Midtown is cementing its status as the city's social center, too.

'Popular consensus seems to be that Midtown -- and specifically, the University and Cultural Districts -- has been woefully underserved in terms of casual restaurants. There is a huge market of working professionals, college students, and culture-seekers that previously had little local recourse. Until now..."

Read the rest of the article on Model D here.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Divine Dim Sum: Shangri La

"Shangri-La" is a fictional location that has become synonymous with the idea of a pure utopia. How about foodtopia? The new Chinese eatery Shangri La, located in Midtown's University and Theatre District, is just that...total edible nirvana (at least, the dim sum menu is).

Shangri La inhabits the space of the former Twingo's (a moment of silence in memoriam, please). They've maintained the overall design of the previous space, opting only to change the color theme to a palette of soft browns and warm woods. The decor is simple and inviting, though certainly more chic than your typical strip mall Chinese spot.

When I stopped in for a visit, I had the chance to speak with Raymond Wong--does that name sound familiar? It should--he's the mastermind behind the wonderful, brilliant, and unjustly short-lived Asian Village (including Fusia, which offered hyper-trendy haute Asian-fusion cuisine in stunning backdrop with a riverfront view...a moment of silence in memoriam, please).

Yes, Mr. Wong has quite the roster of cutting-edge and unfortunately failed restaurants under his belt, which is why he has since retired and is helping Shangri La in a consultant capacity only. After the failure of AV, Wong's experienced his own set of personal traumas, including divorce and bankruptcy. Oddly, Wong can laugh about this now...even though the conversation was a little...awkward...for me. :O But time heals all wounds, as they say, and at 60 years old Wong is ready to pass the torch on to the next batch of enthusiastic risk-takers.

Though the "risk" at Shangri La seems relatively minimal: with a built-in college student and working professional market thanks to the nearby WSU, CCS, and DMC campuses (as well the numerous cultural institutions such as the DIA and DPL) that was previously woefully under-tapped, Shangri La has almost limitless potential clientele.

They consider themselves an "authentic" Chinese eatery, distinguising themselves from the common generic take-out joint. And why? Two words: dim sum.

The lone dumpling that remained when I finally decided I should be taking pictures

If you've ever walked down Mott Street in Manhattan's Chinatown district (after first pushing your way past the junk-peddlers on Canal St.), you've seen the numerous nondescript dim sum restaurants that have no name, only addresses, and serve dim sum only on Saturday and Sunday mornings through the early afternoon. If you've ever visited such a place, you have a full understanding of dim sum, and you will not be disappointed by what Shangri La has to offer.

For the uninitiated: dim sum is a traditional Chinese cuisine featuring small plates of "finger foods" served in succession (often from a cart, though not at Shangri La), usually baked or steamed and including both sweet and savory dishes. It is typically served in the morning or early afternoon, though at Shangri La it is served until an hour before the kitchen closes so Asian students getting out of classes late can still order it, according to Wong.

“We did a lot of study of the area’s demographics, and we found that there are a lot of people from Asia in the area and there is a demand for authentic Asian food,” Wong told me. They also keep the prices very reasonable (most entrees are about $8.00) to appeal to the surrounding college crowd.

If you've got a hankering for a baked cream bun or curry chicken pastry, get there early or call ahead--the baked items are all made in the morning and tend to sell out quickly, though if you call in advance and request some be set aside for you, they will more than happily accommodate your request.

The dim sum menu includes the basics--Pan-Fried Dumplings, Baked BBQ Pork Bun, Baked and Steamed Cream Buns--as well as some decidedly more exotic dishes. Steamed Chicken Feet (which the table nearby raved about, including the four-year-old child), Curried Baby Squid, Beef Tripe...to truly experience the fullness of this dim sum menu, American palates may be forced to step a bit outside their comfort zone.

That being said, I decided to stay firmly planted in my comfort zone: Shrimp Shiu Mai, Roast Pork Pastry, Pan-Fried Dumplings. Nom nom nom. The portions were enough for two to share, and each item came out fresh, hot, and bursting with flavor. (Made me a little nostalgic for some Mott St. gyoza, lemme tell 'ya.) Next time I look forward to trying the Egg Tart and the Steamed Sweet Red Bean Paste Bun (Tao Sar Bao, a very common and popular Chinese pastry). The dim sum here is probably the best you'll find in the metro Detroit area (and the ONLY you'll find in the city proper), and is truly top-notch.

“We couldn’t open until we found the best dim sum chef around,” says Wong. “That was a must!”
Done and done.

As for the rest of the menu...some hits, some misses. The options are pretty catch-all Americanese, though they do also offer real Thai curry. The "General Chicken" (as in "General Tso's" or "General Tao's"), which happens to be my fave Americanese dish, was great: crispy deep-fried chicken still crunchy beneath the thick spicy-sweet red sauce that struck just the right chord between heat and sweet. The Egg Drop Soup was hearty and savory. The Yang Chow Fried Rice (with shrimp and BBQ pork) was only edible only once doused--doused--in soy sauce.

First of all, look at that picture. Does that even look like fried rice to you? Plus it's full of peas. I hate peas. Ugh. Blechy blech. Every bite bursting with pea flavor, blech blech blech. Also, where exactly is the fried-ness? This looks (and tasted) like regular 'ol steamed rice made with butter. Now, I am not a fan of utilizing tabletop accoutrements on my dishes (unless it's proper and necessary to the dish, like Vietnamese garlic-fish sauce). Skip the salt and pepper (unless we're talking about scrambled eggs, but ONLY then), and let the dish stand on its own. The way I see it, adding all that extra dressing is in effect destroying the integrity of the dish. And any dish that NEEDS to be dressed up in this way...well, it's probably just not very good to begin with. And so it was with the fried rice.

However, there's more good news: bubble tea. Yes, bubble tea (or, "boba tea"). Bubble tea is tea (sometimes flavored) with milk and "boba" balls, which are made with a mixture of tapioca and carrageenan powder that taste like gummy bears without the flavor. Popular throughout eastern Asia and abundant in Toronto (where I first discovered all its greatness over a decade ago), bubble tea is just now gaining popular momentum in the States thanks to our trendsetting cities on the East and West coasts. At Shangri La, you can order bubble tea in a variety of flavors; I opted for mango and was not disappointed, though perhaps next time I might stick to a more traditional tea flavor. All you bubble tea lovers, rejoice.

Shangri La is a great space in a great location and caters to a previously underserved market of students, professionals, and nearby residents who enjoy authentic (and inexpensive) Chinese cuisine...or just cheap, good food in general. Most dishes are at least satisfactory, but the real star here is the dim sum, and no dining experience here should be complete without first passing around a few such dishes ($2.95-5.95 each, and enough to share). Service is attentive if sometimes a bit awkward, but having only been open since October 1st I would chalk this up to opening "kinks." The restaurant is entirely non-smoking, and they are currently working on adding a sushi bar and acquiring a liquor license. The only thing that could possibly make this dim sum experience any better is if it could be done alongside one of those giant Chinese fishbowl-fire drinks that they only allow you to order one of.

In short: dim sum yum!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Little Vietnam in Madison Heights

Have you driven down John R or Dequindre between 12 and 13 Mile Rd. lately? Then perhaps you've noticed the same trend I did--the seemingly inexplicable and disproportionate number of Vietnamese restaurants, markets, and specialty stores that are concentrated in this area (and this area alone). It led me to embark on a quest, which you can read in this week's issue of Metromode.

"If you want to experience authentic Vietnamese culture, skip the 25-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Look no further than our own Madison Heights. Inexplicably, this mid-sized suburb seems to be the hub for Vietnamese culture in Metro Detroit.

'Or maybe not so inexplicable when you look at the numbers. While the 2008 U.S. Census Bureau data suggests a population density for persons of Vietnamese descent at only 1.9% for the city—hardly a sizable number—comparable areas boast populations of 0.3% and less, making the overall population a slight 0.2% for all of Oakland County and the entire state of Michigan. In other words, the population may be small, but it is still nearly 10x that of surrounding areas.

'Which helps explain the disproportionate number of Vietnamese restaurants, markets, and specialty stores clustered along unlikely stretches of John R and Dequindre, but doesn't really make clear what local Vietnamese business owners find so alluring about the region between 12 and 13 Mile Roads..."

Read the rest of the article from Metromode here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Another Fucking Bar and Grill: No, Really

Detroit's got a new bar and grill...or, as the name so clearly states, Another Fucking Bar and Grill.

I for one LOVE the name, but that's probably only because it allows me to drop the f-bomb in a way that would not be considered inappropriate.

The general mentality of the place also suits the name: their website has a rotating list of pithy phrases including "Just what Detroit needs...," "Smoker's welcome. If you don't care about your liver, we doubt you care about your lungs," "Come back to the city your parents abandoned," and "Don't drink and drive. Drink and STAY." Their menu, which is currently only a small portion of what will eventually be a full menu with entrees, salads and the like, is affectionately titled "Little Ass Menu." The items on this little ass menu include "Sam and Ella's Chicken Sandwich" (sound it out...there ya go) and Mr. Potato Balls.

Located in that lovely stretch of desolation just north of I-75 the locals refer to as "Tweentown" (smack dab between Foxtown and Midtown), the owners of Another Fucking Bar and Grill hope to attract customers from the nearby theatres, sports arenas and casinos, as well as the WSU and DMC crowd. It is convenient to the freeways yet far enough removed from the hullabaloo of Foxtown to make it a prime location for a beer and a burger before or after a game.

Dave LaMarche, who owns the bar along with Christ Musianis, designed the place to be a laid-back, comfortable environment "where people can just come to have fun and meet new people." He insists that they're not high-concept, not a gastropub, and not a sports bar, but rather just a place where people can meet, chat, and share a few beers with friends and strangers.

But despite not being high-concept, the place still has its unique sense of humor. Aside from the name (which happens to be a throw-back to another place called AFB that was in Detroit in the '90s, and yes the two locations are affiliated) and the menu, there are little touches throughout the bar that elicit an unexpected giggle. For instance, the fact that the keg taps are housed in a wall of urinals.


Urinals are funny.

"It's like a fart joke that everyone gets," Dave says of the name and concept. Potty humor? Fuggedaboudid. The keg taps are urinals! "There are a lot of things here that people will have a reaction to, but its a friendly place," says Dave in reference to said urinal-kegtaps. "If you think about it, we just recycle beer anyway!" he laughs. "It gives people something unique to talk about."

That it do. Urinals.

AFB has only been about about a month, and while there is already a strong show of regular clientele, the place is still finding its footing. I was happy to see that they carry some Michigan beers, including Dragonmead's Erik the Red. (Sidebar: I naturally had to inquire about the absence of Final Absolution, to which Dave responded, "We don't want to encourage people to get drunk, but we would like them to be able to have more than one beer. Most people can't handle more than one Final Absolution." And how!)

While their concept is simple, comfortable, and friendly, this doesn't mean that they're serving equally simple pre-frozen and deep-fried food. As cheeky as the name is and despite the urinal centerpiece, the real standout here is the food. I tried "Another Fucking Burger," described as "slaughtered cow, hung, bled, freshly ground, seared and served on a perfect Avalon bun." This includes fries and coleslaw, and cheese can be added for no extra charge. AND it is served in a dog bowl. The meat is from Eastern Market's Fairway Packing Company, and the burger is intense. So tender, so juicy, so fresh...simply superb. When paired with the soft, airy bun from Avalon International Breads, it is a holy matrimony of burger and bun. This burger is on par with some of the much pricier "gourmet" burgers you would find at places like Roast and Bourbon Steak, and it's only $6.00.

For concept, design, attitude, and food, AFB is a win. I look forward to seeing their full menu roll out with their grand opening, which will be sometime before Thanksgiving. But if my words have made your mouth water and you find you just can't wait that long, bear in mind, they're still new and still acclimating, so do be patient. Also, check out the women's bathroom.

And, urinals.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Yates Cider Mill

It's November, which means...I probably should have posted this a month ago. Ooops. BUT! The weather is not quite entirely vile yet, so you still have a few good weeks of valuable cider season goodness left!

Usually I like to make a day of it. Get all bundled up in cozy sweaters and head out to Armada with family members or a significant other to the original Blake's Orchard & Cider Mill and spend the whole day sipping cider, wandering through the U-Pick orchards, petting the farm animals. Many pleasant childhood and young adult memories were had here (NOT at the second-rate Blake's Big Red, nonononono). But alas, time did not permit this year, and I had to make do with a quick stop to a much closer locale.

For those of your reading out by the A2 way, you've got it made: the historic Dexter Cider Mill is but a hop and skip away. The oldest continuously operating cider mill in Michigan, they still make cider the way they did 120 with an oak rack (which is itself over 100 years old). This place is a taste of history to go with your apple pie, and a real agricultural and historical treat.

Alas, Dexter also proved to be too far away.

For those of you hailing from the counties Oakland and Macomb, you have a couple of nearby options. The Franklin Cider Mill is a favorite of locals, mostly because it is so closeby. Tucked away on this little inexplicably remote corner of 14 Mile Rd. and Franklin (just west of Telegraph) smack-dab between the Bloomfields and Birmingham, for many Westsiders it's only a few minutes' drive. I was introduced to this place when I lived out in West Bloomfield, and never did I imagine a genuine cider mill could be so close to home. I felt almost like it was a violation of my principles, standing in direct contrast to all that which a cider mill should be (far away, in the country, surrounded by farmland, north of 32 Mile Rd.). Plus, they don't have their own orchard, which to me was an abomination--what kind of cider mill doesn't even have their own orchard??? Suffice it to say, Franklin never really grew on me. I can't help it; my maternal side is from Almont. You can take the girl out of the country...

Which brings me to Yates Cider Mill. Yates is located in Rochester Hills at Avon Rd. and Dequindre, about a 20 minute drive from most of Macomb Country and the Troy/Birmingham area. It has been in the community since 1863 (though I don't believe continously operating), and here you will find all of the edible treasures you've come to expect from a proper cider mill: caramel apples, fudge, apple pies, apple turnovers, apple crisp, apple butter, apple syrup, apple jelly, dutch-apple jam, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich*, and doughnuts--all the fresh-made fried doughnuts you can eat, with their grease soaking right through the paper bag.

*Forrest Gump guys, come on.

They also don't have their own orchards, but they make up for it with a prime spot on the Clinton River and a lovely nature trail. They also have pony rides, a petting zoo, and other cider mill-y attractions to make up for it, so it almost feels just about right. It will do in a pinch, at least.

With the fiery fall foliage in full technicolor bloom, now is the perfect time to visit one of Michigan's many historic cider mills. While the benefits of making that half-day trip out to the country is well worth it (the U-pick orchards, the hay rides, the pumpkin patches), if it's cider you crave and time is your enemy, at least you have a few other options. For scenic value and greasy doughnuts, I recommend Yates.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Beer Series #2: Dragonmead Microbrewery

Most microbreweries will have about 8-12 beers on tap at any given time. Dragonmead Microbrewery has 45 or more, with about 60 different beers available in total (they have more beers than they do taps).

Dragonmead Microbrewery is tucked away in an inudstrial park right off the I-696 service drive at Groesbeck in Warren. If you're out that way, odds are pretty good you've driven by it dozens of times without ever noticing it. But inside this nondescript building is the highest-variety brewery in the world, thanks to an innovative three-barrel brewing system, which allows them to brew multiple times throughout the day in smaller batches enabling more variety as compared to most microbreweries’ 15-barrel system. Okay, for the layperson that might sound like so much mumbo-jumbo, but when co-owner Larry Channell walked me through their brewing operations and explained them to me it made PERFECT sense.

Put it this way: yes, having a three-barrel system is much more work-intensive, which isn't necessarily practical for most small breweries. A 15-barrel system yields 5x as much beer as the 3-barrel, allowing brewers to spend less time brewing (and more time focusing on other aspects of the business). However, if an ambitious brewer with a 15-barrel system tried to match Dragonmead in variety, they would end up having to dump about 5,000 barrels of wasted beer every year (keep in mind, most beers are only good for about 90 days), versus Dragonmead's 20 wasted barrels. "We designed it to be simple," Larry tells me. "With this system it takes about 6-8 hours to brew a single beer but we can overlap the brewing because of the different vessels we use, which means we can brew multiple times throughout the day."

Translation: they've got A LOT of different beers.

Larry went on to explain that their goal in opening this microbrewery was to target a niche market. They wanted to make every single style of beer in the world available at all times, and have each of those beers be excellent examples of that particular style of beer making. "We would ask ourselves, 'Why would anyone buy our beer over someone else's?' and 'Would the company last at least 50 years?'" Larry recalls. "We had been wanting to start a business for 10 years before this, but every kind of business we looked at we saw it gobbling itself up after a few years. The niche we created here is something no one else was trying to do. It's difficult to offer such variety, but it's something that can last forever, and we already knew people would pay more for superb beer."

And so, in 1997--long before craft brewing became the exponentially growing trend that it is today--Dragonmead was born. "We were all home brewers before this, and we found that we were making better beer than most breweries," Larry says. He was a chemical engineer, Bill and Earl (the other partners in the business) had backgrounds in sales & marketing and metal model making, respectively. Between the three of them, they had the trifecta for a successful brewery. Earl made the vessels, Larry made the beer, and Bill made it marketable: voila.

The rest of the story is rather simple: they chose this location in Warren because it was a central location to all of their homes and workplaces (of course they've since been able to quit their automotive jobs, and lucky for them) and because they wanted trucks to have easy access to get in and out. The name "Dragonmead" came from their background as avid Dungeons & Dragons fans. In fact, this was their whole inspiration for getting into home brewing. "We held a Medieval Wassail Feast and the only thing we didn't make or kill ourselves was the beer." So they started home brewing, and kept trying until they got it right.

And got it right they did! At the World Beer Cup, the Oscars of beer held on alternating years, they've taken home medals in the last three competitions, including a gold for the English-style mild ale Crusader Dark Mild Ale, another gold for the Belgian-style tripel Final Absolution Trippel, and a bronze for the strong Scotch ale Under the Kilt Wee Heavy.

During my visit, I got to chatting with Jack, who was himself enjoying a pint of Wee Heavy. Jack is a regular at Dragonmead and a home brewer himself. As I talked with Jack, a thought occurred to me: Jack is Michigan's beer industry. The more I spoke with various brewers, brewery owners, and beer lovers--the more I saw their passion for craft brews and the excitement they displayed when talking about different beers and the craft beer industry in general--the more I realized that this is a community unto itself. Most brewers start at home, they seek the advice of professional brewers on equipment and grain blends, the professionals in turn are more than happy to share their expertise, some even go on to open their own brewery (Dragonmead, Kuhnhenn, Sherwood, Liberty St.), and others just truly love the beer and want nothing more than to be around others who love it too. The craft beer industry is like one big extended family; if you're in one of these places enjoying a pint, then consider yourself a second cousin.

Oh, but the beer. Most of the beers at Dragonmead are high gravity and high alcohol (which also means they can store for a year or more). I've already mentioned Wee Heavy, a smooth and creamy Scotch strong with notes of toffee. I also sampled Lancelot's American Cream Ale, a light, smooth, slightly malty beer that appeals to a wide audience of beer drinkers. Nagelweiss is their Hefeweizen (a German-style wheat beer), with all that familiar hefeweiz-ian banana-clove goodness. The Crown Jewels Imperial Pale Ale starts out hoppy but mellows over time. The Russian Imperial Stout had the robust chocolate notes familiar to Imperial Stout fans. Bill's Witbier is everything Oberon could be. The Ring of Fire is brewed with hot jalapeno and habanero peppers (though the heat isn't overpowering; it mostly just lingers on your palate). Then there's Final Absolution.

Final Absolution: the beer that could be a video game. As with most Belgian-style brews, it is fermented with Belgian Candi Sugar. It's a very high gravity beer with a deceptively smooth finish, but don't be fooled: this baby's 10% alcohol by volume. Three pints of this are equivalent to one full pint of Scotch. This is a serious beer. (Another bar owner recently told me that the reason they don't carry Final Absolution is because most people can only have one--"We're not trying to encourage people to get drunk, but we definitely want them to be able to have more than one beer.") There is also a dark version of Final Absolution available, called simply "Evil Twin." Final's big brother Armageddon Grand Cru comes out once a year in May to celebrate their anniversary. Like all big brothers, Armageddon makes Final Absolution look like so much child's play.

All these high-alcohol beers will probably leave you nibbly. Dragonmead does have a deep fryer and can cook up some burgers, mini tacos, fries and such. They also have a cheese plate and venison sausage, which fits with the whole Wassail feast concept the brewery was born from. Otherwise, they have menus from all the local restaurants that deliver and encourage guests to go ahead and order some food. They also make their own wines, meads, and sodas (sold only on premises).

Efforts to expand the taproom (and the number of taps in said room) continue, and there may even be a second clone location in the future (possibly Frankenmuth, but this is all very premature). In the meantime, if it's quality and variety you seek and good company to share it with, Dragonmead awaits you. Say hi to Jack for me.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Recipe for Success

Over 27,000 diners participated in the inaugural Detroit Restaurant Week. It's official: DRW is a smashing success!

Many chefs were quoted as saying this is one of the "best promotions" they've ever been involved with and that they were at capacity "every night." Reports came back that there was not a single reservation available at any of the participating restaurants for its final weekend in September. The local buzz was tremendous.

Let's do it again!

Restaurant Week will be held twice next year in anticipation of increased growth and interest. Details will be available here as they progress, so keep checking!

In the meantime, a heartfelt congratulations to every single person involved who helped make this a success. And a big fat "nyah-nyah" to outsiders who have claimed that Detroit has no dining culture!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hop Aboard! Michigan's Best Breweries on Metromode

"Since the Stroh's Brewery opened in 1850 in Detroit, Michigan has had a booming beer industry. Beer has always had a way of keeping the economy chugging along, as it continues to do even now. Michigan is the sixth-largest state for craft breweries, a local industry that just keeps growing.

'Currently there are nearly 90 craft breweries in the state of Michigan producing hundreds of different styles of handcrafted beer. Michigan's brewing industry contributes more than $24 million in wages and has a total economic impact of over $133 million annually.

'2009 has been a big year for Michigan beers. The winners of the 2009 Great American Beer Festival (the Emmy Awards of beer) were just announced in September, with Great "Beer" State brews sweeping up seven medal competitions. October brought the inaugural Detroit Beer Week, a celebration of local brews with coordinating events held all over Metro Detroit, followed by the first-ever Harvest Beer Festival hosted by the Michigan Brewer's Guild and featuring over 40 Michigan breweries inside Detroit's Eastern Market..."

Read the rest of the article here, and be sure to check out the inaugural Harvest Festival at Eastern Market this Saturday!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Beer Series, #1: Sherwood Brewing Company

After doing research at several lesser-known metro Detroit breweries for a forthcoming article, I realized that each individual place has its own wholly unique and interesting story to tell. And I really wanted to be the one to tell it. For all four of them. In 1,000 words or less.

Thanks be to blogs, I can still write a somewhat-coherent article (maaaaaybe a little more than 1,000 words) and indulge my desire to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me beer with as many words and as much flowery prose as I so desire.

I've decided to do a little in-depth series for each of the breweries I visited, expanding on what I began in the aforementioned forthcoming article and taking you inside a little deeper to get to know the brewers, the people, the process, the beer. Oh good Lord, the beer. If the soon-to-be-published article is for beginners, consider this your intermediate lesson.

Particularly given the timeliness (currently being in the midst of Detroit Beer Week with the first annual Harvest Beer Festival coming up this Saturday), I think a more in-depth perspective of these award-winning breweries is in order, yes? Good, we're agreed then. Here goes.

First up: Sherwood Brewing Company.

We live in the tri-county area of metro Detroit. What many people seem to forget is that "tri" means "three." There's Wayne County ("oh Detroit, we love you so much, you're so misunderstood, gentrify! wait, no, not gentrify, that's bad") and Oakland County ("Detroit's cool but we prefer our rich, trendy, safe, clean suburbs"...unless you're north of 14 Mile then it's just "mmyessssss"). Then there's Macomb County.

Ah, Macomb County. The red-headed stepchild of metro Detroit. The MC gets no love, no attention. All the rags and mags focus on what's up-and-coming everywhere else but in Macomb County. Many use "The Clem" as a punchline to a certain kind of culture joke (much like they do with "Downriver"), and nowhere in greater Detroit is Macomb County taken seriously by anyone outside of it.

When I sat down with Lisa Sherwood at Sherwood Brewing Company, we talked about how often Macomb gets overlooked. Moreso than probably any other sector of metro Detroit, Macomb's citizens are almost entirely dependent on the auto industry. Even the "wealthy" corners of Macomb (think Moravian or Heidenreich) are still full of people who made their money in cars or construction. It's a blue-collar area with blue-collar sensibilities, and thus has been easily overlooked by its flashier sister counties. What they also then overlook is the great number of people who work had every day to give Macomb County its own unique culture and thoroughly independent vibe.

"There are a lot of small businesses along the M-59 corridor," Lisa states. "The number of retail and restaurant businesses keep growing. It's a high-traffic area that's finally getting some attention." (Though not enough, we agreed.) There are a lot of independently-owned establishments out on the East side, and a WHOLE lot of people to support them. When I ask Lisa why those chose this particular corner on Hayes north of Hall Rd. she says, "because north Macomb County needed a place like this. And because it's close to home." "Home" for some 780,000+ metro Detroiters, too.

What Lisa and her husband (and head brewer) Ray have created is a space that is wholly welcoming, a place for local workers and beer aficionados alike to hang out and feel like they're part of the family. "We're like one big dysfunctional family around here!" Lisa laughs. "Everyone knows everything about everyone else here, including the customers!"

And that's no joke: Sherwood has been named by WDIV three years in a row as the "Best Brewpub in Metro Detroit" for a number of reasons. Yes, they've got great beer, wine, and soda, all made in-house. Their food is some of the best pub grub you'll find anywhere. But they also have an atmosphere so inviting that it makes customers want to come back again and again. Lisa tells me that customers have described the place as being like their living room, only without the kids and they don't have to get their own beer. "We're family-friendly, too. The whole building is non-smoking; we've had people come here to celebrate their anniversaries and their kids' first birthdays. Our demographic is people ages 30+, people with families and careers. This is a safe, casual place for them."

Observing the way Lisa and Ray interact with their guests on a Sunday afternoon, I see immediately what makes this place so popular. Every customer who comes through the door is greeted warmly by Lisa, whose enthusiasm is contagious. Some she knows by name and asks after their wives and kids; others are new, so she immediately takes time to get to know them. An older gentleman came in alone and sat up at the bar. Lisa brought him a few newspapers and started asking who he was, what brought him in, what kind of beer he likes. Over on the other side of the bar, three employees who had the day off work were chatting with each other and the other regulars, spending their free day from work...at work. (And in the service industry, that means A LOT.)

"We have the best staff and the best customers in the world!" Lisa glows, and there's no doubt in my mind she means it. Even if they didn't have great been and incredible food, this would still be the kind of place locals would choose to hang out. Lucky for everyone, the food and beer are just as good as the attitude.

They usually have 8-10 different beer styles on tap with a little something for everyone. They try to appeal to the Bud Light drinkers as much as to the beer connoisseurs. The staff is well-trained to educate customers about the different styles and help transition them from their good ol' American pilsners to more robust craft brews. Here it's about quality over quantity; there are no dollar beer specials or buckets of beer, and as a designated brewpub they do not have a liquor license and can only sell what they make. They also make 4-6 different varieties of wine to appeal to the non-beer-drinkers, including styles of reds, whites, and fruit wines.

They don't bottle their beers (save for around the holidays when small batches are bottled and sold to customers), though their beer is on tap in many area bars. Their best-selling beer is the Buxom BlonDDe Ale, which is a great everyman beer (like Bud but far better). The 1492 IPA is also very popular, with a combination of hops that appeals to a wide audience, and the Production Line Red Ale is a very affable light amber with a slightly roasted (almost tea-like, I thought) character. I'm a sucker for the banana-clove notes of a good Hefeweizen, so Hell Road was a favorite of mine. I'm equally a sucker for Porters and Stouts, so the Honey Porter was a treat though I was devastated to learn that I missed their Smoked Pumpkin Porter (made with real smoked pumpkins!) by only a few weeks. The Green River Wheat IPA was also a real stand-out; fiercely aromatic and unapologetically bitter, this is a beer for hops-lovers--it may be light in color but this is a BIG beer.

As you plow through all these great beers--including seasonal treats like their Oktoberfest Lager and the festival favorite Mistress Jack's Hemp Ale--why not try a bite off their impressive pub menu? "We don't call it bar food, we call it beer food!" Lisa jokes, and it is clear that they take a tremendous amount of pride in their kitchen. "Everything is made fresh from scratch; we keep almost nothing in the freezer. We try to incorporate our beer and wine into as much of the menu as possible. We're very proud of our menu!"

Sherwood is committed to using local products and highlighting Michigan's seasonal foodstuffs. They've even hosted a couple of sold-out Slow Food Detroit dinners over the past few months. Chapter Leader Stacy Curneal Ordakowski even mentioned to me, "Sherwood is fantastic. I love how passionate Lisa Sherwood has gotten about local food." The dinner just held this week featured a Michigan fall harvest theme with buffalo steaks, pumpkin orzo, baby spinach with venison, and homemade pumpkin pie.

Other menu items include honest-to-goodness greasy beer favorites. "Burgatory" is a burger with jalapenos, mild peppers, provolone, and chipotle mayo. The aptly-named "Heartbreaker" has fried chicken strips, beer battered onions, mozzarella, bleu cheese, and 1,000 Island dressing on a soft pretzel roll. But the real winner here is the pizza: choose from three different homemade sauces: classic marinara, bold & spicy beer sauce, and garlic & wine sauce. You have your choice of white or whole wheat crust (for the carb-conscious). Then pile on your favorite toppings for a piping hot pie with wonderfully flavorful crust. I ordered garlic & wine with mozzarella and tomatoes (a makeshift Margherita, as I called it). The sauce was superb: aromatic, light with just the right amount of tanginess and chock FULL o'chopped garlic, JUST how I like it. The crust was soft and chewey (you can tell the dough is fresh), with a beautiful buttery flavor. This instantly made my top 10.

If you've got a sweet tooth, check out one of the homemade ice creams: they are made with Sherwood's house-made beers, wines, and sodas. (And if you've never had a red wine or Porter ice cream, you've been missing out.)

I left Sherwood with a warm and fuzzy feeling, and not just from all the beer. This place is comfortable and comforting, from the food to the company. At one point during my visit, Lisa pointed to a father with his young son and said, "Look how cute this is! You can't have a better job!" Between her passion for people, Ray's passion for beer, and the staff's passion for food, you also can't have a better brewpub.

For more abouut Sherwood's brewing history, check Metromode for the forthcoming article.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

October Supper Club at the Whitney

If you're missing Restaurant Week, this is a great opportunity to relive some of the memories (memory, all alone in the moonlight) at the Whitney, and we likey the Whitney, and with a fall harvest theme, and we really likey fall-ish harvesty themes:

The historic Whitney mansion has for decades been one of Detroit’s most prominent fine dining establishments, and Supper Club have long been fans (having visited a few years ago). But times have changed, as we all know, and the Whitney has been reimagined, thanks in large part to forward-thinking owners trying to appeal to younger crowds and an eager, energetic, and stupendously talented new chef. Thanks to his efforts, the Whitney is once again at the top of its gourmet game, and if you haven’t been back for awhile, it’s time you rediscovered what makes this place a Detroit dining institution.

Dan Maurer is young, with a long and successful culinary career still ahead of him. He has been the Executive Chef at the Whitney for only about 7 months now, but in that time has succeeded in recreating the menu to be both more creative and more accessible. Prices are lower and featured entrees include classic dishes done in ways you’ve NEVER imagined.

On Wednesday, October 28 beginning at 6:00PM, join Supper Club as we rediscover an old favorite. Maurer has created a beautiful Fall Harvest-themed four-course menu for us with a variety of hearty options which emphasize fresh, seasonal flavors.

October Supper Club Menu

1st course (choice of)

Butternut Squash Soup
-Shitake and Prosciutto Terrine, Caramelized Squash, Spiced Pecans, Apple Cider Honey
(this can also be prepared as a vegetarian dish).

Short Rib
-Braised Beef, Cheddar Bacon Grits, Spinach, Tomato Chutney.

2nd Course (choice of)

Roasted Beet
-Mixed Greens, Haricot Vert, Goat Cheese, Crispy Potatoes, Truffle-Pancetta Vinaigrette.

-Baked "En Croute," Mixed Greens, Toasted Almonds, Blueberry-Thyme Vinaigrette.

3rd Course (choice of)

-Braised Shank, Parsnip Puree, Creamed Mushrooms, Haricot Vert, Crispy Leek.

- Spinach, Bacon and Gruyere Quiche, Herb-Tomato Gallette, Beurre Blanc.

-Grilled Asparagus, Seasonal Mushrooms, Artichokes, Parmesan.

4th course (choice of)

Bread Pudding
-White Chocolate and Cherry, Butterscotch, Poached Pear, Housemade Vanilla Ice Cream.

Carmel Apple Fritter
-Carmelized Apples, Peanuts, With Housemade Cinnamon Buttermilk Ice Cream.

Tickets are $40.00 in advance at the DSG store, http://shop.detroitsynergy.org, and include tax and gratuity. Tickets to this event are available by online purchase only, and all purchases must be made by Tuesday, October 27th.

PLEASE NOTE: Ticket prices to this Supper Club have been increased to $40.00. This increase has been long overdue in light of rising food costs, and the decision was made in order to better benefit you, the guest, as the options the restaurants are able to provide as well as the number of courses you receive can now be increased. Going forward, this will be the pricing structure of all future Supper Club events. After 5 years at $30.00, it was time for a change. There will be some exceptions made for venues that do not have high average guest checks. If you have any questions regarding this, please feel free to email me at supperclub@detroitsynergy.org.

Detroit Synergy is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization. Its mission is to generate positive perceptions and opinions about Detroit by bringing together a diverse community and building upon the City's strengths and resources to realize a common vision for a greater Detroit. Please visit http://www.detroitsynergy.org/ for more information about the group.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Chocolate is Sexy: Shakolad Chocolate Factory

Saturday is Sweetest Day. To all you men out there reading this who just slammed your computer desks and yelled, "[Insert expletive of choice]!" don't worry. I got you.

After I discovered Le Chocolat de Bouchard in Naperville, Illinois (I went back again in August and enjoy another Mayan Hot Cocoa with that signature kick of cayenne), I've had a bit of a fascination with chocolate lounges and cafes. A trip to Gayle's Chocolates in Royal Oak revealed many pretty-in-pink items, but a beverage counter sorely lacking in the one thing they make their trade--chocolate! (Sorry Gayle's, but if it's coffee I want then to a coffee shop I will go; what are you doing being a chocolate store with a beverage counter and not serving any chocolate drinks?!?) And after being spoiled by Le Chocolat, Godiva's Chocolixers (available at the Somerset Collection store) simply just don't cut it.

Thankfully there's Shakolad Chocolate Factory in Birmingham.

Expect all the usual chocolatey treats--truffles and cherries and pretzels and Oreos and caramels and pecan clusters and the like. They also make gifts for special occasions, like wedding favors with your name or delicate chocolate roses. If you want to get really crazy, they even offer intricate chocolate sculptures, like soccer balls ($45 with decoration) and backgammon sets ($80).

Sure, an $80 solid chocolate backgammon set might not sound practical, but you have to admit...it's pretty cool.

The environment is everything I've come to expect from a chocolatier: brightly lit and carefully orchestrated, like a high-end boutique where all the items are kept behind a glass case. There's just something inexplicably sexy about chocolate. Sure, maybe it's the endorphins that chocolate releases in your brain (like heroin! no, really), but there is an aphrodisiac-like quality to chocolate. Being in a chocolate store where the items are all so carefully designed and painstakingly displayed and they all look so shiny and new, like precious jewels...sorry, that was my anal-retentiveness talking, my bad. Still...there's something sexy about chocolate. (Here, I'll let Kylie demonstrate for me.) The Aztecs thought so, anyway.

The great thing about Shakolad is that they do offer their own menu of silky, decadent chocolate beverages. Try a Shako-latte, which is the same as a classic latte though instead of steamed milk and espresso, it's steamed milk and chocolate. Or perhaps if you want to spice things up a bit, try a Mexican Cacahuatl, a hot chocolate with real heat. When I was there I tried Angelina's French Hot Chocolate, a "sipping chocolate" (thicker than the Swiss Miss hot cocoa you're used to) made with smooth dark chocolate and hazelnut. The beverage itself was reasonably priced at only $4, but this thing was strong...after a few sips it was just too rich for my blood. I decided to refrigerate the rest and go back to it later, only to find that it has solidified nicely into an PERFECT dark chocolate-hazelnut mousse...which I think I actually enjoyed even more.

Boys, it might sound cliche, but for Sweetest Day you really can't go wrong with a box of sexy, silky sweets from a top-tier chocolatier like Shakolad. Why not put that aphrodisiac theory to the test, hmmm? (Wink wink.)

In the meantime, I'd like to see metro Detroit have its own true chocolate lounge a la Le Chocolat de Bouchard, with a menu of exotic chocolate elixers made with Belgian chocolate and Venezuelan cocoa. Now doesn't that sound sexy? Belgian...Venezuelan...mmmmmm...