Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Real Detroit Weekly: Northern Lights Lounge

We all love the bathrooms (So big! So clean! So nice!) at Northern Lights Lounge, but this place is more than just a pretty potty. If the Big Lebowski were set in Detroit instead of Los Ang-ga-leez, this is where the Dude and Walter would have hung out and debated whether or not "Chinamen" was the preferred nomenclature ... something about the orange vinyl and white aluminum lounge chairs, the scuffed-up shuffleboard and the old-Vegas-esque multi-colored neon sign out front.

But even if the carpet-pissers hadn't dragged the Dude down the rabbit hole to chase one Bunny Lebowski, this place would still have the slickest L.A.-retro/desert-deco vibe and the most diverse entertainment offerings in the city. It kind of feels like New York in the '80s – there's punk rock night (Mondays), retro goth night (Tuesdays), live jazz night (Wednesdays), hip hop night (Thursdays), house and electronic night (Fridays), live rock bands (Saturdays) and karaoke (Sundays). They also hold burlesque shows, Noir Leather shows, fashion shows and IF there's a cover it's rarely more than $5.

So much for not having a reason to go out on any given night...

Read the rest of the article here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

944 Detroit: Cupcakeries

"Good things come in small packages — nowhere is that more evident than with the current cupcake craze. These metro Detroit bakeries will create your wedding cupcake tower in any custom color, theme, flavor or design you desire..."

[Note: since this printed another cupcakery opened in Royal Oak, Taste Love Cupcakes.]

Read the rest of the article here.

Detroit Institute of Bagels: Filling the Void of Detroit's Bagel Desert

If you live in the city of Detroit and have a craving for a soft, fresh bagel with cream cheese and a good cup of coffee in the morning, good luck to you. And if it’s a weekend you can just forget it entirely. Not only are the greater downtown districts of Detroit sorely lacking in decent coffee shops – yes, we love Café Con Leche and Café 1923, but they’re not exactly walking distance from downtown or Midtown; Starbucks and Biggby cater to coffee-as-your-daily-caloric-intake crowd, and Stella International and Rowland Café satisfy the craving but don’t really excel beyond the basic need. Plus almost all of them have extremely limited hours, typically closed nights and weekends (catering more to the business crowds and less to the locals). And nowhere, NOWHERE can you find fresh-baked bagels, like from a bakery (and I’m not talking about Tim Horton’s here).

Brothers Ben and Dan Newman joke that Detroit is a “bagel desert.” They started Detroit Institute of Bagels in response to the city’s utter lack of quality, flavorful fresh-baked bagels, and not only to fill that bagel void – Detroit Institute of Bagels was also created as an effort to continue to build the city’s momentum as a place where local entrepreneurs make fresh, high-quality food products in a community environment that encourages independent businesses and food shops as destinations.

“People are coming down here especially to go to Slows," says Ben Newman. "People want to connect with the city and do it in a way that’s comfortable. [Places like Slows are] offering a way for them to come down and get something to eat. There’s also a big push to get creative class down here and living here," he continues, "with Quicken and other big companies moving [to Detroit] and pushing the idea if you just put jobs in the city you’ll get people in the city, but that isn’t the case if you don’t have cafes, coffee shops, etc.,” referring to some of the auxiliary amenities people in a major city have come to expect from a major city. “We want to provide that for people as a café."

Right now the DIB’s operations are done entirely out of the brothers’ shared flat in south Corktown, with plans to open their own bagel shop and cafe in the near future. "In Detroit you have to build your business really organically, do it from the ground up," Ben explains. "We're giving people the chance to try our bagels now, and are also developing relationships with people who do place large orders of  bagels so when we’re ready to launch we don’t have to deal with the headache of finding customers."

The idea to start a food business in the city was born our of Ben's own experiences working at Short's Brewing Company in Bellaire, as well as his passion for urban renewal born from his academic background as an urban planner. "I saw firsthand how [Short's] created a food and beverage establishment that people will drive five hours to visit, and the redevelopment that this has spurred in Bellaire," he explains. "Also, I finished my Masters of Urban Planning in the fall and did a lot of work on vacancy in the city. I feel like food businesses can fill vacant spots, create desirable places to live and visit, and offer job opportunities, among other things. Right now, in addition to making bagels, we are looking for a brick and mortar location, some commercial scale equipment, and a few dollars that will make it easier to produce bagels for the masses."

But while in hindsight bagels seem to be an obvious choice, they weren't quite so intuitive at the time Ben was brainstorming what kind of food business he wanted to start. “I was looking at food businesses that are lacking here,” he tells me. “I wanted to do pizza but we’ve got pizza covered” (this is said with a smile and a wink towards Dave Mancini and his very popular pizzeria in Eastern Market, Supino Pizzeria, which is widely considered to be the best in metro Detroit). “I always loved bread and a friend said, ‘Why don’t you make bagels?’ So, we're making bagels to fill the 'bagel desert' that is Detroit. No one is offering bagels in Detroit, and every vibrant city has bagels.”

Eureka! Let there be bagels.

So in December Ben starting playing with different bagel recipes, making hundreds of bagels he would then give away to friends and family while trying to find a recipe that was consistent that he could also add different items to the dough to make flavors that excel far beyond the basic salt or poppyseed bagel. “We also had the idea that we have to do something different to get people to drive out of their way to get bagels from the city.”

This is how they ended up with such flavors as bacon cheddar, dried cherry chocolate, blueberry ricotta, and rosemary/olive oil/sea salt. “We're making better bagels than anyone else and with flavors that you can't get anywhere else ... with the ambition of making bagels a destination food product to draw more people into the city,” says Ben.Which is the goal of a growing number of local food entrepreneurs hoping to reshape the city's identity with hand-made organic food products ranging from sausage to jam to sauerkraut. And, now, bagels.

There has been no shortage of food start-ups in recent months with the July 2010 change in cottage industry laws. Brand-new businesses and businesses that had been previously operating on the “DL” formed, but after less than a year the laws are still unclear and those who braved those first legalese aftershocks are now the ones who are actively shaping them.

There is a Detroit-based food entrepreneur group which works as a networking opportunity for current and future owners of food start-ups to meet, discuss their businesses and the obstacles they face, and help each other start their businesses. If you've been following Detroit's budding food start-up scene, names like Jess Daniel from Neighborhood Noodle and Will Branch from Corridor Sausage Company will be familiar; these are the people actively involved in the group. "Will from Corridor is sharing his experience of how to start a business in the city; that’s the beauty, people reaching out to find a way to help you get set up," Ben states.

These same people - Ben, Jess, Will, and local activist Vince Keenan - recently approached city council to fight the vending code which states that your food can't create a smell. While their numbers are small and their approach very do-it-yourself, the efforts of these people now will have a tremendous impact on the future of the laws on food start-ups and mobile food vendors in the city. And, as I've mentioned before, the opportunities that a shift in the perceptions (and thereby a loosening of the restrictions) of these businesses would bring with it are almost endless.

"500 food carts is 2000 jobs; that's as many as Quicken is bringing down," Ben outlines. "Those employees would actually be living in the city. The food trucks are also providing jobs for people who don’t have a secondary education and provide them with a skill set that is transferable because there are always jobs in the food industry. That’s what changes your city from your suburb - having nice dense clusters of food businesses and independent places. There’s got to be something unique that’s giving people more reasons to reside in the city of Detroit; Slows and Woodbridge Pub and LJ’s Lounge are unique places in the city that do that."

Despite these early activist efforts, the minds of the government officials who are ultimately the ones who must decide to make and change the laws are predictably uninformed and closed-minded. "Someone from the Health Department said that there’s no reason to change vending codes because 'there are no commissaries in the city.'" And so once again the citizens must initiate themselves what their city government is too short-sighted to address.

"The idea that [Detroit] is a 'blank slate' where you can start any business isn’t true," Ben says of the often prohibitive regulations. "We’d love to follow the laws if they were clear but no one even knows what they’re supposed to do – a lot of people are doing things on the sly. [The government] needs to make the law in a way that the people who want to follow it can follow it because people who won’t follow it won’t anyway."

And once again, the Luddite concern that mobile food businesses will cause all other food businesses to lose all their customers and go bankrupt and shut down forever and ever is just preposterous ... yet it is still an obstacle that hopeful mobile food vendors are facing. "They're not cutting into brick and mortar places' business. People come out and smell food or see it and decide they’re hungry. That creates a vibrant community of people in the streets. In Portland there’s been an increase in brick and mortar businesses because now people are out looking for food. It’s a bigger piece of the pie; brick and mortar places are now starting their own carts because they see it as a way to test their products and grow their marketing." Echoing the frustrations of many others who are trying to operate non-traditional food businesses in the city, he concludes with, "In Detroit you’re incentivized to do everything under the ground."

In the meantime, this food entrepreneur group continues to try to shape Detroit's future in food by defining what is "good food" (more than just healthy and organic but also the economic development aspect) and discussing the possibility of forming a kitchen incubator, such as Starting Block on the west side of the state where Suzanne Vier of Simply Suzanne Granola got her start. "It's optimistic to hear people at least talking about the right things," says Ben. "It doesn’t happen overnight because nothing does, but the conversation is the first thing to bring people to the table. Food can do this – if you offer people free food they’ll come together and have conversations they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Food is something that brings everyone together; people congregate around it. Certainly if you fry it and roll it around in sugar."

That last part is in reference to their best-seller Fragelrocks!: deep-fried raisin bagel holes tossed in cinnamon sugar.

Prior to starting Detroit Institute of Bagels, Ben's only formal training was taking a bagel-making class at Zingerman's. Not that you'd ever be able to tell: the bagels are chewy, airy, dense and soft, with just the right amount of crispness to the crust (and not so hard that you feel like you're going to slice your gums open trying to take a bite). The name came from a brainstorming session in February; it was originally a play off of the DIA but also in a way paid homage to the brothers' grandfather who started the Detroit Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehab. "Something in our genes made 'Institute' sound good," Dan jokes. Dan is the one responsible for all of the branding, the website design, and pretty much everything else that isn't the baking of the bagels themselves. (Which includes the quirky imaging which also plays off of the DIA by taking famous paintings like American Gothic and adding bagels to them.)

The flavor ideas were more trial and error. "Bacon cheddar was something I really wanted to see happen," Ben says. "Rosemary/olive oil/sea salt was from a friend who saw it somewhere else, and blueberry ricotta started as blueberry feta." They look towards pizza for ideas for their savory bagels because "pizza and bagels are kind of analogous," citing Motor City Brewing Works' pear and gorgonzola pizza as another inspiration. They also look towards cookies for the sweet bagels, like the dried cherry chocolate bagel with a little salt and mascarpone cream cheese. They've also had a bagel flavor contest on Facebook - the winner was jalapeno garlic. "We talked to Jim [Geary] of Woodbridge Pub, and [he told us] 'give customers a sense of ownership in your business.' People will feel a connection and tell a story [about it]. This is the beauty of Detroit versus other cities where they would just be like, 'Open a bagel shop or don't.' Here Greg Mudge [of Mudgie's Deli], Ben and Jason from Russell St. Deli and Dave from Supino are all willing to talk to us."

Right now Ben and Dan are looking for a storefront so they can increase their production - which currently is extremely limited by the time it takes to make X number of bagels and the space in their home refrigerator to chill the dough - and provide customers with the full cafe/coffee-and-a-bagel urban experience. In the meantime, they're also looking into distribution to places that sell coffee and sandwiches (like Mudgie's). To get your bagel fix now, place an order on their website at http://www.detroitinstituteofbagels.com/ at least one day in advance (recommended two days, especially for large orders). Limited delivery is available.

Ben and Dan will be launching a crowdfunding campaign (like Kickstarter) soon for their bagel shop; keep an eye out for the campaign (follow them on Facebook and Twitter for updates).

Even though starting a food business in the city is by no means easy, the greater potential of such businesses is what gives Ben the energy to keep going. "I need to have a reason to get out of bed and do this every day. Working together to build businesses, grow the food economy, see more food trucks and start-ups, and help build that community is that reason."

Friday, May 20, 2011

944 Detroit: In the Garden of Eatin'

Also from the November 2010 issue, this one you have to view as a PDF by clicking here. (Thinking out loud: kind of funny to see how much of this information is already outdated only six months later.)

But for funsies, I'll give you the full text I had compiled pre-edit:

Top Nine Dining Trends in Metro Detroit (2010)

Pizza Goes Posh
It’s a staple of the American diet and comes in as many combinations of styles, flavors and preparation methods as there are possible permutations in a game of Sudoku.   But thanks to a new breed of wine bar, pizza is no longer pedestrian.  It all started with Crust Pizza and Wine Bar, with locations in Rochester Hills and Bloomfield Township.  Think Prosciutto di Parma with Maytag Bleu cheese, arugula and extra virgin olive oil...on a pizza.  Taste Pizzabar in Detroit features a uniquely urban loft atmosphere serving exceptional pizza with chewy, flavorful crust made fresh daily. Birmingham’s Quattro reinvented itself in May to be Quattro Pizzeria & Wine Bar, a little more casual and fun with a particular emphasis on the wine -- there’s something for every taste and budget.  And just this June, James Beard-nominated Chef Luciano Del Signore opened Pizzeria Biga in Southfield.  This is truly Italian-style pizza, with a thin, crispy crust and such toppings as duck prosciutto, Italian tuna and speck.  

Don’t Know How You Do the BBQ That You Do So Well
These places are so new you can still smell the paint amidst the aromas of sweet, succulent meat slow-cooking in the smoker.  Rub BBQ and Pub and Red Smoke Barbecue both just opened in Detroit this summer and both serve a variety of classic barbecue dishes in a trendy atmosphere with such distinctly Detroit touches as exposed brick walls and hardwood floors, and an extensive list of Michigan beers.  Over in Royal Oak, Lockhart’s BBQ opened in August and is already the talk of the town with its “REAL” barbecue offerings.  Following the Texas BBQ traditions, Lockhart’s is owned by a native Texan with a pit master who intensively studied his craft in Texas and uses a smoker built in Texas and yes, the name itself pays homage to the city in Texas where American barbecue was born. 

One Bottle of Wine for Now, Three Bottles for Later: Restaurant-Markets
Two new restaurants have opened in the past year that have really made a mark ... with their markets.  Toasted Oak Grill & Market in Novi offers a sharp selection of boutique wines (including a wide selection of Michigan wines), house-made charcuterie, artisan cheeses and a variety of house-made specialty products for purchase in the market. The restaurant also offers their complete wine list at retail pricing with only a corkage fee.  In Birmingham, Tallulah Wine Bar and Bistro offers farm-to-table dining with a wide, diverse selection of worldly wines.  Next door Tallulah Too offers those same wines for purchase, as well as nightly wine flights and tastings.

Show Me the Way to the Next Whiskey Bar(BQ): Food Tours
Sometimes the best way to discover what an area has to offer is to have someone else show you.  Check out some of these businesses offering highly specialized food- and drink-themed tours.

Motor City Brew Tours: http://motorcitybrewtours.com
Focused on the craft beer movement in Michigan, tours include bus transportation to three different breweries, with brewer-led tours and generous beer samples at each stop.  $49 + fees.
Taste-Full Tours: http://www.taste-fulltours.com
All tours are bussed from Royal Oak and cover a variety of themes, from a Junkfood Junket to a Motown Chowdown.  Chefs Laura and Laura also host Taste-Full Tastings above Royal Oak’s Cloverleaf Fine Wines complete with appropriate wine pairings. $35-65.
Savor Ann Arbor: http://savorannarbor.com/
Guided walking tours throughout downtown Ann Arbor and Kerrytown exploring history, architecture, shops and culinary treats.  Themes include sweets, vegetarian, and international flavors.  $30 for all includes food.
Discover Detroit Dining: http://www.discoverdetroitdining.com
Launched in early 2010, 3D Tours offers themed packages, pairing dinners and signature events from Taquerias & Tequila to a Brunch Bike Tour through Eastern Market.  $30-65.
Inside Detroit: http://www.insidedetroit.org
They primarily offer private tours, but their signature Know Before Your Go series is their most popular public event.  You’ll get a guided tour of different bars in the city rich with detailed local history and fun facts, receive drink specials and meet bar owners so you too will be “in the know.”  $10-15.

Attainably Sustainable
Locovorism.  Eco-conscious eating.  Sustainable cuisine.  Call it anything you want, there’s no doubt that more environmentally- and economically-aware methods of food procurement and preparation are among the biggest national food trends right now.  “Sustainable” refers to sourcing from local producers and purveyors so foods are freshest and the money stays within the local economy; using and promoting organic growing methods for ecologic sustainability and a more healthful diet; and utilizing locally-grown seasonal produce with simple preparation methods to highlight their own natural flavors.  Here are a few of our favorite farm-to-table restaurants.
Ann Arbor: Arbor Brewing Company, eve: the restaurant, Grange Kitchen + Bar, Zingerman’s
Detroit: Avalon International Breads, Mudgie’s Deli, Woodbridge Pub
Oakland County: Inn Season Café, Forest Grill, Mind Body + Spirits, Tallulah Wine Bar and Bistro, Toasted Oak Grill & Market

Makes Us Weak: Restaurant Weeks
Even the biggest foodies can have a hard time tasting all that a single town has to offer, which is what makes various “Restaurant Week” events so enticing.  Three-course prix fixe menus at discounted prices allow diners to sample a city’s different restaurants while still being conscious of their wallets -- the only thing you have to worry about is how many reservations you can make in one week!  

Detroit Restaurant Week:  http://www.detroitrestaurantweek.com/
Spring and Fall: $28 dinner
Birmingham Restaurant Week
February: $15 lunch/$25 dinner
Troy Restaurant Week: http://www.troyrestaurantweek.com/
March & August: $15 lunch/$30 dinner
Ann Arbor Restaurant Week: http://annarborrestaurantweek.com/
January & June; $12 lunch/$25 dinner

High-End Mexican
Once upon a time this may have sounded like an oxymoron, but metro Detroit has seen simple Mexican cuisine go from humble taquerias to full-blown white tablecloth dining.  Cinco Lagos in Milford is the reincarnation of Chef Brian Polcyn’s nationally-renowned Five Lakes Grill, reborn last summer in response to a shift in consumer’s palates.  Thankfully Chef Polcyn’s charcuterie skills are still on display with his housemade chorizo.  Rojo Mexican Bistro in Novi is part of the Andiamo family of restaurants and impresses guests with guacamole prepared tableside and an extensive tequila list.  El Barzon in Detroit used to be one of the city’s best-kept secrets until the word got out and people discovered that Chef Norberto Garita’s half-Mexican/half-Italian menu was ALL authentic and ALL exceptional (not to mention very reasonably priced). 

Coming Home to Clawson
Clawson may just be a teeny-tiny township that you have to drive through in order to get from the north suburbs to Royal Oak, but this little city has gone “Wee! Wee! Wee!” all the way home, making a name for itself with some of metro Detroit’s Best in Class.  For example, that sliver of a sushi bar at Noble Fish is overwhelmingly agreed upon to churn out the best sushi in the tri-counties.  Frittata is a very popular breakfast/lunch/brunch spot, serving up gourmet fare in an achingly charming atmosphere.  For truly authentic Asian cuisine, the dong stops at Da Nang.  Their Vietnamese dishes have won rave reviews from critics all over metro Detroit since they opened in 2009, even making a few “best of” and “top 10” lists.  Clawson’s cuisine is nothing if not ethnically diverse, and the northern Italian cuisine at the two-year-old Due Venti is widely regarded to be among the top nouveau Italian restaurants in the area. 

Fine Dining vs. Fun Dining
With the shift in the economic climate over the past few years, fine dining has taken a serious hit. But too often the fine dining concept is unnecessarily intimidating, turning customers off with a perceived priceyness that isn’t always representative.  These new restaurants are fine dining in spirit and comparable in cost, but allow customers to feel a little more comfortable with a decidedly more casual atmosphere.  Zazio’s in Birmingham is a neon-soaked romp but don’t let the lime green and tangerine fool you: this place offers the full fine dining experience.  J. Baldwin’s in Clinton Twp has a family-friendly atmosphere and serves more casual fare like their stone-fired pizza, but you can also get Grilled Australian Lamb Chops and Filet Mignon at prices on par with the Rattlesnake Club.  Toasted Oak Grill & Market in Novi is doused in bright colors with texturizing patterns and materials and eclectic accents all creating a warm, comfy dining climate.  But the regional American menu focused on fresh locally-sourced ingredients and Michigan-made products is pure contemporary brasserie, and charcuterie is a particular specialty.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Real Detroit Weekly: Tipsy McStaggers

"Simpsons fans will recognize the name of the rival bar that tried to buy the secret ingredient to the "Flaming Moe" for $1,000,000. Tipsy McStaggers is now a reality in Warren, and they've got a cartoonishly oversized burger to match the cartoon-inspired name.

'Open for almost a year now, Tipsy McStaggers is an Irish pub for the A.D.D. generation. They've got all the Michigan lottery games and Keno, seven plasma TVs for all the sporting events and karaoke five nights a week. There are enough flashing lights, spinning wheels and oversized foods to keep the attention of even the most easily distracted adult child.

'During the day, they are a restaurant. All food is homemade. There is no frozen dough, no frozen fries, no frozen anything. The fries are fresh-cut. The chicken wings are huge, fat, meaty wings that look like they came from an actual chicken (instead of the pigeon wings you get at most places). They make their own pizza dough and bread.

'Then there is the Tipsy Tower..."

Read the rest of the article here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Real Detroit Weekly: Buddy's Pizzeria

"You know that delicious, mouth-watering, heavenly, orgasmic style of square deep dish pizza with the thick, oil-soaked crust baked to crispy, crunchy perfection, where the cheese is slightly browned and all bubbly and the crusty edge crunches in your mouth with just the slightest bit of chewy elasticity keeping it all together as the cheese stretches and you have to grab it between both fingers and drop it in your mouth in a wholly undignified display of gluttony as some of the spicy red sauce gobs down your chin?

'OMG, can I get some napkins over here?


'That right there's a Detroit thing, and Buddy's Pizzeria at the original location on the corner of E. McNichols and Conant started it all. Now celebrating their 65th anniversary, Buddy's is still serving up the consistently-ranked top deep dish pizzas in Detroit, creating the standard by which all other Detroit-style deep dishes are judged – often imitated, never duplicated..."

Read the rest of the article here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pink FlaminGO!: Food Truck Fever Hits the Streets of Detroit

Well, that's not really fair to say. It implies that the concept of mobile food trucks is a new thing here, and it isn't. (Hell, it was even my first feature article.) What is new is the sudden emergence of mobile food trucks and carts outside of Southwest Detroit, away from areas predominantly filled with construction workers and skilled laborers, and out into trendy suburban neighborhoods like Royal Oak and Ann Arbor. They used to be called "roach coaches." Now they are tres chic.

As "foodie fever" sweeps the nation, the hottest trends lie in presenting old things in new ways. Salami is nothing new, but call it charcuterie and people start forming fan clubs. A hot dog represents the lowest common denominator of American cuisine, but getting it from a food truck that serves it with some fancy fixin's and it's a gastronomic adventure. 

Food trucks were christened as the hottest new foodie scene by national media a few years ago, to the point that Eater L.A. is already calling it "like so totally over." (Admittedly the craze started in L.A. and will most likely die there first, much like the hopes and spirits of millions of aspiring starlets.) Elsewhere, the popularity is still strong. It even has its own TV show, as any trend who's any trend should. (Here Delish lists the most of-the-moment food trucks in the country, at least as of last month.)

Part of the reason it's "over" in L.A. is because opportunists capitalized on it (as they do with any trend who's any trend):
A piece in the LA Times quotes Josh Hiller, a partner in food truck outfitting business RoadStoves, as saying, "the problem came when the other commissaries and truck owners saw money and basically just prostituted the whole culture." So to keep it "real" he's rejecting 95% of requests for a truck.
Food truck malaise! Evidence that the trend is over: copycat trucks by people with "no culinary experience" looking to make money, corporate trucks from chains like Jack in the Box and Sizzler, and even the Food Network co-opting the craze with The Great Food Truck Race.

The "exciting, underground food scene driven by a punk rock aesthetic and an exploratory mentality"? It's done. Kogi BBQ truck's Roy Choi winning Food & Wine's Best New Chef award last year — while a very respectable accolade — was anything but "underground." Perhaps the award can now be seen as the signifier of the end of the food truck trend.
But in Detroit, food trucks, and food start-ups in general, don't carry the same instant gratification, fame and fortune promised by other cities, and despite the nation's fascination with Slows it's not likely that any of our handful of legally-operating food trucks will be deemed a "scene" by outsiders anytime soon. Here the laws are still extremely prohibitive. It isn't a simple as buying an Airstream, getting a fun logo and driving around serving quirky food; just ask Kristyn Koth.

"It was a complete dead end with city," Koth says of trying to get the proper licensing in order to legally operate her mobile food truck, the Pink FlaminGO! "If you open up a commissary you can do your mobile food, but you need a car wash to be able to wash the truck every day. In Southwest Detroit there were two commissaries but one closed, and all the people who were permitted there were thrown into the one existing commissary. But there were too many so now they’re only going to license half." (There is good news, though it's not easy to come by in the city's muddled stream of information: a hopeful food truck operator can approach any commercially-licensed kitchen and ask to use it as a commissary, as long as the truck itself is kept clean.)

As a fledgling business, it can be daunting to go through the various licensing and permitting processes demanded by the city in order to be up to proper code. But as a "new" kind of business not easily defined by existing standards and for which the laws are unclear to begin with, the process becomes proactive, demanding the kind of passion and perseverance that exceeds beyond a simple desire to start a business and becomes a matter of social advocacy. 

It's a little ironic then that the Pink FlaminGO! started somewhat accidentally in response to the influx of social advocates during last year's U.S. Social Forum.

"I bought the Airstream from a friend," Koth explains. "I had loved it from being in design school; I always loved the design of the Airstream. When the Social Forum came here there were 100 campers in lots nearby [in North Corktown] who needed food, so we started serving them food and never closed our doors."

The Airstream is a classic retro design that makes you think of retirees in Sarasota, Florida wearing khaki shorts pulled over their waists and white orthopedic shoes with cameras strapped around their necks and ... plastic pink flamingos. "I always associated those plastic pink flamingos in Florida with the Airstream; I always had that vision. And all caps 'GO' at the end made sense for traveling around." And so it was the Pink FlaminGO! was born.

Koth has a restaurant background and has always wanted to do her own thing - she was the kid in Home Ec class (remember that??) who would put her own spin on the recipes and get in trouble with her teacher. "I knew I wanted to turn the Airstream into a food business, but I didn't think I'd get to it that fast," she says.

When the Pink FlaminGO! hit the streets last year, they did it on the fly without going through the proper procedures to be a fully legal operation. "We were definitely rebellious in the beginning," Koth admits. "We weren't trying to be like that but we hit a dead end early on so we decided just to do it because that’s how it’s been for so long here - don’t wait, just do it." That's Detroit-style DIY she's referring to, a charming entrepreneurial spirit that enacts social change and economic growth but stops being charming once the city decides to act - a gamble many are willing to take, however, given the city's notorious roster of other woes.

This year, the FlaminGO! is a fully-compliant operation and now other people are following suit: Jess Daniel of Neighborhood Noodle just bought her own cart, and she's one of the people Koth says is "really pushing to create laws for street vending." (You can join their conversation or just listen in this Thursday as the Detroit Food Policy Council presents their first summit, "Powering Up the Local Food System.")

"The dynamics change every month," says Mailk Muqaribu, Koth's partner in the Pink FlaminGO! who describes his PR/Marketing role as "Strategic Airstream Commander." "Fear of obsolescence makes what we’re doing hard," referring to an unfounded Luddite fear that the existence of food trucks will cut into the business of brick-and-mortar establishments and everyone will go out of business and Detroit will be a ghost town ... [crickets chirping] ... "Other major cities haven’t become a ghost town because of embracing this idea." Just like all those bars that were going to lose all their business and close forever once the smoking ban went into effect, right?

"Mobile food in its truest nature is recession proof," Muqaribu continues. "It is a dynamically green business. You’re creating 3-10% of the carbon footprint of a typical brick and mortar establishment and creating a situation where you use less energy."

From a business standpoint, food trucks make sense because they cut down on vast amounts of overhead in rent, utilities and payroll; need very few employees to operate; act as their own mobile advertising; and even offer traditional brick and mortar businesses a chance to try out some new products and have increased presence and visibility. But they also offer customers a whole new way of making choices in what foods they eat.

Koth speaks of downtown workers and their extremely limited choices for lunchtime dining. If you work in a building where all you have nearby is a sandwich shop, then your only choice to get out of the office for those 35 minutes during your lunch break is that sandwich shop. "It just makes sense to me for how people eat nowadays – you can stop at the truck, grab something healthy to eat real quick, and go; versus [only having a few options], having to find a place to park, wait for them to make it ..." she says. "Why not just be able to walk outside, get some exercise and sunshine, and have some options?"

For Muqaribu, food trucks also have the potential to impact the dietary choices of schoolchildren: "Try to imagine a reality where kids in the city get out of school, step out and see this mobile truck and it’s actually selling them food and it’s healthy. Now they’re training themselves and developing their palate for food with nutritional value. Now you’re training kids, a whole generation of kids growing up with a mature understanding of food; they can’t just eat a burger anymore. Now their palates are evolving. Now student government wants to see it on their menu ... maybe they get a better-trained food staff ... " This may all sound like unchecked idealism, but if it weren't for the efforts of idealists in this city there would be no urban farming, and there would be no Slows. Think about that. "There's an endless stream of impacts that mobile dining will have on the city of Detroit and none are negative – it's not going to kill other businesses.We want to evolve out of the BBQ grille on the corner next to a car wash."

Koth is also passionate about businesses supporting each other and their community. From her property in North Corktown where the FlaminGO! is stationed when it isn't GOing, Koth partners up with Brother Nature Produce (a few lots down) for fresh greens with more natural flavor and spice than you could possibly imagine if you've only ever bought lettuce from the grocery store. She gets more produce from Hope Takes Root, another farm one street over. She feeds the people at Spaulding Court, just behind her, as well as Hostel Detroit, a few lots down in the opposite direction of Brother Nature. Owner Rachel Leggs of Rachel's Place, a couple of streets over, is a regular.

"We're using the locals around us," she explains. "It’s a family here. It’s not like, 'Here’s Kristyn who goes to Kroger and buys from them,' I go to Brother Nature to support Greg and Hope Takes Root to promote them, and we all talk about that [to our customers and visitors]. I can’t exist without [Greg], he’s happy to have me - we’re here to help each other."

When the Pink FlaminGO! opens for business this season (check their Facebook page for updates), they'll be serving up the Latino-influenced locally-sourced fresh food that made them a fast hit last year. They'll also be introducing a second truck later in the summer, "Little Pinky," which will serve all-natural fruit juice slushies and cotton candy made with real fruit juice. Since the FlaminGO! launched last year, other high-profile food trucks have appeared - Jacques Tacos, run by a Michelin-ranked chef which mostly serves Royal Oak and Farmington Hills, and Mark's Carts, the newly-opened food truck corral in Ann Arbor - and with a growing population of locals trying to re-shape the laws, it seems imminent that more will follow. Koth is something of a Pied Piper in that way, or as Muqaribu says, "It’s like Annie Oakley decided to put down her gun and pick up a cookbook and a skillet."

But where food trucks were fads in trend-hungry cities like L.A., here they have the potential to be something more. "Anytime something is underground it immediately becomes overground," says Muqaribu. "Once the potential for profit becomes recognized - becomes exploited - once that happens it loses its novelty value. This has far more implications to it; it's adding something to accelerate society - mobile food and underground food movements in general."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Real Detroit Weekly: The Avenue Sports Grille

"Watching the playoff games on your own 42'' HD flatscreen TV at home is one thing. Watching the playoff games on one of 14 HD plasma screens AND 4 giant HD projector screens is quite another. At the Avenue Sports Grille in Wayne, every seat in the house is center ice.

'As a sports bar, they don't mess around. Nearly every square inch of wall space is covered in screen. It is a sports bar. You come here to watch sports. It's that simple.

'But sports fans also like to eat, and they've got you covered there too. The concept of the Avenue is to be a 'gourmet' sports grille, with everything on the menu made from scratch and actual chefs working in the kitchen. They've been open for one year now and they are already known for having one of the best burgers in town – and not just their town. WDFN 'the Fan' rated the Ave's top-secret burger blend of mixed meats as the best burger in Detroit, beating out ALL the competition (including heavyweights like Red Coat Tavern). They consider themselves pioneers of the "mixed meat" burger blend, which may sound like some mutant Frankensteinian turducken-spam, but worry not my fellow meat-lovers: this burger is all beef, made from a blend of various higher-end cuts not normally used in burger meats..."

Read the rest of the article here.

For more photos, check out the Flickr photostream.

Friday, May 13, 2011

944 Detroit: The Art of Charcuterie

This appeared in the November 2010 Food Issue. The photograph in the link is skewed so I didn't copy it here.

"Charcuterie is a very old culinary art that has been brought back into vogue in a big way, thanks in large part to Detroit’s own Brian Polcyn, chef/owner of the Forest Grill in Birmingham and Cinco Lagos in Milford.

''The whole idea of preserving food before refrigeration, I did not invent that,' Polcyn says. But thanks to his seminal book on the subject, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing, Polcyn has been credited with almost single-handedly re-popularizing the forgotten art.

'The term 'charcuterie' refers to the processes of preserving various meat products sans refrigeration..."

Read the rest of the article here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

944 Detroit: Urban Roots

“Urban farming” has been a big buzz phrase in Detroit over the last couple of years, but while many people realize that Detroit is on the forefront of this urban sustainability movement simply because of its vast stretches of unutilized land, the deeper implications of such a radical shift in food acquisition and allocation systems are a little less easily understood. Urban Roots, a documentary from filmmaker Mark MacInnis, explores the social impact of urban farming and community gardens in Detroit – and what it might mean for the rest of the world.

“Urban farming is very important in the post-industrial world we’re facing,” producer Leila Conners states. Conners got involved with the project after MacInnis, a native of Detroit who now lives in LA, showed her team some of the farming footage he shot. “Detroit used to be on the top of the hill for industry. People don’t connect lost jobs with abandoned structures and homes that have been gutted.” The documentary offers glimpses of Detroit’s well-publicized plight but also shows the spirit of those who’ve suffered the harshest blows who are now taking it back.

Read the rest of the article here.

944 Detroit: Roaring 2011

 Photograph by Scott Spellman for 944 Detroit.

"It wasn’t long ago that the term 'craft cocktail' didn’t mean much to drinking audiences, but thanks to a handful of craft cocktail aficionados and a resurgence in consumer appreciation for all things artisanal and handcrafted, craft cocktails are coming back in a big way — so big, in fact, that the month of April saw not one, not two, but three new craft cocktail bars opening in the area.

'What is a craft cocktail? Purists may define it specifically as a classic cocktail, with recipes more than 150 years old, heavy on whiskeys, bourbons, gins and vermouths. Sazeracs, Negronis, Corpse Revivers and aptly named Old Fashioneds fall into this category. But in a broader scope, a “craft cocktail” is simply one that is made by hand with homemade ingredients using high quality liquors and liqueurs that take more time to make. As the world continues to shrink in on itself and society embraces all things local, small-batch and independent, the interest in craft cocktails is growing fast. These new hotspots will help Detroiters get their craft cocktail connoisseur certification..."

NOTE: Due to unforseen delays after print deadlines, The Oakland and Sugar House are not yet open but will be soon. Valentine Vodka is open now and will be hosting an official grand opening celebration on May 20.

Read the rest of the article here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Henry Ford: Everything Old is Made New Again

Most of us only think of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in the context of elementary school field trips we would have much rather spend at Cedar Point ... when a 12-year-old is given the option between rollercoasters and hands-on historical education via painstakingly detailed re-creation (remember learning how to write with quills and ink wells in the Greenfield Village schoolhouse?), well, show me the 12-year-old who chooses the latter and I will show you a 12-year-old who is going to have a very difficult time with peer acceptance and social assimilation in high school. It's only as we become adults that we learn that learning can indeed be fun, and we drag our young students and kin (who would much rather be in Cedar Point) along with us to the Village.

But even as adults sometimes we miss some of the finer details. Yes, the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village is a phenomenal collection of local historical artifacts, a treasure trove of Detroit's automotive history (and by extension, America's industrial history), as well as an elaborate piece of preserved Americana: "American's Greatest History Attraction." But did you know that the food service program in both the Museum and the Village (including the Village's full-service restaurant, Eagle Tavern) is one of the most passionately and progressively locally-sourced menus in metro Detroit?

'Tis true. When Director of Food Services and Catering Jesse Eisenhuth took over the operations just a few short months ago, he saw that there was already quite a bit being sourced locally, but there was opportunity for so much more. "We try to do as much as we possibly can," he says. "Our ice cream comes from Melting Moments in Lansing. We use Guernsey [from Northville] milk. Even our bottled water is from Absopure [based in Plymouth]. I've been looking at every single item we use here to see if there's some way we can use a product made locally instead."

For him it's not just about supporting the local economy - it's about staying true to the educational component and historical accuracy that Greenfield Village strives for. Simply put, in the mid-1800s (the era in which the Village is set) food and beverage products would have been made locally utilizing produce and livestock grown and raised on nearby farms that would change with the seasons. Sustainability is not just about good business sense and being ecologically-conscious; it's a matter of authenticity.

This new practice being implemented across the board by Eisenhuth even extends to the beverages. "We're historically accurate with everything else here; why not drinks?" he points out. In that spirit, they carry a selection of "Spiritous Liquors" in the Eagle Tavern and bar from Michigan's New Holland Distillery, which include whiskey, gin, two kinds of rum, and a "Michigan grain spirit" (called such because "vodka" would have been unknown at this time, except maybe as moonshine). New Holland's spirits were also chosen because the labels have a look more suited to the 1850 era (versus something like the cheeky 1920s-era pin-up girl on the Valentine Vodka label, superior though the product may be). Beers (called "malt beverages" on the menu) are custom-made from Detroit's Motor City Brewing Works with labels exclusive to the Henry Ford, and are bottled in such a way as to appear more era-appropriate (though bottled beer would not have existed back then). "With everything we do we consider 'how can we position this properly to have it here?' We're not going to the extreme of carrying Bud Light. We're still keeping our look and feeling [with these beers]."

The cocktails are another example of this practice. Classic cocktails are prepared in classic ways, like the Mint Julep which is really a simple preparation of simple syrup, muddled mint and bourbon or brandy. "It's also part of the educational process, which is part of our identity here," Eisenhuth explains. "We can make the drink however someone wants it - with more syrup or with rum instead - but how we make them here is historically accurate." The drink recipes have been changed to be more local and era-appropriate; for the Mint Julep, the Greenfield Village Herb Associates grow their own mint that is used in the drink. They make their own simple syrup (as they would have done in 1850), as well as their own aromatic bitters using a recipe from the Jerry Thomas Bartenders Guide published in 1862. "The drinks wouldn't have been fancy back then," Eisenhuth notes. "They would have only had two or three ingredients just to mask the flavor of the alcohol." (Hence the use of bitters, which do that job rather well. And let that serve as a warning to you.) If you still question their commitment to the authenticity here, then know this: currently they are planting Orange Pippin trees, which is a specific kind of apple, in the Village so that in time they can make the historic bitters recipe really as it was made.

One more time: they're growing apple trees in order to make more historically accurate bitters. Lots of bars are making their own bitters nowadays, but how many can claim that?

Drinks are also served with a macaroni straw. Why? Because plastic hadn't been invented yet (though a metal straw would have been more common then). "You can taste history here," says Eisenhuth. "There's something here for everyone, including the adult kid."

Granted this level of detail is impossible to carry out to absolute authenticity, or there would be a whole lot of things unavailable to visitors which would make for a whole lot of unhappy customers (if you've ever tried to get between me and my morning coffee, amplify that by dozens of caffeine-deprived middle-aged mothers wrangling hundreds of screaming children EVERY SINGLE DAY), but in those cases there is still a concentrated effort at carrying local products so long as they are cost-effective. Most products that the Henry Ford carries are from within 150 miles of the museum (and are mostly from Michigan though occasionally do extend into northern Ohio); most places are considered to be "local" if they stay within 200 miles.

In addition to sourcing locally, the Henry Ford is also committed to sustainability in greening initiatives as well.

Compostable products are from Michigan Greensafe Products in Detroit (including "plastic" drinking cups made from corn). They bale and recycle their own cardboard. They use filtafry to filter and recycle all of their fryer oil and have started to recycle paper, plastic bottles and cans. Even down to their condiments they show an eco-conscious sensibility, carrying ketchup and mustard in large pump containers with biodegradable condiment cups instead of the ecologically disastrous plastic packets. And once again, this environmental awareness is dual-purpose: in 1850 recycling went without saying, so much so that it didn't need its own name, and there was no such thing as non-biodegradable.

It just goes to show that everything old is made new again. As eco-consciousness, sustainability, sourcing locally, even classic craft cocktailing have become the hottest "new" trends in food, fashion and industry, what's really happening is that society's mindset is shifting away from Bigger Faster Stronger to Smaller Older Slower, rejecting the incessant expansion brought about by industrialization and embracing the idea of a "simpler time," so far removed from our current culture that it seems foreign and exotic. By getting back to the idea of having a small community in which you know your farmer and who makes your artisanal products like breads and cheeses, where you grow your own herbs and can your own fruits and create your own compost pile of biodegradable materials to supply nutrients to the soil in which you'll grown your own garden, we haven't stumbled across a new concept - we've rediscovered a very, very old one.

It seems only fitting then that a place like the Henry Ford would take the concept very seriously.

From the restaurants to the cafeterias to the food stands, the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village offer the most local, sustainable, and historically accurate dining experience you're likely to find pretty much anywhere for a historical attraction of this magnitude, or even just as far as your everyday restaurant is concerned. Eagle Tavern and A Taste of History Restaurant are open daily 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. through October 15, or whenever Greenfield Village is open.

If you're interested in learning more about the places that the Henry Ford sources their products, here is a list of just some of their providers:

Fresh-ground pork - Ernst Farm, Ann Arbor , MI
Chicken breasts and products - Eat Local, Eat Natural, Ann Arbor , MI and KBD Detroit , MI
Hot dogs and brats - Dearborn Sausage Co., Dearborn, MI
Milk pints and dipping ice cream, Guernsey Farms Dairy, Northville, MI
Custard is - CF Burger, Detroit, MI
Ice cream novelties (cookie sandwiches and moment bars) - Melting Moments, Lansing , MI
Bottled water - Absopure, Plymouth , MI
Pies - Achatz Handmade Pie Co., Chesterfield Township , MI (some pies also made from scratch in-house)
Early Joe cider and vinegar products - Almar Orchards, Flushing , MI
Bread, bagels, Danish, etc. - ASB Distributors, Lincoln Park , MI (they distribute local products)
Dinners rolls - Avalon Bakery, Detroit , MI
Coffee - Becharas Brothers Coffee, Highland Park , MI
Corn chips and tortillas - Casa Hacienda, Detroit , MI
In-season produce produce - Jon Goetz Farm, Riga , MI .
Cotton candy mix, popcorn kernel, popcorn seasonings - Detroit Popcorn Co., Redford, MI
Ketel Corn - Kettle Corn of Michigan,Wyandotte , MI
Soda and assorted Faygo products, Detroit , MI
Slush Puppie 100% Juice Slushie, Northville , MI
Eggs - Grazing Fields, Charlotte, MI
Pasta - Mamma Mucci, Canton , MI
Peanut Butter - Naturally Nutty, Traverse City , MI
Old-fashioned candy - Shernni’s Candy, Washington , MI
Dried cherries - Tabone Orchards, Traverse City, MI
Assorted cheese - Traffic Jam and Snug, Detroit , MI
Flour and corn meal - Westwind Milling, Argentine, MI

Friday, May 6, 2011

Real Detroit Weekly: Ye Olde Tap Room

"We have longtime bartenders here, people who keep their jobs for 10 years or more," says Mattie Armstrong, the manager at Ye Olde Tap Room. As he tells RDW this, in walks Jennifer Moody, who has worked here for 15 years. "We're all like family here," she says. "Our customers are our true friends. We've been through weddings together; through funerals together ... we live our lives together."

That's a nice thing to say, but it's quite another to see. After shooting some photos and drooling over the beer menu – 285 labels in all – I was ready to make my way home, my business here being done. Then Mattie offered me a beer. One shot of Jameson; three big, bold, black and beautiful beers (go ahead: make a "I like my beer how I like my men" joke); and a large pepperoni pizza delivered from Mama Rosa's later and I knew that this place was the real deal.

Read the rest of the article here.

944 Detroit: Isn't it Grand?

Photograph provided by ArtPrize.

"Grand Rapids is fast becoming an impossibly hip, progressive arts town, thanks in large part to the explosive success of last year’s inaugural ArtPrize competition. ArtPrize began in 2009 and made waves throughout the international arts community by announcing the world’s largest prize for art: $449,000 in total prizes, with $250,000 going to the first place winner. And that wasn’t the only exciting thing about the contest; the entire competition was voted on by the public — the art world’s answer to American Idol.

'ArtPrize was nurtured into existence by 28-year-old Rick DeVos of Western Michigan’s empire-building DeVos family. His goal with ArtPrize was to create conversation — people talking about art, to artists, to each other; students studying art, people practicing art, people loving art, people just discovering art [...] Grand Rapids is just far enough away from metro Detroit to make it a nice weekend getaway, and in addition to this groundbreaking art competition, it also offers a wealth of exceptional places to eat, drink and be merry..."

Read the rest of the article (with an insider's restaurant and bar guide) here.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Real Detroit Weekly: Burrito Wars!

My, that IS a big burrito! While Señor Lopez typically shines in the salsa department (it's made fresh with a secret blend), their Señor Lopez Big Burrito is definitely gunning for the number one spot. The Señor Lopez Big Burrito entrée features one BIG burrito stuffed full of beans, rice, cheese, lettuce, tomato and your choice of meat, served with beans & rice or a side salad. And it's only $6.50. Be sure to grab some chips and salsa while you're there – this salsa is thin, runny and HOT, none of that extra chunky bland gringo nonsense.

More "Burrito Wars!" here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Real Detroit Weekly: Rojo Mexican Bistro

"Rojo Mexican Bistro is the latest concept from the Vicari family, the well-known restaurateurs behind the Andiamo Group. Their first location for this upscale Mexican cuisine concept was so successful, they opened additional locations in Rochester and St. Clair Shores (another is scheduled to open soon in Partridge Creek Mall).

'What's the draw of Rojo? Unlike other cheesy Tex-Mex and Mexicali joints with cactus paintings and sombreros mounted on the walls, Rojo (which means "red") has a distinctly dramatic flair. Red fabric cascades like waves from the ceiling in the main dining room. Hand-painted murals of Mexican workers in a tequila factory and agave field are from legendary Detroit artist Andrzej Sikora. Dark wood details are used to create angles reminiscent of Mayan temples – "modern Mayan," if you will. The red motif is carried throughout the dining room and upstairs bar, Taco Rosa, with various accents like red-hued wall sconces, glass panels, chandeliers and linens..."

Read the rest of the article here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Real Detroit Weekly: Armando's

"If you've never visited Southwest Detroit for Cinco de Mayo, you are missing out on a distinctly Detroit experience. Vernor becomes gridlocked with cars and trucks blaring salsa and reggaeton, flying the flags of their various heritage – Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic. Bagley in Mexicantown is shut down to through traffic, and outdoor vendors grill up tacos and sell beer out of coolers. Lines to get into restaurants wrap around the buildings and can be several hours long, and everywhere there is lively music and dancing and LOTS of drinking.

'It is the Latino version of St. Patrick's Day. This fifth of May, head down to Armando's, located just far enough down Vernor from Bagley to be accessible, yet still close enough to the action. Join in one of the taco-eating contests while you wait, and later in the evening check out the three-piece band. Beer and tequila sponsors will be there too, and you know what that means – FREE BOOZE!..."

Read the rest of the article here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Portlandia in Detroit: Lunch with Maria Stuart of R. Stuart & Co. Winery

One thing I've noticed whenever I go to a different city for any length of time and come back to Detroit is that Detroiters tend to be very ...

"... provincial," Maria Stuart offers to me over lunch, an honest observation as we talk about both of our experiences with the city.

As a native metro Detroiter herself, Maria left the area over 20 years ago. She went to school in Indiana, worked in Chicago, fell in love in Washington and raised a family in Oregon - where she and her husband now own their eponymous winery and wine bar, R. Stuart + Co. Maria visits regularly to see her parents as well as for business, but admits she wouldn't move back. Not because she's "one of those" Detroit ex-pats, but because she sees there's a great big world out there outside of Detroit.

Something Detroiters seem to forget.

I hypothesize that maybe it's because Detroiters aren't as well-traveled as people in other cities ... in Chicago or New York, you're hard-pressed to find anyone actually from Chicago or New York, but here everyone's born and bred. But as I later reflected on this conversation, once again on my way home from Chicago, I decided I don't think it's that ... there also seems to be a certain level of irrationally fierce loyalty on the part of the city's self-annointed image keepers. In Chicago or New York, people will regale you with their stories of exotic trips to Japan or South America or Thailand. People in Detroit do go to Japan and South America and Thailand ... but they still spend all their time talking about Detroit. Which leads to a certain amount of geographical narcissism. And let's not even start on the vitriolic verbal wars of City v. Suburbs. Hence, provincial.

But there is in fact a whole entire world outside of Detroit. And that world is Portland.

"Are you familiar with that show 'Portlandia'?" AM I?!? "Well, it's just like that."

By "that" she means ... well, just watch this video.

But the dream of the '90s is alive in Portland, and I happened to really like the '90s.

In Portland, everything is sourced locally. And not just Sam Schmuck Pizza Place down the corner jumping on the "buy local" bandwagon by touting the fact that they get their tomatoes from local farms in the summer (I mean, DAMN, I should hope so); we're talking the entire city center is surrounded by farms, people raising livestock, nature, wildlife ... plus they have a longer growing season with much more temperate weather conditions than we see in Michigan. They may lack the agricultural diversity we have here, but they make up for it in their utilization. "It's just strange coming here and not having access to that," Stuart says.

At this point I'm still fixated on the image of two people trying to order chicken, but there is a certain level of romance in her words which make me wonder about this strange and wonderful land - this food mecca - known as "Portland."

The R. Stuart Winery was established in 2002 by Maria, her husband (and winemaker) Rob, and two other partners, Patricia Rogers ("sales diva") and Frank Blair ("champagne aficionado"). The winery is located in McMinnville in Oregon's Willamette Valley, about 90 minutes outside Portland. "We wanted to be free to do our own thing and not be part of a corporate system," she explains. Maria had spent years in the food industry, selling wine to restaurants in Chicago and later getting involved in event planning and PR on the northwest coast. Rob spent 20 years as a winemaker in California, Washington and most recently at Erath Vineyards in Oregon.

It is also worth noting (for the sake of just a really sweet story that will make you want to fall in love with this couple and this winery) that Maria and Rob met at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon in 1990. She didn't just fall in love with Oregon Pinots that weekend ... the two of them would go on to make their own Pinot Noir together, as well as babies. There is no better pairing with wine than l'amour. (After that weekend she immediately left Chicago and joined Rob in Washington; they married in 1992. She later also spent four years as Executive Director of that high-profile event.)

Currently the winery produces about 20,000 cases per year. They work very closely with their fruit farmers to ensure that the fruit meets their quality standards, carefully choosing their vineyards from around the state to give them a wide range of diversity in flavor and character in their fruit. These are then blended into their popular Big Fire label, which offers a Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Dry Rose. Their signature label, "R. Stuart and Co.," features blends and single-vineyard wines.

The Big Fire label was designed to be a more accessible, more affordable, more approachable wine - something you can pick up for a casual night, enjoy at the dinner table or with friends, and not be forced to splurge or feel like you must save it for a special occasion. The idea is that good wine doesn't have to be expensive, and also that a so-called "lesser" label doesn't actually have to mean "lesser." "You can tell the similarities [between the Big Fire and R. Stuart labels], that they are siblings and that Rob made them." Rob doesn't hold back in making these approachable wines, nor are they cast-offs from their signature label (as is the case with so many other wineries and their second-label wines ... and I'll also give you a little insider info SIDEBAR you can break out the next time you find yourself in an "All Hail the Napa Valley Red" conversation: Duckhorn's Decoy label is made from the same grapes from the same vineyards and aged in the same barrels as its much more expensive big brother; a particular barrel only becomes "Decoy" when the winemaker does a barrel sample and decides it's not quite up to Duckhorn snuff ... which means your bottle of Decoy could simply be the result of a night of too-spicy food lingering on the palate or just a bad mood). They were among the first to offer an affordable Pinot, which many thought simply couldn't be done; now everyone is doing it.

This approachability is in keeping with their entire ethos: they do not submit their wines to Wine Spectator and the like for points ratings because "it’s a flawed system and everyone knows it’s a flawed system so why do people go by it?" She admits that sometimes it’s hard to stick to your guns, "but there’s no way to do it without compromising our principles."

In the context of this discussion on accessibility, I share with Maria my recent experience of the Violet Hour in Chicago, a much-buzzed-about craft cocktail bar. I was disgusted by the self-important air of the place. (I wrote elsewhere, "The place downright basks in its elitist appeal; if it could roll around naked in a pool of its own grandiosity it would.") We agree that a place that promotes itself solely through its exclusive appeal, the "want what you can't have" marketing tactic (it's got one of those "cleverly concealed" entrances ... because why would you want people to be able to easily locate and patronize your business?), is not only utilizing a questionable business model but is also, quite simply, not enjoyable. Maria speaks quite passionately that wine and food should be fun, and should be something everyone can enjoy - not just the select few who are "in the know" or in the upper echelon of payscales. Furthermore, a business should never make its bank by humiliating people whom they feel don't know any better but should.

And this is why they work so hard to make your R. Stuart experience a fun one. Big Fire bottles come with QR codes (they are only the second winery in the country to have adopted this technology) which you can scan to upload photos or videos of you and your bottle of Big Fire to enter the ongoing weekly "Me and My Big Fire" contest (check out their Facebook page to see some photos). Their Wine Bar, also in McMinnville, hosts a "Winter Supper Series" during the off-season where guests come to enjoy their wines along with a meal of locally-sourced foods prepared by some of Portland's top chefs.

The Wine Bar also serves a regular menu of small plates (think pate and crostini with various spreads) from Maria's own recipes. You can also visit their website for more of her recipes designed to pair with their wines. And if you really want to learn about wine and food pairing to further enhance your enjoyment, the Zing! workshop, operated as an independent entity by R. Stuart partner Patricia Rogers, is currently offered in Chicago and Oregon and is a fun and unintimidating way to do so.

Before we parted company, Maria presented me with some of their wines to try: the 2008 Big Fire Pinot Noir, the 2010 Big Fire Pinot Gris and the 2007 R. Stuart "Autograph" Pinot Noir. I must admit I enjoyed the fruit-forward Big Fire Pinot Noir over the more subtle, less in-your-face Autograph. Besides, they compared it to Nabakov's Lolita, how could I not love it? You can read more about their wines here rather than me babble on some more, but I will say that I am most certainly now a convert of the Big Fire. It's a lovely wine on its own and ready to drink now; if you'd like to try some for yourself, you can find it around town at such places as Tom’s Oyster Bar, Angelina Italian Bistro, Forest Grill, and Cork Wine Pub, or ask for it at your local wine market.

And if you, my fellow metro Detroiters, feel inspired to see some of that great big world outside of Detroit and visit this alternative universe that is Portland, stop by and visit Maria at the Wine Bar; just be aware of the "House Rules:"
(1) Protect and respect the fruit and its grower.
(2) Ditto for our friends and customers.
(3) A little wood goes a long way.
(4) Single vineyard bottlings are always interesting...(but blending ensures the best possible wine).
(5) Cork or cap? (Never open another corked bottle - screw-tops for wines meant to be drunk young, Vino-Lok for those you might hang on to.)
(6) Scores, schmores. (We've already covered that.)
(7) Good friends, good food, good wine - period.

To compare, here are the "House Rules" of the Violet Hour:
No cell phone use inside lounge. Proper attire requested. Please, no baseball hats. Sorry, no reservations. If you have a party of four, we’ll give you four chairs. If your party is eight, we’ll arrange eight chairs for you. No “party add-ons” without prior notification. No O-bombs. No Jager-bombs. No bombs of any kind. No Budweiser. No light beer. No Grey Goose. No cosmopolitans. And finally, please do not bring anyone to the Violet Hour that you wouldn’t bring to your mother’s house for Sunday dinner.

Welp. Seeing as how I wouldn't suggest most people even bring me to their mother's house for Sunday dinner, I think my big mouth is a little better-suited for the Big Fire, and for the gracious, welcoming (yet refreshingly honest and even a bit cheeky) company of Maria and her crew. And if it helps, better to be provincial than pompous.