They say the Early Birdgets the worm…sometimes, however, you get the best nest you’ve ever tasted.
I went to lunch with a friend yesterday. She suggested the recently re-imagined coffee shop located on Lake Street in East Town Grand Rapids. Formerly the Kava House, I remembered the place as a hip pastry shop where 20-something college students wondered how a middle-aged mom had wandered into their tech-savvy locale. (I was surprised I wasn’t stopped at the door for lacking a laptop.) I liked it when the building was a coffee/tea space but I love what the new owner has done with it. Especially the food.
If you join me at That Early Bird, expect the unexpected.
I had a hard time picking.* Look closely at the sign board above and you’ll see why.** My inner six year old wanted the baked French toast stuffed with blueberry compote, but I’m stuffed enough as it is, so I passed. I ended up picking the Avocado Smash and boy, was I not sorry.
If you had asked me that morning what I thought of combining soft boiled eggs, avocado, raw cabbage, grilled corn and an English muffin with lime creme, I would have laughed at you. After the above benediction from heaven, however, I don’t have time to laugh. Too busy wiping up the drool.
Now my friend asked me, “Why are you posting about something that sounds like a Facebook post?”*** Mostly because it gives me one more post to put off writing a long-overdue piece evaluating my literary efforts. (So, basically a win-win for us all.)
Lastly, I would have included a picture of the enormous (I’d use ginormous, but I don’t like to encourage deviant linguistics) biscuits and gravy my friend finally decided on, however, she’d already dug into a fair portion of the mountainous food before I got my camera ready. She enjoyed it immensely and I think lumber jacks would have found the portion satisfying. I was happy with my lighter repast.
So if you like fine–and truly unique–dining, there’s no need to get up at dawn to enjoy a meal with the Early Bird crew. And you can rest at ease, there are no worms allowed at this establishment.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*With things named as ‘vertical paradise mustard greens,’ who can blame my confusion?
**I have to wonder if they offer marriage counselling to go with the Huevos Divorciados? Ditto, I have questions about what the two sauces represent: “Green” suggests separating you from your moolah and “Red” signifies your beating heart torn from your chest?
I know it’s been a while. Sorry ‘bout that. I get busy. I know, I know. It isn’t an excuse. That’s why I’m going to make it up to you. It’s time for a girl’s night out! Even Kirsten said she’d come—her hubby will watch the kids while we frolic! Go ahead, get gussied. I’ll wait.
Surprise! We’re heading to Holland for dinner and a show—Kirsten is meeting us there for a Saturday night on the town! Can you believe it? Hang on. “Hello?” (It’s Kirsten.) ” Holland Brewery is overflowing? No problem!”
Kirsten suggests Butch’s nearby—so convenient as it is one block west. We whisk off for an alfresco dining experience at Butch’s Dry Dock. You’ve a perky step that wasn’t there earlier in the day.
Have I told you how nice you look? The earrings are a nice touch.
You saunter through the sublimely bland concrete exterior, pretending to belong. The interior hallway displays expensive looking clothes—a well-heeled, faux brick shopping plaza.
The host leads you to a patio where giant sunscreens shade quiet, well-dressed patrons. Kirsten ‘Woo Hoos’ for you to join her; it’s a bit noisy with the rustle of seating and umbrella adjusting to keep us from drowning in the sun as we eat. You can tell middle-aged moms don’t get out much—we laugh as we decipher the cryptic menu. The rest of our meal we are the table to be! Laughter races from topic to topic. Our neighbors’ conversations never rise above a murmur the whole evening! How do they know when they’re having fun?
This is the fine dining portrayed in rich television dramas. The menu offers carpaccio ‘dusted with cocoa nibs’. Confit, chutney and cipollini are scattered on the menu in the same casual manner a fast food worker would ask, “Do you want fries with that?” The napkins on the table are cloth, lovingly scrolled in their own holster mid-table. No more McDonald’s cubed food for us! Now you can say you’ve risen to the hoi polloi at least for one meal!
Kirsten orders probably the sunniest looking martini you have ever seen—the Sweet Georgia is a slice of pink-orange froth accented with lemon. It tastes like a promise of eternal youth, almost masking the sticker shock of $11.00 with each tangy swallow. One sip is your reward for eyeing the drink like a thirsty spaniel. Kirsten is such a marshmallow!
Our waiter is sufficiently aloof to make a British butler proud, we warm much faster to red-haired Jack (of our hearts) who checks to see our glasses never empty. We dub him the ‘water boy’ as he obviously isn’t a waiter. He fixes our wobbly table and, with a furtive look, first left, then right, promises to provide a diversion so you can steal the menu.
The meal arrives in stages. We share the most exotic spinach salad ever concocted. Spicy bites of candied ginger pair with the grapefruit—but do challenge the palate with pepitas and a rough-ground mustard vinaigrette. The avocado is neutral and balances the whole. The table votes that it is a winner! Huzzah!
The meals arrive just in time to keep us from hunting down our waiter—though we do dragoon Jack into getting us some salt and pepper.* The verdict on the entrees is mixed. Kirsten braves the ethnic dish ‘Bahn Mi’ and concludes that, “It’s a good pork sandwich, but it doesn’t taste as good as the Bahn Mi served at the more authentic Huyen’s.” Even a dash of balsamic doesn’t fulfill the umami bite she’s looking for.
“You got the best dish of the three of us.” She says, eyeing your flatbread a little wistfully.
Go ahead gloat, I know you want to.
The brandade is good, but a tad salty. The brandade….you know, the smoked whitefish topped with bread crumbs served in a ramekin on a gold-edged plate? What? Ramekin.
R. A. M. E. K. I. N.
No, it’s a little dish to serve small souffles or dips like this one in. Why would you think I’d be talking about a Norwegian elf? It sounds Norwegian? Just eat your flatbread.**
So the banh mi that’s not a banh mi and the white fish are a smidge disappointing but the flatbread rules. The real draw is the bonhomie, under a hot sun, inviting warm exchanges.
“Will you look at the time!”
We’d better hustle if we’re going to make the show. But of course, there’s always time for a little detour…
I see you! You’ve spotted the candy store next door. So that’s why you skipped dessert! Okay, one…maybe two truffles, but then we’ve got to go!
Nibbling our chocolate, we head to the Holland Civic Theater for live entertainment in a new production: The Lies the Bind.
Kirsten warns us, “It’s a tearjerker.”
I know, I know, I should have checked with you, but I wanted it to be a surprise. Okay, so it’s a drama. I know, you like comedy, but a little drama never hurt anybody, right?
The Holland Civic Theater is located in a corrugated gingerbread house of a building. It even has the curlicue decorations along the eaves.*** It looks like a former church and we, the penitent, file into the pews awaiting the Southern discomfort to come.
Turns out the small venue is perfect for the family on the brink of tragedy. The space is intimate—you are knees to neck with the audience member in front of you. The line of sight is a bit awkward.
“Someone should tell management to stagger the chairs.” What do you mean, shush? You shush. Oh right, the show is starting.
TWO HOURS LATER…
Okay, so next time, we do comedy. No, I know you don’t like it when bad things like that happen…especially to children. Yes, yes. You get to pick the next one. A musical? You know how I feel about musicals! Okay, Galavant was an exception; who doesn’t love a good spoof musical? What about Ella? You mean the movie based on the book Ella Enchanted? That wasn’t really a spoof musical, now was it! No, it wasn’t good either. But you’ll admit, Anne Hathaway did her best to save it. Yes, yes. The book is turning over in its grave. Right, no more theater tickets without your express approval.
What? Yes. You can use my hanky. I’m sure you just got something in your eye.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*The subtle hint by condiment omission is that everything the restaurant serves is delicious without question. Only a hairy-knuckled troglodyte would add a thing!
** This is why we don’t go out for fancy dinners—one sip of martini and we’re lost.
***Alright, alright. I don’t know architecture terms. What do you call that bric-a-brac found along Swiss chalets?
I am the proud owner of a new Toyota Prius V. Or rather, I’m very close to being a proud owner. Unlike horseshoes and hand grenades, being close to owning a car isn’t very satisfying. (Although, one could make an argument that having hand grenades explode isn’t desirable either. I guess it depends on whether you are on the receiving end of that exchange.) This is why I am grateful for pastries. Allow me to explain.
Last week Wednesday, I’m anticipating the joy/terror of getting a brand new car.* I am giddy after finally making up my mind (despite the pressures of family and friends to pick almost any other vehicle) to buy a Toyota Prius V. Blue. It must be blue. In a delighted state of anticipation, I walk to the nearest bakery on my lunch hour to indulge in taste-testing a champion cupcake. Chocolate. It must be chocolate. Cakabakery won awards** for being able to stand the hot lights of fame and produce magical muffins on the Food Network Cupcake Wars bake-off. I had to try these puppies. Victory never tasted so sweet. As it turns out, I celebrated a bit too prematurely.
It’s Thursday, I’ve just signed over the contents of my checking account and put a hefty balance on my Visa when the nice car guru takes me out to teach me all the confusing knobs and dials I need to learn to be able to drive my car***
Guru: “And this button here will interface with the satellite to allow you to revisit 70’s music.”
Guru: “Why does it need to interface with a satellite?”
Me: “Why would I want to listen to 70’s music? Living through that era was bad enough.”
As you can see, it was going swell. Then she tried to swipe the magic screen developed by Hogwarts School of Engineering when…nothing. The screen locked up. For the next two hours, the fine folks at the Toyota dealership tried to figure out why. Time passed…slowly. I was dropped off to buy the car so I have no way of demanding my money back and stalking out, not unless I want to walk the sixty or so miles home and my phone battery is nearly dead. My blood sugar drops as my ire increases. To save the lives all around me, I walk to the nearby Rykse’s Bakery and Restaurant for lunch. After enough chicken salad to pacify a slavish horde, I purchased a cookie for my son. This bakery makes great things, one of which is iced cookies that they number with frosting (for no real reason I can see). My son loves numbers. I pick out a six—at least one of us will be happy. I’m walking back to the dealership, cookie balanced atop my leftover, when it happens. The cookie flies off and hits the ground. The cookie cracks; the number six is now just a sad suggestion of its former numeric self and I learn my brand new car will need to be fixed.
I really want to cry.
Broken pastry in hand, I finally leave the dealership with the loaner car and a strong longing to never return. Except they have my car. My blue, blue car. Sigh…blue, blue me.
To assuage my grief, there were more cupcakes to be had. This time, I hit the Cupcakes by Design people in Grandville, MI. These confections had a ratio of at least 75% frosting to 25% cake. If you like frosting, this place is for you. I snatched a caramel, mocha chocolate and a chocolate brownie cupcake to taste test at home. (Some crises call for a double-chocolate antidote.) If I have to suffer, the upside will come glazed or slathered in frosting. That’s just the way I roll. (Emphasis on roll.) Defeat has never tasted so good.
Tuesday I went to yoga and discovered the downside to a combination of cupcakes and Netflix binging.
Today, I have survived nearly a week of car nebulosity and will be returning to the dealer to—hopefully—pick up the newly repaired, blue beauty. And if it isn’t fixed? Well, sometimes, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*New car smell is immediately washed away by the stench of anxiety waiting for that first dent.
One thing I have discovered, house hunting makes you hungry. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a side effect of staring at so many kitchens without being able to look in the refrigerator. (Are we supposed to be looking in the fridge?) One of the things I stumbled across while cruising a prospective neighborhood yesterday was a new restaurant. Well, new to me anyway.
The Main Street Pub is aptly named and has the potential to be a main staple as well. Hand-painted flowers decorate the windows facing the street luring customers to try greener pastures. Located at 1730 28th Street SW in Wyoming, Main Street has a hardwood character that makes me look around to see if “Norm” is going to walk in and take a seat at the end of the bar. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81QluTS-mWc I believe it is a comparison the establishment fosters because the first thing my waiter, Zack, did was ask me my name. He was charming and attentive. It surprised me to learn he’d only been working there for a week. He too blended right away into an atmosphere that makes you feel as if the place has always been there and always will be, even though the restaurant is only eight or nine years old. And I will bet you a dessert of your choice—and the menu sports quite a few nice looking ones—that you won’t guess Zack’s age correctly if you visit.*
The place is large enough to host fourteen tables in the dining area with additional seating in the bar—nicely segmented by a midrise wooden wall topped by stained glass panels. It is family-friendly while still catering to bar stool jockeys in a segregated area, with a rowdier crowd in the wee hours of 2:00 a.m. (Which I will never be able to describe as that is past my bedtime. Feel free to stay up and let me know what happens.) Although the food reflects much of the standard bar fare, touches of culinary expression make this pub a cut above the rest.
I ordered the portabella club (7.99) and a cup of the tomato basil soup (2.49). I had planned to squeeze in a slice of the luscious-sounding Lemon Mousse Melody cake, but the sandwich came with an unexpected pile of French fries. The meal was more than plenty for lunch. As I ate, I watched the diners who were enjoying friendly conversation—not having to shout over the televisions there for the bar crowd and sports enthusiasts was pleasant. Because I came after the lunch hour, it was calm and yet still had the friendly feeling I look for when I dine out. (If I want crabby company, I can eat alone at home.)
The food I ate was tasty but not too pretentious. The fries were in my favorite, slightly soft state and hadn’t be doused in too much NaCl. Although I suspect the food will lean to the saltier side, so be prepared to drink gallons or just ask if the cook can “Just Say No” to the sodium.
The soup had a lovely tang of fresh basil which offset its salty character. The toasty pita bread oozed just a bit of the aioli red pepper sauce with each bite. If I could change something, I would have preferred a giant portabella mushroom to sink my teeth into rather than the slices of baby portabella. But that didn’t hurt the flavor. I’d also suggest they use a shredded Monterey Jack versus sliced to help better marry the loose lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers—melted cheese makes a terrific mortar. Minor gripes aside, the food comes with the promise of a warm welcome and a hope that this might become a favorite hangout of mine. Just as soon as I can find a house in Wyoming that I can afford.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Yes, the title is about as cheesy as it gets. I like cheese. Get used to it.
**I’m serious about the bet. First person to write in with Zack’s accurate age (as of 2014) will have dessert on me. Well, not on me, on me. This isn’t that kind of foodie site.
[I want to practice having ‘topics’ on my blog. Basically, I want an excuse to play around with my basic 20/13 format. Here’s hoping it is more socially acceptable than playing with one’s food.]
I have always secretly wanted to be a food critic. And no, it’s not just because I want to eat for free. I think I would make an excellent cuisine diva. You know, the nose-in-the-air snob who slinks into a posh establishment wearing sunglasses (as if they won’t recognize the terrifying taster at a glance anyway) orders one of everything on the menu and then delivers pronouncements from on high that make or break the restaurant’s reputation. Only I have a small problem. I don’t eat meat.* (Meat, for the purposes of this article refers to red meats: beef, pork, lamb, musk ox, bambi…) I’m not a vegan or anything like that (no offense to Vegans intended) but, I just don’t like the taste or the texture or sometimes the politics. (Okay, who out there can eat Veal? I mean, seriously. The Vegans aren’t entirely wrong about their Eating Animals is Cruel stance.)
You think: “Okay. You don’t like meat…but you could try all the seafood restaurants…” Wrong! I am anti-seafood. I lack the gene or whatever it is that makes water-based life forms appetizing. I find crustaceans to be thoroughly repellent. Shrimp are just about the worst thing ever. How can someone willingly put a watery cockroach into their mouth, bite the head off, and spit out the crunchy leg parts? Eaugh! (The sound you make when you suppress vomit.)
So you say, “Well that’s because you have never had good seafood.” For some reason, people who like seafood cannot fathom a world in which people like me exist. Vegans don’t count. They are aliens to our planet and therefore cannot be used for statistical purposes. As to the attitude, I get it, I really do. Whenever I meet someone who doesn’t like chocolate, I suspect them of being a terrorist with an anti-confectioner’s manifesto: “The Cocoa Bean Has Had Its Day. Bring Back Saltwater Taffy.” Now, where was I? Oh, right, seafood should only be served to other seafood.
Regarding good seafood: I have tasted several dishes at the behest of many astounded people who don’t believe me when I say, “No, I do not like eating something that swims in its own feces.” I have tried ‘good’ lobster (stringy rubber bands), ‘good’ calamari (chewy rubber bands), ‘good’ crab, (eek, giant sea spider), ‘good’ shrimp (nasty, filthy, gelatinous horrors of the sea) and don’t let me get started on octopus. The suckers…oh god…the suckers. As for regular old fish…if it is coated with a shield-layer of deep fried breading, slathered with a quart of tartar sauce and wedged between a soft Kaiser roll with a fistful of hairy lettuce…I can manage to suppress the gag reflex long enough to swallow it. Not exactly “Yummo”**.
So why do I want to be a food critic if I don’t eat 90% of what is on the menu? It’s for that remaining 10%. I eat chicken because it marvelously doesn’t contain feelers, veins, or protoplasmic tendencies like a mollusk does. Also chicken can be smothered by a thousand different toppings and taste completely different each time—if it is cooked well and with care. I love veggies and, even though they are considered an afterthought at most American restaurants, there are some incredible variations at the Ethnic establishments. Countries where living on vegetables is a necessity and therefore, the flavoring of said staple is given some thought beyond “Let’s toss some bacon in it and call it good.”
That said, on occasion, when I have been out to a fine dining establishment that does not involve “Would you like fries with that?” inquiries, I may be moved to share my epicurean wisdom. For example:
The title of my article, which was the intended subject of this rant blog, was meant to pique your interest about a Mexican Restaurant I enjoyed yesterday. El Barrio http://www.elbarriomexicangrill.com/ is located at 545 Michigan Street NE just East of College Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids, MI. I recommend it with only minor reservations. I have only dined there twice, so my exposure to the food is limited. But what I have had there has been well cooked, hot and served in a timely fashion. The chips are crisp and the salsa is a nice, mild accompaniment. The service is friendly and considerate to families with special needs. (Spoiler Alert.) Two things detracted from my most recent experience. It is located at a section of the road just before a highway entrance/exit. At rush hour, be prepared to nose your way through aggressive drivers to access the parking lot. (I blame their discourtesy on low blood sugar.) The other detractor I would say is they LIED on their dessert menu. I ordered the ‘fried ice cream’ expecting, silly me, to get fried ice cream. No, what we got was a ball of ice cream that had been rolled in a crushed nut topping and then served with stale ‘crisps’ which I think would have been delicious if they weren’t old. I say that because the taco salad I ordered came in the most amazing bowl I have ever eaten. I mean, it was traffic-stopping good. I had the leftovers today and the bowl, while a little soggy still tasted fantastic.
I may not be Julia Childs but I can appreciate a decent meal and a lovely ambiance. Anyone who wishes to challenge my street cred as a food critic is welcome to take me out somewhere for dinner and test my acumen. (I promise, I can accurately identify kale from radicchio at ten paces—which is as close as I am willing to get to either of those bitter weeds. Not all veggies are created equal.) Just don’t ask me to taste your meat.* There are things I am willing to do for a free meal…but that isn’t one of them!
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*All those of you who are of a prurient mind and are snickering to yourself about the use of the word ‘meat’ in this article—shame on you. (Okay, you are allowed some license for the last reference. That was intentional.)
**Yummo is a trademarked phrase of Kitchen Goddess Rachael Ray. If you don’t know who Rachael Ray is, she just hasn’t reached your village yet for occupation, wait a bit. You might want to stock up on EVOO before she gets there though.