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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Teazer's Bar and Grille, 819 Ottawa Ave - 11/24/09

This may be a strange pick for lunch. It’s a bar located in a light-industrial part of town and has a reputation as a biker bar. We heard some talk that the food was good so decided to check it out. As we drove up, the street parking looked full in front of the bar so we parked the block before at an open metered spot. As we’ve learned to categorize them, this was a "cheap" meter. We walked the block to the bar and noticed that both sides of the street were unmetered. Ok, joke was on us.

We walked in and for a moment we couldn’t see what we were walking into but as our eyes adjusted, we made our way to a booth. We shared the restaurant with two men at the bar, and our server. Long and narrow, the restaurant has a live music stage and four booths along the far wall, two small tables and the bar on the inside wall, and two long, tall tables in the middle, seating eight each. On the other side of the bar is a pool table room, about the same size, with more tables and seating around the perimeter. Small TVs with sports and keno are everywhere. But we were there for the food.

The appetizer selection offered nothing particularly unique so we ordered Beef Quesadillas, and they were excellent. When asked what she would recommend for lunch, our server suggested the burgers or the French Dip Sandwich. She also mentioned that the women who had just arrived had driven from Holland for the French Dip Sandwich. (That they had taken a baby with them to a smoking restaurant, and they were also smoking but that's another story.) But that decided it - two orders of the Rocky Balboa French Dip Sandwich, one with spicy fries and one with steak fries. The sandwich was served on a fresh roll, the grilled steak with melted Swiss cheese, roasted peppers, onions, and au jus. Very, very good. Between the fries, the spicy won for their flavor. Service was good, but there were only two others to serve (plus one baby). We plan on returning again to try the burgers - but it won’t be at night.

Teazer's Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Little Africa, Ethiopian Cuisine, 956 E Fulton - 11/19/09 & 2/14/20

We first visited this restaurant in November of 2009. In the early days of this blog, very few photos were taken so that write-up is all text except for the exterior shot (all the other photos here are from today). We pretty much had the same experience today as back in 2009 but with a few differences. The menu cover now indicates that you will get a finger bowl for washing and the washing liquid is no longer pink.
The menu appears to be the same but without food photos, and the spiced tea is still sweet and delicious.
And like last time, we ordered the combination platter because why wouldn't you?
This amazing and fascinating food needs to be experienced. The bread is your serving utensil and works well, although the salad was a little slippery for it. We highly recommend Little Africa but be forewarned. It's only cash or checks (who still writes checks?). (There's an ATM down the street at Spike & Mike's Party Store.)
And from 2009: 
Curiosity drove us to try this restaurant for lunch and a unique experience it was. The small space had nine booths and a small walled-off area that contained the kitchen. Decor is stark and uninteresting. One man served as cook and server. His English was limited so we were pretty much on our own regarding menu selections. The menu had nine items, each with a short description and photo. About half of them described a sauce or paste and we couldn’t figure out what each was supposed to accompany. The combination platter seemed the way to go but again, we had trouble deciding which items to select and hoped we could get a set selection.

To start, we had the spiced hot tea and a can of Coke. When our server/cook returned, we asked about the combination platter and he nodded and walked away. We weren’t sure what had just happened. Shortly thereafter he brought us bowls filled with a mysterious pink substance. We first thought it was a soup of some kind but he said something about washing so we think we were supposed to wash our hands in it.

A large, very attractive, platter of food then arrived that held each of the nine items on the menu. It was difficult to discern which dish was which as the food didn’t look like the photos. No utensils were provided so we assumed we were to use the flat bread to eat. This Ethiopian bread, called Injera, is very thin and soft with a spongy consistency. Rolls of it sat around the platter and one large round piece lay beneath the food. So we dug in and the food was delicious. Gomen (collard greens) Soy Curry, Alica (fresh vegetable mix) Tomato Salad (garlic, red wine & lime dressing), Spicy Red Lentils (curry, cayenne, ginger, garlic, and red onion) were among the many flavors on the platter. By the time we were finished, we wanted to roll up the leftovers in the platter bread and eat it like a taco. We missed our forks and being able to get more information but overall loved the food. If you’re looking for interesting food outside the American norm, try this restaurant. If you need meat at each meal, skip it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fat Boy, 2450 Plainfield NE ~ 11/12/09 & 2/26/15

The vintage sign can't help but catch your eye, and the name alone should make you want to stop at this restaurant. A small restaurant, decorated in authentic memorabilia from the 1950s-1980s, including concert posters and an antique jukebox for 45s, it is quaint and original.

The original owners commissioned the sign back in the late 1940s-early 1950s, and the neon landmark has hung here ever since. The place has changed hands several times and in 2009, the current owners remodeled, re-opened, and re-lit the sign. 
Newcomers are spotted when they sit down in a booth to wait for a server. Here the menu is on the wall and you need to order at the counter. The waitress brought our burgers shortly thereafter and they were amazingly good. No perfect-circle burgers here - just great flavor from the smashed cooking method. The restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch.
If you are craving a burger, please skip McDonald's and head to Fat Boy (or Choo Choo Grill)!

2/26/15 Visit:
A few things have changed but not much. The burgers still have the same great taste and irregular shape, and the onion rings are well prepared and sized.
The menu is still on the wall, you still help yourself to coffee, and you order at the counter.
The interior looks pretty much the same with the addition of a ceiling fan, that inexplicably started turning and blowing the already cold air throughout the place.
The hours have expanded to stay open some weekday evenings and apparently they've had some trouble with customers bringing their own food/beverages into the restaurant. Come on, people.
And lastly, there must still be people who think it's okay to smoke inside a restaurant?
We were happy to get back here and would like to stop in for breakfast sometime. Fat Boy, around since 1952, still has the power to pull us in.

Fat Boy Burgers on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 5, 2009

China Bowl, 7505 Cottonwood, Georgetown Township - 11/5/09

This was a little off the beaten path for us but we like to venture out for new tastes and came across this roomy restaurant located in a not very active retail center. Although buffets are not among our favorites, we chose the featured lunch buffet. On the whole, it was quite good.
The appetizer row, however, did not have much of interest other than the fresh shrimp; the other selections included fruit offerings and jello pieces. Other buffet oddities included a very dry beef pot-sticker, a tough deep-fried pepper chicken, a deep-fried chicken wing, and the complete absence of pork. But the chicken and beef dishes were all flavorful and the vegetables were crispy and not over-cooked. Hot & sour soup was a tad salty but good. There was plenty to eat and the majority of the dishes were quite tasty. Service was attentive and friendly. When we arrived at 12:30, there were only two other parties in the restaurant. Shortly after arriving, we had the restaurant to ourselves. Before we left, one other couple arrived. In the meantime, we saw our server, and one couple (chef/owners) who regularly checked on the buffet status. So if you would like to try an interesting Chinese buffet, check out this place before it’s no longer there.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rafav's Mexican & More Restaurant, 1441 Wealthy SE - 10/22/09

Our first issue when entering the restaurant was finding the door handle. The exterior design is so unusual, and somewhat bizarre, that the door is not that obvious. We finally just went for it and hoped people were not laughing at us inside. Once inside, we found a very casual, brightly decorated room. The painted wall is more Aztec style than Mexican and it is far from boring. On another wall that lined the booths are copies of actual photos of Mexican revolutionaries, particularly featuring Emiliano Zapata. Very interesting, especially if you enjoy photography and history.
But on to the food: we ordered skirt steak tacos, that came with lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, onion, lime, and cilantro. These were spectacularly good with the meat lightly seasoned to perfection. All the food, including the tortillas, are made fresh at the restaurant and it shows. Our other dish was an order of meat enchiladas and while they came too hot (temperature) to eat for about 10 minutes, they were delicious as well. Chips and salsa were plentiful and good. Service is friendly, helpful, and attentive. Some of the dishes on the menu are typical of any Mexican restaurant, Rafav’s menu has dishes on it that we’ve never seen elsewhere. So besides having delicious food, this restaurant is also unique in its offerings.

Restaurant has Closed

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Peppermill Grill, 4511 Lake Michigan Dr, Standale - 10/19/09

Our second breakfast here. It was great, as always, to be in a non-chain restaurant. The atmosphere is homey, as is the food. You know it’s a local favorite when everyone stares at you when you walk in (patrons & staff) because they don’t know you. That can be a little disconcerting and sometimes gives you a feeling of being unwelcome, but you do have reassurance that it’s a locally popular restaurant.

Breakfast is basic - all the usual egg offerings including a multitude of omelets. But we chose Two Eggs in a Nest with English Muffin Toast, Murray’s Special (Fried Egg and Cheese), also on English Muffin Toast, and two sides of bacon. Strangely, the bacon came out first, but the eggs soon followed. Being a fan of the fried egg sandwich, this was not a favorite - too much grease on the English muffin bread, which was also too thickly sliced, overwhelmed the egg and cheese. The Eggs in Nest was attractively presented but again, too much grease and too much bread.

Service was friendly but brief. Bill isn’t totaled and you pay on the way out. We’ll try lunch there next time. Homegrown Grand Rapids but not that interesting, at least not this time.

Peppermill Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ichiban, 3005 Broadmoor SE - 10/16/09

This Asian restaurant divides itself into a Chinese wing and a Japanese wing. Wanting to experience the full Japanese hibachi dining, we went left. Beginning with a sushi appetizer, soup and a small salad followed shortly. The sushi received mixed reviews.

NY strip and filet mignon were the main courses on the hibachi and were accompanied by fresh vegetables. Seasonings were very tasty and the meat was cooked to order and excellent. And the show.....although there were only two at this table for ten, the chef was personable, entertaining, and engaging. The show is not new - flipping utensils, the volcano onion, the fake-squirting mustard - but it's fun just the same. The server and the chef worked well together on the timings but overall the meal felt slightly rushed. Worth another visit, and to the right wing as well. And for the record, Ichiban is translated Number One.

 Shanghai Ichiban Chinese on Urbanspoon

Fleetwood Diner, 2222 44th St, Kentwood - 10/15/09

Everyone likes a diner, especially if one is nostalgic for that 1950s decor or for that time in one's life. This particular diner sports a few TVs showing Fox News, as a nod to today's interests. The decor and general atmosphere of the place, however, just seem artificial. Fake memoriabilia and the black, white, and red coloring just make it feel like a chain restaurant. But there has to be more to a diner than the decor. One of their features is Tempeh Hippie Hash, which really belongs more to the 1960s era, but it was ordered nonetheless. The hash was interesting, probably not for a daily pick, but worth having again. Also ordered was Eggs Benedict, which did not fare as well. Both the eggs and the accompanying potatoes were overcooked; rubbery eggs with over-fried potatoes. The service was fine and friendly but this diner really doesn't fit into any time period.
Fleetwood Diner on Urbanspoon

One Trick Pony, 136 E Fulton - 10/14/09

This was our 3rd or 4th lunch there this year and was the most disappointing. One "special" of the day, an Italian Panini with chicken, had an imbalance of flavors with the basil pesto overwhelming everything else. The Jerk Chicken Quesadilla also fell short on flavor. However, we ordered bruschetta for our appetizer and it was delicious. The sun-dried tomatoes were amazing but there were too many of them compared to the other parts of the bruschetta. The soup of the day was Tomato Florentine and it was excellent. Maybe the kitchen is trying to go in too many different directions and, therefore, excelling in nothing.

Physically, the tables and chairs are placed entirely too close to each other. We were in the middle of the room and no one could walk past either side of our table. Our waiter ably served us but from behind each of us. One Trick Pony needs some new tricks.

(Our previous visits to One Trick Pony were much more successful and the Thai Chicken Stir-Fry always stands out.)

10-17-12 Edit: The furniture and the menu have changed; there's slightly more room between tables but it's still tight. The food was just ok for us but the crab cakes were beautifully presented.
The Portobello sandwich was creative but not aptly described and ended up being what the waitress described as an open face sandwich. The mushrooms were the "bun" and it was very difficult to eat.
Ah well. They have nice outdoor seating in the summertime and wonderful music year round.
One Trick Pony on Urbanspoon