Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Brooklyn Corktown (photo by Nicole Rupersburg)
The natives got their feather hair extensions ruffled over that one, then continued to make it true. The Tashmoo Biergarten was probably the most-lauded example of this, and then there were all the DIY artisan food producers like Detroit Institute of Bagels, Suddenly Sauer, Pete's Chocolate Co., so on and so forth. Also pop-up uhhhhhhhh...restaurants? I guess? Well, anyway, restaurant owners let other would-be chefs, food producers and restaurateurs use their kitchens, as was the case with Neighborhood Noodle popping up at Supino Pizzeria once-monthly on Mondays, Pie-Sci working out of Woodbridge Pub on Sundays, and Traffic Jam and Snug being the commercial kitchen home of Perkins Pickles.

But who started the meme? ME. ME. I DID. IT WAS ME.

Er, sort of.

In a Twitter post dated June 9, 2011, I wrote: "Corktown is to Detroit what Brooklyn was to New York in the '90s." (With a link to this story in the New York Post, written by moi.)

To which Dave Gasparovich (who hails from, predictably, Chicago) was all, "WAAAAAAAAAAAH, I hate you, you're stupid."


Let's follow the meme a bit, shall we?

June 13, 2011: New York Post: The new Detroit cool 
Note: Actually it ran on June 8; not sure why the discrepancy but this is relevant when referencing my Twitter post on June 9.
Hostel Detroit, Pink FlaminGO!, Slows, Astro, Sugar House, Le Petit Zinc, Detroit Institute of Bagels, Mercury Burger Bar, Roosevelt Park ... all the bases were covered and "Brooklyn" was alluded to (especially obvious to a New York audience). This piece was followed shortly after by this in the New York Times, which many attribute as being the origin point of the "Detroit is the new Brooklyn" meme. But in reality, nowhere in this story is the Detroit/Brooklyn comparison made, or even hinted at; they actually went with the vastly less popular "Detroit is the new Berlin" meme. (Also true; not the point.) Also TriBeCa, in a quote. Please note, TriBeCa is not in Brooklyn. Nor was TriBeCa ever in its very worst days even a tenth as dumpy as Detroit. And if we're being really real here, if Corktown is Detroit's Brooklyn the rest of Detroit is not Manhattan, it's the Bronx.

July 1, 2011: New York Times: Detroit Pushes Back with Young Muscles
Detroit is lifted in parties, pictures and positive discourse. (Also see above.)

Then, a meme is born:

July 7, 2011: PBS: Is Detroit the new Brooklyn?
There, now it's out there, in no uncertain terms. Stated in the form of a question lessons the authority of the claim a bit, but that didn't stop this meme-train from reaching epic proportions.

The self-appointed guardians of the city's image then chimed in on the subject:

July 12, July 26 and August 9, Model D (and here, and here).
July 21, NPR.
August, 7STOPS (A navel-gazey blog by a blank-slater who insists it's about more than just the blank-slating, and the origin point of "Detroit is the new Detroit." Cute.)
August 15, MLive.
September 26, Curbed Detroit.

Now this was mostly a summer thing, and any remnant of its relevance was pretty much lost with that whole HuffPo hullabaloo. (In which half a dozen bloggers argued via multiple back-and-forth huffy-puffy blog posts over the right of anyone's claim to the city if they don't actually live there, and whether or not the city needs the suburbanites anyway. Seriously. This is a conversation that actually happened.) Except that .... nyooooope, still going strong well into November:

November 11, Crain's Detroit Business.

And finally:

November 21, 2011: MLive: Detroit Cliche Watchdog: Let's just go ahead and change the name of the city to Brooklyn
Could we? Brooklyn sounds nicer. A tree grows, and all.

Now we just need our very own hot hipster butchers, like what they have in Brooklyn. (But but but ... can ours be hot plz?) Then the circle will be complete.


Red Hook (photo by David Landsel)
Heh ... it's funny 'cuz it's true. Curbed Detroit mentioned this in their Corktown versus Ferndale Curbed Cup neighborhood showdown, but we can even look at this on a larger scale. After some particularly Cooley-centric coverage in 2010, Slows stopped "hogging" the media spotlight (get it?) in 2011, though Corktown continued to do so.

Old-timey craft cocktail bar the Sugar House opened in Corktown. Ferndale answered directly with the Oakland Art Novelty Company, and a little less directly with the Valentine Vodka cocktail bar and the Italian-themed Torino Espresso + Bar. Astro Coffee also opened on that same block of Michigan Ave. that is home to Slows and Sugar House (question: WHERE THE FUCK DO YOU PARK). Ferndale fired back with Red Hook, which also resuscitated our favorite fallen bakery, Pinwheel Bakery. And, again, Torino Espresso + Bar.  Detroit had a whole bunch of pop-up retail happenings; Ferndale opened the Rust Belt Market.

And the competition continues as we barrel into the new year with Sean Harrington's Hot Taco (on Park Ave., next to Centaur) in a neck-and-neck race with Woodward Imperial (another taco joint with a fancy sign). What Ferndale did NOT get, however, was a hostel or a B+B. (*fingers tapping*)

Mussels Provencale at Joe Muer Seafood.
Last year at about this time I wrote about the London Chop House reopening soon. Well, it still hasn't opened yet, but perhaps we'll see it before the Mayan apocalypse of 2012. Whether or not that corpse is worth digging up, spritzing with perfume and making it dance around like Bernie on a bender, only time (and probably a lot more of it, knowing how things tend to work in Detroit) will tell.

But 2011 did see another storied Detroit establishment revived: Joe Muer Seafood opened in the former Seldom Blues spot in the Renaissance Center as a partnership between Joe Muer, grandson of Joseph Muer Jr. who opened the original location in Eastern Market in 1929 (it closed in 1988 after nearly 60 years in business), and Joe Vicari of the Andiamo Restaurant Group (which have been opening Rojo Mexican Bistros like Taco Bells lately), after what was rumored to be a high-profile bidding war between the Vicaris and Matt Prentice for that primo locale. And after much restructuring over the last two years, the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group is poised for a huge comeback of its own next year with Gastronomy.

In a seemingly endless stream of clips that aired on the Food Network this year featuring metro Detroit restaurants (because when WE say "Detroit," we mean metro Detroit and so should you THE END ... seriously, it went on for days), the loud, frosted-tipped Guy Fieri visited Union Woodshop and Clarkston Union, Traffic Jam and Snug, Supino Pizzeria ... and possibly more? Or no? Idk, I felt like there was a new episode premiering every damn week LONG after the point that I thought they had all aired already. Also, the short bald-headed one came into town and loved Supino too.

6,955 monthly active users as of Dec. 6. Aww, I wuv u 2!
Really shoulda been #1, I know, but I'm super-modest. Dining in Detroit was re-named and re-branded with a whole new focus and a facelift (hey, I know I'm no spring chicken anymore), resulting in the in-your-face Eat It Detroit. And you like it; you really like it!

Bella Piatti (photo by Nicole Rupersburg)

First Commonwealth opened and it was LAFS. Sure, it's only open for breakfast and (late) lunch, but they roast all their beans in-house and serve chef-prepared foods and all of their products are ethically-sourced. Truth be told, it feels a little out of place in Birmingham for all its emphasis on quality and sustainability, but it's about damned time.

Then Tallulah Wine Bar and Bistro hired on Executive Chef Daniel Campbell who gave the menu a much-needed revamping, then Tallulah owner Mindy Vanhellemont opened a second restaurant in Birmingham called Bella Piatti which Campbell also oversees. You know how restaurants tend to need a couple of months to gain their footing before you can really give them a fair assessment? Bella Piatti was firing hard on all cylinders only a month into their opening, and is more than a welcome addition to Birmingham's dining scene: it is a welcome addition to the dining scene of the whole of metro Detroit, a farm-to-table restaurant using Michigan products with an Italian emphasis (basically, it's SW MI's answer to Trattoria Stella).

Not all new openings showed as much promise, but at the very least, in the swamp that is Birmingham's overpriced and underwhelming dining scene populated by flashy restaurants with mediocre food, these little bright points of light give hope to the city that has been alternatively known as "Boringham."

Friday, December 23, 2011

The 12 Days of Christmas by Eat It Detroit

You know how this goes. Sing it with me: "On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me..."

12 Picklers Pickling
11 Hunters Hunting
10 Cheeses Aging
9 Hipsters Cooking
8 Fools-a-Yelping
7 Beers-a-Brewing
6 Pumpkins Jolly
4 Farmers' Markets
3 Urban Farms
2 Pop-Up Bars
And a Pimm's Cup with Whiskey

Happy holidays to our friends, Romans and countrymen!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

[Real Detroit Weekly] Christmas Ales

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

Christmas ales: a time-honored tradition for brewers for centuries. The following is the result of two solid weeks of Christmas ale binging. Do not try this at home.

Jolly Pumpkin Noel de Calabaza
This. THIS beer. This is the beer. There is no other beer. Just this one. Figgy and delicious, this Belgian strong dark ale is one of JP’s signature sours with lots of raisin and rum-soaked plum, maybe even a bit of molasses. If you drink one Christmas ale this year, make it this.

Delirium Noel
Basically it’s Delirium Nocturnum with a barely-noticeable Christmas twinge. It’s a great beer, because Nocturnum is a great beer, but not overtly Christmasy.

St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
Second only to Noel de Calabaza is Christmas ale awesomeness, this is a whopper at 10% ABV and it is malty and spicy and figgy and plumy and chocolatey and boozey and tremendous. WAY too easy to drink at that high of an ABV. Was St. Bernardus the patron saint of drunks?

Petrus Winter #9 Ale

Holy heavy. As a Belgian strong dark ale, this one is comparatively weak at 6.5% ABV (compared to 9% from all the others listed here). But its flavor is fully funky Belgian yeast with everything else in the background, making it hard to drink even for the biggest fans of Belgian strongs.

Affligem Noel
Another Belgian strong dark ale, this one is a little easier-drinking with more noticeable fruit and spice. But still more a Belgian strong dark ale than anything else.

Wittekerke Winter White Ale
Unlike the majority of others on this list, this is a white ale but that doesn’t mean it’s weak (7.5% ABV notwithstanding). The spices are similar to a hefeweizen—clove, banana, lots of bready yeast, slightly floral. Easier to drink than the Petrus or Affligem, but very bold for a white.

Sierra Nevada Celebration
If you like the taste of cat piss, you’ll like this beer. Otherwise stick to something a little less hop-heavy.

Anchor Brewing Christmas Ale
There is just the faintest whiff of anise here, giving this very smooth dark ale a distinctive uniqueness … whether you like that uniqueness or not is entirely subjective, as the black licorice flavor of anise tends to be very divisive for different palates.

Bell’s Christmas Ale

A surprisingly boring beer from Bell’s. Sorry, but it’s true. Malty malty malty and not much else … it’s not that it’s a bad beer, it’s just not a particularly good beer either, and with all of the other stellar seasonal offerings available right now this one is just a waste of drinking space.

Great Lakes Christmas Ale
It’s a bit hard to come by this year but there’s a few places around who have it on tap so if you come across it, take advantage (Slows did at one point). This is just a happy holiday ale, Christmasy and delightful. Basically a well-balanced red ale with holiday spice like cinnamon sticks and ginger, this is a great go-to holiday beer that is just plain cheery.

Alba Scots Pine Ale
Okay, while technically not a Christmas ale but a tripel-style ale brewed with pine, this deserves to be highlighted just for superiority alone. Plus, you know, pine—that’s pretty Christmasy (though it is available year-round). This is a beautiful beer: sweet, caramely, roasted malt with hints of dark fruit and spice rounded out smoothly with subtle pine. Totally unexpected, and worth the $3.49 price tag for one 12-oz. bottle.

Harpoon Winter Warmer
Inevitably when one does a crash-tasting of any one particular variety of anything, one of those things is just going to sort of get lost in the memory of the melee. This was that beer. Pleasant enough but largely forgettable.

Ridgeway Brewing Reindeer Droppings
The smell is a bit off-putting; kind of reminiscent of a macro lager. It’s a light-drinking beer, a little more malt-forward with only the slightest linger of clean hops at the end. Pretty boring compared to the Belgians, but comparatively easier-drinking.

Originally published here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

[HOT LIST] Chinese restaurants

Lucky Dragon. Photo by VATO.

It's almost Christmas. That means it's almost time to come up with a clever excuse to leave your in-laws' house early and go take refuge in your favorite local Chinese restaurant. (Those of you who don't understand this must actually like your families. Freaks.) Many people this weekend will be seeking solace in the company of our Chinese-American friends, with their tinkling mandolin music, folding screens with pastel images of bonsai trees, statues of Buddha in jade and gold leaf, gongs and goldfish tanks. It's an anti-tradition tradition for many, observed by both Gentiles and Jews (who still need to eat on Christmas).

Regarding Chinese cuisine, if you use the word "authentic" I will punch you in your face. I will track you down to your office where you sit, drinking your bad office coffee brewed in the industrial coffeemaker in the shared kitchen with garish fluorescent lighting, surreptitiously listening in on your co-workers' conversation in the adjacent row of cubes and storing away those little gossip goose eggs for lunch with your recently-divorced friend in Accounts Payable, insisting you simply can't eat another cookie but oh-so-reluctantly shoveling two more in your mouth when the Administrative Assistant comes around with a plate, there I will find you and punch you in your face. You are not Chinese, from the country of the People's Republic of China. You have not even been to China. All you know about what "authentic" Chinese food actually is came from your friend of a friend who knows an actual Chinese person who said their Chinese food is nothing like ours. Shut up.*§

#1 Wok Inn (Clinton Township)
Wok Inn is a long-standing east side tradition, conveniently located right across from Lakeside Mall on Hayes, yet still no one seems to know about it -- certainly not the denizens of Yelp. (Seriously, how has this place been overlooked? Other than the fact that no one really pays attention to the whole of Macomb County?) Their General Tso's is THE BEST. I've eaten at every freakin' Chinese restaurant in Macomb County over the many years of my youth and I can tell you, unequivocally, this place is THE BEST. (I can also tell you that the MC has a LOT of Chinese places.) Perfectly-crispy chunks of deep-fried juicy white chicken coated in rich, thick, plum-colored sweet and spicy General Tso's sauce...I have searched long and hard for a General Tso's that can even remotely compare, and still to this day remain disappointed. The Kung Pao chicken and egg drop soup also rule. This was MY house of holiday refuge for many years.

#2 Empire Dynasty (Farmington Hills)
Located in a strip mall and filled with what we Americans might deem classic "Chinese foood" décor, Empire Dynasty certainly isn't breaking down any stereotype barriers, but their food more than makes up for it. Skip straight to the hot and sour soup and any of their "house specialties," and all of it in huge portions.

#3 Hong Hua (Farmington Hills)
*Sigh* There was a time when Hong Hua was truly at the top of her game, snagging "Restaurant of the Year" from Hour Detroit and rave reviews for her elegant, upscale Chinese cuisine. The old gal doesn't quite have the same sparkle she once did, but she was still named one of the "Top 100" Asian restaurants in the country by Zagat (IKR?) in 2011 so all is not lost. Maybe you just forgot about her? When flashier places like Chen Chow opened, then pan-Asian/Asian fusion fell out of "foodie" favor, perhaps she just became...old news? It's time to rediscover this place, even if it is as an oldie-but-goodie. There simply is no finer place in metro Detroit for top-notch Cantonese cuisine (those of you who are abusers of the word "authentic" will be thrilled to know that there is a whole separate menu written entirely in Chinese available upon request--they're happy to translate). Try the Peking Duck.

#4 Wing's Gardens (Oak Park)
This is your go-to gut-bomb kind of Chinese place. Large portions, heavy dishes--"greasy" is maybe not the best word for it, but "light" certainly isn't either. They've got all the Chinese-American standards, nothing super-standout but they nail it where it counts: quality, consistency and value.

#5 Peking House (Royal Oak)
Much as the landscape of Royal Oak has changed over the years, one thing has remained consistent: Peking House. This is perhaps one of those places that gets by on its notoriety and longevity more than any actual superiority, but as anyone knows it's all about "location location location," and they're in one of the most primo restaurant real estate cities in SE Michigan. The Mongolian beef is where it's at here, but vegetarians will also love the veggie-heavy fried rice.

Bubbling under Lotus Pond Restaurant (Warren), China Star (Wyandotte), New Peking (Garden City),  Moy's Restaurant (St. Clair Shores), China Moon (Clinton Twp.), Jade Palace (Oak Park), Chopstick Inn (Riverview), Lucky Dragon (Detroit)

*With apologies and exceptions made for those who actually are from China, and/or have spent a significant enough amount of time there. "Significant" being more than five days on a leisure trip. Like, people who lived there for six months for work, or were stationed there with the Peace Corps. That sort of thing. 

§This rant will be repeated in a future post about sushi.

Wok Inn Dining on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 16, 2011

[EID Feature] Suddenly Sauer: Life's Pickles

All photos courtesy of Suddenly Sauer.

Blair Nosan grew up in West Bloomfield, where she admits she did not do a whole lot Jewishly. In college she became interested in food and agriculture, so when she began looking online for an internship opportunity on a farm, she was surprised when her Google search suggested a Jewish farm.

"I thought, 'That's the weirdest thing I've ever heard - a Jewish farm?'," Blair remembers. She applied and was accepted into their internship program, but ultimately decided "it was too weird" and didn't go. But after two more years of study and a growing passion for agriculture and sustainable food systems, she found herself interested in the Jewish farm's program once again. She got back in touch with them and they welcomed her into the program, so off she went to Connecticut.

Blair was a participant in the ADAMAH: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. ADAMAH is a three-month-long residential leadership training program for Jewish young adults in their twenties that integrates organic farming, sustainable living, Jewish learning, community building and contemplative spiritual practice. They also have a four-acre organic farm and commercial pickle kitchen where they ferment a variety of vegetables produced on their farm. "I loved the community a lot. I didn't want to leave after three months, so I took what was available so I could stay - which was being a pickle apprentice and working in the pickle kitchen. I figured, 'Sure, I like pickles enough, and I'd love to stick around!'"

During the time that Blair spent on the farm, she felt a connection to Judaism that she never felt while she was growing up. She began to see an interconnectedness between the food system and the community, how each interact with and inform the other, and how spirituality can play a role in all of it. She felt pulled back to Michigan, and especially Detroit. "Growing up in the suburbs, I had a very limited relationship with the city," she says. "In rebuilding my relationship to Judaism I also felt a growing connection to the city, but I also recognized that I knew nothing about it."

She came home to Michigan at a time when everyone was talking about local foods and sustainable food systems. "It was very apparent to me that we needed food preservation as part of our food system," she states, which was a component that seemed to be missing at the time (and a necessary one for a truly sustainable food system in a climate in which the growing season is at best eight months long).

Blair joined the nonprofit environmental leadership and advocacy group Greening of Detroit as an urban agriculture apprentice, where she was able to teach some workshops on food preservation--pickling, canning, freezing and drying.  "That was the part of the work I loved the most," she says of teaching the workshops.

Finally she decided she wanted to try to have a pickle business, and so Suddenly Sauer was born. "I fell in love with pickles after [being] at ADAMAH ... it's really funny how much it has become a part of my life!" Blair makes traditional pickles, "hot head" cauliflower, "dilly beans," and kimchi, though her products are not currently available for commercial purchase (she makes them exclusively for friends and by special request). She also makes cultured dairy products like yogurt and butter. "When I was living in Connecticut I became more interested in simple staple foods we take for granted," she explains. "I have been really amazed by these ingredients, things we normally just buy. I can make my own butter; how cool is that? Having control over those things seems important to me. I think some people think I’m crazy but I like it."

She mostly learned how to make these dairy products through experimentation once she moved back to Michigan. She bought a raw milk cow share and started making yogurt from that. "I've been making it every week for three years now and I finally feel it is as good or better than store-bought!" In learning how to make yogurt she became interested in other dairy products, and now makes her own buttermilk, butter, cream cheese, sour cream and ice cream. She will also make ice cream by special order for friends' events and teaches ice cream-making and dairy fermentation workshops. (Just call her the Fermentation Queen.) She has previously worked with Detroit Institute of Bagels on making cream cheese for events at the Downtown Synagogue, and has also partnered with Neighborhood Noodle, Hub of Detroit, and the Detroit Food Policy Council on special events.

The loosened cottage industry food laws still do not allow for the commercial distribution of fermented products not made in a commercial kitchen (the laws still regulate perishable foods), so the Suddenly Sauer brand has evolved into less of a product manufacturer and more of an educational outlet. Blair offers fermentation workshops through her synagogue and was part of an educational series through the Garden Resource Program Collaborative. She also offers a Suddenly Sauer "Pickle Club," which includes two fermentation workshops.

While she is very passionate about promoting preservation in our food system, her biggest enjoyment comes from teaching this passion for preservation to others. "I'm hoping to do workshops on a regular basis, but I need a kitchen to work out of and that’s been the hardest part," she explains. "I want to move towards having a more regular food program, have pickles be a part of that but have more of a focus on education. I'm interested in doing that through the synagogue so people have a space to learn and talk about local agriculture, food preservation, spirituality, and identity. Basically I want to create an education program like what I had on the farm but with a Detroit twist."

She adds that, while her workshops are not exclusive to members of the Jewish faith, her spirituality adds value to what she teaches. "[It's] not just [about] food workshops that cater to a Jewish audience, but [workshops that] are open to a wide range of people while also exploring food, history, and social values through a Jewish lens, which I felt was missing from my upbringing," Blair says. "For me, I didn’t get a lot of that in the suburbs. I didn’t feel [a strong connection to] Judaism. But this is a [unique] moment; everybody’s interested in food in right now and this could be a really cool community project." One that not only teaches and builds the Jewish community, but also connects it to a much broader community.

Monday, December 12, 2011

[HOT LIST] Holiday foods

From Avalon Bread's email newsletter: the Stollen fit for a king...or a Bing.

The holidays are a time for celebration in cultures all around the world. While we here in America have certain holiday food traditions we hold dear (fruit cake, anyone?), so too does the rest of the world. This holiday season, make your dinner table a smörgåsbord of metro Detroit's multi-culturalism with traditional holiday global cuisine from some of our favorite area restaurants and bakeries.

Photo from Mae's website.
#1 Abelskievers, Mae's (Pleasant Ridge)
Abelskievers (able-skeevers) are a traditional Danish dish served during Christmastime. While you wouldn't be too far off to refer to them as "pancake balls," abelskievers are similar to American pancakes and are cooked in oil in special abelskiever pans to give them their shape. So, basically, they're pancake doughnuts. Jessica McCarthy, co-owner of Mae's along with her husband Sean, remembers growing up with these as a kid and decided to put them on their menu at Mae's so more people can experience the glory that is the abelskiever. Served with fresh whipped cream and your choice of strawberries or raspberries, these things fall somewhere between breakfast and dessert and are absolutely delightful.

#2 Sufganiyot,
Zingerman's Deli (Ann Arbor)
Available on December 20th only, "sufganiyot" (soof-gah-nee-YAH) is Hebrew for "Mmmm, doughnuts." Zingerman's, the place that really needs no introduction (and is making it's third appearance as a top 5 Hot Lister in the past two months because YES THEY ARE THAT GOOD), is introducing this traditional Hanukkah pastry for the first time this year for one day only. The sufganiyot is a fresh fried doughnut with sweet fillings; they'll be making rich chocolate, red raspberry, sweetened ricotta cheese, and apricot preserve (the favorite in Hungary). Only a limited amount are available, so pre-order yours by emailing Reina at rleber@zingermans.com.

#3 Stollen, Avalon International Breads
(Midtown Detroit)
A traditional German cake eaten during Christmas, stollen (or Christstollen) is  made with dried or candied fruit and covered with powdered sugar or icing. The stollen at Avalon (another place that needs no introduction) has been a holiday tradition of 15 years, and much like the 600-year-old tradition in Dresden, Germany (when the village bakers present a giant stollen to the King), every year Avalon presents the Detroit Mayor (Bing/King - close enough) with a 15-pound stollen wreath. From Thanksgiving to New Year's, Avalon will go through 24 gallons of brandy; 15 pounds of nutmeg; 300 pounds of dried pineapple, cranberries, raisins and cherries; 5 pounds of fresh lemon zest and LOTS of icing for their holiday stollen, available in three-pound wreaths, one-pound loafs and 5-oz. mini-loafs.

#4 Roscas de Reyes, Mexicantown Bakery
(Southwest Detroit)
Roscas de Reyes is a cake made to celebrate the Epiphany, a Christian feast day which falls two weeks after Christmas on January 6 (also known as Día de Reyes, or "King's Day"), honoring the Biblical story of the Three Wise Men. It is an oval-shaped Spanish king's cake (other "king's cakes" include the Portuguese Bolo Rei and the Gâteau des Rois in French-speaking countries, also made to celebrate Christmas and the Epiphany), made with candied fruits and spiced with cinnamon and anise seed. A plastic baby Jesus is hidden within the cake, representing the danger the newborn babe was in and his need to remain hidden (since, according to one Bible story, King Herod wanted him dead ... and bear in mind Mexico and Spain are super-duper Catholic countries, and really big into liturgical symbolism). Whoever gets the piece with the plastic Jesus inside throws the next party, or at least brings the tamales.

#5 Mincemeat pie, Hermann's Bakery
(Royal Oak)
Basically, it's a sweet meat pie. (Leave it to the British.) Also known as the "Christmas pie," this pie is typically served during the Christmas season (shut up!) and is made with minced meat, mutton fat, fruit, and warm, wintry spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. The family-owned Hermann's Bakery in Royal Oak is one of the last remaining original Royal Oak bakeries, but it has maintained its superior quality over the decades and continues to be one of the highest-quality, most affordable bakeries in the area. And it is also one of the only places in metro Detroit that makes traditional mincemeat pie.

Bubbling under
Egg nog - America, Canada (Calder Dairy); Tamales - Mexico (Evie's Tamales); Christmas ales - America, Belgium (Jolly Pumpkin Noel de Calabaza); pierogi - Poland (Polish Yacht Club); pasteles - Central America, Caribbean (Pupusería y Restaurante Salvadoreño); Swedish meatballs (julbord) - Sweden (IKEA Cafe)

Avalon International Breads on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 9, 2011

[EID Feature] 8 Degrees Plato Beer Company: No More Funny Business

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

You might recognize 8 Degrees Plato Beer Company owner Tim Costello. He has been on the national stand-up comedy circuit for the past 25 years, touring the country as well as being a home-town staple on the scene. "Twenty-five years was a long run," Tim says. "Stand-up is a lot of travel. It’s a long time on the road and away from my wife and daughter." Basically, it's a young man's game, and Tim had reached the point in his life where being a road warrior rambling from gig to gig didn't quite hold the same appeal as it once did. Tim echoes what pretty much every other working comedian says who isn't Jim Carrey or Jerry Seinfeld: people get into it because it looks fun, seems easy, and there's the promise of fame and fortune. The reality is starkly different: crappy pay, crappy hours, a constant hustle for work, and the looming panic that comes from being only as good as your next joke.

"It's very therapeutic," he adds. "You can get anything off your chest from the stage. It was something I enjoyed doing--it was a big part of me, but it's a lot different now. It's just not for me."

His last show was at Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle in February. In October, he opened 8 Degrees Plato Beer Company in Ferndale. "Where else can you try something new but Ferndale?” Tim asks. (No argument here.) "We knew if this business concept would work anywhere it would be here in Ferndale. People were actually waiting for something like this here."

But from stand-up comedy to beer? "It's every guy’s dream to open a beer store," he says. "I've always have had an interest in beer ... when I traveled throughout the country I was always bringing home regional beers you couldn’t get here." He and his neighbors, the guys from the now-closed Tenny Street Roadhouse in Dearborn, would drink and rate the beers and tell stories--quality male bonding time, essentially. Then Tim began discovering Michigan craft beers as they really started to come into their own. "I just felt that at my age and with the Michigan beer market ... we're leading the way in so many areas of beer, we're making some really good stuff and getting away from the 'bigger is better' mentality. I thought [8 Degrees] was the perfect way to encompass those things. My concept was to deal with the little guys."

8 Degrees Plato is not just a beer store. Probably best described as a "specialty market," 8 Degrees specializes in local craft and imported beer and all the things that go best with it: cheese, charcuterie, even chocolate. You'll find an assortment of artisan cheeses and cured meats, as well as small candy makers like Cueter Candy in Grand Blanc and their own private label salsas and spreads. "All the products are very local and independent," Tim says. "You can’t do just one product and expect to do anything, you have to diversify a little bit. We're not a convenience store or party store but we do have enough products to keep people who aren’t necessarily beer drinkers happy."

There are pint glasses and T-shirts with the 8 Degrees logo, books about beer, bracelets made with beer bottle caps from a local jewelry maker, even beer-infused handmade soaps from local soapmaker Aromaholic (the Belgian White Ale and Vanilla Porter Spice scents are amahzing). "All the products are very beer-friendly, and we're always actively searching out [locally-made pre-packaged food products] because we would much rather carry more local." Basically this is THE place for beer people and their friends.

Even the name itself is an inside nod to beer nerds. "Degrees Plato" is a measurement in beer brewing (read more here if you can make sense of it). They decided on this name because they felt it had more structure than a family name, and while it would definitely appeal to brewers and industry professionals, "for the rest of the 99% of us it’s a really great conversation starter!"

8 Degrees Plato is a great place to pick up some gifts for the beer nerd who has everything: Tim's wife Brigid puts together gift "buckets" ("Because if I put them together it would look like a guy put them together"), customizable ice buckets filled with your choices of beer and beer accompaniments. They can do small, medium or large sizes; just give them a couple of days' notice or pick from one of the pre-made buckets in the store. A "standard" bucket includes three bottles and a logo glass for around $20 (depending on the beer). One custom idea might be to do a Michigan vs. The World comparison bucket: stout for stout, sour for sour, how do Michigan's beers stack up again Belgium, France and the U.K.?

And while 8 Degrees Plato Beer Company certainly has a lot of beer-friendly foodstuffs and merchandise, their focus is first and foremost BEER. It's a small store but the inventory is growing rapidly, and if there's something special you want Tim will hunt it down for you. And like any good beer store worth its weight in malt barley, they offer the u-mix-six option: grab an empty sixer and choose six singles for your maximum sampling pleasure, plus get 15% off the mix. It's really the best way to sample new brews (because we've all been stuck with that six-pack of funky beer we decided to experiment with and paid $12 for and could barely choke down the first one). They've also got quite a nice spread of 375ml import bottles; their current selection of Christmas ales warms the cockles of my heart. (Or maybe that's the alcohol.)

They've barely been open two full months, but 8 Degrees Plato has already made a name for itself among the craft beer-drinking populace of metro Detroit. Now the rest of you need to discover it too. Tim says running the store is actually a lot like performing stand-up: “It’s still a matter of trying to get people to come see me and give me money, now I'm just always in the same place!”

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

[Real Detroit Weekly] Bazaar Foods

Pete's Chocolate Co. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

The second-annual Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar will be held this Friday, 12/9 from 5 to 11 p.m. in Eastern Market above Cost Plus Wine. Launched in 2010 by Noelle Lothamer, co-owner of Beau Bien Fine Foods, the Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar is an event that celebrates Michigan's independent artisan food producers. While you might recognize names like McClure's Pickles, some of these vendors are only available via direct sales at events such as this. Consider the Food Bazaar a well-curated selection of the best of Detroit's micro food producers – it doesn't GET more local than this.

This year's list of vendors has increased from 16 to 25, and there will be some non-food vendors as well: the winner of the first-ever Hatch Detroit competition Joe Posch will be representing his winning concept Hugh with vintage dishes and cookware; there will also be other cooking accessories like cutting boards, aprons and linens available for purchase (can you say Christmas presents?). Detroit photographer Marvin Shaouni will be selling prints, and DJs Ash Nowak (from Haute to Death) and Amy Kaherl will be tag-teaming the event. Cost Plus will be open too, and be sure to come hungry and bring cash (most vendors are cash-only)!

Here's a sneak peak of just some of this year's vendors:

Read the rest of the story here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

[HOT LIST] Made in Michigan gift baskets

Toasted Oak Grill's Michigan cheese platter. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

Putting together a good gift basket is like putting together a good mixed tape. There must be a rhythm, a theme. You must really think about what it is you're trying to communicate with this offering. Not only are your selections a reflection on you and your tastes, but they also reflect the relationship you have with the recipient: what do you really know about them and their tastes; what are you going to give them that says "I enjoy this and hope you will too?"

Now, there's the good ol' Harry and David gift baskets you can fall back on: order online and have it sent straight to your recipient without ever so much as touching the basket, much less actually sampling any of the products, or really even knowing what products are included. (It's about as personal as a Visa gift card. Hell, I'd rather have the gift card.) But a proper gift basket, one that you actually put a little bit of thought and effort into, that means something. (After all, the way to pretty much anyone's heart is through their stomach.) Gift baskets abound at markets and specialty stores during the holidays, but these places are going the extra mile with thoughtful gift baskets highlighting Michigan-made products that can be custom-made and shipped anywhere in the country.

(1) Toasted Oak Grill and Market (Novi)
Cheese and charcuterie: there's really no way to go wrong. With a wide selection of Michigan-made and imported artisan cheeses and full selection of charcuterie made in-house (sausage and salumi, terrines and patés), Toasted Oak's holiday platters (served with house-made accoutrements like bacon caramel and lavender honey) are a crowd-pleaser for when you need to bring a dish to share. For gift-giving, their Picnic Tote includes two Michigan wides, a tartan plaid picnic blanket, a Toasted Oak signature cheese board cut in the shape of the state of Michigan, a cutting knife and a wine key.

(2) Motor City Wine and Foran's Grand Trunk Pub (Detroit)
Technically two separate businesses but I'm clumping them together just so that I can sneak a sixth on this list without it being obvious. Upstairs at Motor City Wine, you can choose from pre-made baskets or order one custom. Choose wines from their affordable boutique wine collection (with plenty of Michigan wineries to choose from, including bubbly from L. Mawby to put you in the holiday spirit) and pair with their Michigan-made pasta and pasta sauce for a proper Michigan meal in a basket, or select from several varieties of chocolates, organic olive oil, olives, crispbreads and T-shirts. They can also include local cheeses and cured meats if you are able to keep the basket refrigerated. Order online or by phone for curb-side pick-up. Downstairs at the Grand Trunk Pub, their baskets include four assorted Michigan craft beers, a bottle of Faygo, and a couple of bags of assorted Better Made Chips for $20. Custom baskets also available; contact Suzanne at 313-961-3043.

(3) Three Little Birds Fine Foods (Northville)
As if Northville could get any more adorable, here's Three Little Birds. Their all-natural handmade granola is wheat-free, dairy-free, oil-free and cholesterol-free (as natural granola should be) and is available in an assortment of flavors. They also support other local businesses, such as with their Made in the Mitten Baskets which includes McClure's potato chips, Dave's Sweet Tooth Toffee, Matt's Mix all-purpose seasoning, their signature granola, and a Pewabic Pottery ornament. Order at 248-739-9199.

(4) Plum Market (Bloomfield, Ann Arbor, West Bloomfield)
Plum Market has arguably the most extensive and wide-ranging selection of Michigan-made products of any of the grocery stores and specialty markets in the metro area. Browsing their selection even in the comparatively selfish summer months will make you instinctively think "These would make great gifts!" (Seriously, hats off to whoever does their displays: they serve their purpose in making me want to buy everything.) They have a fantastic assortment of different gift baskets available (order online and ship anywhere); there's the old stand-bys of fruits and chocolates, but they also have themed baskets like "Gluten Free" and "Go Green." The Michigan Made basket is packed full of some of Michigan's best artisan food products, like Kelly's Karamels and Guernsey Dairy Hot Fudge.

(5) Good Hart General Store (Good Hart)
Just north of Harbor Springs in the small coastal city of Good Hart, the Good Hart General Store is making some mean baskets. Available for shipping around the globe, the Pure Michigan Gift Basket features all Michigan-made products like maple syrup and goat's milk soap, and their Homemade Preserves basket features all of their own local fruit preserves made in-house. They can also make custom baskets, like the Virgin Mary Basket ($52) with McClure's Bloody Mary Mixer and Michigan pickled asparagus. Just add vodka! (Valentine, naturally.)

Bubbling under Western Market (Ferndale), Merchant's Fine Wine (Dearborn), Zingerman's Creamery (Ann Arbor), 8 Degrees Plato Beer Company (Ferndale), Chateau Chantal (Traverse City), Papa Joe's Gourmet Market (Rochester, Birmingham), Nino Salvaggio International Marketplace (St. Clair Shores, Troy, Clinton Twp.)

Toasted Oak Grill & Market (Hotel Baronette) on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 5, 2011

[Fox News] Will Macarons Be the New Cupcake?

Macarons from Cup.Cake in Royal Oak. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

Everyone is looking for the new cupcake. Ever since the cupcake craze seems to have calmed down (after populating nearly every corner of the country with dedicated cupcakeries), food experts, trend analysts and next-it-thing-seeking foodies have been anxiously anticipating what will be the heir apparent to the throne of exalted confections.

It may still be a little too early to tell, but the macaron—a French sandwich cookie/biscuit that is as eye-catching as it is palate-pleasing—seems to be a strong contender.

Read the rest of the article here.

Friday, December 2, 2011

[EID Feature] Pete's Chocolate Company: Detroit's First Chocolatier

The Adventures of Pete and Pete's Chocolates. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg at Rust Belt Market.

Pete Steffy of Pete's Chocolate Company says he has always been "really into food and cooking," but it was when he was living in the small city of San Cristóbal de las Casas teaching English in Mexico that he got into chocolate.

"There was this really cool chocolate shop there run by this guy who studied chocolate-making in Mexico City," Pete says. "I had this friend who's just one of those guys who makes friends with everyone and everyone loves him [one of those really dynamic types], and he somehow was able to convince this guy to do a chocolate class with us. I think he charged us, like, $50 each, and there was four of us there for a week."

And so Pete learned the craft of chocolate confectionery from chocolatier Iván Arce in the indigenous home of the cacao tree.

"I really enjoyed doing it and began experimenting with it," Pete continues. "I was doing really small batches and giving them away--not that it's hard to give away chocolate! Then a lot of those people wanted to buy chocolate to give to other people, and it sort of grew organically from there."

If you ever visited the phenomenal (now unfortunately closed) Burton Theatre in Detroit, you may have seen some of Pete's chocolates. The Burton was the first place where his products were available to purchase. Pete is friends with the guys who ran the Burton and cites them as a real inspiration to him. "If these guys can open a theater, [you] can do anything [in Detroit]!" he jokes. (Then immediately tells me he's kidding and very sincerely says their efforts were truly inspiring to him...Pete just seems like the kind of affable guy that won't even rag on his buddies in jest.) Much as they sought to offer an eclectic movie mix in their theatre, they also wanted to have some unique items in their concession stand. Pete's chocolate was perfect. "It was a good start to get my name out there."

Pete makes mostly hand-rolled truffles, which are a little different than what you usually see in chocolate shops like Godiva. These are fresh truffles; there's no hard shell but instead they are a consistent soft, fudgey texture. They are hand-crafted using fine bittersweet (60% cocoa), milk (31% cocoa) and white chocolate from the world's largest chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut in Belgium, then blended with European butter, fresh cream from Southeast Michigan’s own Calder Dairy and the highest quality spices, nuts, dried or preserved fruits and flavorings available. Pete has about a dozen standard flavors he always carries (like cinnamon cayenne and peanut butter) plus some "oddball" flavors he switches up, like rosemary sea salt and white chocolate orange cranberry.

In addition to molded and dipped truffles Pete just recently started experimenting with chocolate bars. He also makes different kinds of hot chocolate, which includes a vegan French-style hot chocolate made with coconut milk and flavored with exotic spices like chai and garam masala. (You seriously would NEVER be able to tell that it's vegan; this hot chocolate is thicker, richer and more decadent than most other places that use whole milk.)

Last Christmas, business for Pete and his eponymous chocolate exploded, and on the heels of the new cottage industry food laws allowing for small, independent artisan food producers to work out of their kitchens (instead of requiring a commercial kitchen, as it was required previously), Pete set up his LLC and made his hobby an official business.

Pete's Chocolate can now be found at select special events around town, like the upcoming 2nd Annual Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar next Friday (Dec. 9, 5-11 p.m.), but you'll primarily be able to find him at the Rust Belt Market in Ferndale on weekends (Saturdays and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Fridays 6-10 p.m. through the holidays). You can order online for pick-up or delivery, and Pete also caters special events.

Because demand has grown so quickly, Pete isn't totally sure what to do with it next (it was just a "hobby," after all). But what started as a hobby has now evolved into Detroit's first and only maker of artisan chocolates, and Pete is now considering his options: maybe opening a storefront, or spending next summer interning at chocolate shops in Europe, or even importing cacao beans and making chocolate straight from the bean itself. "What better place than Detorit to do that?" he says.  "It’s funny that in some ways Detroit can be a hard place to start a luxury food item business, but also there’s no chocolate in Detroit right now." It's a bagel desert; it's a chocolate desert ... but thanks to Detroit's DIY bakers and chocolate-makers, the times they are a-changin', and the Paris of the Midwest finally has its own chocolatier.

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

[HOT LIST] Hot chocolate

Kay's Hot Cocoa from Lindsay Truffler. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

One of my very first signs of food snobbery sophistication came in the form of hot cocoa. I always had Swiss Miss made with milk at home. MILK! IT MUST BE MADE WITH MILK!!! Imagine my surprise (and devastating disappointment) when I realized most other people, restaurants included, made their hot chocolate with *gasp* water. Ew. Just. Ew.

You know how I rag on Chicago all the time? (Here. And here. And here. Here again. Also here. And most of you don't know about this one because it turns out I don't have time for ANOTHER blog but here.) Welp, there's one thing that Chicago does particularly well. And that is hot chocolate. From the ineffable Le Chocolat du Bouchard to the otherwise woefully-overrated Rick Bayless joints (seriously, the bean-to-cup chocolate at XOCO is phenom...try the Almendrado) to the appropriately-named (if otherwise disappointing) Mindy's Hot Chocolate, Chicago knows what's up when it comes to the cocoa bean. (Vosges, hellurrrr.) And it was there my fascination with gourmet drinking chocolate really began.

(Actually that's a lie, I first discovered drinking chocolate when Starbucks introduced their shot-sized pudding-thick "sipping chocolate" in 2005-ish. It lasted only a few months. But it was divine.)

In metro Detroit, we have quite a few places that "get it." Whether their hot chocolate is of the trendy frozen variety or properly hot as the name would imply, there are some truly decadent chocolate drinks to be had. (And some non-traditional ones too: check out Cliff Bell's in Detroit for their hot chocolate martini, or stop by Treat Dreams in Ferndale to see if they have any of their hot chocolate ice cream.) Of course, sometimes nothing beats curling up on your own couch with a cup of cocoa--I recommend Kay's Hot Cocoa powder from Bay City's Lindsay Truffler (they ship anywhere within the U.S.) with milk from Calder Dairy.

#1 Shakolad Chocolate Factory
Shakolad Chocolate Factory is a Florida-based chain, but don't let the fact that they have a corporate headquarters make you think that their chocolates are any less artisanal. In addition to their gorgeously-displayed collection of luscious truffles and specialty chocolate items, Shakolad also boasts an extensive menu of chocolate beverages and elixirs. There's iced hot chocolate and iced chocolate gelato for the warmer days, but right now it's all about the hot chocolate. Choose milk, dark or white chocolate for any of their MANY different hot chocolate creations. Hot chocolate ganache with your choice of truffles on the bottom. Mexican hot chocolate with honey, instant coffee and chili pepper powder. Mayan hot chocolate with chili pepper powder and cinnamon. Thick Italian hot chocolate. Mocha hot chocolate in mint, caramel or ganache. And the super-intense "Angelina" - a French-style dark hot chocolate that's so rich and thick it's more of a sipping chocolate. (Hint: leave whatever you can't finish in the fridge overnight and enjoy it as pudding the next day.)

Chocolate a la Taza
#2 Cafe Con Leche (Southwest Detroit)
This independently-owned SW Detroit coffee house is a favorite with the locals and a social hub of the community. They serve standard (but well-made) espresso drinks and also seek to promote traditional Latin drinks in the mainstream. For hot chocolate, choose between the Mexican hot chocolate ("regular" hot chocolate spiced with cinnamon), or be a bit more daring and try the Chocolate a la Taza, a traditional Spanish hot chocolate made by melting real chocolate in milk. It's as rich as a chocolate truffle and thick as molasses.   

#3 Good Girls Go to Paris
(Detroit, Grosse Pointe)
There's really not a whole lot that can be said about the little creperie that could that hasn't been said before, except maybe...HOT NUTELLA!!! !!! ! The addictive chocolate-hazelnut spread that is to Europe what peanut butter is to America is even better when served hot in a mug, and GGGTP is the only place that serves it.

#4 Zingerman's Delicatessen (Ann Arbor)
"Ohmigawd, Zingerman's, it's so expensive." Shut up. It's expensive for a reason and you don't get to say "I pay more for higher quality but not THAT much more." The end. Now go get some of their Mindo Hot Cocoa, made with chocolate from Dexter's Mindo Chocolate Makers. Bold and beautiful, this is the difference between hot chocolate made with syrups and hot chocolate made with hand-made, small-batch artisan chocolate.

#5 Farmhouse Coffee and Ice Cream (Franklin)
It's cute and quaint and cozy and other hard k-sounding words. They serve hot homemade soups, ice cream from Guernsey, pastries from Zingerman's, teas from Teavana and also have a fancy-schmancy espresso machine, but their hot chocolate also happens to be some of the best around. And, really, it's so cute you want to pinch it.

Bubbling under Cafe Muse (Royal Oak), 1515 Broadway (Detroit), Sweet Dreams (Orchard Lake), Gayle's Chocolates (Royal Oak), Le Petit Zinc (Detroit), Caffe Far Bella (St. Clair Shores), Chez Zara (Detroit), Red Hook (Ferndale), Commonwealth (Birmingham), Heritage Perk (Taylor), Toast (Birmingham, Ferndale), Looney Baker (Livonia), The Chocolate Gallery Cafe (Warren), Hudson Cafe (Detroit)

Good Girls Go To Paris Crepes on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 27, 2011

[EID Travel Feature] Grand Rapids

HopCat. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

Just as the Traverse City Film Festival put Traverse City on the radar of national (even international) travelers, so too shall ArtPrize do the same for Grand Rapids. Michigan's second-largest city is home to the world's largest single art competition giveaway, with the top winner taking home $250,000 and total prize money reaching nearly half a million dollars. ArtPrize, which celebrated its third year in 2011, is making international headlines for its edgy, experimental, open format. Described as "part arts festival, part social experiment," the entire city of Grand Rapids is overtaken by art for the roughly three weeks it runs (many turning into permanent installations, like massive murals on the sides of buildings and huge metal sculptures located on city-owned parking lots and lawns, next to hotels and bars).

And it's not just relegated to traditional art spaces like galleries in museums. It's in the bars, the clubs, the restaurants, the book stores, the coffee shops, the parks, the bridges, the buses, the streets -- it's EVERYWHERE. And the prize money goes to the top 10 artists, as voted by the public. Not an art jury. YOU. The competition is open to all artists who are able to find space at a venue and all venues willing to participate. (2011 saw 192 venues presenting 1,713 artists from 44 states and 21 countries, bringing in 200,000 visitors, half of which were non-residents.) It's about art, but it's also about community, and social interaction, and artistic engagement, and it's in GRAND RAPIDS.

B. Nektar Meadery at the Grand Rapids International Wine, Beer and Food Festival.

Grand Rapids is also making a name for itself by hosting other major events, such as the Grand Rapids International Wine, Beer and Food Festival, which just held its fourth annual event earlier this month, and the popular Festival of the Arts held in June. But there is usually some sort of celebration happening in GR on pretty much any given weekend: this coming weekend, December 2-3, is Holly Jolly GR, which starts with their tree lighting ceremony on December 2 and includes dozens of independent retailers, galleries and boutiques participating in a holiday window display competition.

GR is also making a name for itself as one of Michigan's top eclectic food destination cities. Much like Traverse City, Grand Rapids is surrounded by farmland, and many of the area's restaurateurs and chefs emphasize a fully farm-to-table approach, and the general passion for and commitment to locally-sourced and Michigan-made products is ubiquitous. And while Traverse City still wins in the winery arena, some of Michigan's best breweries (which in turn puts them in the running for some of the best breweries in the country) are located right in downtown GR (or really super-duper close).


As a metro Detroiter, there are certain things that you will notice immediately upon visiting Grand Rapids. First, how very clean it is. Not just clean but well-manicured, impeccably landscaped, full of sparkling skyscrapers downtown and adorable cottage-like gingerbread homes lining the surrounding hills. You'll also notice the abundance of art--not small pieces installed by renegade DIY artists and street art murals on abandoned buildings (not that there's anything wrong with that; Detroit, you're lovely, stay this way forever), but full-blown MURALS made with ceramic and mirror mosaic tiles and giant 3D plaster faces affixed to operational buildings, and massive sculptures placed prominently near the entrances of the B.O.B. and the JW Marriott. The downtown has density, walkability, and is filled with independent shops and restaurants (as well as several colleges and cultural institutions). All of this, only two and a half hours away.

JW Marriott.
Grand Rapids has a few different properties centrally located downtown. The Amway Grand is sort of the grand dame, but for visitors looking for something a bit less...fussy (and a bit more...young), the JW Marriott is a sparkling example of sophisticated, contemporary refinement. The rooms are comfortable, but it is the particular touches like the vertigo-inducing balcony on every floor that looks down a wall of curved glass overlooking the river and the photography from Grand Rapids' sister cities on every floor that makes this property particularly memorable. There's also six.one.six, the hotel's signature restaurant which serves globally-inspired food on a local level (they even have their own chef's garden on the patio and list the dozens of different local producers and purveyors they work with on their menu and website).

Open only four months, CityFlatsHotel - Grand Rapids (the second location after Holland, MI) is the newest boutique hotel in downtown Grand Rapids, but it also has the most urban design nerd appeal. The rooms are sleek, sparsely decorated but with savvy touches like cork floors, floor-lit mattresses, architectural light wells, large windows, exposed brick, and a bright palette of colors (and each room is slightly different with different design touches). You also get free high-speed wireless Internet, HDTV and DIRECTV, and an iPod docking station. Grand Rapids is one of the country's leaders in sustainability, named the most sustainable mid-size city in 2010 and fourth in the nation for leadership in LEED-certified buildings, and CityFlats seeks to continue that tradition. Built to be LEED-Certified Gold (though still awaiting certification), the hotel has several eco-friendly features designed for efficiency and sustainability. It also has some of the most comfortable bedding EVER in a hotel (no wonder, since the hotelier's background is in hotel furniture; they even sell their bedding on the website). Seriously, like sleeping on a warm, fluffy cloud, wrapped in cloud.

The front desk/lobby/coffee shop/lounge/restaurant/bar downstairs is a feat of small space design. Each separate entity in effect shares the same space, though the modular setup allows them distinction. It's kind of like one of those IKEA bedroom setups, "Look how much you can do in 200 square feet!" (Only it's a hotel lobby, bar, restaurant, coffee shop, lounge and front desk in what is probably only 800 square feet.) The CitySen Lounge is a great place for a snack and drink, with a nice-sized menu of small plates and a solid selection of local and imported beers and wines. If you head out there this Saturday Dec. 3, stop by for their sparkling wine tasting from 7-10 p.m.

Don't know if you got the message yet, but this city is super-big on art. While you're here, don't miss the Grand Rapids Art Museum, this first LEED-Certified Gold art museum in the world. The GRAM is small in size compared to something like the DIA, but the permanent collection alone is worth seeing and they always have intriguing exhibitions (the current exhibition on satire in art featuring Warrington Colescott is outstanding, an evolving history of parodying pop culture). Also check out the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, a quirky gallery/museum and film theatre with a particularly fantastic gift shop.


The Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is worth spending an afternoon exploring with outdoor sculpture, indoor gardens, and the largest tropical conservatory in the state of Michigan. Now through January 8, 2012, enjoy their Christmas and Holiday Traditions from Around the World with horse-drawn carriages and a Hindu lights festival. And if you have kids, the Grand Rapids Children's Museum is an engaging, creative, interactive environment. For great deals on arts and culture attractions in GR, check out Culture Pass GR.

There are plenty of independent retail stores to browse, but for you bookish types (self included) Schuler Books and Music is must. As an independent book seller, this place is practically a museum in its own right. Their collection isn't vast but there's a nice selection of this-and-thats (nothing too crazy...no steampunk or circus sections, alas), and also a selection of affordable used fiction and nonfiction titles.

MadCap Coffee.

Eat and Drink

AKA, what you've been waiting for.

Start with coffee at MadCap Coffee, an independent coffee roaster which works directly with small farms for transparency and sustainability. Enjoy their latest roast done pour-over style. For lunch, grab a sandwich a Marie Catrib's. But don't think of it as a sandwich. Think of it as one of the best damn sandwiches you will ever eat in your entire life. (They're also vegan-friendly.) For something a bit heartier (i.e., with booze), head on over to HopCat, named the #3 best beer bar in the world by Beer Advocate. It's a brewpub, so they have their own beer, plus an extensive list of imported, craft, local and seasonal beers, plus really outstanding beer bar food, all cooked with and/or made to go well with BEER. Don't miss the crack fries or the cheese ale soup. The place gets packed at night, but lunch is always a more civil crowd. (If civil's your thing.)

Another brewpub worth checking out while you're in town is Brewery Vivant. Their beer isn't distributed this far east (yet; they're working on it), but in their brewpub you get the full Belgian tradition. Inspired by farmhouse breweries of southern Belgium and northern France, they brew Belgian-style IPAs, saisons and farmhouse ales. The Pub's menu is hearty Belgian-style seasonal dishes made from scratch highlighting regional flavors with special attention paid to beer pairings for the full beer-food experience, as well as a full commitment to sourcing their products locally.

Random art thing.
At some point mid-day, during the course of your cultural adventures, you might get thirsty again. Head to Founders Brewing Co. Widely regarded to be one of the top breweries in the country (if the fervor over their CBS is any indication), Founders is a happy place. A joyous, wonderous place full of happy. Breakfast Stout is on tap right now; get some. (They also have a large menu of snacky foods, like sandwiches and French bread pizzas, if you need a 'lil sumthin'. Their beers can be BEASTS.)

For dinner, man alive you have some decisions to make. There's San Chez Tapas Bistro, which despite its cutesy name (it's been around almost 20 years; they get grandfathered into the "cute names aren't cute anymore" clause) is a pinnacle of Mediterranean-inspired dining excellence, with a stellar small plates selection and inventive cocktails, as well as a long-held tradition of environmental initiatives (they are part of the Green Power Partnership) and community involvement. Locally-sourced ingredients are given the Spanish treatment.

There's also 25 Kitchen + Bar, new American cuisine which plays up the number 25 (25 beers on tap, 25 signature hand-crafted cocktails, 25 locally and internationally inspired wood-fired pizzas). And then you have Tre Cugini, an airy Italian eatery with a beautiful selection of pastas and risotto. But if you should only eat one meal during your stay in Grand Rapids, make it Reserve.

They opened last September in a sort of trial-by-fire (they launched the opening weekend of ArtPrize), and have since made a name for themselves as Grand Rapids' premiere restaurant. Owned in part by Grand Rapids business royalty Rick and Betsy DeVos, whose son Rick started ArtPrize, the restaurant seems inextricably tied to ArtPrize itself: the showpiece of the restaurant is a massive back-lit mural above the bar called "Open Water," which was the grand-prize winner of the first-ever ArtPrize in 2009. But while Reserve may have an interesting story (and gorgeous design), its ultimate draw is the food.

Executive Chef Matthew Millar emphasizes seasonal cooking and works directly with small family farms for a menu that truly defines the region, and what it means to be a Michigan restaurant. Select from "small," "medium" or "large" plates (every menu item sounds outstanding but the pan-roasted duck breast with fall vegetables, cranberry beans and foie gras butter might just be the stand-out), but be sure to start with a charcuterie and cheese plate. They import salumi and cheeses from some of the top producers in the world, but also make their own terrines, pates, and rilettes and source local artisan cheeses from nearby creameries. They've got a fantastic selection of local craft beers and liquors, but their custom-built, temperature-controlled cruvinet system holding 102 wines all available by the taste and glass is the real accomplishment. It is one of the largest such systems in the world, which allows the life of an open bottle of wine to be extended as long as six weeks, allowing them to offer by the glass a much wider range of varietals and price points than what most restaurants would typically risk.

After dinner, pop by the Viceroy for some pre-Prohibition-inspired craft cocktails made with their own house-made bitters, syrups, shrubs and infusions. There's not a dud on the whole sizable cocktail menu; each drink is expertly crafted and utterly delightful. THIS is drinking. They do that whole precious secret-but-not-really-secret-entrance thing, but the quality of their cocktails more than makes up for it. And after a long night of drinking liquors with names you can't pronounce, stumble on over to Georgio's Gourmet Pizza. They're open until 3 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday, serving up enormous New York-style slices to hordes of hungry drunkards. It's not the best pizza you'll ever eat, but it's the best pizza you'll get this late, and with wacky flavors like Mac 'n Cheese and Potato + Bacon, it's definitely something different. (Be prepared to wait in line. With drunks. College-age drunks, which is even worse than your standard-issue drunk, though not quite as bad as your game day drunk.)

Want to see more? Check out the Grand Rapids Flickr set here, and the Reserve Flickr set here.