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.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

[Macomb Now] Chef Ray Hollingsworth at Loon River Cafe

Chef Ray Hollingsworth. Photo by Garrett MacLean for Macomb Now.
Executive Chef Ray Hollingsworth first started his culinary career people said he was crazy. This was before the days of Food Network and before the cult followings of celebrity chefs, back when saying “I want to be a chef when I grow up,” was akin to saying, “I want to be a famous painter like Picasso.”

“I started cooking when I was 15,” Hollingsworth says. “Oakland Community College was the only school that had any kind of culinary program at the time; they were ahead of everybody.” He went through their program then spent three years training under American Culinary Federation (ACF) Certified Master Chef Jeffrey Gabriel at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club. “Most of the chefs in the metro area were of European descent — like Master Chef Milos Cihelka of the Golden Mushroom. They were hardcore chefs; it was a harsh upbringing for awhile!” he laughs.

And then came Food Network and, with it, “foodie” culture. The average restaurant patron is much more savvy and educated when it comes to food now, and that knows no boundaries — unless, of course, you’re talking about the invisible line along I-75 that divides the culinary illuminati of Oakland County from the perceived plebian tastes of Macomb. That very same line also prevents the self-proclaimed “foodies” of Oakland County from stepping into eastern territory, convinced that there is no worthwhile culinary landscape to explore here.

At the Loon River Café inside the Best Western of Sterling Heights, a Michigan-themed lodge with emphasis on Michigan products, Hollingsworth tries to educate the eating public by using only the highest-quality ingredients and top talent. “In the early days we put a lot of emphasis in the quality of the product and employees; we hire local culinary students and ACF-certified chefs,” he explains. “We still do to this day, even with budget cuts. We’re not substituting for lower quality ingredients.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

[Eater] The Hottest Cocktail Bars In and Around Detroit

Cork Wine Pub. Photo: metroalive.com.

"Just a few weeks ago, all sites across the Eater universe published maps of the hottest cocktail bars in their respective cities. In that spirit, here is a heat map of bars in an area outside of the Eater purview, Detroit, Michigan. The nine selections come courtesy of Curbed Detroit editor Sarah Cox and Eat It Detroit writer Nicole Rupersburg, with blurbs by the latter. No longer can it be said, as one writer recently argued, that 'Michigan is basically ignored by review sites like Zagat and Eater'..."

Check out the Heat Map here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

[HOT LIST] Michigan cheese

At Reserve in Grand Rapids. L to R: "Brighid" from Cowslip Creamery, Fourme D'Ambert (France), and "Heard It Through the Grapevine" from EverGreen Lane. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

Behold, the power of cheese. According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Michigan was the 8th largest producer of cow's milk cheese in the country in 2010. As artisan food movements continue to gain momentum all over the country, Michigan's artisan cheese makers are growing in number, visibility, and overall quality and diversity of product, making cheeses not just from cow's milk, but also more esoteric cheeses from goat's and sheep's milk.

We all know about Zingerman's Creamery and their popular Detroit Street Brick (a creamy goat's milk cheese made with peppercorns and widely available in area restaurants and markets) as well as their hands-on mozzarella classes, but what we should also all know by now is that when ol' Z's sets the bar, others will surely follow. The Michigan Cheese Makers Cooperative exists to promote and support the craft of artisan and farmstead cheeses and has coined the term "Great Lakes, Great Cheese." From funky artisan to old-world Amish farmers cheese, Michigan's cheesemakers are certainly earning that title.

#1 Leelanau Cheese Company (Suttons Bay)
In 2007 the Leelanau Cheese Company, located on the Black Star Farms agricultural property in Suttons Bay, was awarded "Best in Show" at the 24th Annual American Cheese Society cheese competition for their aged raclette. So it's not just one of the best cheeses in Michigan; it's one of the best in the country. The Leelanau Cheese Co. makes precisely two kinds of cheeses: raclette and aged raclette. With all of that undivided attention it gets, its no wonder that this buttery, semi-firm cow's milk cheese receives such high accolades. If you're in Traverse City, stop by Tastes of Black Star Farms for a traditional Matterhorn Grill Dinner featuring Leelanau's raclette cheese (a steal at only $50 per couple WITH wine).

#2 EverGreen Lane Farm and Creamery (Fennville)
The cheeses made at EverGreen tend towards more of a cheese aficionado's palate. They make artisan goat's milk cheese from their heard of La Mancha and Alpine goats and cow's milk cheese using milk from the Jersey cows at Moo-Nique Dairy in Vandalia, Michigan (Jersey cows are known for a richer, sweeter milk with higher butterfat content). Both farms are committed to sustainable practices. Known for their creamy fresh chevre, a recent discovery at Reserve in Grand Rapids called "Heard It Through the Grapevine" (a washed rind semi-firm goat's milk cheese washed in red wine) is an outstanding example of their artisan craft with an extraordinary balance of flavor and texture.

#3 Cowslip Creamery (Grand Rapids)
Meet the ladies of Cowslip Creamery. First, the 30 Jersey Cows; then the cheesemaker herself, Jana Deppe (who is about to obtain the prestigious "Master Cheesemaker" designation). Jana makes approachable artisan farmstead cow's milk cheeses which include Brighid (a tangy yellow semi-firm cheese with a thin layer of pine ash in the center) and Phocas (a mild, earthy semi-soft cheese).

#4 Pinconning Cheese Company (Pinconning)
The Pinconning Cheese Company has been around since 1948, producing their signature Old-Fashioned Pinconning Cheese, a Colby-style cheese with huge aging potential (the "super sharp" and "super super sharp" aged varieties are only available in the retail store). They produce a wide range of different flavored cheeses, cheese curds and cream cheese spreads, and also carry a variety of different imported cheeses on their online store, along with Michigan-made meats and a host of specialty food products. Gift boxes are available for the holidays.

#5 Farm Country Cheese House (Lakeview)
Located in Michigan's Amish countryside, Farm Country Cheese House has been making cheeses in Lakeview using milk supplied by the surrounding Amish communities since 1984. The cows are naturally raised, grass-fed, antibiotic-free and hand-milked. Farm Country produces over 20 different kinds of traditional and distinctive cheeses, including their decadent Truffle cheese (made with black truffle peelings and white truffle oil) and their extra, extra sharp Christmas Cheddar, aged for three years and only available during the holidays. Their products are widely available in gourmet markets like Holiday and Plum, or you can order online.

Bubbling under Traffic Jam and Snug (Detroit), Zingerman's Creamery (Ann Arbor), Grassfields Cheese (Coopersville), Dancing Goat Creamery (Byron Center), Michigan Farm Cheese Dairy (Fountain), Williams Cheese Co. (Linwood), Greystone Farm and Creamery (Chelsea)

TASTES of Black Star Farms on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 18, 2011

[EID Feature] Big Boy, My Big Boy

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.
Question I am most often asked, #1: "What's your favorite restaurant?" (Note to the audience: I really hate that question.)

Question I am most often asked, #2: "How did you get 'into' food?"*

My history with food isn't really all that romantic. Shall we begin like David Copperfield?

I've been eating food for as long as I can remember. CRAZY, I know. There was really no impetus for it; just sort of a situation of basic human needs being met kind of a deal.

Okay, I'll stop being a sh*twit. Those of you who have been a Nicole Rupersburg Superfan for awhile have already seen my bio, but for the rest of you I'll repeat this snippet: "I grew up in a household where Shake 'N Bake and Hamburger Helper was de rigueur. Dining 'out' meant a cheeseburger at Big Boy. (And I still to this day love Big Boy.)"

I wrote that a couple of years ago, and I got a lot of positive feedback about it. People really seemed to personally relate to the part about Big Boy.

The thing is, most of you probably have a Big Boy story. The family hamburger chain (headquartered in Warren, Michigan) is ubiquitous in Southeastern Michigan, and no matter what kind of family you grew up in -- no matter how rich or how poor, how city or how suburban -- odds are your parents wrangled all you unruly children into a Big Boy at some point, where you ate their famous Big Boy Burger (the original double-decker ... yup, McDonald's swiped it from them) and drank their hand-dipped shakes served in a fountain glass with the stainless steel mixing cup with MORE shake in it on the side. You remember the brown octagon-shaped tiles, the orange-brown vinyl booths, the one section under the skylight (in every location), and coloring with dull crayons on the paper placemat and all over the iconic large lad.

As part of a corporate-wide re-branding initiative, Big Boy is now referring to itself in marketing and inside the restaurants as your Big Boy. When I walked into the location at Hall Rd. and Garfield in Clinton Township and was greeted with, "Welcome to your Big Boy!," the girl had no way of knowing that this really was MY Big Boy.

Most of my youngest childhood years were spent in Fraser. We went out to eat as a family probably once or twice a month, and it was always to Big Boy, and always at the Fraser location on Groesbeck and Kelly Rd. (long-since closed). My father and I also had a monthly Sunday breakfast ritual. We had to go all the way over to the other Big Boy in Fraser because our Big Boy didn't have the breakfast bar (which was a huge source of excitement and anticipation for me, and most surely marked the beginning of my sacred brunching). Then I got older and things changed. I started high school. I started dating a guy from a different high school. His friends all hung out at Big Boy, and therefore so did we.

When an elderly person succumbs fully to dementia, there is a specific point in their lives in which they seem to live in perpetuity. For me, it will be these days. It was the whole of my high school existence (and most of college); we sat in Big Boy, chain-smoked cigarettes, drank bottomless cups of coffee and talked. About life, the universe and everything (also Douglas Adams). About music and movies and books--Metallica, Jeff Noon, Beavis and Butthead, Sister Machine Gun, the State, everything, nothing, it didn't matter. Hours and hours and hours and hours we spent there. Sometimes our group was only three, sometimes we filled an entire section (looking back I pity those poor waitresses). This parking lot was our pre-concert meeting place; inside we held our post-concert powwows. We made lifelong friends, we fell in and out of love, we had our hearts broken, we learned we were smarter than our parents and also how to be jaded. We experienced all the magnified extremes of raw emotion only possible when you're a teenager. We were adolescents playing at adulthood. All here, at this Big Boy.

I don't often accept invitations from PR reps for media tastings and events. But when I got an email from John Fuller inviting me out to taste some of the new dishes at this Big Boy, MY Big Boy, I couldn't resist.

I walked in to find the place almost unrecognizable. After a $400,000 remodel in mid-July (this location being the first in the company to go through the full re-branding), the space is brighter, cheerier, and more stylish with also a bit of an old-fashioned soda shop throwback appeal. (I remember the last time they remodeled, probably in the late '90s. They shut down for three months. We didn't know what to do. This was how Ram's Horn, Denny's and National Coney Island got thrown into our rotation: it was Big Boy diaspora.) They've introduced a variety of new menu items with a focus on freshness, utilizing more local products, and the same large portions, hearty flavors and low prices that have made Big Boy a family favorite for 75 years.

John and I sit down and order up several rounds of food to sample. There's the BBQ Ranch Chicken Tenders (a sandwich made with chicken tenders on a grilled sesame roll with melted cheddar cheese, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, ranch dressing and BBQ sauce), the Buffalo Chicken Salad (a new menu item with choice of grilled chicken or chicken tenders with tomatoes, red onion, bleu cheese crumbles and croutons, then topped with their signature Buffalo sauce and bleu cheese dressing), Chicken Parmesan (an old favorite with breaded chicken breast, melted mozzarella and marinara sauce), a Coney Dog (from the all-new footlong hot dog menu, loaded with chili, diced white onions and yellow mustard), and the Best Burger on the Planet (another new item from the new Burger Lovers' Burgers menu, and while the name itself may be a bit ambitious it is indeed a DAMN tasty burger). And to wash it all down, a Peanut Butter and Jelly Shake, made with real peanut butter and quite literally just like the real thing blended with ice cream.

John and I sit down to sample all the different items, and they're every bit as reliably big and hearty as you have always been able to expect from your Big Boy. Big Boy epitomizes the American diner: as trends move this way or that (micro, gastro, organic, etc.) there is still a huge faction of America concerned less with celebrity chefs and haute food trends and more with being able to get a good meal at a good price. I will repeat this, ad infinitum: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. Big Boy may not be gastro this-or-that, but it's damn tasty diner food. It may be full of blue hairs and screaming kids, but that's the atmosphere of the classic American diner (that and teenagers who will take up several tables for hours sitting, drinking coffee and philosophizing).

When I launched Eat It Detroit, the most important thing to me was to be as all-inclusive as possible. This means putting up fine dining against cheap diners, profiling unknown business owners in NW Detroit alongside the latest white dude opening a cocktail bar, running back-to-back Hot Lists on hot dogs and halal restaurants. To me, Big Boy fully represents that all-inclusive ethos. It's a chain (sneer); it's a non-trendy family restaurant serving pedestrian American diner food (sneer); it appeals to the lowest common denominator (sneer). But the classic Big Boy double-decker sandwich is still one of my favorite burgers, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Plus, hi, their pies and desserts? AWESOME.

Sitting with John and talking about life, work, travel and Detroit for a couple of hours reminded me of why I loved Big Boy so much in the first place. More often than not, sharing a meal is less often about the food and more about the people that you're with and the memories you associate with the experience, and that is something the Food Network can never package and sell.

*Actually, that's a lie. The second most-often asked question I get is "How do you eat so much and stay so skinny?" I'm on the almost-double-digit side of size 8; I ain't that skinny. Anyway, for the purposes of this, we'll stick with the other #2.

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

Big Boy on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

[HOT LIST] Sliders

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

"With everything?" Yes, EVERYTHING.

Everything = ketchup, mustard, pickles and onions, wrapped in paper where they further soak in their own grease letting all the flavors marinate together (the true test of a good slider is how greasy the paper bag gets on your drive home). This is universal language for "everything" when at your local slider shack.  In metro Detroit, our little white huts of bite-sized burger worship have been around longer than most of us have been alive ... and the prices are practically the same as they were decades ago. Our slider shacks have a long history here, and the locals are fiercely protective of their favorites. Part of their appeal is their nostalgic sentimental value; the other part is their food: fast, cheap and greasy. Like relics of a former era - which most of them are (some dating back to WWII) - these slider shacks have silently shaped our food scene for decades, standing tall even as trendier and more commercial places have tried to de-throne them. Say what you will about your coneys; metro Detroit just wouldn't be the same without its sliders.

#1 Telway Hamburgers (Detroit)
Telway fans all swear they're the best, and that Motz, Bates and Greene's just don't compare. Located on Michigan Ave. in Southwest Detroit, Telway is probably the best-known of all the local burger emporiums. Part slider joint, part donut shop, they're open 24 hours and can cater to any and all of your grease, salt, fat and sugar cravings. They promise the "Best coffee in town," and at 45 cents it's pretty hard to beat. (We love $4 French press as much as anyone, but sometimes a no-fuss 10-second 45-cent cup of good 'ol American joe hits the spot.) Their burgers are a bit smaller, but at 85 cents at pop for a cheeseburger there's no reason to complain. Plus, this place is EXTRA adorable inside, even more old-timey and cute than all the other cute old-timey places. Cash only. Also in Madison Heights.

#2 Sonny's Hamburgers (Detroit)
Sonny's fans all swear they're the best, and that Telway, Motz and Bates just don't compare. Depending on your perspective, Sonny's has either the distinct advantage or disadvantage of being probably the least-known slider joint in town. Located in NW Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood, it suffers from the seclusion of not being in one of Detroit's, errrr, trendier parts. But locals know: their burgers are the best. The BEST. Meatier, greasier, just plain gooder. The neighborhood might not be the most enticing but inside Sonny's is plenty welcoming (and no, there's no bullet-proof glass, just the same old giant stainless steel counter you'll find everywhere else). Their cheeseburgers are a little "pricier" at $1.50 each, but you're getting what you pay for. Plus you can order small or large burgers AND they accept credit.

#3 Motz Hamburgers (Detroit)
Motz fans all swear they're the best, and that Bates, Telway and Greene's just don't compare. Ahhhh, DELRAY, another neighborhood in Detroit you have to be a bit adventurous to visit (though being on the edge of SW it's a little less out of the way). Named one of the best burgers in the country by USA Today, Motz is known for thick, meaty "sliders" as big as regular fast food joint burgers, killer fries (with malt vinegar on every table), and a fairly diverse menu of other cheap 'n greasy victuals including other varieties of burgers. Like the geographically-appropriate Mexican Burger. And, Veggie. Which would presumably be cooked on the same beef-grease-coated grill. Which defeats the whole purpose. Kind of like ordering a veggie burger in a slider joint in the first place. Cash only.

#4 Travis Hamburgers (Saint Clair Shores)
Travis fans all swear they're the best, and that Motz, Greene's and Telway just don't compare. Open 24 hours and serving a bevvy of gut-bomb breakfast food in addition to glorious burgers, Travis is an eastside thing, you wouldn't understand. More of a full-fledged diner than a simple slider joint, this place is predictably packed after-hours and is also known for a stellar old jukebox that kicks out the likes of Patsy Cline. You want ambiance? This place has an old-school punk appeal that only comes with decades of serving drunkards warbling along to Johnny Cash. Cash only.

#5 Bates Hamburgers (Livonia)
Bates fans all swear they're the best, and that Greene's, Telway and Motz just don't compare. It's tiny, it's white, it's got the stainless steel counter and the old-fashioned sign menus with the push-in mismatched letters. Bates is known for having a slightly bigger burger, and no trip to Bates would be complete without indulging in their thick chocolate shakes or crispy crinkle-cut fries (add chili for extra oomph). They're also known for having solid coneys, and to mix up your slider experience a bit, get your burgers on a sesame seed bun. Open Monday through Sunday, 7am to 11pm. Cash only.

Bubbling under Greene's Hamburgers (Farmington), Old Fashioned Hamburger (Detroit), Bray's Hamburgers (Westland), Carter's Hamburgers (Lincoln Park), Comet Burger (Royal Oak), Joe's Hamburgers (Wyandotte), Hunter House (Birmingham)

Telway Diner on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

[Real Detroit Weekly] Sangria Tapas Cafe and Sky Club

Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

"Owner Luigi Cutraro remembers when he first opened the doors to Sangria 12 years ago. At that time, Royal Oak was a hub for locally – and independently – owned businesses, defined by its countercultural ethos and its growing visibility as a vibrant downtown destination. Now, Royal Oak is becoming more 'corporate,' he notes – as Ferndale becomes the new champion of the quirky and independent, long-time Royal Oak mainstays like Sangria struggle to differentiate themselves from the increasingly homogenized look of Main Street.

'Luckily for Sangria (and Luigi), its long history and continued popularity place it far ahead of its other competition. First, as a salsa club: Salsa Wednesdays and Latin Thursdays with DJ Cisco in the Sky Club are just as popular as ever, particularly with metro Detroit's large salsero community. But we already know about the salsa, and there isn't anything new that can really be said about it. Except that in the past 12 years since Sangria opened, there have been 27 salsa clubs that have opened and then closed. Sangria was the first and is the only one still left. And also that DJ Cisco has been the resident DJ here for the past 12 years since they opened, an almost unheard-of length of time for any DJ to have a residency in one place (if for no other reason than that most clubs don't survive that long)..."

Read the rest of the story here.

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

[EID Feature] Tony Sacco's Coal Oven Pizza: Reinventing the Pizza Wheel

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

In 2009, Slice (a subsection of Serious Eats) proclaimed coal-fired ovens the hottest new trend in pizza, also citing Florida as Ground Zero for the explosion of the trend. This is due, at least in part, to Tony Sacco's Coal Oven Pizza.

Tony Sacco's opened their first store in the Bonita Springs area of Florida in July 2008. By early 2009 there was a demand for franchising, and by summer of '09 they began selling their first franchises. A franchisee opened a second Florida location in Fort Meyers; others franchisees opened stores in Illinois and Indiana with more scheduled in Ohio, North Carolina, and a slew more in greater Chicagoland (yep--Chicago will FINALLY have a decent pizza franchise). There are now a total of 18 Tony Sacco's restaurants already open, sold or planned, and in SE Michigan we're about to see several more open in 2012.

Owners Chuck Senatore and Geoge Kurajian are originally from Michigan, so it was only natural that as they opened more of their own stores that they would open one here. The Novi location opened in January 2011, and brought with it what might actually be among the first of its kind in metro Detroit: a coal-fired pizza oven. (The only other local pizzeria we know of using a coal-fired oven is Tomatoes Apizza.)

The idea for Tony Sacco's came into existence as Senatore and Kurajian were looking for a project. At the time they also had a third partner, Tony Sacco, but he left the business before they even opened their first store. "We liked the name," Chuck says. "It's a cool name, and we already had the fuse lit with that name so Tony let us use it and now we own the trademark so it's our name to use." Besides, it sounds a lot better than "George Kurajian's Coal Oven Pizza" (sorry, George). "People call me Tony half the time but whatever," Chuck laughs.

In 2008 they got a good space in the largest lifestyle mall in America, and because of all the snowbirds and tourists descending on that area they were able to share their concept with people from all over the country and world, getting exposure that wouldn't have been possible if they had been located anywhere else. "It was really strange how all the pieces fell into place," Chuck reflects. "We've never even tried to sell a franchise; this has all been people who came to us!"

They decided to go with coal-fired pizza because it was a simple concept they could go anywhere with that appeals to everyone. It was also a solid concept during down economic times because pizza is reasonably priced but also gourmet in its own right. "We could see how coal was going to be the next big thing on the horizon for pizza," explains Chuck. He traces the history of pizza in America from the immigrant-owned Italian eateries who brought traditional pizza styles with them, to the mass-production corporate chains making pizzas glopped high with cheese and toppings, to the "esoteric weird pizzas [places were doing] after chains sputtered out." Chuck says, "Until you start cooking something different with a different method you’re still making the same product. We’re doing something completely different by cooking it with coal. You're not going to change the flavor profiles until you start cooking it differently."

Coal-fired ovens may seem like a "new" concept, but really it's a very old one. Chuck insists they aren't reinventing the wheel here; they're just doing things in a more traditional way that has since been all but forgotten. "We had been to some of the old authentic coal oven places," Chuck says. "We wanted to do something that was high-end, something we could run with." He identified that the trend in pizza and food was moving more towards healthier, natural, gourmet items, which is really how pizza started.  "There's always a need for high-quality, high-end product. Pizza has gotten so far away from that it was just crap. There are not a lot of sit-down high-end pizza places where you can bring your family, a date, an office party, whatever. And we also knew if we have a high-end environment with high-end product then we need a high-end cooking method."

Enter the $50,000 custom-made coal-fired oven from Wood Stone in Washington. The oven at the Novi store weighs 7,000 pounds. The oven in their new Lansing store (breaking ground on Nov. 14) will be the largest coal oven Wood Stone has ever manufactured. The oven uses only anthracite coal from Pennsylvania, the cleanest burning solid fuel on the planet (cleaner even than wood with no soot no odor). It burns at a very high temperature allowing pizzas to cook in 4-5 minutes so the crust will be crunchy but still chewy on the inside and the toppings don’t get killed.

At Tony Sacco's, there are no freezers, no fryers and no microwave ovens. Vegetables are fresh and cut by hand. They make their sauce and dough from scratch. "We aren't really being magical," Chuck says. "We're just going back to the beginning when things were done right and were high quality." They strive for a balanced flavor profile--the don't overwhelm the pie with cheese, don't over-cook the toppings, don't add much salt or sugar. "Even our sauce is just olive oil, fresh basil and ground tomatoes." Because of this, their pizza is ACTUALLY healthy; a slice of cheese pizza from a 12'' pie is only 135 calories and 3.5 grams of fat. "If anyone asked me how we could make it better I honestly don't know. Every restaurant says, 'We use the finest ingredients,' but we actually do."

Everything here is made from scratch in-house and with hearty, fresh ingredients. The antipasto salad has big, beautiful slices of tomato and huge chunks of ham and salami. The marinated chicken wings are oven roasted for a smooth, smoky flavor. The garlic rotoli are roly-poly rounds of soft, homemade dough slathered in olive oil, garlic and Romano cheese (at $5 for a basket of 8 they're a damn steal; pace yourself because you won't want to put these down).

The pizzas are true Neapolitan style--big and round and semi-thin with fresh toppings and generous amounts of olive oil. Choose from toppings like Roma tomatoes, Kalamata olives, roasted garlic, zucchini and standard meats, or select one of Sacco's Specialty Pizzas like the Margherita (made simply with crushed Italian plum tomato sauce, fresh soft mozzarella and basil), Bianco (made with olive oil, ricotta, provolone, Romano and mozzarella) or Capo (pepperoni, sweet Italian sausage, roasted mushrooms and caramelized onions). The flavors are at once light and full, fresh and colorful, and the crust is a perfect balance of crunchy and chewy, tender and resistant. The robust olive oil creates a delicate harmony between the flavors; close your eyes and imagine you're in Italy, because this is exactly what the pizza there is like.

Cap off your meal with their Sacco's Shortcake, a coal-oven baked shortcake loaded with plump, juicy berries and homemade vanilla mousse, or try the liquid version under their "Specialty Cocktails."

Inside Tony Sacco's is more upscale than your average pizzeria. The floor plan is very open and casual, but they ditch "mom and pop red and white checker cloth" look of most eye-talian eateries. "We have a high-energy, upbeat environment. That's really what we set out to do; we wanted a concept that could carry the next 20 years. There are no pictures of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin or the Rat Pack. Kids in their 20s don't even know who these guys are! [That photos of Frank Sinatra when he got arrested,] it's in every different Italian restaurant on the planet. It's played out!" At Tony Sacco's you can come in, enjoy a nice glass of wine or a cocktail along with your pizza and be in an environment that would suit a date as much as a dinner out with friends.

Right now the Novi location is the only location in Michigan (check out their $6.95 lunch buffet too), but 2012 will see the opening of the Lansing store as well as the Ann Arbor and Rochester Hills franchisees. In metro Detroit we have pizzerias using stone ovens, brick ovens, wood-fired ovens, and good ol' gas ... now taste the difference clean-burning coal can make. (As far as stocking stuffers go, it's not such a bad deal.)

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

Tony Sacco's Coal Oven Pizza on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 10, 2011

[Metromix] Lucky Dragon Cafe

Photo by VATO for Metromix.

"Every home needs a go-to Chinese carry-out restaurant; it is an American necessity, like late-night pizza delivery joints and neighborhood watering holes within stumbling distance. Most of the Chinese restaurants you’ll find in the city of Detroit are small, tucked away in the corner of a strip mall with sparse seating, doing most of their business in carry-outs and deliveries. Lucky Dragon is one of those kinds of places.

'Lucky Dragon Café is located near Downtown Detroit, on Jefferson Avenue just east of Chene. Owners Dan Harnphanich and Yin Hon Chan opened Lucky Dragon in 1998, and have been involved in some form of Chinese eateries since 1982 with their first venture in the Renaissance Center. Hon Chan is the chef of the operation; he cooked in Hong Kong before coming to the States, then worked in Chinese restaurants all over the country before ending up here in Detroit. The food at Lucky Dragon is in the Cantonese and Szechuan style, but catered to American palates (as much Chinese restaurants in this area are)..."

Read the rest of the article here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

[Real Detroit Weekly] Red Sauce

Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

"We all know the big restaurant names inside the MGM Grand Detroit: the Wolfgang Puck Grille, Bourbon Steak, SaltWater, even Palette Dining Studio (the fancy buffet). But there's also Breeze Dining Court, and to assume that a "food court" is akin to high-volume/low-quality fast food joints would be a serious mistake: at Breeze, Chef Chris Sokolowski and his team certainly oversee a high-volume operation but do so with the same commitment to from-scratch items using quality products as you see throughout the rest of the property. Just, you know, wa-wa-wah-wayyyyy cheaper (for those of us whose champagne dreams and caviar fantasies don't come true after a night at the slots).

'Red Sauce is one of five restaurants inside Breeze that cater to a wide range of craveable flavors, from stir-fry to classic American grill (dressed up with Black Angus Beef and specialty relishes) to housemade desserts. While the name itself isn't new, the concept is: previously an Italian-themed restaurant, it was re-conceptualized as a Mexican eatery featuring a build-your-own burrito, nacho and taco bar in July..."

Read the rest of the article here.

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

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

[HOT LIST] Michigan pizza chains

Domino's Pizza Wisconsin 6 Cheese. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.
Metro Detroit is luckier than most when it comes to our run-of-the-mill pizza chains. Just because a place has a corporate headquarters and franchisee options doesn't mean you should have to suffer bad pizza. They may not be fancy, but our major pizza chains (many with locations throughout the U.S.) know how to make good 'ol America pie, from hand-tossed round to our very own homegrown Detroit-style deep dish. These places offer a diversity of styles and overall smashability that would make other cities weep if they knew what they were missing. (Chicago, we're looking at you. Your pizza is abysmal. Truly, truly awful. From your dried-out pie crust deep dish to your dried-out cardboard thin crust. Good God it's bad.) And blessed are the Detroiters, for they shall inherit the cheap eats: we've got some of the cheapest pizza in the country AND with the most variety. WEEP CHICAGO; WEEP!

#1 Jet's Pizza
(Sterling Heights*)
Just the smell of Jet's Pizza will have us salivating like a pack of wild dogs. And as soon as that box opens we will tear into it like a pack of wild RABID dogs. That extra-thick (yet still pillowy) deep dish crust with the crispy edges, especially where the cheese runs a little over and bakes in; the stretchy, slightly tangy mozzarella; the spicy pepperoni; the well-balanced tomato sauce ... everything about this 'za is on-point. Add a side of extra-buttery Jet Bread drenched in mozzarella and parmesan and, well, let's just say that to witness the scene of our frenzied feasting is a sight no human should be forced to see.

#2 Hungry Howie's (Madison Heights)
Just because you say "garlic butter cheese crust" really fast doesn't make it an actual flavor. But it seems to work every time so we're going to stick with it. Hungry Howie's was the originator of the flavored crust, available in 8 different flavors (including "garlic herb" and, separately, "butter cheese"). Everything about their regular old round pizza is good: sauce, slightly spicy and good; cheese, gooey and good; pepperoni, crispy at the edges and good; crust, chewy and golden from the butter and good. Hungry Howie's pizzas are utterly smashable (seriously, you can just keep eating and eating and eating...). A large is considered a single-serving portion at EID headquarters so you better bring your own.

#3 Buddy's Pizza (Farmington Hills)
Many of you will balk that we dare rank Buddy's not one but TWO places after Jet's. Well, you can start a blog and build a fan base and then you can write your own list; this one is ours. We love Buddy's, we do; especially that crispety-crunchety taste of biting into that oil-soaked deep dish crust. Yep, this is a true Detroit original, the birthplace of the Detroit-style square deep dish invented around the same time as electricity and the Model T. (We're kidding, electricity and the Model T were TOTALLY invented in different centuries, and really electricity wasn't so much invented as harnessed.) Okay, so maybe not that old, but 65 years is still pretty old. The recipe has only been improved over the years, and now they've got four new signature pizzas with gourmet toppings to celebrate their golden age.

#4 Domino's Pizza (Ann Arbor)
Normally Domino's would be found in the absolute dead-last position for any pizza compilation list after years and years and years of inexcusably bad pies (and we have a *very* high threshold of tolerance for less-than-tremendous pizza), but after hearing some good buzz over their new "Artisan Pizza" line (tryin' to be all gourmet and whatnot) we gave it a shot. And it was...not bad. You've got a choice of four different styles of crust and a wide selection of specialty pies. The Wisconsin 6 Cheese on hand-tossed parmesan and asiago crust was heavy even for us, but the flavors were more or less on point (more feta and less cheddar, FTR), the sauce decent, and the crust chewy and flavorful. If you swore off Domino's a decade ago after one too many inedible pizzas, we recommend you give them another shot.

#5 Little Caesars (Detroit)
Yep, the pizza tastes like cardboard. There are no two ways around that. It's bad. But it's also cheap, and you gotta give it to the place that launched the large $5 Hot-N-Ready concept. As promised, they're hot, they're ready, and they're $5. Select locations also offer their square deep dish Hot-N-Ready from 4-8pm for $7 (call your local store for details), and these are fully decent (if not on the same level of Jet's or Buddy's). Other things we love about Little Caesars: the Italian Cheese Bread (garlic butter-soaked square pizza dough covered in melted cheeses and Italian spices) and their crowning achievement, Crazy Bread (extra sauce, extra cheese, ALWAYS). They also now have 8 different flavors of wings that sound tempting...did we mention we also love wings?

Bubbling under Papa Romano's (Commerce Township), Cottage Inn (Ann Arbor), Happy's Pizza (Farmington Hills)

*Cities denote corporate headquarter locations.

Friday, November 4, 2011

[EID Feature] Reen's Cakes "N" Things: Better Living Through Butter

Photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

Reen's Cakes "N" Things over on Detroit's northwest side (on Grand River right off the Southfield Freeway) doesn't have a website or a Facebook page. Owner Reen Jones doesn't Tweet or blog. They don't even advertise. They don't need to.

"You better get in here early, there will be a line out the door and down the block later," one of Reen's customers tells me as I walk in. Reen walks with me to the back by the glass counter full of glorious cakes and I ask her about that. "Oh YES!" she exclaims. "For the holidays we have cut-off dates for pre-orders and even though we tell them every year, every year we'll have a line going around the block with people saying they forgot."

For Thanksgiving, the cut-off date will probably be Nov. 9. For Christmas the cut-off date is scheduled to be Dec. 18 but will most likely be sooner as her pre-orders fill up and they can't take any more on - this is an all from-scratch bakery and they can only bake so much at one time.

Reen's has been open for 12 years in their current location; the company itself has been open for 17 years total (the previous location was right across the street). Reen previously worked for GM for 15 years and happily took the buy-out option in order to start the bakery and realize her dream. She has always loved to bake. "I had an Easy-Bake Oven as a child," she says with a smile. "I once had a friend tell me that [when we were kids] it would be a sunny summer day and everyone would be outside playing and I would be inside baking! I said, 'Was I really that bad?' 'Yes!'"

She went to school for cake decoration and was baking out of her home until it got to be too small. Part of her inspiration for getting into the baking business was when she would go to weddings and there would be these beautiful cakes (not to mention expensive) that just tasted awful. "They looked pretty but didn't taste good," she says - and we all know exactly what she means. She wanted to make cakes that were both beautiful AND delicious. And now she makes both beautiful and delicious "cakes for all occasions."

She doesn't do a lot of wedding cakes anymore though she'll still make smaller ones. But the daily business of Reen's lies in her everyday cakes and pies. Decadent caramel made with vanilla cake and rich, luscious stovetop-cooked caramel icing. Moist German chocolate cake with gooey caramel-coconut icing (REAL coconut). Lemony 7UP pound cake with smooth cream cheese frosting. Ruby-colored red velvet cake made with lemon cake instead of cocoa. Cookies, cobblers, cheesecakes, brownies, dinner rolls and sweet potato pie. Sheet cakes in all sizes customizable with edible paper (they can take your photo, scan it, and put it on your cake).

Also, mini-cakes. "They're perfect if it's just two of you at home and you don't want a whole cake, or maybe you have a family of five but they all want different flavors," explains Reen. At under $4.00 a piece ($4.25 for rum cake), these mini-sheets are still more than enough for two or three full dessert sittings for one person (well...depending on the person). "We've been doing these for a long time; they're huge for us." They really are the perfect portion, and once you dig your fork into that first corner and taste the edges slightly crispy from being baked in REAL butter along with Reen's UNBELIEVABLE icing (seriously, order the caramel cake), you'll never touch another store-bought cake with bland, sugary frosting again.

Everything at Reen's is made from scratch, and you can smell it as soon as you walk through the door. "We love butter here, as you can probably smell!" Reen jokes. But the rich smell of golden butter - butter baking in pie crusts, butter baking in cakes, butter baking in cookies ... beautiful, beautiful butter ... permeates the air inside Reen's. It smells ... happy.

"[When I was working at GM] I would wake up every day unhappy," Reen says. "I realized that that's not the way to live. I feel like this is what I was meant to be doing, and now I wake up every day happy!"

Reen also attributes her success to the great staff she has of dedicated, hard-working people, and also to her family. "I grew up in a family that never said you couldn't do something, it was always 'You CAN.' I didn't feel like I was taking a risk [when I opened the bakery]. This was my calling!"

Reen's is open Wednesday through Friday 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Closed Monday and Tuesday.) They accept credit and EBT cards. Items do sell out so be sure to call in advance to check or pre-order. They can also make a variety of items not on the regular menu so just ask.

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

Thursday, November 3, 2011

[Real Detroit Weekly] Cutting Edge Cuisine

The Roast Beast. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

There are restaurants new and old – and new-old – in metro Detroit that are putting us on the map as more than just the economically depressed auto capital of the world and home of Slows and The Abandoned Train Station. These places, whether steeped in the rich culinary traditions of the rich people who once thrived here or part of the new breed of contemporary restaurant representing nü-Detroit, are known locally and increasingly nationally for their excellence in all forms of fine dining, from exquisitely prepared dishes to culinary-inspired craft cocktail programs and everything in-between. These places represent some of the best in metro Detroit's cutting-edge cuisine.

London Chop House 155 East Congress Street • Detroit

It is the most infamous restaurant in Detroit of all time: the London Chop House. It was a Detroit institution on a level entirely its own, like none that have come before or since. The London Chop House was the very symbol of Detroit's power and prestige, epitomizing Detroit's wealth and grandeur. Granted, those were different days, but perhaps it stands as a testament to Detroit's slow-but-sure recovery that such storied institutions as this and Joe Muer Seafood are re-opening under a new regime of local restaurateurs with proven track records. The London Chop House & Cigar Bar will open later this fall at 155 Congress St. in the lower level of the Murphy Building, in the same location as the original. The Gatzaros family, who also owns the Fishbone's chain and Detroit's Wah-Hoo, is behind this re-launch of this most prestigious name. We expect that it will be part homage to the original and part all-new concept for a new era of Detroit. Details have been kept mum, which just further piques our excitement.

Rattlesnake Club • 300 River Place Drive # 1900 • Detroit

The Rattlesnake Club is a Detroit institution in its own right, and could even be considered the offspring of the original London Chop House. Former chef-owner Jimmy Schmidt worked his way up the ranks of the Chop House to Executive Chef before opening the Rattlesnake, which he owned and operated for over 20 years before selling it earlier this year to Jimmy Stroh of Stroh Cos. Inc., the landlord of the building that has been home to the restaurant all this time. Schmidt is staying on board as a consultant for the menu and otherwise the restaurant hasn't changed a wink – that's a good thing. Earlier this year the 'Snake got a bit (get it?) of a facelift, primarily in the bar/lounge area, and they also introduced a new pricing structure that organizes the menu into "prix fixe" courses a la Restaurant Week. Executive Chef Chris Franz and Chef de Cuisine Jeff Lanctot have both worked under Schmidt for many years and carry on his style as ever before, with impeccably prepared and presented contemporary American dishes and all items from breads to desserts made in-house. Master Sommelier Claudia Tyagi came on board earlier this year to freshen up their wine list, and a small plates menu allows diners to experience the exceptional cuisine of the 'Snake without having to spend an exceptional amount of money. The "new" Rattlesnake isn't so much new as it is merely updated to further play to its well-established strengths. Hey, if it ain't broke don't fix it – just dust it off once in a while.

Roast • 1128 Washington Boulevard • Detroit

Tired of hearing about Roast yet? Too bad. Because you're going to keep hearing about it. Again and again and again until they STOP being the hippest restaurant in Detroit that just freakin' NAILS IT on all counts of what a restaurant should be. Excellent service from a knowledgeable and passionate staff; comfortable yet aesthetically lush décor; an aggressive craft cocktail program that truly brings back the classic craft as well as an impressively curated selection of boutique wines and craft beers (including many Michigan labels you simply will not find elsewhere). And then, of course, there is the food. For dinner, start with some of their house-made charcuterie, a selection of smoked and cured meats. If you're feeling saucy, opt for some crispy fried sweetbreads or roasted marrow. Otherwise delve into the pork shank confit or dry-aged steak; there is also the "Roast beast of the day," the critter that spends the whole day prior slow-cooking on the spit that is the focal point of the main dining room. (Note: while there are a select number of vegetarian dishes available, this place really shouldn't be the first choice for non-meatatarians ... might want to sit this one out, guys. More meat for the other meat-eaters.) Up at the bar you can order off their more casual menu, which features items like crispy pork crackling and the Roast Coney Dog made with pulled pork and red hots. There is also the unforgettable Roast Burger – with bacon, cheddar, fried egg and pickled onion on an English muffin – which is now joined by two new signature burgers. The Roast Cocktail Hour is one of the best weekday happy hours in the area, and now their recently-introduced "Flights and Bites" menu on Sundays pairs small plates with beers from around the world for a small price.

Cork Wine Pub • 23810 Woodward Avenue • Pleasant Ridge

Pleasant Ridge is the blink-and-you'll-miss-it segway city between Ferndale and Royal Oak, but along that stretch of Woodward just south of 696 you'll find Cork Wine Pub, an unassuming little place that's sort of tucked away in plain sight. They haven't yet been open a full year, but this is another metro Detroit restaurant that fast caught the attention of the area's culinary illuminati. Executive Chef Ruben Blake Griffin is new to the title but has been with the restaurant since they opened their doors last November. He continues to uphold the ideals put into place in the very beginning of highlighting seasonal, regional flavors and working directly with local farmers. The menu is structured into courses – choose a selection from each section for a full five-course meal, or select a few of the 20-or-so small plates options to share with the table tapas-style. Be sure to save room for dessert; their exquisite desserts are all made in-house by the extraordinary pastry chef Tanya Fallon. For the "wine pub" portion, they offer over 100 wines by the glass and bottle and also sell them in their attached market. Cork also has an extensive collection of craft beers and classically-inspired craft cocktails, rounding out the full gourmand experience nicely. The vibe is casual urban chic, so whether you're coming here for a full dinner or just for a few drinks you'll feel comfortably cool.

See the original article here.