Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Winchester, 648 Wealthy SE - 12/30/09

A new restaurant in 2009 and advertised as a Gastro Pub, The Winchester was recommended by a friend so we dropped in for lunch today. It’s a beautiful place, brick interior walls, open ceiling, all-wood bar, and wooden tables & chairs. It reminded us a little of O’Toole’s but smaller. It’s long and narrow, bar on one side, small tables on the opposite wall, two high tables in the middle, high tables for six, more tables for two, and a couple of booths in the rear. The small tables are the major problem. If you take one of them, you are dining with the people next to you; uncomfortably close. Even though we were only two, we took a high table for six so we could talk, just to ourselves. If we had to move, we would have headed to the bar to sit but they let us be. Summer dining would be better as there's a large outdoor patio.

What exactly is a Gastro Pub? There was no information on the menu so we looked it up. Apparently it’s a British term that combines Pub (Public House) with Gastronomy, i.e., a pub that specializes in serving quality food. So more pub than restaurant but with really good food. It makes sense, but then is the Green Well really a Gastro Pub? It's more restaurant than pub. But that's for another time.

Service was prompt, friendly, and informative, and we started with Cast Iron Skillet Shrimp. Featuring Tiger Shrimp (native to West Pacific and widely farmed in southeast Asia), with freshly chopped garlic, red pepper flakes, and roasted red peppers, it was great; the flavoring was subtle and didn’t overwhelm the shrimp.

For our main dishes, we ordered one of the day’s lunch specials, Skirt Steak Tacos, and one off the menu, the Pulled Pork Sandwich. We like to think that the specials will be “special” but sometimes they are just items the restaurant wants to move. Today that was probably not the case. The two Skirt Steak Tacos came nicely presented with fresh tomato, shredded lettuce, sour cream, house-made vegetable salsa, and a wedge of lime. The meat was medium-rare in one taco and medium in the other - not sure how that happened but they were good. Tortillas are made in-house, which is unusual in a non-Mexican restaurant, and the lime wedge was a nice touch.

The Pulled Pork sandwich fared equally as well. The slow-cooked pork came with haystack onions and house-made barbecue sauce on ciabatta bread. The barbecue sauce had a nice kick to it and the ciabatta was fresh and soft. Plaintain chips accompanied the sandwich and they were interesting.

The food is fresh, from local food sources, and/or homemade and the menu is varied and creative. Pricing is reasonable with each sandwich priced at $8.50. It's a great spot for lunch and a nice addition to the Eastown area.

The Winchester on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Empanada Kitchen, 1551 28th St SW - 12/24/09

Look up “empanada” and you will see a long history of world-wide variations on a theme. But you don’t need to google it - just check out and you can read all about it. The restaurant is located in a small, free-standing building on the southwest side; we drove past it the first time. We parked at the neighboring corner business and walked over. What greeted us was blaring Mexican-flavored music and no one in the place but a woman behind the counter. It was apparent we needed to order at the counter so after having selected our booth, we stepped up to see the menu. The woman gave us a wave as she disappeared in the kitchen and the music continued to blast. After about five minutes, she returned and tried to answer our questions regarding the menu, but the language barrier was huge. She finally turned down the radio and tried to assist us in ordering. It was pretty confusing as we tried to understand her and read from the menus and charts available. We finally got two empanadas ordered each and then had to tackle the “sides”. More confusion. We finally just ordered/pointed to the sides we could see at the counter buffet and called it good. The friendly woman directed us to the cooler to select a beverage, selections of which were pretty limited.

We waited at our booth for our food and checked out the surroundings. (The woman continued to play her music, at a reduced volume, and at times was heard singing along.) There are 5 tables and 2 booths, each holding 4 people (ours sloped down from the wall). Decor is light: one painting, 2 Mexican wall pieces, 1 air conditioner, and the obligatory Christmas wreath. A small table held coffee mugs for sale, and a beverage cooler was present running loud. A customer came in wearing a hoodie and knit cap. He patiently waited at the counter until she brought out our order. Then he ordered 12 empanadas to go, and sat in a chair directly in front of and facing the cooler and didn’t move until his order was ready. He made me feel uneasy and I’m not sure why. (I surreptitiously moved my cash from my wallet to my jeans pocket - sorry paranoia, you win.)

Our food was bought out and we ended up with one platter holding two fajita beef empanadas, with meatballs and vegetables as its sides, and one platter holding a fajita beef empanada and a chicken empanada, with sides of beans and vegetables. The empanadas were really quite good; lightly deep fried, the pastry was flavorful and the meat/cheese combinations were tasty. The sides were odd choices for a Mexican restaurant and fared much worse. The vegetables had some flavor, but were overcooked and mushy, as expected at a buffet offering. Meatballs and beans were ok but nothing special. The empanada pastry tasted homemade. The sophisticated website belies the actual atmosphere of the restaurant, which is interesting in itself. We were wondering how a one, or maybe two, person restaurant could afford a 28th street location and stay in business (please don’t be a front for drug-running). The website lists three locations, Grand Rapids, East Lansing, and Ann Arbor, all of which state “coming soon”. So perhaps this isn’t an independent local effort? Catering services are offered and an owner and manager are listed on the business card for this location, both women. Check it out if you like an out-of-the-ordinary restaurant, not-a-national-chain-restaurant, and are fond of empanadas. Our next empanadas will be taken to go.

Empanada Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tillman's, 1245 Monroe St NW - 12/18/09

We’ve been to Tillman’s several times for lunch and always enjoy it. It’s a great neighborhood restaurant/bar. You are blind when you walk in because it’s so dark, but there are no steps to trip on and you may seat yourself, as soon as you can see. There’s a nice, all-wood bar that has a few TVs and a packed crowd. Running along side the bar are two long rows of booths. The large non-smoking back room has tables and chairs, today containing a small Christmas party and several other couples. The clientele is middle-age to retired, with men dominating. The waitresses are all middle-age, very friendly, and call everyone “hon”. It’s a very welcoming, comfortable atmosphere, a restaurant type that used to be in every neighborhood. The food isn't unique, particularly healthy, or locally produced, but it's the food older folks remember.

The menu is fairly large but we usually stick to the features or the specials. Today being Friday, stuffed trout and fish and chips were the specials of the day. Not trusting the trout (we are in the Midwest after all), we had one order of fish and chips and an order of smothered chicken, one of their specialties. The fish was pretty well deep fried but ok, and the fries were unremarkable. Smothered chicken fared better, consisting of grilled chicken, mushrooms and onions, covered with melted mozzarella cheese.

So, maybe not particularly noted for high quality, healthy food, Tillman's is certainly notable as a great neighborhood place to meet your friends or host a get-together. It's worth a visit.

Tillman's Dining & Cocktails on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Pita House, Monroe Center - 12/11/09

8/17/12: New occupant identified, now really sad...

6/18/12: Nothing left but reflections... 
5/23/12 Update: Sami's lost their lease on Monroe Center and will close this weekend. Sad news for the downtown lunch crowd. Sami's owners are looking for a new downtown space.

Everyone who lives in Grand Rapids has been in a Sami’s Restaurant (now four locations), and it is the best gyro in town. The rest of the food is good as well, particularly the hummous, babaghanooj, shish kabob, and falafel. If your dining companions are not fond of Mediterranean cuisine, they can order a burger, corn dog, turkey sandwich, or a few other things (frankly, we’d rather find new dining companions :).

We recently tried the downtown location and it’s in a great spot on Monroe Center. So what’s left to say? Only that the atmosphere is not pleasant (we have not been to the Kentwood location so that may be different but it’s unlikely). Each restaurant has a walk-up-to-order counter and sit-down areas with hard booths and chairs. There’s nothing warm, comfortable, or inviting about the seating areas or decor. (The East Town location also serves as a grocery store.) Our preference is to get our food to go and eat at home. The 28th street location does have an outdoor deck so it’s a little nicer in summer - yes, except that it’s on 28th Street. Traffic noise and fumes don’t generate a pleasurable dining experience. So, if you’re in the mood for a great gyro, go get Sami’s, but get it to go.
Pita House Downtown on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hop Cat, 25 Ionia - 12/3/09

To be fair, this is a noted bar on the bar strip we call Ionia. But we heard the food was good so decided to try it for lunch. The decor and ambiance are impressive. Interesting music posters are everywhere, including flat up on the ceiling. The restaurant name we assumed came from the 1990s music scene (although hip-hop started much earlier). Every other chair is covered in art deco prints that reflects the 1930s-1940s but it’s cool. The corner location of the restaurant provides windows on two streets, an interior brick wall, and the always fawned-upon open ceiling. Long wooden booths line the brick wall, and a pretty mahogany bar and 15 + tables complete the picture. The place has great atmosphere and is courteous to smokers; there’s a lounge on the 2nd floor.

The menu offers 33 items, four marked as Hopcat Signature Dishes. Interesting for a non-seafood restaurant, sauteed mussels were among the appetizers. The only other seafood dishes were Tilapia Fish Sandwich, Fish & Chips (cod) and Tilapia Fish Tacos. We had to pass on the muscles as being too big a risk on quality here in the midwest. So we ordered the one Hopcat Signature appetizer, Buffalo Rolls: roasted chicken rolled in crispy wontons, and served with blue cheese sauce for dipping. 

The Buffalo sauce in the roll overpowered everything, however, and the meat could have been anything. Two minutes after the appetizer arrived, our sandwiches came, which is always an annoyance. Sandwiches were Shaved Pork and a Sloppy Joseph, both served with “Crack” Fries (yes, that’s what they’re called). The Shaved Pork was dry and served with a brown sauce, the combination of which any chef should be embarrassed to serve. The Sloppy Joseph faired much better, spicy and delicious. The fries, although probably nowhere as addicting as crack, were highly seasoned and very good.

Hopcat claims that it was named the “3rd best beer bar on Planet Earth” by Beer Advocate Magazine - quite a claim. But with its 200 beers, 48 on tap, we could probably recommend it as a bar, but not as a restaurant. One last note, we heard from an ex-patron of the bar that a pitcher of a Founder’s Brew (just down the street) cost $30.00 at Hopcat. On second thought, maybe Founders Brewery would be a better bar recommendation.

Hop Cat on Urbanspoon