California Dreamin'

Our recent road trip took us from grilled octopus to SIDEWAYS steaks...

Roll Me Away Tonight

Our first forray into sushi didn't go quite as well as expected...

The Rain In Spain

From the archives: Our Christmas adventure in Barcelona...

Let The Good Times Roll

Cookie and LettersToJ show us how to throw a crawdaddy boil...

Best/Worst 2012

We recount the very best adventures we had and the lowest of the low...

Silver Beach Pizza


(Saint Joseph, MI) — After a long weekend of birthday debauchery in Chicago, we’re both looking forward to getting home and settling in to normal life again. Our train is due to arrive back in West Michigan right around dinner time. So, where to eat? Luckily the train station in Saint Joseph is also home to a local favorite: Silver Beach Pizza...

He Fed:

Even bad pizza is good pizza. So the saying goes, and I’m as guilty as the next guy of settling for bad when I’m in the mood for pizza. It’s one of those dishes that almost always satisfies, even when you know the dough and toppings are cheap. Thankfully, I know Silver Beach Pizza is one of the good ones. Juliet has brought home a cardboard box or two, and while I’ve enjoyed the meal, it hasn’t been particularly memorable. Until tonight, I’ve never visited the restaurant proper; I’m hoping for fresh pizza to make an impression.

We hop off the train and stow our luggage in the Prius (parked in the lot over the weekend). Then we head inside, where it’s warm and not too busy for a Sunday night. We’re shown a comfy booth and given menus. Soon, our young waiter appears to take our drink orders. Admittedly, as I’m wont to do, I hold his feet to the fire when he trips up on the beer offerings. Good thing I do; Instead of the familiar Michigan draughts, I manage to pry vital information out of him through careful questioning. It’s not on the menu, but they have Stone Brewing Company Matt’s Burning Rosids on tap!!! It’s an imperial cherrywood smoked saison that is complex, sweet and malty.

And what better to go with such a high-octane beer than some Frickles? It might have a fancy name for an appetizer, but it’s just deep fried pickles. Or so we assume. They never arrive, thanks to our less than attentive waiter (who has already proved his ineptitude with lackluster beer knowledge). Despite his offering to rush an order later, we decline and opt to try them another time.

Thinking of leftovers already, we agree to order two pizzas. Juliet does not hesitate to hone in on The Carousel and I choose The Hawaiian. Some folks don’t like pineapple on pizza, but I’m just as adventuresome about food as I am about beer. Secretly, I’m patting myself on the back for picking the best pie. How can a pizza named after a merry-go-round trump Canadian bacon? Easily, as it turns out.

My Hawaiian is pretty good, but not quite the salty-sweet combo I’d craved. The toppings haven’t melded very much and the cheese slides off too easily. The Carousel, however, is phenomenal. Pepperoni, sausage, ham, bell peppers and mushrooms seem like common toppings but the interplay works some kind of miracle. Heck, I even enjoy the thin, freshly-baked crust (ordinarily, I prefer thick dough). Shamefaced, I eat more of her pizza than mine.

By the time we’re through, there’s less Carousel than Hawaiian, yet plenty to take home for lunches. We make a mental note to avoid our waiter next time and carry our cardboard box out into the night. It’s good to be home, with full bellies and smoked cherrywood on our tongues.

She Fed:

Having worked in St. Joseph for nearly seven years, I’ve had more than my fair share of Silver Beach Pizza. Even though we moved here seven months ago, Jeremy and I haven’t made time to get there. Something about five months of ice storms, white outs, and record snowfall kept us from venturing down to the beach. But tonight our train from Chicago stops at the Amtrak station which is conveniently co-located with SBP and we decide to grab dinner before heading home.

There’s a bit of confusion at the host stand as the student employees try to figure out where to seat us. After a bit of turmoil, we’re led to a booth and our waiter shows up almost immediately. He’s cute as a button and easily up-sells us from a 12 ounce pour to schooners of beer. We order the Frickles, fried pickles, to share while we decide which pizza to choose. Later we discover our server forgot to enter the Frickle order. In the end it’s a good thing as we decide to share two smaller pizzas instead of one big one. As usual, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs.

If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m a creature of habit continually gravitating to simple comfort foods, familiar tastes and textures, and my favorite stand-bys. I have to admit, every time I’ve been to Silver Beach Pizza I have The Carousel with pepperoni, sausage, ham, green bell pepper and mushrooms. I’m usually not a fan of green peppers—they’re too acrid for me. But I like them on this particular pizza.

My other new fave at Silver Beach is to ask for extra sauce. It’s a trick I learned from Santi, a new but dear Chicago/Paw Paw Lake pal who knows his pizza! Their sauce isn’t overly wet or runny, but very thick and incredibly savory, packed with herbs. When you order extra sauce the server will ask if you want it on the crust with the first layer of sauce or on all the toppings, which leads me to believe there’s a gaggle of fans who request this regularly.

In addition to The Carousel, we order The Hawaiian with Canadian bacon, pineapple, and white onions. Without extra sauce because Jeremy’s more than a little skeptical the additional sauce will make the pizza floppy and wet.

We’re on our second schooner when the pizzas arrive and both pies are divine. Finally I’m trying something other than The Carousel, which is fabulous for the record, and Jeremy’s a convert to the extra sauce option.

Since this initial dining in experience at Silver Beach Pizza, I’ve grabbed a few take-out pizzas on the way home from the office and I think it’s the best pizza in town. The Sicilian with sausage, salami, pepperoni, green olives, and basil is a new favorite. Stop by in the summer to enjoy a view of the beach, an icy schooner and a fabulous pie...with extra sauce of course.


Silver Beach Pizza Co on Urbanspoon

Beatrix


(Chicago, IL) — It’s inevitable: all good things must come to an end. And so it is, our trip to Chicago celebrating HeFed’s birthday wraps up with a walk down the block from our hotel for a brunch at Beatrix. Which, as it happens, is connected the another hotel, Aloft. The throngs of young folk jostling through the lobby and into the busy open air restaurant give us pause, but only for a moment...

He Fed:

I’m not expecting much from Beatrix. We’ve had some fairly cruddy meals at swanky eateries in other cities that were attached to hotels. The batting average isn’t stellar. And brunches at hotel restaurants? Even lower satisfaction rate. Still, I’m willing to keep it simple and lower my standards for a plate of eggs.

It is plenty busy for a Sunday morning. Families and slackers rub shoulders, most engaged in loud conversation that is quickly (and thankfully) lost in the spacious dining room. Our hostess seats us quickly. I like the flow of the room, with the bar extending out to become the hotel’s coffee shop. Guests and diners mingle freely, though some have trouble getting strollers out through the rotating doors.

Our waitress delivers water glasses and entices us to try the Spicy Herbal Bloody Mary. It is indeed full of black pepper and hot sauce, just the way I like them. As I fish out the speared green olives, I get a hankering for another menu item that would pair perfectly: the Potato Salad Deviled Eggs. The hard boiled halves wobble faintly on the plate as they’re delivered, filling spiked high like pompadours, shredded parsley sprinkled around strewn capers and a shallow pool of creamy mustard sauce. I pick one up, relishing the creamy texture of potato and cheese nestled in the egg cup. Delicious!

While Juliet heads for the family style brunch special, I opt for the Braised Pot Roast & Egg Sandwich with aged white cheddar and jalapeno relish. On a buttery brioche bun, the omelet—wreathed in oily cheese—lounges on top of moist, shredded beef. I slather on some of the jalapeno relish, then sink my teeth into one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had the pleasure to devour. Wow. The meat is luscious, nearly dripping; the egg possesses a depth of flavor I had no idea cheese could impart; and the bread just soaks it all in. Although Juliet appears to be pleased with her choice, I know she feels deep, soul-searing jealousy at my treasure.

Almost as an afterthought, I order a side of sausage to go with my sandwich. Three plump patties of chicken goodness, mixed with a smattering of herbs and scallions, arrive for us to share. They are cooked crisp on the outside, juicy in, salty treats that might make a vegetarian renounce all the earth’s bounty.

I cap the visit with a pint of Lagunitas’ Lil Sumpin Sumpin. Despite (or perhaps because of) my lowered expectations, Beatrix blew me away. It is exactly the balm I need after the disappointment of Graham Elliot Bistro, and elevates our final weekend experience to that of our first at La Madia (not to mention a fantastic meal at Eataly’s La Carne, about which we did not write).

We pay up and saunter back to our hotel, where we check out, collect our luggage, and catch a cab back to the train station. Goodbye for now, Windy City...but not for long.

She Fed:

I really just want to burrow under the covers for another hour and order up some blueberry pancakes on room service, but Jeremy’s made brunch reservations at Beatrix and it’s highly recommended. Isn’t it funny how taking a shower and prettying up are so routine during the week, but such a laborious chore on the weekend?

After a few dramatic sighs from me and a few “hurry ups” from Jeremy we strike out for a chilly but quick walk to Beatrix. The place is packed though we get us a great window seat. Lots of coffee and a mimosa for me as we peruse the menu. We decide to start with the Potato Salad Deviled Eggs and the Chicken Sausages. The eggs are sublime, with mashed potato mixed into the filling. The texture is slightly odd at first, but when you realize it’s the best of both worlds it’s hard to stop eating them! The sausages are nicely spiced and quite good, but the eggs are much more inventive to me.

Today’s brunch special sounds especially delicious, “Family Style Breakfast Chilaquiles.” I’ve only recently discovered chilaquiles, having tried them in San Francisco a few years back for breakfast. Soft scrambled eggs, crispy tortillas, salsa, and sour cream...what’s not to love? And after a weekend of debauchery, this sounds like just the thing to soak up some of the last night’s excesses.

Our waitress explains that at Beatrix “Family Style” means buffet, which for me is a turn off. I attend enough food and wine events for my job that waiting in line for food is low on my list. And the term buffet conjures up images of sneeze guards which are just plain gross. I must pull a face when she says “buffet” because she adds that it’s small and “curated” as the chefs are keeping everything very fresh and hot.

I’m a sucker for the word curated and my resolve folds. Once Jeremy’s brunch sandwich arrives, I head over to find a small table filled with chilaquiles fixin’s. Freshly fried tortilla chips, roasted chicken meat, scrambled eggs (not soft scrambled, but much better looking than I imagined), a bevy of hot sauces and several bowls of sour cream, guacamole, salsa, pico de gallo, scallions, refried beans, shredded cheeses, etc.

I fix my plate with a little bit of everything, sans the chicken as we just gobbled up those sausages. Essentially I’ve got a great plate of breakfast nachos: scrambled eggs, cheese, beans, chips, sour cream, and guacamole. The chips are fried in-house; I watched them pull a basket from the fryer while I piled up my plate. Yes, the eggs would have been better had they been scrambled to order, but all in all, it’s an incredibly tasty breakfast.

I’ve moved onto a Blue Mimosa made with blueberry juice and it’s so yummy I order another. Three mimosas with brunch? So much for starting the day off right. Although I suppose it depends on your definition.


Beatrix on Urbanspoon

Graham Elliot Bistro


(Chicago, IL) — Whenever we’re out of town, visiting a new or old favorite city, there’s a certain pattern that emerges wherein we become enamored of a lunch restaurant and end up spending too much time there. As a result, we often ruin the chances for our dinner plans. On this Saturday in Chicago, we enjoy a long visit to Eataly, soaking up the suds in Birreria then splitting an amazing ribeye steak at La Carne. By the time night falls, our stomachs are uncertain whether our reservations at Graham Elliot Bistro will be our downfall...

He Fed:

One of the reasons I chose Graham Elliot Bistro is the Charred Octopus on their winter menu. I’ve been looking forward to it so much, I passed up any tentacled critters at Purple Pig. Now that’s willpower! Since GEB is a couple miles from our hotel, and our dogs are still tired from an earlier shopping spree at Eataly, we decide to hop a cab. The eatery looks like any modern one you'd find in NYC, frosted glass windows and woodwork facade. We pay the cabbie and go in.

There’s a couple moments of confusion as the hostess informs us they’re running a little behind. Won’t we have a drink at the bar? Sure, it looks swanky, red lacquer and illuminated cocktail bottles. We’re in no hurry so begin to take a seat. Suddenly, the hostess tells us our table is ready? We shrug and are led past the open air kitchen all the way to the back, where there is very little light.

Our waiter is young, slick and good looking, dressed like a Gucci male model. He asks our drink preferences—Morning Wood from Local Option for me, an oak aged coffee ale which is just plain awful—then slinks away into the dimness. I glance around and get the impression of too-hipness, high heels, inane dialogue, and covert touching of hands. Maybe I’m just getting too old for this scene.

I squint at the underlit menu. My heart sinks. No octopus. None. Crap. Nothing else leaps out at me from the sparse offerings, so I ask Juliet if she’s down with a tasting? She seems about as uninterested in the menu and agrees. We choose a “beginning”, a “middle”, and an “end”.

I start with Cheddar Risotto, apples mixed in, with bacon bits and cheese crackers crumbled on top. Although I find the cheddar-apple combo to be inspired, it’s nearly ruined by the fakey Bac-O-Bits and Cheez-It topping. It’s a sarcastic and ironic preparation that perplexes. Am I supposed to feel good about tasting low-brow synthetic foodstuffs in a high-class joint? Or am I supposed to feel guilty for ever knowing what those foodstuffs taste like to begin with? On top of that, I crunch down on a hard bit of polished rock, almost a pebble. I spit it out, wondering. It’s not risotto and it’s not bacon. It literally clanks off the dishes like a rock.

Next is Roasted Chicken. It arrives on the plate, dissected to resemble some alien creature laid bare, on a bed of wheat berries and crispy kale. The meat is flaccid and greasy, and woefully underseasoned. I leave a substantial amount on the plate and look forward to dessert.

Banana Split is served in a jar, layers of coffee chocolate and caramel swirling between vanilla ice cream and salted pretzel. On top are caramelized hazelnuts, crunchy sweetness to contrast the salt. I delve in with my spoon, satisfied at last.

The hostess helpfully flags down a taxi for us, and we depart back to the hotel where we’ll be pondering this mixed bag adventure for some time to come.

She Fed:

After spending the day noshing and drinking our way through Eataly, we truly have no business going out for dinner. It’s everything I can do to not suggest we stay near the hotel and grab something small at a casual eatery. Not relishing a 35 minute walk in the Windy City’s frigid winter weather, we grab a cab.

The driver gets a little bit lost but drops us just down the block and we arrive a few minutes early even. The vibe is trendy, overly so in my opinion. But I’m a middle-aged Michigander, so maybe dim lights and roaring music are all the rage in the big city. Our waiter is incredibly nice, attentive without being intrusive.

We opt for the Chef’s Tasting Menu so we can try three small courses. I begin with the Polenta with Fresh Corn and Cheddar Cracker Crumbles. The thought of a steaming bowl of creamy polenta perks me up on this cold night. The addition of corn ramps up the sweet butteriness of the dish. The cracker crumbles taste very much like Cheez-Its, which I think is pure genius. Overall, it’s just a divine dish with rich polenta, candy-like corn kernels, and crunchy cracker crumbs. Why do I never think of making fun things like this at home?

My plan was to have fish or eat vegetarian, but the description of Short Ribs with Mushroom, Spaetzel, and Horseradish Cream is too tempting. I love spaetzel, those delightful little dumplings that are soft on the inside and slightly crisp on the outside after a little browning in butter. They always remind me of my Grandfather and the German restaurant he used to take me to for dinner in Grand Rapids, which has long since closed. Nothing beats the flavor combination of tender wine-braised beef and mushrooms paired with astringent horseradish. The spaetzle are cooked perfectly and in no time I clean my plate.

I’m absolutely stuffed and only have a few bites of the dessert course—a Chocolate Ganache Bar with Peanut Foam and Peanut Fudge Sauce. It’s essentially the most elevated version of a Snickers bar I’ve ever had.

A couple of things are bothersome throughout our meal. It pitch dark inside, I cannot comfortably read the menu and you can see from our photos Jeremy’s camera had insufficient light to focus. Secondly, the music is blaring. We are seated at an intimate two-top and are unable to hear each other without yelling. I’m a fan of reasonable mood lighting and an upbeat soundtrack, but squinting to figure out what’s on my plate and shouting at my husband over dinner in public just isn’t my idea of a good time. We might have lingered over a nightcap, but frankly I just want to pay the bill and get back out onto the streets of Chicago which were well-lit and less noisy.

The food was spectacular, but the atmosphere was just too much for us on this particular night. Or in our particular age range maybe!


Graham Elliot Bistro on Urbanspoon

La Madia


(Chicago, IL) — It’s HeFed’s birthday weekend! After months of depressing cold, snow, wind and sketchy commutes, it’s finally time to kick back and enjoy a long weekend in Chicago. Luckily, the weather decides to cooperate. We train it into the city, then cab it to the hotel before scooting off to Purple Pig for a decadent lunch. The sun is shining afterward, so we stroll around and do some shopping before our OpenTable dinner reservation at La Madia...

He Fed:

What better way to kick off our first dinner than with pizza! And not just any kind of pizza, an upscale wood-fired variety. La Madia is ranked highly on OpenTable, having won a diners’ choice award this year. I’ve already investigated the menu and know Juliet will find something she likes. I even have predictions on what she’ll want to order.

The interior is cozy, bright and lively. To the right is a well-lit bar. Straight ahead, past tables and booths, is an open air kitchen where the staff jokes around and moves quickly to fill orders. Back and to the left is another dining room. It reminds me of the modern eateries we’ve visited in Barcelona. We are shown to one of the booths near the kitchen. Our server is mostly all business, with the harried good humor of someone who is expected to turn tables quickly but tries to be a good host.

Juliet’s in the mood for vino, so I let her order us a bottle of red. She selects a medium-bodied, less expensive Rosso Di Montalcino from Castiglion Del Bosco. It’s more fruit forward than we usually drink (preferring the heavy tannins found in bold reds), but should go nicely with food.

Speaking of food, I can see her eyes light up as she catches that one starter item I know she’ll want: Oven-Roasted Globe Artichokes. Ever since our trip to Italy, we’ve been chasing the artichoke dragon...with varied results. Making them at home never seemed to turn out right, and most restaurants seemed to lack one quality or another. But La Madia nails it. Only the first two layers are too stiff to chew; beyond that, the meat slides off satisfyingly. Dipped in either the tart mignonette or tangy honey mustard, the salt-encrusted artichoke approaches perfection. I scarf down the heart with happy abandon.

We decide to get two pizzas to share. Although I would have laid money she would order the Taleggio & 3-Hour Roasted Grapes pie, she surprises me by picking Housemade Fennel Sausage & Sweet Onions. The base is lightly seasoned tomato sauce and it’s topped with mozzarella. Classic tastes, all around, with just a slight kick from the sausage. The dough is simple, fresh, and explodes in yeasty goodness when you get a mouthful of red wine to wash it down. I order the Housemade Lamb Sausage pizza, with fresno peppers, Caciocavallo cheese, and mint pesto.

Blizzam!!! That’s about the only non-word I can conjure to represent the explosion of tantalizing tastes. The lamb is greasy-sweet (in a good way) that marries with the cool mint pesto in a springtime wedding of trumpet blaring celebration. Then the spicy peppers assert themselves, all hot and bothered on a honeymoon of sheep’s milk. This easily ascends to one of my favorite pies of all time.

One espresso later, we’re ready to pay up and head back to the hotel.

She Fed:

I’m ambivalent about hitting a pizza place for dinner. Between our favorite pizza place in Kalamazoo (Bilbo’s whole wheat crust is to die for) and a few local gems here in St. Joe, I can have great pizza on a regular basis. And I’ve enjoyed more than my fair share of deep dish Chicago pies over the years, so I don’t really see the point. But La Madia also has a few pasta dishes, some yummy sounding salads, an impressive wine list, and an appetizer I’m just dying to try.

Before we’ve even walked through the door, I’ve decided to order the Oven-Roasted Globe Artichokes with two dipping sauces. I adore artichokes in pretty much any form and these do not fail to please. They’re slightly smoky and charred at the edges from the intense heat of the ovens. There’s something ritualistic about eating an artichoke...peeling off each leaf and running it over your teeth to extract the juicy flesh, in anticipation of the tender heart waiting at the center. I’ve never been a big fan of mignonette sauce because it’s so darn runny. I dunk my leaves deep into the ramekin to capture the garlic, lemon zest, and spices that rest on the bottom. The flavors are good, but I enjoy the mustard sauce better. It’s sweet and tangy, making a perfect foil for the salty, earthen artichoke.

My plan was to order pasta, but as the servers pass I notice the plates are ginormous. Now, I’m no wallflower when it comes to a heaping bowl of pappardelle or gnocchi, but after an indulgent lunch (we’ve taken to hitting one of our favorites, Purple Pig, whenever we arrive in Chicago) I doubt my ability to take on that kind of noodle challenge.

The pizzas are slightly larger than “personal sized” ones, but the crust is thin and we agree to each order one variety and share. We’re a half glass each into our bottle of ‘09 Rosso di Montalcino, which I ordered knowing Jeremy would go for a pizza with red sauce. However, he surprises me by ordering a white variety—the Housemade Lamb Sausage, Fresno Peppers, Caciocavallo Cheese & Mint Pesto pie. I decide to go red with the Housemade Fennel Sausage & Sweet Onions with Mozzarella Cheese.

My pizza is sweet and mild, studded with sausage and gooey mozzarella. They use a heavy hand with the fennel, which delights me. I briefly consider gobbling up the whole pie before Jeremy can nab a slice, but then I try his. The lamb is savory, the cheese earthy but not overly strong, the peppers give slight heat, while the mint pesto adds a verdant edge. How is it we both got sausage pizzas but they’re so very different? We go back and forth, trying one slice of each and debating which is better. The one thing we can agree on is the wine works well with both. It disappears all too quickly. Not so for the pizza, though; after eating our fill, we have to leave a few slices of each behind.


La Madia on Urbanspoon

Saugatuck Brewing Company


(Douglas, MI) — If we’re going on vacation, we’ll plan out our meals well in advance (usually via OpenTable) but if we’re sticking around, we often will decide our next adventure mere days—or hours!—ahead of time. A couple months ago, though, our good friend Joel reached out to let us know he’d be competing in a bike race in Saugatuck and would we like to meet him and his wife, Delia, for lunch afterward? Dutifully, we jotted down the date in our calendar and began to consider our options. As we drew ever nearer to the day, it became almost fate we’d eat and drink at Saugatuck Brewing Company...

He Fed:

I’ve been to Saugatuck Brewing easily half a dozen other times. It’s not exactly close to where we live now, or where we used to live, but it makes for a nice summer destination if you’re itching to get nearer the lakeshore. For whatever mad reason, Joel has decided to race his bike in February during one of the harshest winters in my lifetime. The least I can do is share a beer with him afterward.

There’s a patio out front, but of course it’s snow covered and inaccessible. Inside, it’s larger than it looks from the parking lot. A long hallway leads back to restrooms, a game area with darts and a pool table, and further back is an events room which is apparently being converted over to more brewing area, and an expansion of the dining room. The pub itself is a kind of Irish or English bar atmosphere with plenty of booths and tables. There’s even a place where you can brew your own beer in small kettles.

I am starving, and I know Joel needs to refuel after his race, so we get a couple pretzels. They’re well-salted, but a bit too chewy...almost stale. It helps to dip the chunks into the spicy-sweet beer mustard dip. That’ll clear your sinuses! I get a pint of Double Black IPA, a hoppy ale with roasted caramel overtones that sports a generous mouthfeel thanks to the 6.8% ABV. Our server is nice enough, but I’m not very tolerant of servers who don’t know what’s on tap. If you work in a brewpub, you damn well better know all the beers that are pouring, what the ABV is, and a general description. If I catch a whiff of uncertainty, I’ll walk up to the bar myself and peer at the taps, maybe even chat with the bartender. I don’t mean to get off on a rant here...

Everyone else seems to be getting sandwiches, so I decide to follow suit. I don’t really want a burger and I’ve had their reuben before. That’s when Chef Nate’s Brisket jumps out from the menu. My mouth is still watering thinking about Greenbush’s brisket, so I can’t resist. It’s served open-faced on a crispy hoagie made with spent grain. Under the slab of porter BBQ slathered meat are two grilled tomato slices. I dig in with knife and fork. It’s tangy-sweet, though I’m not really digging the quality of the meat. It’s just kind of homogenous looking. The taste is fine. I just wish it didn’t resemble a prefab meat byproduct. Maybe it was how it was cut...not sure. Either way, my excitement dwindles until I’m pushing away the plate, picking at the seasoned fries, and drinking a pint of the cask Belgian IPA.

For the most part, I like the beers at Saugatuck Brewing Company, especially the Serrano Pepper Ale. The food, though, has been hit or miss. Perhaps it’s not realistic to expect a brewery to serve up more than traditional pub fare, but I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens and Brewery Vivant.

She Fed:

When we moved from downtown Grand Rapids to a wooded area along the St. Joseph River, we figured we’d combat any home-sickness with monthly trips back to GR and frequent weekend luncheons with friends in the Saugatuck/Douglas area, which serves as the mid-point for us all. Unfortunately Mother Nature has had other ideas, keeping us housebound for far too many weekends. So we’re nearly giddy at the prospect of meeting Joel and Lia for beers and lunch at Saugatuck Brewing Company.

We find a four-top easily, though the crowd continues to grow throughout our visit. I know Jeremy is starving, having had breakfast much earlier than I did. (Saturday mornings are typically the one day a week I lounge around, eat breakfast late, and linger over coffee.) Even hungrier is Joel, who just completed his second winter bike race of the weekend. When our waitress asks for drink orders, the boys immediately order two soft baked pretzels with pub mustard for the table to share.

I’m not the beer aficionado of our household so I order a mimosa. It’s Saturday after all, so I’ll call this brunch. The baked pretzel isn’t as good as I remember us having enjoyed in the past; maybe it’s stale? It’s pretty tough and chewy. I haven’t found anything mustard doesn’t improve upon and end up dunking pieces of the pretzel into SBC’s incredibly hot and spicy house mustard.

The menu’s got a little bit of everything from salads to burgers to entrees. They offer pizzas, but sadly only on Mondays. Booooo! I contemplate a big salad (the Fruit & Nut sounds amazing) or their two vegetarian sandwiches, when I spy the Fish & Chips made with SBC’s own brew. I am a sucker for good fish and chips, especially when the fish is hand-battered to order and fries are cut by hand. So much better than the stuff that’s been languishing in the deep freeze.

By now my mimosa has evaporated so I order a cider to go with the fish. Looking back I probably should have ordered the ESB/Amber on tap that’s featured in the batter, but I wanted a tangy cider instead. I like the cider quite a bit. It’s not overly sweet or cloying and is actually dry for a cider. In fact, it's hard to stick with just one.

The basket of fish and chips is generous with large planks of unevenly sized (uniformity equals freezer fish in my book) flaky white pollack in a malty, yeasty batter. The fish is perfectly cooked, still moist and slightly sweet from the caramel notes in the ESB batter. The fries underneath are tasty too, though soggy after sitting under a big ‘ole pile of fried fish. There are worse fates than discovering withered fries and before we even say our goodbyes and head our separate ways, I’m already envisioning a summer lunch with friends on SBC’s patio.


Saugatuck Brewing Co on Urbanspoon

Cravings


(Benton Harbor, MI) — We’re running errands, sliding along the winter streets in the snow-choked city, when the inevitable occurs: Hangry Attack! You know, when you get suddenly hungry because you forgot to eat a nourishing breakfast, and a rage comes over you. If you don’t put something in your tummy soon, you’re going to scream, “It’s clobberin’ time!!!” Thankfully, we spy a sign for Cravings Bistro & Pub nearby...

He Fed:

I’ve heard Juliet talk about Cravings in the past, but I don’t really remember the details. Only that she hasn’t been impressed with their catering. The building is next to a Party City and other ubiquitous strip mall stores; from the outside, the impression isn’t exactly enticing. Still, never a good idea to judge a book by its cover.

Inside, we’re greeted by a small foyer with a fountain pouring water from wine bottles. There’s a faint tinge of chlorine in the air. To the right is a host stand, where a gentleman smiles, grabs two menus and leads us into the dining room. It’s a cavernous space lit by a fireplace in one wall. Only a few other tables are occupied, including one couple who are sipping on big margaritas. Now that’s what I call a lunch tryst! Through an archway, I can see the pub space, which is also spacious, bright and airy.

Our waitress arrives to take our drink orders. She is polite and curt at first, clearly not in the mood for chit-chat; later, though, she does warm up slightly. I see they have HopSlam on tap and can’t resist. It’s served in the proper glass, too! The menu is varied, not settling on any one cuisine, really a mix of Italian, South American, and Californian. The wine list is similarly all over the board. Still, I see plenty to pique my culinary curiosity.

We opt to start with the Fried Green Beans with Peanut Sauce. They are lightly breaded and seasoned, served on a bed of lettuce. I dip one into the sauce. Shazam! Spice floods across my tongue. The peanut sauce is clearly Thai influenced, sweet and hot. I’m surprised to find the green beans so fresh, with no telltale “freezer burn” taste. Each bite is better than the last, until all are gone. Besides Greenbush’s Joique Wings, this is my new favorite appetizer.

I don’t know why I’m so drawn to sandwiches that have brie on them, because they nearly always disappoint. Some brands of brie can be so subtle, they lend nothing to the dish. However, I’m happy to report Cravings’ Ham & Brie with fig jam on ciabatta is not one of those. The ham is salty, the jam is sweet, and the gooey cheese adds just the right amount of full-flavor funk. I can’t keep from groaning as a I crunch into the crisp bread. One bite of sandwich, one sip of HopSlam. I am a happy camper.

Never mind Juliet’s past experiences with the catering side of the business. Our lunch is worth repeating. The interior of the building isn’t very intimate, but I can see it as a great meeting place for large groups like wedding parties. There is a dank odor down the long hall to the restrooms near the back too. These are minor quibbles, though. Cravings Bistro and Pub serves up high-quality, well-prepared food and I can’t wait to try them for dinner.

She Fed:

Despite a good friend encouraging us to try Cravings Bistro and Pub, we’ve just never had time to check it out. In all honesty, I’ve had some of their food at catered corporate events and have been relatively unimpressed. On a recent Saturday, we find our tummies grumbling after a long morning running errands and drive right by Cravings. We agree to turn around and give it a try.

The interior of Cravings is cavernous, a gigantic dimly lit room with a working fireplace and wooden bar opposite. A larger bar with several TV screens, lots of beer taps, and pub tables is on the other side of the space. I’m guessing this place can be rented out for large events. We are shown to a table near the fireplace, and it feels cozy almost immediately.

When I open the menu, I am shocked at the quantity and diversity of offerings. It all sounds really good. Not only do they have everything from starters to sandwiches to entrees, they even offer paella. The table next to us is having a large basket of plantain chips and salsa with two of the largest margaritas I’ve ever seen. Given the number of fun appetizers and the size of those cocktails, I think this would be a great place to gather with friends and watch a game in the bar.

I order a glass of California Pinot Noir and dig in to the fried green beans with Thai dipping sauce we’re sharing. The sauce is thick and peanutty—much like what you’d have with a chicken satay. It's got a peppery kick, so there's a sticky-sweet-spicy thing going on. The green beans taste freshly steamed; I would bet money these were cut, breaded lightly, and fried crunchy-crispy to order. I know someone who orders fried green beans probably isn’t looking for “fresh” and “healthy”, but these taste like the ones I get from the farmer’s market in August, not like the ones I pull from my freezer in February.

All of the burgers sound great, but I opt for soup and salad today. Along with a second glass of wine; it is the weekend after all. The Lobster Bisque is creamy and rich with hint of sherry. The roll that accompanies it is clearly right out of the oven. I tear the steaming roll into pieces and daub them in the bisque. Heaven!

The large Goat Cheese Salad is an assortment of greens, toasted almond slices, strong red onion, grape tomato halves, with a cilantro dressing. They’re very generous with the goat cheese and the dressing is deliciously addictive. I push the red onions and tomatoes out of the way and devour the entire bowl. Easily one of the most flavorful salads I’ve ever eaten. I’ve been dreaming of the dressing ever since! Don’t let the surroundings or the exterior fool you; Cravings is worth seeking out.


Cravings Bistro & Pub on Urbanspoon

@Home: Pad See Yew


Every once in a great while, we get tired of ingesting restaurant food, no matter how haute cuisine it may be. This too-long winter all but encourages us to stay home and prepare dinner. Both of us really like Thai food, so Juliet pores over different cookbooks and magazines until she’s found an enticing recipe from Food & Wine for Mai Pham’s Pad See Yew. With a few SheFed tweaks, street food hits the table at our household...

The Recipe:

First, mix up 6 tbsp fish sauce; 2 tbsp miso paste; 2 tbsp oyster sauce; 2 tbsp brown sugar; 1/2 c tamari; and 4 garlic cloves, finely minced. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved.

Next, cook 2 lb bok choy (stem and leaves roughly chopped into 2” pieces) in a large stockpot of boiling water for just under two minutes. Transfer to a colander using a slotted spoon or spider (you’ll be reusing the water). Add 2/3 lb dried rice stick noodles to the same boiling water and cook until just pliable (less than 5 minutes). Drain the noodles and rinse under cold water, shaking off excess. Put noodles in a bowl with 1 tbsp grapeseed oil and toss.

In a large skillet, heat 1 tbsp grapeseed oil until it shimmers. Add 1 pkg extra firm tofu (cubed) to the skillet. Let a golden crust form on all sides. (If the tofu isn’t really dry and pressed well, it will crumble up a bit during this step. No worries...it will taste the same.) Now transfer the tofu to the colander with the bok choy and add 1 tbsp grapeseed oil to the pan. Once oil is hot, add 3 lg eggs (beaten well) and cook until just set. Add noodles and toss to combine. Add sauce and let reduce for 5 minutes. Add tofu and bok choy, mixing all to combine.

Pile it all on a platter and serve with minced, seeded jalapenos; crushed, salted peanuts; scallions (green and white parts sliced thin); sriracha; and lime wedges. Get ready to slurp!

He Fed:

Although I love Thai food, I’m pretty mystified at how depth of flavor is achieved. I don’t consider myself a cook, though I do like to dabble in a few things (chili, omelettes, pizza) so I’m content to watch Juliet do her thing, lending a hand here and there when I’m asked, and taking pictures. The smell of sweet, salty sauces fills the house, making my mouth water.

All the ingredients come together in a series of choreographed maneuvers; the pots and pans dance upon the cooktop while my wife conducts the colander. Tofu tumbles onto a bed of noodles. Before you know it, it’s time to eat.

I’ve never had Pad See Yew so am not sure what to expect. The flavors are much more subtle than you’d expect. It’s no Pad Thai. Even with a few dashes of sriracha, it only seems barely alive. It’s more comforting than exciting, without any of that sweet-spicy I had been promised by the scent while cooking. It does seem a stroke of genius to pair tofu with egg, though; the textures play well together. I can tell Juliet isn’t overly impressed, but I know it will only improve with time.

A couple days later, when she’s in Vegas, I take leftovers for lunch. As I’d hoped, the flavors have had time to meld and deepen. It’s a much better dish than the first night, and doesn’t even need hot sauce to entice my taste buds. I eat it all up. The original recipe called for meat of some kind, but I think tofu is a great (and preferable) substitute. Still, I would be curious to try with shrimp sometime.

She Fed:

I’ve been on a Thai kick lately, but instead of the rich curries I usually crave, I’ve been making lots of noodle bowls. Sloppy slurpy noodles laden with fresh veggies, in stark contrast to my typical winter predilection for braised meats, mashed potatoes, and cheesy pastas. Having never met a bowl of pad Thai I didn’t love, when I stumble upon a recipe for Pad See Yew (which seems similar) I vow to make it. The recipe is straight-forward enough and I’ve never cooked with rice noodles before. All the ingredients are available at my local market so I find myself making Pad See Yew on a Saturday night.

I tend to get flustered when making stir-fries and noodle bowls, so I make sure I have all the ingredients gathered. The recipe is incredibly easy and in less than 30 minutes I’m carrying a platter of noodles and veg to the table.

Despite doubling the sauce recipe, the dish is somewhat bland on first bite and I find myself adding more condiments. Extra lime juice and peppers give it a big boost. The tofu is slightly crispy on the outside and warm and creamy inside. The scrambled eggs give the dish some added richness. The bok choy is slightly overcooked from being piled into a narrow colander; next time I’ll scatter it on a clean dish towel to prevent carry-over cooking.

Not a terrible first effort and I’m already planning a few changes to the next batch. I’m thinking of adding mushrooms and sprinkling on some bean sprouts for more crunch.



Whole Foods


(Chicago, IL) — It’s been a busy weekend. We drove to Grand Rapids to gather material for an upcoming article, and to attend a friend’s birthday party. From there, we zoom southward to Chicago for a business event. We need to be back home for a couple appointments late Sunday afternoon, so what to do for lunch? Whole Foods isn’t too far from the hotel, and they have a massive food court; it is decided. We’ll do some shopping and grab a quick bite before hitting the road again...

He Fed:

I like shopping at Whole Foods because the selection is so far-ranging and you can find practically anything. We had a good time visiting the original one in Austin, Texas last year and Juliet’s been talking up the one in Chicago (just west of Lincoln Park) for some time. She gets to the Windy City more often than I do and has been here a couple times with friends.

We manage to get a parking spot without much difficulty. As with most Whole Foods, this one is busy, people rushing past with cartloads of food, desperately trying to remember where they parked. We go inside and Juliet leads me to the food court.

Now, when you think “food court” you’re probably thinking of a mall’s kiosk of small counters dishing up cheap Chinese or sloppy pizza. Take that concept and pump it up threefold, elevating the quality a few notches too. You can get freshly made Italian, sushi prepared in front of you, or hit a salad bar vegans only dream about.

After a quick tour, I make my way to the Smokehouse & Rotisserie counter. A plate of BBQ sounds good so I wait patiently until a young man asks what I’ll have. I get ribs, mac & cheese, and potato salad. He dishes it up silently, slowly. I get the impression he’s either tired or hungover. I am impressed he brings out a half rack and slices it in front of me. He slaps a price tag on the plate and shoves it at me. The $13 platter only cost me $11, but I discover later he forgot to include cornbread.

I join Juliet back at the wine bar where we unveil our choices. She opted for a fresh salmon stir fry, served on actual dishware, as opposed to my plastic to-go container. We manage to drum up a bartender and get two nice glasses of sparkling rosé. I dig into my ribs. Nice! They are tender, slightly smoky, and cooked the way I like them—pull off the bone, leaving just a little silverskin. The pasta is very mild; I would have liked some jalapeno chunks or something spicy to give them a kick. Potato salad is creamy, rich, with just enough cheddar cheese to make it seem sinful.

Juliet also wrangles steamed pork buns to share: soft, warm, slightly squishy bread filled with crisp veggies and tangy pork. We finish our wine, then head out. I have an awkward run-in with an employee stocking the beer who doesn’t want to help me, and we have another rude encounter at checkout that leaves us puzzled. Despite that, the food was much better than I expected and when we’re next in Chicago, we’ll probably schedule another stop...this time at the beer bar.

She Fed:

A while back, we toured Whole Foods in Austin, primarily to see their culinary school recently outfitted with my brand’s products. And while I’ve been to this Lincoln Park Whole Foods several times in the past, primarily with Karla K, Jeremy and I have never been together. I’ve regaled him with tales of their “food court” and how fabulous the fare is for years. Today’s our chance to check it out!

I always get lost driving to this Whole Foods location, and even as the navigator I manage to get us briefly lost. We finally find it and Jeremy maneuvers through the parking ramp. We enter on the second floor, zipping down an escalator to all the action. I can see Jeremy taking it all in—the coffee bar, the expanse of fresh and bulk foods, the wine department, the cheese counter—it’s slightly overwhelming compared to our hometown markets.

We decide to eat first and shop later so I lead the way to the “food court,” though the name doesn’t do it justice. Every cuisine imaginable is featured here: a Chicago style diner, pizza place, Southern style bbq joint, sushi rolled to order, Asian and Thai, pasta made to order, a NYC deli. Everything is made on-site and features natural, local, and organic ingredients whenever possible. Even better, this location has a wine bar where you can sit and sip a glass with your lunch. Clearly, this is no ordinary food court.

I’ve been drooling for the Salmon Teriyaki Bowl since my visit last month; I flirt briefly with the idea of subbing tofu for the salmon, but cave and go for the fish. I also order two of their bbq pork steamed buns so Jeremy can have a taste and because I’m a sucker for steamed buns of any kind.

I arrive at the wine bar to find Jeremy with a behemoth platter of ribs and fixins. We decide to each indulge in one glass of sparkling rosé with our lunch today. The steamed buns are second only to those I’ve had at Zazu in Sebastopol and those are hard to beat. Sweet rich dough holding fresh crunchy veggies (the cukes are so tasty) and sweet fatty bbq pork. Incredible!

The teriyaki bowl is as good as I remembered. Perfectly cooked brown rice is topped with lightly sauteed veg including bok choy, red peppers, carrots, broccoli, onion, purple cabbage, and three generous fingers of salmon drizzled with teriyaki sauce. The salmon isn’t overcooked. The crisp veggies and the toothsome rice make the dish seem virtuous, while the sticky sweet teriyaki makes it taste indulgent. If only every grocery store was like this!


The American Kitchen


(Saint Joseph, MI) — On a rare, sunny Sunday, we found ourselves tooling around on local business and in need of sustenance. A quick Google found a little restaurant called The American Kitchen nearby, in what used to be a donut shop not long ago. Although it’s tempting to judge a book by its cover, we tried to look past the Bauhaus architecture and hoped we find an oasis of eggs inside...

He Fed:

Honestly, I’m not expecting much of The American Kitchen. The name seems too plain, too “countrified”. Their website is a simple GoDaddy freebie. I full expect dingy curtains and dead flies on the window sills, with grease stains on the drop ceiling.

Imagine my surprise, then, when we walk into a wide open dining room with high ceilings and bright, lively decor. On the walls are various works of art, presumably shown by local artists. To the right is the kitchen, into which we can peer through a window to see the cooks at work. After only a few moments, we’re shown to a nice booth near the back...right under a photograph of the Gerald R. Ford museum in Grand Rapids. What are the odds?

As I look over the extensive menu—they serve breakfast and lunch 7 days a week—I can’t help but be struck by the families with raucous children. I try to tune them out and succeed for the most part; eventually the herd thins. I enjoy a cup of Infusco coffee, roasted in Sawyer, Michigan. It’s not particularly distinctive but a solid cuppa.

The restaurant bills themselves as “a finer diner” and from what I’m seeing being delivered to other tables, I’m inclined to agree. Portions are good-sized, creative, and look delicious. Juliet suggests we split a candied bacon pancake and I immediately agree. From the first bite, it’s almost impossible to stop picking at it. Sweet, fluffy and filled with pork, it’s everything you want for breakfast. Smear some whipped butter on a piece, dunk it in maple syrup, and feel it slide across your taste buds like a magic carpet to nirvana.

Today’s special is a Breakfast Quesadilla. Decision made. Some places try to jump through hoops when it comes to this dish, but AK keeps it enticingly simple: light scrambled eggs; chunks of bacon; cheddar cheese; and red pepper aoili. Pico de gallo on the side adds a little fresh zing. Definitely one of the best breakfast quesadillas I’ve had. The side of potatoes don't thrill me; they taste either stale or over-roasted. Drown them in hot sauce (Cholula!) and ketchup, they go down easy.

As we pay up and continue with our day, I’m very glad to have found The American Kitchen. Good food, great service, and a comfortable environment make for a restaurant I want to visit more often.

She Fed:

You probably already know I’m not a big fan of eating breakfast out. We’ve had some abysmal brunches and breakfasts in the past (one even made my Worst of 2013 list) and I just don’t see the point. First of all, I can make a fabulous breakfast at home for less money than going out. Second, we have a kick-ass espresso machine, making it hard to find lattes better elsewhere. Third, when we eat breakfast in, I can stay in my jammies and sneak bites to the cats.

So, it is with some eye-rolling that I accept Jeremy’s offer go out to breakfast this sunny Sunday. We’ve got an afternoon of running errands ahead of us and I agree, if only to fuel up for a long day. As we pull into their lot, there are enough cars to let us know it must be decent, but not so many cars that we’re scared away. Once inside, the atmosphere is comfortable and the servers are incredibly personable.

The American Kitchen serves breakfast and lunch all day, which is perfect for us on weekends when Jeremy’s hankering for eggs and I’m already thinking about lunch.

But today, I want breakie! My eyes fall on the Candied Bacon Pancakes and I suggest we order just one pancake (they come two per order) to split as a “side” to our breakfast entrees. Jeremy agrees! I consider the Grunt Omelette with bacon, sausage, and sausage gravy or the Truffled Pig Omelette with ham, mushrooms, and truffle oil. In the end I go with my breakfast standby: Biscuits with Sausage Gravy and Eggs (poached medium).

This dish is my measuring stick of a good breakfast joint so I brace for the worst...but hope for the best. Instead of light and fluffy biscuits, these are made with wheat flour, making for a slightly crunchy crust. The denseness of the biscuits helps them stand up to the gravy. Indeed, my last bite isn’t gloppy or mushy but still very toothsome. The gravy is full of sage, cream, and sausage...a trifecta of flavor. The eggs are perfectly cooked and the AK Fries on the side are perfect for mopping up leftover gravy and yolk.

The pancake is studded with candied bacon and served with sweet whipped butter and maple syrup. It’s downright amazing! Years of coast-to-coast travel and I find my breakfast nirvana in Saint Joseph? You read it here first!


The American Kitchen on Urbanspoon