Saturday, April 28, 2012

[EID Feature] Michael Mina: The Inconspicuous Celebrity Chef

Photo from dcist.
After a lengthy chat with Wolfgang Puck - arguably the first and most celebrated of celebrity chefs -- and Michael Symon -- the iconoclast-turned-icon -- it seemed only natural to speak to metro Detroit's third nationally-recognized celebrity chef, the comparatively quiet and under-the-radar Michael Mina. 

Mina has two acclaimed restaurants in Detroit: Bourbon Steak and SaltWater, both inside the MGM Grand Detroit. Despite his stature in the culinary world -- and rest assured, he's right up there with the big dogs -- Mina manages to maintain an air of mystery. You don't see him in magazines or on talk shows. He doesn't give a lot of interviews and doesn't have his own TV show. And all of this is very intentional. Mina may seem shy, but in reality he's as affable as the more showboaty chefs -- he has a plan in place, and he's very patient. I had a rare opportunity to speak with this self-professed control freak last week, and this is what he had to say.

Mina grew up in Washington state in Ellensburg. He started his cooking career when he was 15. "I fell in love with it and decided to pursue it and try to make a career out of it." He attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York where he had an opportunity to work with "super chef" Charlie Palmer. Later, after graduating school, he had the chance to move to San Francisco and open his first restaurant, Aqua. (That restaurant would eventually close, but in a move that was both a personal triumph and highly symbolic for Mina, it would later reopen in the same location as the eponymous Michael Mina.) At the time he was only 22 years old. 

Aqua was an all-seafood restaurant and was a "very big success." From there he went on to open what he calls his "favorite" restaurant, Michael Mina at Bellagio in Las Vegas. And this is where I pause. Mina is nothing if not exceedingly humble. In recapping his life story for me at this point he says simple that he "opened a few more restaurants" before skipping ahead to Detroit (which is, of course, my primary point of interest). To clarify, "a few" is a grand total of 19 restaurants over 20 years. Not too shabby for an inconspicuous celebrity chef most people wouldn't recognize if he cooked for them personally right at their table. 

Photo from Eater Las Vegas.
MGM would eventually buy the Bellaggio which led to more opportunities for Mina to open more restaurants in various properties owned by MGM Resorts International -- including Nobhill Tavern and Seablue at MGM and Stripsteak at Mandalay Bay. It was this established relationship with MGM that, much like in the case of Wolfgang Puck, brought Mina to Detroit.

"I did not know much about Detroit but I had a chef, Marc St. Jacques, who had lived in Detroit for the majority of his life and he was very excited. [He said] 'I would love to do it; I would love to go there and work!'" At the time Mina had two restaurants inside the MGM in Las Vegas so they asked him to open two in Detroit (which had a lot to do with how the kitchens are set up and shared; wholly unglamorous reasoning, I know, but reality). 

Mina admits that any hesitation over opening a restaurant (two!) in the city of Detroit in the year 2007 was assuaged by the fact that he would have the built-in clientele of the casino (reality check: this was before Slows became a national media darling, when the dominant Detroit narrative both nationally and locally was one of never-ending doom and gloom; before Kwame was a convicted felon and still our beloved mayor whose biggest scandal was racking up credit card debt with the city's cards, leasing an SUV for his wife at the city's expense, and making some unpopular decisions like shuttering the Belle Isle Aquarium and Zoo ... a mere drop in the bucket for what was to come). 

"It wouldn't be a stretch [to open a fine dining restaurant] if you're from there, but I wouldn't see [Detroit] as a place to open a restaurant if it hadn't been in a casino. With the MGM you have the hotel; it's a draw. But obviously if you spend time [in Detroit you see] the chefs who have been there a long time [who have a] good clientele [base] they have built up over time." As an "outsider" chef in a downtrodden city (that can sometimes take as well to outsiders as the locals in Deliverance...hell, this town will turn on you if you live a mere nine miles north), Mina was definitely taking a chance. But, he says, "Being in the casino you have more interaction right at your front door. That was a draw. And sometimes you have to go just a little bit with your gut feeling."

Slow down before you all start getting defensive and arguing that Detroit is the most bestest city to open anything anywhere ever. He continues, "The clientele in Detroit has been phenomenal." When opening a new restaurant, Mina always stays in the city for a month (again, he is a self-professed control freak). "I made wonderful friends there. These are lifetime friends; I can tell. I talk to them on the phone all the time ... the people [in Detroit] are tremendous. I really enjoyed my time there."

As far as culinary sensibilities, Mina notes, "People say 'Oh people in Detroit don't want this or that'; it was surprising how flexible [the clientele] really [is]." For that month Mina met with purveyors to make sure they could get the products they needed and also interviewed staff. "Those are the two pieces you have to make sure you can get: product and staffing. Then location but it is a little bit different to be inside a casino; you have some built-in clientele. It's not like you're trying to do something in the middle of downtown, leasing a space and building from the ground up."

Photo from Marin Independent Journal.
Mina didn't treat his Detroit locations any differently than any of the other cities. "You have to look at them individually. Every Bourbon we do there's a core to the menu that's about 40% [of the menu]. Besides that it all goes by seasonality which is different everywhere, then we give the chef a little bit of flexibility on the menu to make changes which is dictated by the clientele which evolves over time as you get to know your clientele."

Which is definitely something they found true in the case of SaltWater. "We started out where we didn't really know how much high-end dining there would be. SaltWater was geared to be a high-end fish restaurant, but realistically with the economy the way it was, over time we've adjusted the style of food and brought the price point down considerably." Bourbon Steak also went through its own adjustments, such as adding a more affordable bar burger menu.

Mina might not be the most recognizable name or face in celebrity chefdom, but he is still the only celeb chef presence in Detroit with two high-end restaurants under his name, and he has absolutely no regrets about not being more in the limelight like some of his flashy culinary brethren. "I’m very fortunate: I’ve cooked for two presidents in the same week and have experienced things no one in the word has experienced, and it all came from cooking. I have a very methodical plan in my mind of how I like to be exposed." We may be seeing more of Mina in the media in the future, but for now at least we can enjoy his restaurants. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

[HOT LIST] A Veg-Head's Guide to Everyday Dining

Seva "BLT." All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

The majority of what we eat on a daily basis is technically "vegetarian" - we just don't call it that. See, that word has become wrought with certain unsavory implications. In the meatatarian's mind, "vegetarian" = Someone Who Passes Judgment on Those Who Do Not Share Same Self-Imposed Dietary Restrictions. The meatatarians, fearing what they do not understand, mock the veg-heads, and the veg-heads in turn become excruciatingly defensive - thus completing a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fact of the matter is, you're not shoveling pork belly down your gullet every time you open your mouth. Maybe in the morning you have toast with jam (vegan!) and for lunch a hearty salad with walnuts and bleu cheese (vegetarian!) and maybe you snack on fruit or veggies or nuts throughout the day (vegan!) and then for dinner you try one of the new Neapolitan-style pizzerias and order the Margherita pizza (vegetarian!). Perhaps at no point during this day did you make a conscientious effort to not eat any meat; does this now make you a tedious preachy vegetarian? Of course not. So knock it off and eat your vegetables.

Smoothies at Seva.
The Detroit Free Press published their recommendations for "delicious plant-based meals" (vegetarian ... the word they seek is vegetarian) just in time for Earth Day last week. It is a top 7 list of The Most Obvious Vegetarian Restaurants in Metro Detroit. Not that there's anything wrong with Seva, or Cacao Tree, or Inn Season Cafe, or with being obvious. But for seasoned lovers of delicious plant-based meals this list is seriously lacking.

The following list is not the usual "top 5" Hot List. This is a much more comprehensive list of places, both familiar and unexpected, that have plenty of veg-friendly offerings for both veggiemites and meatheads to reference (some appear more than once in different categories). It is with the utmost gratitude and worshipful accolades that I thank Vanessa Miller, uber-talented Detroit photographer and overall amazing woman, for taking the time to draft an exhaustive list of local veg-friendly restaurants with notes for me to share. The bulk of this was her doing. She had this to say:
So I might as well admit it, I love food, I am also a strict vegetarian who had a stint in the gluten free world, dating a vegan. I don't believe all that 'you cannot be a foodie if you are vegetarian/vegan' bs. because despite all of these 'obstacles' I am one! However... I will admit that it can be frustrating trying to find delicious veg/vegan food in Detroit. Of course we can eat anywhere… how many salads and plates of fries have we begrudgingly eaten while we longed for more? Well I have scoured the Detroit area and other parts of the country looking for non-salad veg/vegan food and I think I have a pretty good list. This is dedicated to the Vegan/Veg out there who is tired of eating only salads and looking for great date spots, late night greasy noms, hangover best brunches, and great lunch meeting venues (i've even included some fast food advice). Most of these locations will even satisfy the most blood thirsty of our carnivore friends and family… so you vegetable haters out there can use this list to prove how culturally aware and sensitive you have become while keeping your blood lust at bay.

Friday, April 20, 2012

[EID Feature] Michael Symon is Effing Cool, But You Already Knew That: An Interview

Image from Inked Magazine.

I can't even venture a guess at how many times I've said in print, pixels and person that Michael Symon's Roast is the one restaurant in Detroit that nails it on all counts. (Here's one. And another.) I had the chance to chat with Michael more about what for the love of beer and bacon possessed him to open a restaurant in Detroit in 2008 when the sky had all but fallen, and his answer made me like him even more.

"We* love Detroit because it is so similar to Cleveland," Symon tells me. "It’s been through its ups and downs and gone through a recession; the different industries have been through their troubles and the middle class has taken a beating in both cities."  He jokes that his chef friends in New York make fun of him for his city selections: "My first restaurants were in Cleveland [and second was] Detroit!" He explains, utterly sincerely, "I have always loved the honesty of the Midwest ... we’re a group of people who really wear our emotions on our sleeves and are proud of where we’re from. When we first started talking about opening the restaurant, the community embraced us ... not only the community but the people."

No, but seriously, why Detroit? 

"We’ve been opening in places that people have told us not to for 15 years now! We opened [Lolita] in Tremont when there were still fires and car bombs, then we opened [Lola] on East 4th when it was still an unpaved street. We started spending time in Detroit, we went to Slows and Eastern Market, and I said, 'This is a no-brainer, these are our people. They love what they’re doing and take pride in what they do.'" As far as his choice of location, he admits that he could have opened Roast inside one of the casinos but chose the then newly-remodeled Westin Book Cadillac for its history and its importance to the city of Detroit. "I also love the history of the Book; I loved that it was such a historic piece of the city for so long, then it went through its tough times and now I'm ecstatic to be part of the revitalization of it."

He adds, "Not to mention it was so close to all the coneys!"

[I ramble a bit about how Roast has "nailed it" in ways other area restaurants simply haven't, then finally get around to asking what his secret is.]

"I think we’re very unconventional," he says. "If we told people, 'Here’s how you open a restaurant,' they would look at us like we’re nuts! Whether we succeed or fail we go in with guns blazing." He emphasizes the importance of the staff he hires as truly being the thing that can make or break a restaurant of this kind, especially in the Midwest. "A lot goes into the hiring. We sit and we talk to the people and see if they’re passionate, see if they feel the same way [about food]. To work for us food, wine and beverage have to be a major, major part of your life." He emphasizes that they don't look for the people who are waiting tables just to pay for college or as a temporary gig. "We want people who are vested in it."

Symon explains that they have a food-first mentality with all of their restaurants. "We’ve been fortunate to make money in these 15 years because we never think [about food costs first]. We don't say, "Let’s put this on the menu because it will make money,' we say, "Let’s put this on the menu because it is delicious.' We write a menu say 'Oh my God, this is fantastic!' and we don’t look at staying at a 35% food cost. We do things a little backwards. We're driven by food and beverage from a how it makes us feel standpoint versus this is how we’re going to make money ... our food costs are a little higher, our labor costs are significantly higher, but our hope is that in 10, 15, 20 years we’re still going to be here - let’s make less money and be here a long time instead of let’s make a shitton of money and close in three years."

He continues, "The other things that really helped us in Detroit is because we're from Cleveland and we understand Midwesterners, how they value food and how they’re treated." Though he doesn't knock New York for its particular brand of "how lucky you are to be here" service (my words, not his), he defers to the fact that Midwesterners demand to be treated a bit differently. "How we go about service is very different ... we really try very hard to embrace our customers."

Final thoughts?

"We love what we do, and we love that we get recognized for what we do. Cleveland and Detroit are two cities I love and I always beat my drum and [try to get people to] see what the urban core has to offer."

And we love you for it, Michael!

*"We" refers to Symon's wife Liz and his business partner Doug Petkovic.

Monday, April 16, 2012

[HOT LIST] Detroit Restaurant Week - A Room With a View

Iridescence. Photo courtesy of Motor City Casino.

Detroit Restaurant Week Spring 2012 starts this Friday, April 20th - 10 days, 21 restaurants, $28 three-course menus ... how does one decide? Each restaurant has its own unique aesthetic and culinary style. Maybe looking at the menus is all you need to help make your decision, or maybe there is a specific kind of ambiance you seek. Each of the participating restaurants is majestic in its own right, whether it be for its exceptional interior design or nostalgic throw-back appeal (looking at you, Roma Cafe; you too, Caucus Club). But if you're really looking for a room with a view, these places offer the best perches in the city.

#1 Iridescence (Motor City Casino)
Hour Detroit's 2011 "Restaurant of the Year" deserves accolades for more than just its exceptional cuisine (and make no mistake, as far as haute cuisine goes this is the absolute finest in metro Detroit and probably even all of Michigan). While some might argue that the Motor City Casino is a bit of an eyesore  (Christopher Cook, in that same Hour review, describes it as a "giant toaster"), once inside this 16th-floor two-story restaurant the garish outside matters naught - 40-foot windows give a panoramic view of Detroit's southern skyline - which, granted, is basically the Lodge freeway and a bunch of mostly-uninteresting buildings (the river is too far to be visible and the downtown skyline is only a far corner), but taken en masse at that height it's actually quite breathtaking.

#2 Coach Insignia (GM Renaissance Center)
Speaking of panoramic views ... Coach Insignia, of the Epicurean Restaurant Group formerly known as Matt Prentice Restaurant Group that is no longer affiliated with Matt Prentice, takes up the entire 71st and 72nd floors of the GM Renaissance Center center tower. Depending on the corner of the restaurant you're in, you may have a vertigo-inducing view of the Detroit River and Windsor skyline (from the elevator, bar and main dining room) or the absolute best view of the entire city of Detroit (from the larger rooms typically reserved for parties). It has the distinct honor of being the highest hotel restaurant in the Western Hemisphere; but take note, you may have a hard time with it if glass elevators and heights freak you out.

#3 Andiamo Detroit Riverfront (GM Renaissance Center)
Also in the Ren Cen, Andiamo offers an equally stunning view of the riverfront but on the ground level. Acrophobes can relax and sun-worshippers can enjoy the large outdoor patio right next to the Detroit Riverwalk. Day or night, indoor our out, the waterside dining offers stunning views of the river and the Windsor skyline.

#4 Fountain Bistro (Campus Martius)
Right in the heart of the Central Business District in downtown Detroit, smack-dab in the middle of Campus Martius Park, Fountain Bistro offers some of Detroit's best outdoor dining. Watch the fountain of Campus Martius from the massive wall-to-wall windows inside, or sit right next to it on their expansive patio. Surrounded on all sides by the towering skyscrapers of the financial district, this is urban outdoor dining at its finest.

#5 The Rattlesnake Club (Detroit Riverfront)
Located just off of the Detroit River, the Rattlesnake Club features a beautifully-landscaped "Garden Terrace" with a potted herb and vegetable garden and granite-topped tables with views of the river, as well as a second patio featuring a marble and cedar bar. Because the 'Snake is tucked away behind Stroh River Place, the space is quiet and exclusive.

Bubbling under Mosaic (Greektown), Cliff Bell's (Foxtown), Roma Cafe (Eastern Market), Angelina Italian Bistro (Grand Circus Park), the Whitney (Midtown)

Friday, April 13, 2012

[EID Feature] Motor City Brew Tours Photo Essay

Big gay bus. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

Last week Two weeks ago my friend Dave Bardallis ("Uncle Dave" - I still don't know why) of invited me along on a bus tour of mid-south-western Michigan breweries with Motor City Brew Tours because we are meeeeeeeedia. I got to play the role of official picture-taker for this journey; here is the evidence.

We started at the Fleetwood Diner in Ann Arbor. It's about the size of a mobile home. Like, one of those 1950s tin tube mobile homes, that is. I got the Meaty Hippie Hash. Both "hippie" and "hash" are funny words to use when talking about Ann Arbor.

"Oh gee, the keg is taking up a whole seat and it's a full bus, whatever will we do?" Nicole to the rescue! Because I am a self-sacrificing individual.

Stop 1: Bell's Eccentric Cafe, Kalamazoo. Uncle Dave with Stephen Johnson, owner of Motor City Tour Co. AKA, the "before" picture.

Hopslam direct from the source and it tastes even better. (ABV: 10%. No sense pussy-footing around.)

Stop 2: Arcadia Ales, Battle Creek. Some nice person attempted to give us a tour of the brewery. We made funny faces then got really worried we weren't maximizing beer-drinking time. I had the Imperial Stout, which is 9.5% ABV. This day did not get any easier.

Stop 3: Dark Horse Brewing Co., Marshall. Bourbon Barrel Aged Plead the Fifth Imperial Stout. 14%ABV. (Two of those is pretty much equivalent to a whole pint of whiskey.) Things became...fuzzy...after this.

But I took a lot of pictures.

Because I thought the place looked cool.

Yeah, I don't know.

This is in their employee bathroom (specifically the men's employee bathroom) and is pretty much the best thing I have ever seen.

This is their upstairs loft area for private parties. Please note the couches for napping.

Stop 4. Bad Bear Brewery, Albion. I took one usable picture here. This is that one.

Thank you Stephen once again for your hospitality, and also to the Detroit Draft Divas and I'm a Beer Hound for hanging out and "Beer Todd" Parker of Copper Canyon Brewery for supplying the travelers!

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

[Metromode] The Art of Destination Dining

Royal Oak and Birmingham are probably the toniest metro Detroit cities for a businessperson to open a restaurant in. With vibrant, walkable downtowns and active surrounding communities, both have a built-in clientele base that make it difficult to resist. Put your finger in the wind, open an eatery that follows current trends and you should do fine.

Unless, of course, you like to gamble. And Hubert Yaro is a betting man.

Read more.

Monday, April 9, 2012

[HOT LIST] Best bars to work in

Torino Espresso + Bar. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

As a freelancer I know what is probably a disproportionate number of other freelancers in Detroit, and we all seem to share the same basic three needs: the need for strong coffee before noon, the need for strong drink any time after noon, and the need for endless reliable WiFi. While we often work from home, we are also known to occasionally seek out the company of other humans by putting pants on long enough to crawl out of our respective holes and stumble our way to the nearest coffee house or bar.

Coffee houses are great. We love coffee. Coffee makes our work possible. But sometimes we need to imbibe in a beverage stronger than Joe. Sometimes we need Jack, Jim or Jose (or really their crafty equivalents; we're not savages). We also need these drinks in a place that offers flowing streams of beautiful, beautiful bandwidth (for free) in an environment where our kind are welcomed and appreciated - not somewhere where opening a laptop will be met with looks of "Who farted?" Using my own personal experience and polling some of my freelancer friends (both writers and photogs), I've determined these bars are the most freelancer-friendly.

#1 Torino Espresso + Bar (Ferndale)
Torino wins by automatic default because they are both a coffee house AND a cocktail bar. Plan your day right and you can put in a full 12-hour workday starting with coffee and ending with cocktails and even get a few snacks in between (the panini are delish). Heck, you can even move around to different parts of the restaurant to suit different moods ("...and now I shall sit in the lounge"). It also helps that Torino happens to have really freaking good coffee and really freaking good cocktails. And, they play the Black Keys a lot. I'm known to spend long hours working here and I also hold the majority of my business meetings here, so this place is pretty much my office now. I hope they don't start charging me rent...

Hipstergram photo by RPH.
#2 Bronx Bar (Detroit)
(Editor's note: one of my fellow freelancers loves this place so much he wanted to do the write-up for me. This meant less work for me, of which I am always a fan.)
The Bronx is Midtown’s king dive bar. It sits proudly on the corner of Second and Prentis, offering a bird’s eye view of gentrification in action. Sure, it masquerades as a Wayne State college bar on the weekends. But in this economy, we’ve all got to moonlight as something. No one’s judging so long as the sweet-and-salty Charlene governs the weekday afternoon shift, piping in classical music and allowing me to type away at my laptop in peace. The challenge is resisting smuggling a beer into your stomach before the clock strikes 4:00pm and not wrapping your arteries around the best damn cheeseburger (and overall bar menu) every time you set up shop. If you can resist the Bronx’s siren call, you’ve found yourself the best damn pop-up office the city has to offer. - Ryan Patrick Hooper, freelance writer and Bronx bar staple.

#3 Honest?John's (Detroit)
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Honest?John's is one of those divey Detroit bars that we all love and feel compelled to frequent. The best part about this place is not the food (greasy and good, but none too noteworthy) or the drinks (the selection is meh and the pricing is not quite divey enough) but the ambiance. Neon signs sport cheery sayings like, "Men Lie" and "Sobriety Sucks." The bathrooms are covered in years of drunken graffiti, and the jukebox kills (along with the Bronx, it's one of Detroit's best). Ashley Catherine Woods, Entertainment Producer for MLive, even says she has "a favorite booth, waitress and jukebox selection for the am." This is the kind of place where regulars rule.

#4 Cass Cafe (Detroit)
It's a restaurant-slash-art gallery serving healthful, globally-inspired food that is vegetarian- and vegan-friendly, and they also have killer drink specials. Located in the heart of Midtown, Cass Cafe gets a strong turnout of Wayne State and CCS students, artists, area hipsters and what-have-yous, and has always been a relaxed place for some good food, cheap drink, and sweet, sweet WiFi. Fire up the Mac and you'll fit right in, day or night.

#5 Woodbridge Pub (Detroit)
It's a restaurant-slash-art gallery serving healthful, globally-inspired food that is vegetarian- and vegan-friendly, and they also have killer drink specials. Located in the heart of Midtown, Cass Cafe Woodbridge, Woodbridge Pub gets a strong turnout of Wayne State and CCS students, artists, area hipsters and what-have-yous, and has always been a relaxed place for some good food, cheap drink, and sweet, sweet WiFi. And while Woodbridge has many surface similarities to Cass Cafe, one's a little artier and one's a little grittier, appropriately reflecting their respective neighborhoods. I fancy this one for their robust local beer selection, bottomless mimosa brunch, Internet jukebox, and pretty pretty bar. And on weekdays after the lunch rush but before the evening crowds, freelancers practically have the place all to themselves.

Bubbling under The Emory (Ferndale), Foran's Grand Trunk Pub (Detroit), Angelina Italian Bistro (Detroit - great for evening work meetings when WiFi is needed), Park Bar (Detroit), the Rock on Third (Royal Oak), Motor City Brewing Works (Detroit), Andrews on the Corner (Detroit), Traffic Jam and Snug (Detroit)

Friday, April 6, 2012

[EID Feature] Of Barns and Barbecue: Bad Brad's BBQ

Barbecue: the people's food. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

When writing about Detroit, or food, but more specifically food in Detroit, and also Detroit's rebirth, it's almost impossible to imagine the time Before Slows. Now it just feels like The Most Important Barbecue Restaurant in the Country has always been and forever will be; and every upscale BBQ joint to open in its wake is likely to suffer the accusation of "just trying to be Slows."

For the sake of discussion, let's get one thing straight: Slows Bar BQ did not invent BBQ. It didn't even invent upscale BBQ. And it certainly wasn't the first BBQ restaurant in Detroit; it was the first, however, to attract a predominantly suburban crowd. Detroit staples like Uptown BBQ, Nunn's Barbecue and Bert's Market Place all have a few decades on the place but the aesthetics and demographics of these old Detroit BBQ joints are markedly different.

Slows has been written up a million times in a million places and probably people in New York think it's the only restaurant in Detroit (incidentally, I'm told Phil Cooley - who has affectionately(??) been nicknamed "BBQ Jesus" - will be interviewed by Diane Sawyer next week). Now, we can make jokes (like the aforementioned "BBQ Jesus" bit), and we can snark (we LOVE to snark!), but there is simply no denying the impact that Slows has had on the immediate community that surrounds it and also on the image of the city of Detroit as a whole. To paraphrase from the best movie ever The Dark Knight, Phil Cooley might not be the hero Detroit wants but he's the hero Detroit needs. (Plus, Detroiters are never fucking happy. We've very much like New Yorkers in that way.)

Bad Brad's BBQ
It's no doubt that Slows has started a trend. In recent years metro Detroit has seen half a dozen new upscale BBQ restaurants that smoke all their own meats in-house etc. etc. open, all of them insisting that they're not the same as Slows. And you know what? They're not. Because to make that claim would be the same as to argue that all pizzerias are the same and every new pizzeria is just copying off of whichever one came before it. Or all sushi places are the same, or steakhouses, or what-the-hell ever - pick a food genre and accuse them all of copying each other; much like literary plot lines there are really only seven basic restaurant concepts that just get repeated ad infinitum so let's not act like this is some sort of new thing. Plus, each of these BBQ restaurants are as different as the different styles of BBQ across America.

But from all of this, something unexpected happened. For all of the accusations that metro Detroit - and thus, Michigan as a whole - has no "signature" cuisine, at least nothing that national media has previously cared to acknowledge, upscale barbecue has become something of a de facto specialty. Clarkston's Union Woodshop was recently featured in the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," Chef Alex Young of Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor received the prestigious James Beard Award for "Best Chef: Great Lakes" in 2011, and let's not forget the article that arguably started it all, Bon Appetit naming Slows one of the "Top 10 New Barbecue Restaurants" in 2009.

Detroit has always been a meat-and-potatoes kind of town, but lately it seems like it's more meat-and-mac 'n cheese.

So what's the appeal of upscale barbecue? And why all of a sudden now? Well, the short of it is in 2009 the world got pretty fucking awful, people started to really reevaluate their lifestyle spending habits and decided that high-end fine dining wasn't a necessity anymore but they still wanted to go out to eat once in awhile, chefs and restaurateurs had to scramble to identify and address the new demands of the consumer, then we got a fuckton of fancy BBQ joints. Is the short of it.

Really it came down to accessibility in food trends. Low-brow foods that were accessible to wider audiences (the key to that ultimately being affordability) were elevated to the level of gourmet: food trucks, street food, barbecue, classic American comfort food ... your average consumer probably couldn't identify why all of a sudden this was what they cared most about but the truth is these "pedestrian" foods was all anybody could afford. The foodie movement adapted; a major shift in America's culinary landscape occurred.

Brothers Mike and Marc Pollard, owners of Bad Brad's BBQ in New Baltimore and the second soon-to-open Shelby Twp. location, both have extensive culinary backgrounds in fine dining. Both attended culinary school and have worked under some of the best chefs in the country - Mike at Michael Mina in Las Vegas and Tribute in Farmington Hills; Marc under James Beard Award-winning chefs at AAA five-diamond restaurants in Las Vegas (including Julian Serrano's Picasso).

"When we came back here [to Detroit] we knew fine dining wasn't going to cut it here in Michigan," Mike says. They came up with their barbecue concept and readily admit to being inspired by Slows. They traveled throughout the country to research the different BBQ regions of America, then came back and opened rather quietly in a smallish space in New Baltimore in 2010. "We had time to hone everything in the dim lights of New Baltimore rather than the bright lights of Royal Oak," he says. "At this point we're ready and prepared!"

Much like Slows to the south and Union Woodshop to the north, Bad Brad's has a rabidly loyal following and sees hour-long wait times on weekends. And despite early support from both Sylvia Rector and Molly Abraham, there's still a good chance you haven't heard of them. (You people and your east side prejudices, I swear...) "That was the nice thing about the New Baltimore location," Mike says. "It was this quiet little joint. We always felt we opened strong but now we're extremely strong."

Mike says they have an extremely high level of food and take a fine dining approach to this casual cuisine without being "in your face" about it. "We source out the best possible product because it's better," he states. "We use all [USDA] Prime beef, six-year-aged Vermont cheddar, Maytag Bleu cheese ... because it's better. Everything is driven by just being better. But the menu doesn't say [all] that - we're not trying to 'wow' people with these descriptions. We use gastriques but we don't say that because barbecue isn't fancy."

To Mike, the best part about barbecue isn't just its accessibility as a cuisine, but how it appeals to all people. "Barbecue is one of those cuisines that can reach all levels - it crosses all demographics, all races. That's the great thing about barbecue: it's extremely approachable, and that's what makes sense around here. Barbecue, burgers, nachos, pizza - that's what we're serving but it's extremely high-end."

One of Mike's favorite stories to tell is the time he was at the restaurant and he noticed a guy drive up in a Bentley. He parked his car, came inside, sat by himself in a booth and had his lunch. Another guy came in at about the same time on a bike, also sat in a booth by himself and ordered lunch. These two guys, presumably with vastly different backgrounds, had ordered the exact same thing. For Mike, that is the essence of barbecue food in metro Detroit.

The new location exercises the same commitment to sustainability in design as the original, utilizing salvaged barn wood and reclaimed materials for what ends up being a country-meets-industrial motif that just works. As an astute person on Curbed Detroit noted (who, moi?):
The juxtaposition seems to suit the cuisine - barbecue is kind of a get-down-and-dirty food, and it also has a deep history with roots in the American South. Barbecue is cowboys, Everyman and guys named Bubba; if that feeling can be adequately translated into a building, Bad Brad's nails it. It's a little dirty, a little gritty - as the Osmonds might say, it's a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n roll - but also highly polished.
This location is also an evolution for Bad Brad's: in addition to their in-house smoker, they're also adding an in-house wood-burning stone oven for pizzas (the same one used at Cellar 849 in Plymouth, the home of Michigan's first "Certified Neapolitan" pizza) and a temperature- and humidity-controlled dough room. "The dough is the most important thing [for pizza]," Mike says. "If you're going to have some of the best barbecue you have to have good pizzas!" While some might argue that pizza and barbecue don't make natural menu mates, Mike thinks they are closer kindred than they're given credit. "It's all wood-fired," he explains of both how the pizzas and the meats are cooked. He adds, "There's so many things you can do with smoked meats [on a pizza]."

Mike hopes to have the new location opened by May 1 and continue exceeding expectations with their come-one, come-all cuisine. "As long as I can keep waking up every day and be excited about my job, that’s what it’s about."

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.

Read more on the design of Bad Brad's new Shelby Twp. location on Curbed Detroit here.

Bad Brads BBQ on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

[Metromix] One-Eyed Betty's

All photos by VATO for Metromix.

There has been a surge of business growth in downtown Ferndale over the past year, and One-Eyed Betty’s is another new concept to add to your “fast new favorites” list. Located in the space that was once home to Cantina Diablo’s, a Tex-Mex joint-cum-sports bar that never really gelled with the Ferndale crowd, Betty’s feels like the ultimate hometown bar for the slightly more sophisticated Ferndale clientele.

Beth Hussey was the Director of Operations for Brian Kramer (owner of Rosie O’Grady’s and Cantina Diablo’s) before moving out to Grand Rapids for a year where she got “quite the beer education.” (Western Michigan is hugely into the craft beer industry, home to some of the top-rated breweries and beer bars in the country.) When business at the Ferndale location of Cantina Diablo’s began to slow after the Royal Oak location opened, Hussey called Kramer and pitched him the idea of turning into a craft beer bar. He made her a partner and stayed on as a silent partner, and work began immediately to transform the space into a comfortable neighborhood pub.

“I’ve always loved craft beer and always thought a craft beer bar would do really well in Ferndale,” she says. “Ferndale is really the place for it. I saw it can be done when I was [in Grand Rapids], so learned more about beer and said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

The Mood

The interior design is all Hussey’s. “It’s my concept. I designed it; we had no general contractor,” she states. “We had to make do with what we had since they had just put $2.5 million into it.” She wanted the space to have a “kind of divey, edgy, neighborhood bar kind of feel,” so the space is stripped down to the bar basics of what makes a good beer bar: wooden floors, long communal tables (reminiscent of a German biergarten – which is intentional, since they do not have an outdoor patio), comfortable booths, exposed ductwork giving it that bit of industrial chic appeal, and chalkboards announcing the specials and newest beers on tap.

Hussey also connected with Richard Gage of Richard Gage Design Studios (“my design superhero”), a local artist based in Hazel Park who put her in touch with other local artists and helped her source interesting reclaimed pieces to decorate with. Some works inside Betty’s are from Clinton Snider, who (along with prominent Detroit artist Scott Hocking) was commissioned to go around the city and find “relics” to turn into art pieces which were then displayed at the Detroit Institute of Arts “Relics” exhibit. There is also an “Exit” sign located by the door which was an actual sign on I-75 that had fallen and left discarded on the side of the road; Gage then framed it in metal. Gage is also currently working on an elaborate bottle cap logo sculpture, and later on customers will be able to actively contribute to a bottle cap mural that will be designed as a sort of paint-by-numbers project on the back wall.

For entertainment, there is a small stage for live music ranging from Tony Lucca (a native Detroiter who is currently competing on The Voice) to rockabilly act Delilah DeWylde and the Lost Boys. There are also fully functioning vintage pinball machines located at the front that will continuously get switched out thanks to Hussey’s friend who is a vintage pinball machine collector. “It fits our ‘dive bar’ appeal. There’s nowhere else you can go that has these”

The total turnaround time from the Diablo’s-to-Betty’s transition was about a month and a half, but the space is entirely reborn. The end result feels like an arts-minded urban beer hall that fits in so well with Ferndale’s forward-thinking creative community that it feels like it has always been there (and, more importantly, it’s already hard to imagine a Ferndale without it).

Pork belly sandwich.

The Food

Chef Emmele Herrold along with Hussey has created a menu of beer-themed and beer-friendly food. “The food concept is simple,” Hussey says. “We just wanted a menu that’s all food that is either cooked with beer, or a classic pairing with beer, or food that fits the beer drinkers’ demographic,” she pauses, then asks rhetorically: “Would Homer Simpson like it?”

There is a huge emphasis on oysters (oysters and stout are a classic pairing), which Hussey is very proud of. They get oysters fresh six days a week and price they very aggressively to ensure they keep moving and are always fresh. “We only want to order what we use that day because we want them to be the freshest oysters possible,” she explains. During their 4 to 6 p.m. happy hour the “One-Eyed Oysters” are $1 each by the dozen or half-dozen, “half of what other places charge which helps keep them moving and keep them the freshest possible.” They use Naked Cowboy East Coast oysters, and in addition to serving them on the shell they also serve them baked (Oysters Beatrice, $7), broiled (Oyster Roast, $12) and fried (Po’Boy, $10).

Other staple beer pairings include mussels (great with Belgian beer), a rotating selection of cheese and charcuterie boards (most appropriate with German beer), and fire-roasted wings (great with any beer), plus they also make one of the best Beer Cheese Soups (“au gratin” style, $3/5) you’ll find in metro Detroit. “Bacon with a Side of Bacon” ($8) is already a huge fan favorite, comprised of braised pork belly, applewood smoked bacon strips, and a fried poached egg. They also have “Some Sorta Special” nightly, which lately has been a lot of seafood and cockles (clams) and crispy brussel sprouts. “There’s always something different and interesting to check out.”

If you like seafood, you’ll love their “Obligatory Fish and Chips” ($14), a massive piece of haddock that doesn’t even fit on the plate served with their hand-cut fries, homemade coleslaw and lemon-caper aioli. The haddock is fried in their secret-recipe house beer batter, which is not the crispy-crunchy batter you might expect but thick, doughy, pillowy batter. The haddock is snow white and juicy.

Another “handwich” that has already gained a cult following is the “Pork Belly Sandwich” ($9) with pickled veggies and Asian mayo served on a French baguette. The pork is so tender and succulent it drips all over your plate – have plenty of napkins handy.

No proper beer bar is complete without a signature burger. The “Betty Burger” has bacon, sharp cheddar and garlic aioli ($10) on a hearty bun, served with hand-cut fries or substitute their giant, pillowy onion rings – more like onion doughnuts – for a buck.

On Saturdays and Sundays they serve one of Ferndale’s most infamous breakfasts – a giant grilled homemade Cinnamon Roll French Toast with gooey caramel sauce ($8). They also serve a “German Breakfast” ($9), an assortment of meats and cheeses served with a huge piece of baguette and whole grain mustard.

Save room for dessert: their Homemade Donuts ($5) are served fresh and piping hot right out of the fryer with chocolate and raspberry dipping sauces, and the Chocolate-Covered Raspberry Float ($5) is definitely an adult’s dessert with Atwater Brewery’s Vanilla Java Porter and Framboise in ice cream.

The Drinks

This is a beer lover’s beer bar. They have 44 handles and up to three hand pulls at a time. Can’t decide? Build your own flight, 3 for $7 or 6 for $14. Right now they’ve got about 100 additional beers by the bottle and are slowly building their inventory over time. It’s all American and European craft beer, though they do have PBR on tap and a selection of “yellow fizzy beers” like Black Label and High Life. “[For macro beers] we stuck to semi-local or retro-fabulous,” Hussey explains. “There’s no Bud Light or Miller Light or Coors Light and we’ll stay true to that forever.”

Instead the beer list is a best-of of Michigan and American craft beers and interesting imports. There are a lot of seasonal brews on the list as well as special releases, like the highly sought-after Kentucky Breakfast Stout from Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids (named the number 2 beer of 2011 by Wine Enthusiast). Just make sure you check the ABV because a lot of those Belgian, Belgian-style and American strong beers tend to have double to triple the alcohol content of an average beer. Know your limitations!

Another good friend of beer is whiskey. One-Eyed Betty’s has over 56 whiskeys and the list is still growing. “We’re really putting a lot of focus on whiskey,” Hussey says. “Beer and whiskey go really well together, and whiskey is big right now.” They’re hoping to put Hudson Baby Bourbon – a new whiskey that just launched in Michigan from a boutique distillery on New York – on tap, and being the first to do it. They’ve got bourbon, single malt scotch, Irish whiskey, American whisky (note the difference in spelling; Irish whiskey is with an “e”), and soon they’ll even have a Japanese whisky called Suntory Yamazaki.

On weekends, enjoy your brunch with tableside Bloody Marys ($5). “I’m a Bloody Mary connoisseur,” Hussey says. “I’ve always like the idea of a Bloody Mary bar but they creep me out and I’ve never enjoyed it or seen it done right.” So instead, they bring the Bloody Mary bar right to your table! If that’s not your thing, they also have bottomless mimosas for $12 and BEERmosas made with Wittekerke and orange juice.

The Service

Hussey works hard at making sure her staff is knowledgeable about the different styles of beer and proper pouring, and is also working on a beer school for her employees. “We’re focused on educating people,” she says, “but we don’t want to be intimidating [or snobby]. The staff will take people by the hand [and guide them through the beer list]. We also have a lot of great ‘segway’ beers … baby steps!”

Even if you’re not a self-identified beer nerd, this is still a totally comfortable and friendly neighborhood bar that also happens to have an amazing beer list. Really this is a place for everyone where everyone is made to feel welcome. Service is consistently casual and unobtrusive; you’ll get as much or as little assistance as you want, and servers are always friendly and attentive.

Insider’s Tip

Since they only just opened in February they’re still getting their bearings, and Hussey is finding out that they’re going through so much beer that the beer list is changing faster than they can print it. Be patient when things listed on the menu have run out. They’ve got a lot of fun things planned for the future, including beer to go, a beer club, a women’s beer group (called Friends of Betty’s), beer dinners (Kuhnhenn Brewing Company will be their first), and an app that will allow you to keep track of the beers you’ve tried with tasting notes and prizes at certain benchmarks. Happy hour is every day from 4 to 6 p.m., though drink specials change monthly.

The Verdict

They were popular from the minute they opened their doors and that popularity is only growing. “I knew it would do well but I did not know it was going to do this well,” Hussey says. Basically, everyone loves the place, and with great bar food, a fantastic beer selection, friendly people and a relaxed beer-drinkin’ environment … well, that’s exactly WHY everyone loves the place!

Monday, April 2, 2012

[HOT LIST] Easter buffet

Some days you just feel like the odd man out.

From what I understand, most of the first round draft picks for Easter brunch this Sunday, April 8 are already booked. (And so I apparently need to run the Mother's Day brunch hot list, like, next week.) If you're anything like me and don't know what you're doing until about an hour before you actually do it, here are some second- and third-round picks for Easter brunch buffets (and also dinner! and also one that isn't so much a buffet as it is a prix fixe menu!) that are still accepting reservations, in no particular order than the one I just happened to copy and paste them in. (Do you like how I worked a sports reference in there? Because Thursday is Opening Day? ... Baseball has drafts right?)