Tuesday, January 31, 2012

[HOT LIST] Michigan chocolatiers

Patricia's Chocolates.

Is it any coincidence that the Superbowl and Valentine's Day happen in the same month? Fellas, as you stuff those last few pork products into your face while discussing the commercials the game at the office on Monday, you'd better be thinking about what to do for that special lady-friend of yours because as SOON as that last pigskin hits the astro turf, you're on her time. Now, Godiva is great and all (I mean, if you just want to phone it in), but this Valentine's Day show her you put at least a little thought into it. Or at least took the time to read a blog that guided you through exactly how to put some thought into it so you didn't have to. Et voila! If you want to say it with chocolate, say it with one of these Michigan chocolatiers.

#1 Patricia's Chocolate (Spring Lake)
Patricia Christopher learned how to make fine artisan ganache and caramel chocolates at the French Pastry School and Callebaut Institute in Chicago. She calls her chocolates "art that melts," but there is no way you can fully grasp what that means until you actually see it. Each exquisite hand-finished chocolate palet is made with the finest domestic and imported French couverture cocoas, fresh butter and cream in traditional and unusual flavors from exotic spices and locally-sourced ingredients such as raw Michigan honey, Traverse City maple syrup, and Black Star Farms apple brandy. She is also one of only a few chocolatiers in the world entrusted with Fortunate No. 4, an extremely rare and complex cacao previously thought to be extinct. (Order online.)

#2 Grocer's Daughter Chocolate (Empire)
Mimi Wheeler uses only sustainably-grown cacao beans from South America to make her all-natural handmade chocolates. She also uses fruits, edible flowers and herbs from her own home gardens and other organic, naturally-grown ingredients from the shores of Lake Michigan. Her commitment to sustainable practices is clear right down to the eco-friendly packaging. She makes a wide variety of chocolate products, the most popular being the luscious bars packed full of huge whole nuts and dried fruits. (Available in specialty markets or order online.)

#3 Mindo Chocolate Makers
Mindo Chocolate Makers are artisan bean-to-bar chocolate makers. In addition to sourcing all of their cacao beans from Mindo, Ecuador which they then roast, winnow and grind into real chocolate, Mindo also offers bean-to-bar chocolate-making classes and more refined classes (focusing on different items like ganache truffles, caramels and fudge). For a real treat, try their hot chocolate sticks. (Available in specialty markets or order online.)

Lindsay Truffler. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.
#4 Pete's Chocolate Company (Detroit)
What can I say about Pete and his chocolates that I haven't already said? Get them at Rust Belt Market or order online.

#5 Lindsay Truffler (Bay City)
Lindsay Truffler is an artisan chocolate boutique specializing in traditional glossy molded truffles--basically a made-in-Michigan answer to Godiva. These visually-stunning chocolates come in unique flavors like Tellicherry Pepper and Toasted Sesame Caramel and are available to order online.

Bubbling under Just Good Chocolate (Leelanau Peninsula), Gayle's Chocolates (Royal Oak), Kilwin's Chocolates (Birmingham), Champagne Chocolates (Mt. Clemens), Drizzled Cafe (Warren), Sugar Kisses Bakery (Berkley)

Monday, January 30, 2012

[Metromix] Torino Espresso + Bar

Photo by VATO for Metromix.

There aren’t many places in metro Detroit where you can get a shot of illy® espresso at 6 a.m., then end your night with shots of limoncello at 2 a.m. Torino Espresso + Bar in Ferndale is in a class by itself there. Childhood friends Noah Dorfman, Samer Abdallah and Jim Culliton wanted Torino to be the kind of coffee bar-meets-BAR bar hangout popular all over Europe but rare to find in the States (and almost unheard of in metro Detroit).

“We wanted to be able to showcase this European experience that metro Detroit really doesn’t have,” says Dorfman. “It’s been really nice [to be able to do that]. Some people come in here with their laptop and order a martini; you can’t do that at Starbucks.”

Read more

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

[HOT LIST] French onion soup

French onion soup at Kiernan's Steak House.

There is a certain kind of restaurant that is neither neighborhood diner nor flashy fine dining, but exists somewhere in a weirdly indefinable food purgatory in-between. These places are dark and rarely have interior windows; the décor dates back to whenever the place was built (which could be anywhere from 20 to 50 years ago); the food would be considered American by the standards of when "American" fine dining was heavily influenced by French cuisine and all that really existed in the country's culinary oeuvre were steakhouses and burger joints.

They serve frog legs, filet mignon and planked fish usually in rich, creamy, butter-based sauces, specialize in tableside Caesar salads and chateaubriand, and serve oysters in various incarnations as staple items. These places are remnants of a bygone era in American dining history ... and more often than not, so is their clientele. These are the blue hair restaurants, serving up "old people food" to our most revered elders. 

Kickers All American Grill.
I remember having a conversation years ago with Diane Geiger TenHoopen about how a restaurant's French onion soup is the litmus test for the overall quality of the place itself--the richness of the broth, the sogginess of the bread, whether they use Swiss or provolone cheese--the devil is in the details, and if a restaurant can't get their FOS down then there's not much hope for the rest of the menu.  When I decided the world needed an EID Hot List on FOS, I contacted Diane immediately. She previously authored a blog that was dedicated entirely to French onion soup (called FrenchyO!), and I knew with our shared passion for FOS she would understand just how important it was to get this list absolutely right. Her assistance has been invaluable.

#1 The Brewery (Clinton Township)
The Brewery is a huge facility located at 17 Mile Rd. and Hayes in the heart of Clinton Township, an area not exactly known for dining refinement. The inside is dimly lit and yes, there are a lot of blue hairs here. The Brewery never ends up on any "best of" lists and isn't typically named among the local "foodie" favorites (its location in Macomb County doesn't help it gain new fans either, as popular opinion seems to hold that the world is flat east of Mound), but the French-inspired American food is fantastic (helloooooo escargot) and the FOS unmatched. The cheese bubbles over and drips down the sides of the crock bowl in buttery gobs, and the Brewery nails what many places seems to overlook: proper gratinization (with bread crumbs and butter along with the melted cheese). The top is browned and bubbled with a slight crunch from the bread crumbs; don't be ashamed to pick the cheese from the sides of the bowl.

#2 Kiernan's Steak House (Dearborn)
Kiernan's has been a Detroit tradition for nearly 50 years, a small remnant of early 20th century Irish heritage in the now markedly more ethnically diverse city of Dearborn. At this point it's something of a stodgy old steakhouse--the interior is DARK, there's fringed overhanging lights, faux Tiffany shades, lots and lots of wood paneling. It's dated but it's so dated that it has that retro hip potential ... speaking of hips, you'll hope the senior sentinels guarding the bar don't throw any out, but they're a jolly drinking crowd and the staff and stool fixtures all seem to know each other quite well. Prime rib is Kiernan's specialty, but their FOS is pretty tough to beat--very rich broth, hearty bread thoroughly soaked, bubbled and crisped Swiss cheese. They also have a small but respectable selection of Michigan craft beer (peep the Soft Parade in the pic), and upstairs is the more modern Silky's Martini Bar, which has a hell of a happy hour.

Weber's Inn.
#3 Weber's Inn (Ann Arbor)
Weber's Inn is the grand dame of all the old area institutions. It's been around for 75 years now and has managed to evolve with the times enough to stay relevant and popular with each generation (the different sections of the restaurant have a combined capacity of some 500 seats, and they still fill up on weekends), but not so much that there aren't still comfortable, familiar items that haven't changed much over the years ... particularly their prime rib, which they sell more of than any other restaurant in Michigan. Inside is a mix of modern (Habitat Lounge) and rustic Bavarian (the main dining room), and they even have their own sophisticated boutique hotel attached. This place is a true destination, and the FOS meets the same high standards of quality and excellence of execution as the rest of their menu.

#4 Redcoat Tavern (Royal Oak)
True, it's a burger joint, but it's so much more than that. A very dark, very comfortable British-style pub, they serve British-style pub food like beer cheese and Scotch eggs along with their multi-award-winning burgers (voted "Best in Detroit" by various publications over 60 times). They also have a phenomenal list of European beers for proper pubbing. Their FOS is solid and served piping hot; try it with Short's Publican Porter on tap while they've still got it.

#5 Lucy's Tavern on the Hill (Grosse Pointe)
Everywhere else mentioned here has certain specialties and good French onion soup. At Lucy's Tavern on the Hill, their specialty is French onion soup. They say the broth is "labored over" daily and they serve over 20 gallons of FOS every week. Patrons come out specifically for the FOS, which is made with caramelized Spanish onions simmered in beef broth, dry sherry and herb sachet, finished with garlic crostini and a gratin of provolone cheese. At $2.95 for a cup and $3.95 for a bowl, this is probably also some of the least expensive FOS you'll find.

Bubbling under Cadieux Cafe (Detroit), The Oxford Inn (Royal Oak), Terry's Terrace (Harrison Township), Max and Erma's (various locations), The French Gourmet (Ferndale), Mr. Paul's Chop House (Roseville), The Chop House (Ann Arbor), Peabody's (Birmingham), Kickers All American Grill (Livonia), Bath City Bistro (Mt. Clemens), The Hill Seafood and Chophouse (Grosse Pointe Farms), Bogartz Sports and Music Cafe (Detroit), Merriman Street Grill (Romulus)

Kiernan's Steak House on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

[Metromode] All Things Pickled

Perkins Pickles at Rust Belt Market. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

Rumored to be a lucky food (for anyone who has a six-year-old jar of "lucky" pickles in the fridge), a hangover cure (especially true when speared into a Bloody Mary), and now the latest trend to get skewered by IFC's Portlandia, pickles are all the rage. As the momentum of artisan food movements across the country continues to barrel forward, there is a subset of makers interested in traditional food preservation methods. From home canning to charcuterie clubs to self-professed picklers and briners, centuries-old techniques are au courant, and we've got more than a hand-full of artisanal pickle producers right here in metro Detroit.

Read more.

Friday, January 20, 2012

[EID Feature] Solid Dudes Kitchen: Duderonomy

Dave Graw and Derek Swanson are solid dudes. So what is a "solid dude"? It's kind of like, when you meet someone, and you have this moment of "Gasp I love you!" because even though you don't know really know them what you know of them already by just meeting them you know is awesome. "Solid," if you will. It's kind of like that.

Dave illustrates his point by talking about some guys that he and Derek once had a gig with in Grand Rapids. (The Dudes make a lot of connections between music and food. It makes sense; just roll with it.) They had never met each other and before any of them got onstage to play, they bro-bonded immediately. "I don’t care about what we are, we gave a shit about what we played whether they liked it or not, whether it was good or not, we cared. The guy [later told me that he said to himself], 'Holy shit, we gotta fucking give it,' and they did--[these guys are awesome AND they have an awesome band]--and afterwards we’re all hugging, and that started a beautiful friendship. You know, I met you guys and just had that moment of, 'Alright, right on.' It was a good feeling. It’s a like-minded respect; you’re there honestly playing music because you have to."

Derek: "Not because you're trying to get signed; not because you’re trying to get laid."

Dave: "Green Dot Stables is catering [the Season Two DVD release party]. They contacted us. They're just doing it because they have to.

Derek: "It's two guys who sunk their own money in with no backing."

Dave: "Just like McClure's; they had a a family recipe, they HAVE to make pickles."

Derek [speaking as if he were Joe McClure]: "'I HAVE to take cucumbers and put salt on them' – fuck yes you do!"

Dave: "That's what's awesome about Detroit, people do things because they have to. For Derek and I right now we have to make a cooking show."

Derek [explains that prior to the pickle business, Joe McClure was working in the very lucrative field of post-production]: "Joe saw he could make millions in post-production and said, 'That’s great; I have to put salt on pickles.'"

Dave: "I love him. I don’t know him, but I love him. He's rad. His pickles are rad, and he’s rad."

And that is the essence of what it means to be a "solid dude." Basically, you're a good guy and your band is good too.

Dave: "Dave Mancini [of Supino Pizzeria] is a good dude and his band doesn’t suck. Joe is a really good dude and his band is awesome."

And really that's what Solid Dudes Kitchen is all about. It's a cooking show, but not one you could ever realistically cook along with. But that's not what's important. What's important about the show and what makes it so damn enjoyable to watch is the camaraderie between Dave and Derek (every bit as evident on camera as it is in real life), two dudes who played in a band together and both work in commercial film and video production who got this crazy idea to start a cooking show for shits and giggles.

Solid Dudes Kitchen - Origins Trailer from Solid Dudes Kitchen on Vimeo.

Dave: "When two assholes who look like us have a show people assume the wrong things about us. When we met, it was like, 'I want to hang out with you.' It’s about friends. We’re friends. What came out of [the show] was an honest depiction of what we do."

The episodes are short, a decision they made because they found they are much more entertaining in smaller bursts.

Derek: "We both work in film, 98% of it being advertising, 98% of that being commercials. On any given day we work with multi-million dollar productions. It's one of the best film schools because its super-pragmatic; art is probably fourth[-ranked] on a list of 10 [criteria] because they need to sell things – 'What is the quickest way to sell things to stupid people?' – so we skip the boring shit, that’s why you can’t 'cook along.'"

Dave: "But if you want to make mac and cheese you’re going to sit and open up a recipe book. That’s not what we’re trying to do; we’re trying to hang out, spend time together, and share some of what we think is funny with other people. What I like about the Internet is that niche cultures can be niche and that’s exciting. I think we have a niche and we have an area we can operate in comfortably."

They may have a niche audience but it certainly seems to encompass a big chunk of Detroit. Their Season Two DVD release party on Thursday night at the Belle Isle Casino was packed; other of Detroit's solid dudes provided food, drinks, projection and music (Green Dot Stables, Sugar House, Corktown Cinema and DJ Michael Trombley, respectively). Whether it's because of who they are and what they represent, or just because people think the show is funny, Dave and Derek are surrounded by other like-minded individuals with that same DIY spirit and drive to create and do something fun.

Dave says, "I think that’s the key to life, just don’t stop—everyone we surround ourselves with just doesn’t stop." Derek interjects, "I'll quote Earthmover: 'It’s not about money.'" (Earthmover was a hardcore band from Michigan.) Dave continues, "We just kind of end up gravitating towards these people. It’s terrifying but it's also motivating--look how much that guy’s done, look at that guy’s blog where he's giving music away for free [because he just needs to make music].

'I like when people are doing it just to do it; there’s no endgame, just to do it. We’re gonna do it until it’s not fun or funny for us or our friends." The Dudes have had sponsorship offers in the past, all of which they've turned down. Dave references the movie Airheads and how the guys wouldn't bow down to the sleazy record executive who didn't care at all about their music, even in the face of a record deal. "They just wanted their demo back so people could hear it, so he rips up the contract ... they had people interested but what’s the point if you don’t know who we are? We're like punk rock snobs [turning down opportunities for money]."

Because for them, the second it stops being fun--which could happen the very second they had to answer to a suit waiving a check--is the second the show is done. And for them, to anyone who sits around and waits for someone else to fund their vanity project, Dave says, "Fuck you." Derek adds, "Had we waited for someone else to fund our project it probably wouldn’t have happened."

It might not seems the most natural thing for musicians to be "into" cooking. Au contraire, sayeth the Dudes. "Musicians, artists and chefs are all really similar people," Dave says. "Being younger you don’t really know that, you don’t relate with an artist when you’re into punk rock, but as you get older and become more aware of your surroundings, everything is everything and it's all the same. The art of food preparation is like writing a good song, it's all composition and structure. Once you understand the notes are just like ingredients, making a good pasta is like writing a pop song."

Derek: "I think the common denominator with chefs and musicians is that you know that to do what you’re doing as a career, you’re probably not going to make a million dollars. If you’re going to do it you have to love it. To have a chef tell us, 'We really love you, we love what you're doing,' it's like, 'Fuck, you do this for a living, we're doing this as a joke but only because we want to do what you’re doing."

People (even chefs; possibly even particularly chefs) appreciate their honesty--they admit they have no idea what they're doing (not entirely true: Derek has some culinary chops; Dave happily admits he does not but that he likes eating--touché), but they have fun doing it. At they end of it they hope it inspires you to get together and get drunk with your friends and try out some stupid shit and maybe fuck up and laugh and have a good time. 

Derek: "That was Dave’s thing – let’s hang out, drink our faces off, laugh our asses off and make a show."

Dave: "I can’t stay at home and watch the finale of Battlestar Galactica a third time and feel good about myself."

So just how solid are the Solid Dudes? They've received one piece of hate mail since season 1 premiered in 2009. That letter came from a Detroit priest who saw their cover on the Metro Times of them covered in baked beans. In it, this priest accused the Dudes of being reckless and wasteful that at a time when so many people were out of work, struggling and starving that they would waste food like that for a photo (note: it wasn't their idea). So they started looking up more info on this priest, and found out that over the decades he's been a huge activist, the kind of guy who stood in front of military tanks to protest the Vietnam War; THAT kind of guy. "I started to like him!" Dave says. "He's doing way more than we're ever going to do." Derek adds, "He's kind of fucking cool."

So they hosted the Solid Dudes Kitchen canned food drive, and took all the money and food they collected and dropped it off to that same priest, who had no idea it was coming. And so I ask, are these dudes solid? Fuck yes they are.

"If you put in good, it comes out good," Dave says. "It's just like a crock pot. That's an analogy for life: you put good shit in there and it comes out tasting good."

Season 2 of Solid Dudes Kitchen is now available for purchase on DVD, featuring the Solid Dudes German special "Dudes Hast." It will probably be another two and a half years before we see another season but cut them some slack, they have lives, jobs, wives and families, and they're not getting paid to do this. To get your fill of the Dudes in between seasons, check out their website for recipes, musings and probably some dick jokes.

For more on the Philosophy des Dude, check out some other solid stories here and here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

[Metromix] Mae's

Mae's Bacon Butter Burger Deluxe. Photo by VATO for Metromix.

It’s not quite Ferndale but it’s so close it should be counted among Ferndale’s notorious teeny-tiny diners famous for breakfast and lunch. Mae’s in Pleasant Ridge has been open two years in April under the ownership of the snarky yet adorable husband-and-wife team Sean and Jessica McCarthy. Eating here is like going to Grandma’s if Grandma were an effortlessly cool twenty-or-thirty-something who smokes and swears and does cool artsy things without being self-important about it. It’s a mom and pop shop for the Facebook-and-iPad generation.

The Mood:
It’s retro hipster chic inside Mae’s. The walls are adorned with vintage signs from Detroit brands like Vernors, Faygo and Wonderbread, some dating as far back as the 1920s. The vintage décor pairs well with the original teal-blue 1950s soda shop stools, chairs, and chrome tables with laminate tops. “All the furniture is original [to the restaurant],” Sean says. “We didn’t have to come up with a design concept!” Glassware and plates are mismatched and kitschy. On one wall you’ll find chalkboard specials and a collection of black and white photographs spanning three generations of Jessica’s family. The photos—some art, some personal, all professional-quality—were taken by Jessica, her brother, their dad and their grandfather, all of whom were photographers. As far as looking at other people’s family photographs go, these are actually fascinating, and lend a very personal feel to the place. And on any given day, this 42-seat breakfast nook is populated by our skinny-jeaned, shaggy-haired, horn-rimmed, mustachioed, plaid-adorned friends who believe Beirut is a band first, the name of a shawarma shop second, and a Middle Eastern capital city a distant third.

Read more.
(Note: be sure to click through the photo gallery for descriptions of the dishes.)

Monday, January 16, 2012

[HOT LIST] Solid chick blogs

Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

Who run the world? Girls. EID is giving some love to fellow female food bloggers Beyonce-style this week. There are some that focus on recipes, some on restaurants, and some a mix of both. A couple of them are down in the trenches as fellow freelancers; some are chefs, some are students, some stay-at-home moms. Because female food bloggers tend to get categorized somewhat dismissively as mere "cooking" blogs -- or worse, "mommy" blogs -- these girls don't always get their due in a world full of loud, flashy, graphic-heavy man-blogs. I couldn't have sifted through the plethora of local female-authored food blogs without a little bit of help, so this Hot List comes with special thanks to Noelle Lothamer, whom I contacted for a consult after deciding her blog was getting the #1 spot regardless (ashe is also an admin for the Michigan Lady Food Bloggers).

#1 Simmer Down!
It's mostly a cooking blog (with eye-popping pictures; both the author and her husband are photogs), but it is also the somewhat personal blog of Detroit-area freelance writer and musician Noelle Lothamer. Followers of Simmer Down! read along as Noelle charts not only her own cooking and family adventures (like planning her wedding earlier this year), but also as she covers Detroit's DIY food scene from events like Tashmoo Biergarten to the Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar, which she organizes. Noelle is also a freelance food writer for Model D and the Metro Times

#2 Take a Megabite
She says she's "Just a redhead who likes to bake," but Ferndalian Meg Dekok does so much more on her Megabite blog. This blog is a brain feast -- pretty pictures! funny words! WHAT'S THAT, I WANT TO EAT IT! She takes things that are awesome and combines them into things that are MEGA awesome. See: Nutella-Filled Donuts, Monte Cristo Waffle Sandwich, Chocolate Salami. And all so pretty! I think I might love her.

#3 Okie Dokie Artichokie
This Ann Arbor-based blog is a beaut. Author Stephanie Russell is a personal chef and also a freelance writer, and this well-written, witty blog focuses on delivering interesting, somewhat eclectic recipes with gorgeous pictures and a little bit of Stephanie's life mixed in. A navigation bar on the right allows you to easily view different recipes by category (such as "comfort food," "healthy," "Peruvian" and "noodles").

#4 The Wine Gal Blog
Ericia Bartels is the resident "wine gal" and event coordinator at Angelina Italian Bistro, and this blog is all about her adventures in wine (including sitting for the sommelier exam and lunching with the president of a legendary Italian winery). In between personal and professional anecdotes are some fantastic wine finds, and you can stop by Angelina anytime to talk vino with the pro. (Their monthly wine tastings are hugely popular and tend to sell out quickly.)

#5 Fruitcake or Nuts
It's a simple, straightforward, and regularly updated cooking blog with easy-to-follow and none-too-fancy recipes. There's nothing flashy about the design or presentation, and recipes tend to have more of an everyday appeal. And honestly, that's kind of refreshing -- after all, you can't make chicken galantine until you've mastered basic chicken.

Bubbling under 64 Square Foot Kitchen, Dog Hill Kitchen, The Savage Feast, Mira Uncut, The Last Bite, Kitchen Chick, Hungry Girl Por Vida

Friday, January 13, 2012

[EID Feature] A Conversation with Wolfgang Puck

He's been called "The Greatest Chef in the World." In contemporary culture, the name Wolfgang Puck is as familiar a household name as Tom Cruise and Barack Obama. He has had a long, illustrious career working in the finest restaurants in Paris and Monaco, before moving to America and eventually becoming the world's first true celebrity chef. His flagship restaurant Spago opened 30 years ago this year in West Hollywood (Spago Beverly Hills opened in 1997); it has been awarded Michelin stars, received a James Beard Award for Outstanding Service, and is in the Fine Dining Hall of Fame.

From the very beginning, Puck has been at the forefront of every major food trend that has spread to the masses: artisan pizza, farm-to-table dining, Asian fusion -- Puck, Puck, Puck. Puck has parlayed his fame in the kitchen to fame on the screen: he has had guest appearances on prime time shows like Frasier and Las Vegas; he's had his own show and plenty of cameos on the Food Network; he has won a Daytime Emmy Award for the show Wolfgang Puck. The man has done everything.

I had the chance to sit down with Mr. Puck earlier this week for an interview for the upcoming issue of Ambassador Magazine. He was in town hosting a big dinner at his restaurant inside the MGM Grand Detroit for the North American International Auto Show. I had free rein to ask him whatever I wanted ... but what the hell do you ask someone like Wolfgang Puck? After asking some of the more obligatory "what are your favorite places in Detroit" questions, I decided to ask the questions I was most interested in hearing the answers to ... I mean, when's the next time I'm going to get to sit down with Wolfgang Puck and ask him about his life, right?

What I found was a man with incredible insight into the last three decades of evolving American food culture, the very man who more or less spearheaded the movement and brought a whole new awareness of food to the average American table. I found a man who laughs at the cockiness and follies of his youth. A man from very humble beginnings who was told by everyone that he would never amount to anything. A man who once contemplated suicide.

The following are excerpts from our hour-long conversation. Other portions of the interview not included here will be in the spring issue of Ambassador.

Monday, January 9, 2012

[HOT LIST] NAIAS Charity Preview

Joe Muer Seafood Piano Bar. Photo from Joe Muer Seafood.

Stay classy, Detroit. The North American International Auto Show Charity Preview - being held this year on Friday, January 13 - is the swankiest night of the year. Metro Detroiters young and old (and, at $250 a head, also probably rich, or at least "doing well") get all gussied up in their fineries and hit the town for what ends up being a sloppy drunken sh*tshow, but a sloppy drunken sh*tshow in really, really nice clothes. The NAIAS Charity Preview has less to do with the cars than the clothes; this is all about the faces, fashion, and - inevitably - the food. Well, drink. But also food. This is a night to feel all shiny and special, so here's some of the shiniest, most special places to party after the show (or in lieu of it).

#1 The Rattlesnake Club, Detroit
The Rattlesnake Club has really been coming back into its glorious own recently, with revamped menus, a revamped interior, and a soon-to-launch revamped happy hour. For the NAIAS Charity Preview, they'll be offering a prix fixe menu and will play host to a restaurant full of VIPs. It will all start with a plethora of hors d'oervres at each table; Marketing Director Alexandria Franz says "everyone basically gets their own raw bar and several different hot hors d’eovures too. It’s somewhat of a spectacle!" And that's just the precursor to the sumptuous dinner that follows. They're almost sold out for the evening, so make your reservations now: 313-567-4400.

#2 Wolfgang Puck Grille, Detroit
Yours truly just interviewed Mr. Puck for Ambassador Magazine, and in addition to talking about food, I also discovered that he is also quite the car buff. Before moving to America at age 25, he thought everyone here was rich because they all drove around in big Cadillacs. He wanted desperately to own one himself one day ... he achieved that, and then some. He's in town right now for the NAIAS; you might be able to spot him at his restaurant inside the MGM Grand Detroit, but even if not, Executive Chef Marc Djozlija will be serving up the same stellar cuisine that has made this one of Detroit's few AAA four-diamond-rated restaurants.

This pretty much sums it up. From StyleLine Magazine.
#3 Joe Muer Seafood, Detroit
One of the splashiest restaurant openings of 2011, Joe Muer Seafood inside the Renaissance Center is offering a five-course prix fixe menu for $100 per person. Or skip dinner and grab a drink in the retro-nostalgic Joe Muer Lounge, the swingin' Piano Bar, or have a bite at the sleek blue granite sushi bar.

#4 Bacco Ristorante, Southfield
James Beard Award nominee Luciano del Signore, owner and Executive Chef of Bacco Ristorante in Southfield, has been regularly playing host to the richest and most famous-est of metro Detroit in this fine dining flagship since 2002. Enjoy his signature nouveau Italian cuisine in a colorful, contemporary atmosphere reminiscent of the Italian countryside in the summertime (even in the midst of a Michigan winter). There's no special menu for the NAIAS, but there doesn't need to be.

#5 Motor City Wine
, Detroit
It might not be the first place that comes to mind for a swank Auto Show after-party, but one look at the dramatic red walls lined with an eclectic selection of boutique wines paired with the funky jazz sounds of the B. Williams Experiment and you'll know there ain't no party like an MCW party. The B. Williams Experiment is led by the Grammy-nominated Brandon Williams on drums (who has produced for Janet Jackson and Rihanna). Influences range from Coltrane to Radiohead to J. Dilla; feel like a boss for only $5.

Bubbling under
DUO Restaurant and Lounge (Southfield), Mosaic (Detroit), Cliff Bell's (Detroit), Angelina Italian Bistro (Detroit), Coach Insignia (Detroit), 24grille (Detroit), Roast (Detroit), Detroit Seafood Market (Detroit), Chen Chow (Birmingham)

Friday, January 6, 2012

[EID Feature] AJ's Music Cafe: A Community Coffee House

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

I'm sitting with AJ O'Neil and one of his "kids" - a college student named Derrick who's home for the holidays and hanging out at AJ's. The thing about AJ's Music Cafe, which has been called "Ferndale's living room" more than once, is that it's the kind of place that, once you know it, you gravitate towards it. For better or worse, it's home.

AJ's is a coffee house in the bohemian '90s sense, when coffee houses were community hubs where people gathered specifically to interact with each other (and not sit solo at small tables in highly-polished environments, squinting at their Mac Books with ear buds in). The furniture is a mismatched collection of found, salvaged and donated items, all of it contributing to the place's overall eclectic décor. Works from local artists adorn the walls; one wall is a massive chalkboard that customers can decorate at will; there is a sign in a corner by the window that boldly proclaims "YOU ARE LOVED."

Now that may sound hokey to you. And possibly so does the idea of a "community coffee house" - nowadays it seems like every place is a community this-or-that, to the point that the word has started to lose meaning. But at AJ's the sentiment is utterly sincere, the kind of sincere a cynic like me thought only existed in irony. At AJ's, you ARE loved.

"You get people who aren't mentally able to withstand the rigors of normalcy," AJ says. "They're in need of assistance that just isn't there. They find a place like this and it's a place of hope and refuge. It's a very humbling place." AJ talks about a guy named Lucky who has been coming around the cafe for a couple of years now. "He's like one of my adopted kids," he says. "He has no firm roots and always seems to be left out of the system, he's hungry or in need of medicine and doesn't have any other way. He never wants a handout. He always says, 'Let me do something; let me help clean up.' How do I say no? It's nothing for us to barter soup for sweeping."

AJ is a champion of those he calls "the lost people" - the ones who don't qualify for public assistance but who wouldn't be able to live without assistance. Maybe it's because the issue hits close to home: his brother, a more than capable and productive member of society, also has special needs. "He [should be] afforded every dignity anyone else should have, but that's the kind of thing most people don't even see. I see it because I've lived with it a long time. I don't think people should leave those people out, and I don't think those people are looking for a handout. They're looking to feel like a viable part of the community."
"'Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'"
Emma Lazarus, 1883

Is AJ the New Colussus? He certainly doesn't think so, but others sure seem to. AJ was asked to run for Michigan's 12th congressional district against Congressman Sandy Levin in this year's election. "[He's probably] one of the most entrenched politicians in the nation. David is going to crush Goliath!" he jokes. "I know it's about my ability to speak on behalf of ordinary people from my perspective here. It has nothing to do with elevating my ego; I'm humbled every day here!" He says that no one wants to hear what he has to say - not the politicians, not the Big Three, not even President Obama himself. "We’re going to invoke things on behalf of ordinary people. Whether you're a Democrat or Republican, come on folks, the gig is up. That’s why I resonate; because I'm at the level they are and I serve them their coffee every day. They will equally get respect [here] without regard to what they look like, who they pray to and who they love."

His run for Congress was prompted by his work at the cafe and the message that comes out of it. AJ's is known internationally for their Assembly Line concerts, which have been awarded "World's Longest Continuous Concert" by the Guinness Book of World Records twice now, most recently in 2011 with a 360-hour show. It all started when a guy came into the cafe and said to AJ, "I'm going to lose my job, can you do something?" "What do you want me to do?" This was after AJ had hosted a "Danny Boy" marathon at the cafe, and he had just received notice that Guinness wouldn't honor the record. So he thought to do a concert for the auto workers, and that's how "Assembly Line" was born.

"None of this is me," he says. "It's their brilliance. I'm just here serving coffee. That's the same as Congress." He explains that his function as a congressman, the function of any congressman, is to represent the people. "I’m there as their arbiter gving them a voice at a level they deserve in a political arena. That’s what [Congress is] there to do and that’s been totally lost. That’s your JOB to represent us in Congress, not to take money from a lobby, not to get caught up on committees. Whether you're Democrat or Republican you don’t have a good track record of doing that."

"[The cafe has] been elevated to such an international level," he explains. "I represent everyday people from all walks of life to have the representation they feel they deserve and get here [at the cafe]. It should be no different there [in Congress]." AJ speaks of a cross-trickle economy: "When someone has a job, I have a customer. When you take that corporate greed mentality you take away an integral part of society." He says that Main Streets don’t have boarded up windows with "for lease" signs in front of them because they didn’t have successful, hard-working entrepreneurs behind them: they get boarded up because they don’t have customers anymore. "That's in large part due to the corporatization of not just the economy but politics as well. The most important part of that is the ordinary every day person; without them none of [these politicians'] jobs are necessary either. I'm trying to remind them of that here."

AJ isn't looking for power or glory. He's looking to give voice to the people who seem to have lost it - in our current lexicon, the 99%. "You either work for Wall Street or you work for Main Street or you work to make sure they both work together nicely for the greater good," AJ says. And AJ, he represents Main Street. Not in the way flashy politicians with thousand-dollar smiles say they do - AJ was a roofer before he was a cafe owner. His background is thoroughly blue collar, but he doesn't want any pats on the back for it either. "I was asked to do this. I didn't ask for any of this. I always say, things happen in spite of me, not because of me."

AJ opened the cafe five years ago when his career as a roofer came to an abrupt end. "This cafe found me when I fell off a roof and they told me to stay off ladders. I took the last of what I had and figured I could make soup; there's not much more to it." Now he and his brother Dennis work together to keep AJ's viable. Dennis is the chef, and their menu offers a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan items made from scratch.

"This is not a place you can get a cheeseburger, but we have the best seitan in world and it's all homemade." They make all the cakes, cookies, and select pies from scratch. They do what they can with what they have (which includes a Suzy Bake oven, a microwave, some soup cookers, and that's about it.) "We're as unpretentious as they come!" The homemade hummus is outstanding, and their popular Sloppy Joe's are made with TVP (texturized vegetable protein) that is flavored with spices and BBQ sauce."I'm not a vegan and wasn’t ever acclimated to vegan food until I got here in Ferndale, but you cater to your customers and we found our crowd to be vegan-friendly."

They have their own special blend of coffee called Detroit Bold which they get from Chazzano Coffee Roasters. AJ worked together with Chazzano owner and roaster Frank Lanzkron-Tamarazo. "My coffee had to refect the working class ethic I came from that this place represents," AJ says. "I get people coming from the assembly line and there's nothing wrong with the good strong cup of Joe they want." Customers can buy the coffee by the pound and half-pound. AJ also makes his own Chai mix, and they serve Cuban coffee (strong espresso brewed with brown sugar).

But the cafe is best-known for their open mics and community activism. Recently AJ's was featured in the second-ever issue of the acclaimed "nomadic publication" Boat Magazine (view an excerpt here). The story goes - and AJ is very deliberate in telling me that this is simply how the story was told to him, lest I think he's trying to showboat (an assumption you would never make after just two minutes talking to the guy) - that the journalists got off the plane at DTW and asked, "Where can we go to hear about what's going on in Detroit?" AJ's Music Cafe was the answer.

"Our eclecticness betrays our value in things beyond currency," AJ notes. "We exchange ideas, cultural creativity, talents, and skills to send a message out that money can’t buy. AJ’s is an environment that invites people to think." In the cafe, everyone is a doctor, even if they're a janitor. On stage, people in high-powered, high-stress jobs are relieved in anonymity and can show who they really are. "This is not so much a business as it is a community service coffee shop." Wednesday is open mic night and weekends are for featured artists. AJ also continues to offer a home for those who might not feel welcome elsewhere: on Monday nights he holds meetings for the alcohol recovery community, an issue close to him as well.

"I don’t like people. I don’t like lattes. I don’t particularly like music," he comments as to why he chose to open the cafe. "It’s a part of my upbringing, a part of the gift this community has given me. I've overcome a lot of my own adversities in life, and when I was finally able to live without alcohol I understood the way to do that was to help other people and not worry about my own problems so much. I got the idea if I quit putting conditions on [recovery] and just helped anyone who comes in the door, that’s what I am supposed to do and its been working a long time now. That’s how I understand how you recover from things – you get out of the way and help someone else and that’s how recovery comes to you. And it's fun. It's tempting to say 'What about me?' sometimes, but there's a lot of joy in giving people dignity and respect."

AJ isn't sure what the future will hold, both for the cafe and for his congressional run. "I would have no regrets if I left it today," he says. "It’s been such an important institution for what it's done for the community. It's been an honor, and it gives me what I need. I’m very grateful to be here in Ferndale and for the community at large."

After a wonderful talk, it's time for AJ to get back to work. "My time is not mine!" he laughs. He has to get food ready for a big party that night; another one of his "kids," another individual with special needs, is having a going-away party before heading off to college, and he wanted to have it at AJ's.

"Hey, do you know Nicole?" AJ asks a customer buying a coffee. Well no, in fact we do not know each other, but we do now. This is AJ's way of starting conversations between strangers, and sure enough - without being awkward or uncomfortable - it works. AJ runs back into the kitchen. Derrick is in the back helping out. "Only in a community coffee house will you get the customers helping you!" AJ says with a big smile on his face as he runs back to the front. He introduces me to a few more people in his refreshingly unpretentious way then says, "See? You're part of the family now!"

If you want to help AJ with his congressional run, buy a cup of coffee and sign the nomination form.

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

[HOT LIST] Ferndale

Pete Steffy of Pete's Chocolate Co. at the Rust Belt Market. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

In a major upset that majorly upset city residents, #8 seed Ferndale massacred its CoD competition for "neighborhood of the year," becoming the first-ever winner of the prestigious fake Curbed Cup trophy. I haven't exactly been quiet on my feelings about Ferndale (also here, and all over the Facebooks), so I figured heck, let's trot this topic out for one more go-round before I've tired myself out on it. In honor of the first-ever winner of the prestigious fake "neighborhood of the year" award from Curbed Detroit, here's a look at some of Ferndale's best (by category). Some new (as of 2011), some old (as of before 2011), some borrowed (from Pleasant Ridge, which should really count as Ferndale anyway) and some blue (yep, it's that same picture from inside Red Hook again, but I like it oh so very much).

Red Hook. Photo by David Landsel.
#1 Coffee
As in, wake up and smell the. Chazzano Coffee Roasters has been around for a few years now and is still roasting and brewing some of the best coffee in Detroit. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Frank is not a roaster, he's a wizard. The Red Hook brought Portland's Stumptown Coffee Roasters into town (the first to do so since Commonwealth in Birmingham started roasting all their own), and more importantly brought back a storefront for Pinwheel Bakery. And the old sleeper AJ's Music Cafe continues to be a world-class coffee house in the traditional '90s sense with live indie music and a Guinness World Record.

#2 Breakfast, Brunch and Brinner
Ferndale is home of the teeny-tiny diner where everything is made from scratch and breakfast is king. The Fly Trap, Toast, Pete's Place, Hilton Road Cafe, Mae's (technically in Pleasant Ridge but SRSLY, it's Ferndale) - none of these are just diners, just plain old regular greasy spoon fuel stops for your food tank. These are houses of comfort food worship, and is there a comfort food MORE comfy than brunch? I think not.

#3 Lunch and Dinner
The one arena in which Ferndale falters a bit is in non-brunch dining. But things are starting to look up, and there are definitely a few favorites that have sprung up over recent years. The Emory has killer burgers and even more killer beer list (also an amazing Spanish coffee, check it). Torino Espresso + Bar - which could also go into almost every single other category on here (they serve illy coffee and Avalon pastries for breakfast) - has fantastic paninis as well as artisan cheese and charcuterie platters (any time is the right time). Rosie O'Grady's has bloody good burgers and pizza (they make their own pizza dough and sauce, and grind and patty their own burgers). Food trucks are also becoming a thing in Ferndale, with Jacques Tacos and Taco Mama taking the lead on that. Speaking of tacos, everyone's looking forward to Woodward Imperial opening in the coming months (the owner recently informed me he is just waiting on his liquor license and it will, he hopes, be open in 30-60 days ... they're gonna do tacos, in case you didn't get that from the context).

B. Nektar. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.
#4 Food shops and whatnot
B. Nektar Meadery continues to kill it with crazy-awesome new releases like the drunky Funky Monky and wicked Zombie Killer, while their empire continues to expand across the States and their tasting room hours recently expanded to every Friday (5:30 to 10 p.m.) and Saturday (1 to 7 p.m.). 8 Degrees Plato Beer Company just opened in the fall and I love them already. The Rust Belt Market also opened this year and gave the world a much-needed and appreciated outlet for Rock City Pies, Pete's Chocolates and Perkins Pickles.

#5 Cocktails
I'm running out of ways to talk about craft cocktail culture in metro Detroit. (See: Hour. 944. NY Post. Eater. Metromix past and future. Ambassador. Couldn't even conjecture how much here and on Facebook.) Suffice it to say, it is a thing and these places are doing it. The Oakland is just OMFG NFW F-YAH. Valentine Vodka is the best vodka in the world, so if you're a vodka drinker you're in the right place (mix it with McClure's Bloody Mary mix for the best thing ever). And Torino Espresso + Bar does craft cocktails (house-made infusions and fresh ingredients with a culinary approach) with an Italian twist. Between these places, B. Nektar and the beer list at the Emory, Ferndale is pretty much a one-stop drinking destination. Because no one drinks wine anymore.

Bubbling under Grasshopper Underground, Sakana Sushi Lounge, Howe's Bayou, Treat Dreams, Danny's Irish Pub, Assaggi Bistro, Anita's Kitchen, Inyo, Christine's Cuisine, Dino's Lounge

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

[Curbed Detroit] Hot Taco Opens

Hot Taco. Go ahead.


Done snickering? Okay. So Hot Taco opened yesterday. Owner Sean Harrington, who also owns the Town Pump Tavern and Centaur and pretty much that whole block of Park Ave. behind the Fox Theatre, envisioned this to be a gringo Baja California-style taco shack. "Shack" probably isn't the right word -- it definitely has that slick ground-floor-of-an-ultra-sleek-urban-loft-building feel to it what with the brushed metal countertops, a white ceramic tile backsplash, red walls, floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows and exposed ductwork (or maybe that's the ghost of Hugh demanding a certain design aesthetic from when this space was home to the first-ever Hatch Detroit winner and Detroit's first pop-up retail store) -- but the food is definitely what you could imagine being served by a deeply-tanned dude with long blond hair who uses the word "dude" un-ironically. You could even imagine yourself eating them outside in the hot sun while breathing in the salty sea air ... if, you know, it weren't 20 degrees outside and imagining that sort of scenario weren't a form of self-flagellation.

Choose from rotisserie chicken, pulled pork, chorizo, marinated steak, shrimp or vegetarian, on corn or flour shells, 3 for $6 (steak and shrimp are extra), and wash it all down with a bottle of Jarritos (with a cup of ice, for you gringos who can't drink warm soda). For abusers of the word "authentic" who will be quick to point out that Taqueria Lupita's is better ... congratulations, you are very well-educated in the ways of Mexican culture, but for our part we like the total lack of pretenses here and that at least it isn't trying to present itself as "authentic accessible upscale Mexican" at $12 per plate.

Right now it's cash only (give it about a week) and they're serving about 80% of their menu. Be patient as they find their footing and open in "phases" (a future phase might even include beer!). Hot Taco is open daily from 11 a.m. until 2 a.m. or later. Detroiters are already rejoicing over the addition of another lunch and late-night food option in the CBD (of which there are surprisingly few). Maybe this will help the case for Downtown next year in the Curbed Cup? Only 363 more days to go...

For more of the Coxian Curbed design perspective, check out this post on Curbed Detroit.

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