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.