Friday, December 31, 2010

Rak Thai Bistro, 5260 Northland Dr NE - 12/22/10

You’d be hard-pressed to stop here based on the exterior alone. The restaurant is located in a non-descript strip mall on Northland Drive at Plainfield. But upon entering, you will be greeted by a contemporary and minimalist interior with lime green walls, and light wood floors, tables and chairs. The room is long and narrow with nine tables for two crammed together along one wall, and four tables for four located on the opposite wall. This wall also holds two large screen TVs. Nothing else is hung on any of the walls. There’s a private dining area for a large group on your right.

There was one hostess/waitress/busgirl working and she seated us quickly along the table-for-two wall. Shortly thereafter, she seated a couple on our left and on our right. (Open tables were available elsewhere so this crowding was unnecessary.) The menu is refreshingly small and not over-whelming as in most Thai restaurants. It’s a two-page laminated sheet.

We began with two appetizers, five Firecrackers and five Crab Cheese. Firecrackers were new to the menu and not described. Our server told us the dish was a chili and shrimp wrapped in a wonton and deep fried. We heard the word “chili” but did not fully appreciate the implication. We each took a full bite and were brought to tears. After the first two, we pulled the chili out and enjoyed the chili flavor on the shrimp. The crab cheese was good but slightly over fried. Before these dishes arrived we were served tasty Lemon Grass soup.
Our server neglected to come back to take our main dish orders but we eventually flagged her down. Before those dishes arrived, we were served lettuce salads with a sweet, fish oil type of dressing; we were not big fans.  

Under Fusion Specials, Bangkok Bulgogi was a new item on the menu and consisted of sliced beef, onions, ginger, and garlic-sesame-soy sauce. The meat could have been a little more tender but the dish was otherwise quite good. The sauce was excellent.
Tangy Thai Cashew was listed under the Wok-Flame Tossed category, and besides cashews, the dish contained onions, bell peppers, bamboo strips, straw mushrooms and a tangy-soy sauce. Our choice of protein, from chicken, sliced beef, roast pork, tofu, veggies (protein?) or shrimp, was chicken. Everything was nicely balanced and flavors combined beautifully.
Dishes are well presented. Silverware, and lime green plastic chopsticks that match the walls, are provided with a cloth napkin. Spice levels are 1 to 5, and since it was our first time there, our server suggested Level 2. We went with 3 and were happy we did; it could have even been a little hotter so if you like the slight lip-burning hot, go with 4.

The menu promises a more detailed menu on the website but it’s exactly the same, and only one page of it displays. Two of the five categories on the website do not yet link to anything. One oddity on the menu was the inclusion of a cheezy noodle dish on the menu. Perhaps that’s part of the “fusion.” And to be fair, crab cheese or crab rangoon is now found on every chinese and thai menu; it’s well accepted and not questioned.

One server could not handle the entire room and we ended up clearing off each of our old dishes ourselves (by that time our neighbors were all gone since we had a major delay in getting our main order placed). The tables are very small and can’t hold more than one course at a time. Our server was busy yet very polite. We chatted with her a bit when she brought us our check, and she mentioned that the restaurant had been slow lately so the owners scheduled only one employee today; she didn’t mind because all the tips were hers but service suffered.

The restaurant is definitely worth a visit. The atmosphere is contemporary and sleek but it is not a place for private or quiet conversations. Take-out is an appealing option. They do not serve alcohol but the owners are attempting to obtain a liquor license.
Rak Thai Bistro on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 27, 2010

Palace of India, 961 E Fulton - 12/16/10

Opened in 2008, the restaurant is owned by a man who owns many convenience stores in the area, including the nearby Spike and Mike’s. After several restaurants (his tenants) failed in this location, he renovated the space, brought in a chef from Chicago, and opened the doors. 
We walked in for lunch today and were lucky to find the one open booth. Upon entering, there are two small tables for two set set up on platforms in the front windows. Four booths are located on each wall, and two long tables run down the middle for large groups. The lunch buffet was set up in the back of the room and offered about ten different items.

The buffet seemed popular but we opted for the very large menu, and started with the non-vegetarian appetizer platter. It arrived with small chunks of grilled lamb and deep fried chicken and fish. The lamb had excellent flavor but was a little over cooked and dry.
It took us a long time to make our way through the menu but our server was pretty much leaving us alone anyway. We had a little difficulty communicating with her and she seemed to lose interest in us when we didn’t go for the buffet.

We finally settled on Goat Curry and Bhuna Gosht for our main dishes. Goat was a first for us so we had to try it. Pieces of goat were cooked with onions, tomatoes, and green chilies. The curry was quite good but the meat was very tough and also included an unchewable piece of gristle. It must have been a very old goat.
The Bhuna Gosht was a much better choice. Lamb cubes were cooked with bell peppers in an onion, tomato, ginger, and fresh herb sauce. Excellent flavors accompanied the very tender lamb.

Rice does not accompany your meals but is provided for an additional $2.95. Our server did not believe us when we said we wanted our food spicy, and both dishes arrived without much heat. With an additional order of garlic naan, our tab came to $47.50. The buffet is a much more economical way to go but we wanted to chose our own items on this visit.
The restaurant does not have a liquor license but you may bring in your own beer or wine. It’s definitely worth visiting, as there are so many interesting selections to try. Just be sure to insist on spicy if that’s what you want. Perhaps you will have better luck than we did. A website for the restaurant could not be found. 

Palace of India on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 17, 2010

Rio Grand Steakhouse, 5501 Northland Dr NE - 12/8/10

Supposedly modeled after road houses in the West, this very large restaurant is divided into a good size bar, with booths and tables, and dining areas broken up into various sections. It’s a rustic atmosphere with cowboy and old western paraphernalia everywhere, including a lot of John Wayne photos.
There was no one around when we entered and we wandered into the dining room to look around. We took a seat in a small hall of booths and finally spotted a hostess. Our server showed up about ten minutes later and was quite abrupt initially, but he warmed up as we went along.
The menu is large and is an interesting amalgamation of southwest cuisine and seafood.  Many items have Texas or cowboy related names (e.g., El Paso Steakhouse Salad, Lone Star Double Cheese and Ham, Double Barrel Cheese Fries). You won’t find anything particularly innovative and there’s no notion of using fresh, in-season ingredients. But there are plenty of things from which to chose.

We started with the Rio Sampler that offered a Cactus Flower, Smokehouse Ribs, Double Barrel Cheese Fries, and Chicken Quesadillas, which caused our arteries to protest. We had to snag silverware from a nearby booth when the platter arrived, and it came with extra napkins, small plates, and a bone-bowl. It was listed as serving two to four people, but as an appetizer it was much more suited for four. The ribs came in a tangy barbecue sauce and were cooked to perfection. It was all good. Our server very kindly offered to divide and box up the leftovers.
Steak was emphasized on the menu so we both selected one but passed by the over $20.00 offerings and chose humbler cousins, a Kentucky Bourbon Sirloin and a Country Fried Steak.

The Sirloin was an 8 oz cut that promised a flavorful marinade. Garlic mashed potatoes with beef gravy and haystack onion rings accompanied the steak. Ordered medium rare, it arrived well done with no sign of a marinade. But the cut was still tender and the potatoes were great.
The Country Fried Steak comes as you know it will; the flavor is captured in the deep fryer. It arrived with garlic mashed potatoes, black pepper gravy, and haystack onion rings. The gravy was chicken based and heavily salted.
Opened in the 1990s by Schelde Enterprises, the restaurant has recently been sold to a son/nephew of two of the owners. He plans to expand and remodel, and to take advantage of the location on the Grand River by adding outdoor decks and a three-season screen porch. The website is being changed and not all menus can yet be found online.

It’s a down-to-earth atmosphere where you will get large portions of food with few surprises, and at a reasonable price.
Rio Grand Steak House on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Derby Station, 2237 Wealthy St SE – 11/24/10

We had passed this by a few times last summer and decided to visit this East Grand Rapids restaurant today. We walked in and were greeted by a mostly empty restaurant and an offer to seat ourselves. The entrance is off Wealthy and brings you into the middle of the restaurant. Tables and a few booths are located on either side and the bar is located straight ahead. A large outdoor patio is off to your left.

It’s a comfortable, pub atmosphere with an open ceiling, dark wood paneling, tables, and booths, which all contrast nicely with the lighter wood floor. We seated ourselves in a high-backed booth and were promptly provided with a large beer/wine menu along with a smaller food menu.
It apparently began as a sister restaurant to Graydon’s Crossing but has since modified the menu. Few traces of British/Indian food can be seen although Fish & Chips is still available. Instead, the emphasis is on fresh, local ingredients, and the menu has many creative and interesting selections. By the time we looked up the online menu to assist in writing a review, it had already changed to December selections. The menu not only changes but is also kept up-to-date online.

We began with the mushroom and tomato bruschetta, and it was amazingly delicious. Sauteed tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, pearl onions, and an herb goat cheese spread were served on grilled bread, topped with an over easy egg. The egg is a European influence and it was a suitable addition. Everything combined beautifully.
Our first main dish was pumpkin gnocchi served with andouille sausage, sauteed wild mushrooms, and leeks in a black peppercorn parmesan cheese sauce. Overall it was a tasty and well-prepared dish, but the andouille sausage overpowered everything. A little less of it, and in smaller pieces, would have resulted in a much more balanced item. 
The second main selection was grass-fed lamb, braised with white beans, parsnips, carrots, garlic, and wintergreens, and served in a rich creamy sauce. It was topped with gremolata and parmesan crisps, and served with crostinis. Everything was nicely prepared and presented. We’re both fond of lamb, not mutton, and this was perfect.
The Derby Station presents a welcoming atmosphere, friendly and prompt service, and good food. But if you just want drinks at an attractive bar, you will still be more than satisfied with the available selections. What more can you ask for in a neighborhood pub?

12/29/12 Revisit  - We had horrible service, i.e., our server brought menus and then did not return for over 15 minutes. We had no water, no wine, and couldn't get an appetizer ordered. Then we had to return a bottle of watery wine but did finally enjoy great bruschetta. All of our entrees were lukewarm but otherwise alright. Seated in the dining room behind the bar is not a good place to be.
 Derby Station on Urbanspoon

The Electric Cheetah, 1015 Wealthy St - 11/17/10

We lunched here about a year and a half ago and did not enjoy our experience. Besides poor service and burned plantains, the noise volume was so high we could barely have a conversation. Today we thought we would give it another try.

The place was full and we had a ten-minute wait to be seated. We were offered a couple of seats at the counter but we waited for a table. (Interestingly, the only other time we’ve had to wait for a table was at The Real Food CafĂ©.)  There are about 20 tables in the place for 2, 4, or 6, and they are packed quite closely together. The counter at the open kitchen seats a few more. The decor is interesting with a burning cauldron hanging from the ceiling and a large cheetah painted above the kitchen.
With the open ceiling, wooden floors, and a room full of people, the restaurant still has a noise level issue. The Latin jazz music playing helped to drown out some conversations but thankfully the couple next to us was finishing up and soon left.

Our first order was hot goat dip served with grilled naan (leavened, oven-baked flatbread). Roasted tomatoes, garlic, and spinach were whipped up in a goat and cream cheese blend, and it was an amazing taste treat. The cheeses were enhanced by the other items and no one ingredient overwhelmed the dish. The naan was soft and fresh and we couldn’t get enough.
Next up was the “I’m Not My Brother’s Sandwich.” Grilled chicken, bacon, provolone, thousand island dressing, and tomatoes were served on a grilled sourdough bread with asiago cheese butter. Chips and a dill pickle were the offered accompaniments but fries were ordered instead for a $3.00 up charge. They come russet or sweet. In addition to the usual ketchup, three different aiolis were also available. Altogether, it was a well-prepared and balanced selection.
There was one special offered today and it was our second main dish. The grilled cajun chicken breast with spinach, onion, tomato, and lime/cilantro cream cheese arrived on ciabatta and was delicious. The lime/cilantro cream cheese was a fabulous touch.  
Except for the noise level, the Electric Cheetah has been completely redeemed for us. The food was innovative, house-made, and emphasized local ingredients. Our server was attentive and informative. The menu is a little too big, however, and must become difficult to manage at times regarding preparation and service.

Menus are online and the restaurant has a blog as well. The blog has some interesting information and photos about opening the restaurant but there has been nothing posted since July of 2009. I requested background information about the restaurant name via email but never received a response.

Visit the restaurant for the food but not for an intimate dining setting and not if you want a glass of wine or bottle of beer with your meal (they're still working on a liquor license). But do check out the restrooms. They are covered floor to ceiling with completed jigsaw puzzles!   

The restaurant has obtained its liquor license and held its first Happy Hour on 5/5/2011.
 Electric Cheetah on Urbanspoon

Rock Fire Grille, 1144 East Paris - 11/10/10

Update:  The restaurant closed effective 1/10/11 for restructuring. No other information is available as of today.
About a year in existence, the restaurant had a name change some months back. The old Wild Fire Grille name was too similar to a Chicago chain of restaurants.

Walk into the Rock Fire Grille and you will be greeted by a friendly hostess and be seated at a table in a warm, inviting setting. If you remember Naya, the setup is the same. There’s a large bar with seating in the middle, two dining areas to the right, and a banquet room to the left. Decor is very minimal, consisting of the same “fire” wall art on three walls. There are salt & pepper shakers on the table, a note to the chef’s insecurity or knowledge of the restaurant’s clientele.
As the menu features seafood, we started with Two Way Tuna, sashimi grade yellow fin tuna served 1) pistachio crusted with raw honey & chipotle orange coulis, and 2) with pineapple, avocado tar-tare, and sweet soy sauce on wontons. The pistachio coating was noticeable but the honey & orange coulis were nowhere to be found. The second version was wonderful with all the flavors complementing beautifully on the crispy wontons.
Our next item was a wood-fried steak sandwich, ordered medium-rare. It’s described as  marinated flat iron, smothered onion, mushrooms, and provolone cheese on a homemade roll. Any marinade could not be tasted, however, and the salt and pepper on the table were a welcome addition. The bread was very fresh but the sandwich on the whole was quite bland.  
Sienna Chicken Penne was next up and consisted of sun dried tomatoes, spinach, chicken, and penne, tossed with a Parmesan cream sauce. The pasta was prepared nicely al dente, and everything combined wonderfully.
Unusual for lunch, we were served warm, buttery dinner rolls with parmesan garlic butter. We added a tomato basil soup (just ok) and a fresh house salad, which brought our tab to just over $48.00. Our server was friendly and prompt, and it’s a very pleasant atmosphere.
 Rock Fire Grille on Urbanspoon

Thai Cuisine, 48 Fulton St - 11/3/10

Update: The restaurant has closed as of 1/12/11.
The former Dragon Room now houses the 2nd location of Thai Cuisine (the other is in Kalamazoo). There’s a very large bar in the middle of the room, and booths and tables fill the space around it. The ambiance is subdued and classy but somewhat marred by a menu taped up in the window, and paper posters depicting various Thai dishes.

Our appetizer choice was Tod Mun Pla. The menu does not tell you what it is but our server explained and recommended it. The six-piece dish consisted of fish cakes with scallions, deep fried. They brought some heat of their own and were finely complemented with hot sauce. Unfortunately, they were a little too chewy.
We’re big fans of hot and sour soup and order it whenever possible to keep our running comparisons (no restaurant tops Wei Wei Place to date). This was Thai hot and sour soup, however, and it came in an interesting serving bowl. The ladle was not well-suited and made serving awkward. Ingredients were onion, galangal, lemon grass, tomato, kaffir lime leaves, and chicken (one can choose from chicken, tofu, veggie, shrimp, or seafood). The very slightly sour flavor was completely overwhelmed by the heat. If you prefer more hot than sour, you’ll enjoy this soup.

 The Special Dishes page has eight selections and we each chose one. Steak Jeaw was described as pre-sliced filet mignon and Asian vegetables, topped with Steak Jeaw’s own chili ginger garlic sauce. The steak was medium-rare as requested, tender and delicious. The vegetables were cooked perfectly, arriving slightly crisp. The exceptional sauce was a tasty blend of flavors.
Our second special was Curry Steak, pre-sliced filet mignon with rich curry sauce and Asian vegetables. The sauce was a delicious curry and again, the vegetables were cooked lightly and were plentiful. The steak in this dish was completely different, however. It came medium-rare as ordered but was tough and chewy, a very poor cut of meat. Each of these specials was $22.00, which should guarantee quality steak.  
The menu is large and includes a page of lunch specials ranging from $8.00 - $12.00. Dishes are rated with either one pepper or none but the servers will ask if you’d like medium, medium-hot, or very hot.

Service was not rushed and the setting is much nicer than Angel’s Thai, for example. The food was uneven but that could have been due to a new chef, whose first day was today. 
Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Corez Wine Bar, 919 Cherry St - 10/13/10

Update: Corez will be closing 11/13/10. The restaurant was purchased by the owners of The Green Well & Bistro Bella Vita and will be re-opening in a few months.
Tucked into a refurbished law office building across the street from The Green Well, Corez is easy to miss with its low-key facade. Walk in and you will find a modern restaurant with minimalist decor, open ceiling, contemporary art, and overall a very stylish ambiance. The room is divided into two sections, and the bar runs along one wall with a wooden slat ceiling arching over it. Tables and chairs fill both sections and there is a small outdoor patio out front for nice weather days. When it’s crowded, the restaurant is noisy due to lack of carpet and close proximity of tables. However, today for lunch we were alone for most of our meal.

The menu, small and innovative, changes with the seasons. One may pick from nibbles, sandwiches, pizzas, small plates, and not so small plates. We chose moules frites to start. The mound of mussels was steamed in garlic, white wine, and cream. They were excellent and the wine sauce was an exquisite complement. Hand-cut fries accompanied the mussels and did provide a nice balance. But they were too heavily salted.

Since the mussels were good, our first sandwich selection was the crispy whitefish. The server returned immediately to inform us that the whitefish delivery had not yet arrived for the day. Although this was disappointing, we were pleased by the fact that the seafood was delivered daily. The pulled chicken sandwich was ordered instead and it made a fine substitute. The sandwich arrived covered in a mustard barbecue sauce with white cheddar cheese, house made pickles, and fresh greens. The barbecue sauce blended well, enhancing the flavors rather than overwhelming them. The greens were decidedly fresh and served with a subtle dressing.

Our next dish was the honey and chili glazed pork ribs. The small ribs were beautifully presented over a carrot and raisin salad. The ribs were tender and flavorful, but this dish was not well thought out. The overall taste was too sweet, particularly when combined with the salad. We expected more heat to balance out the sweetness and the honey flavor simply overwhelmed everything. The dish is far from a failure but it needs some conceptual work before it can be considered excellent.

The servers are knowledgeable and helpful. The executive chef (Chad Miller) is also the owner of Bloom, another restaurant serving wonderfully innovative food. One of the owners (Mike Dombrowski) is the former sommelier at the Chop House and former wine buyer for Art of the Table. The bartender creates his own drinks and offers house infused spirits. The wine cellar is extensive and servers are happy to recommend pairings. Years of experience and knowledge spill over into creative, fresh, and delicious food and beverages using local and/or house made ingredients.

Our tab was around $35.00 and menus are online. This restaurant ranks among our favorites and you shouldn’t miss it.           
Corez: Neighborhood Eatery and Bar on Urbanspoon