(Kalamazoo, MI) — Not long ago, OpenTable.com came out with a list of top-rated Michigan restaurants, which we promptly added to our “to do” list. Almost immediately, we were presented the opportunity to dine at one of these top 10 restaurants: Food Dance in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A quick glance at the online menu only served to heighten our excitement and when friends JC and RC decided to join us, we knew it would be a special evening. We set the cruise control and zoomed southward for another foodie adventure...
I love a downtown city restaurant that has its own parking lot, and Food Dance does not disappoint. We snag a spot, then head inside where a small shop sits in front of the host stand. Here you can purchase local Michigan wares, including t-shirts, aprons, cheeses, beer, and several other deli items offered by the restaurant. It’s not Cracker Barrel, but kind of the same concept. We check in with the host and touch base with our friends, who are already seated at the bar. In no time, we are seated at a small but comfortable table with a pretty good view of the room.
Despite the assurance that our waitress will be right along, it takes a bit longer than expected before she shows. Part of that is the large birthday party seated right behind me. Our server is swamped, though it is early Saturday evening and there are plenty of empty tables around. She does appear, finally, and we place our drink orders while we peruse the appetizer menu. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for our dinner companions, I have already selected the three starters in which I’m most interested: house-made pork rinds, fondue, and octopus. Surprisingly, everyone else seems to be content to let me have my way. What, no uprising? No mutiny? I must be losing my touch. I sip my fresh mojito—good but not great—waiting for any signs of last-minute revolt from my dinner companions.
The fondue is a mixture of brie, thyme, and Mawby’s Sex accompanied by cubes of focaccia, green grapes, carrot slices, strips of red pepper, mushrooms, and snap peas. Strangely, the cheese isn’t melty enough for dipping, though the taste is quite good...pungent, creamy, with just a slight punch of zingy alcohol. Even more weird are the cuts of veggies that you dip into the mix. Some of them skewer fine, but the carrots, snap peas, and red peppers are easier to handle with bare hands. Tasty, but odd.
House-made pork rinds come out still sizzling on the plate. They are nice and porky, but aren’t too far removed from those you can buy at any gas station and toss in the microwave before eating. It is a strange thing to put on the menu if you can’t jazz it up from ordinary.
Thankfully, the grilled octopus more than makes up for the unwieldy fondue. The tentacles are crisp and slightly singed at the edges, and have been either brined in or trickled with lime. Served on a chickpea mint salad with capers, olives, red pepper, and fennel, it is a truly standout dish and one of the better preparations of octopus I’ve had. After eating my share of the appetizer, I simple want to order more for myself.
As it turns out, I should have. Instead, I risk it all on the Ultimate Mac & Cheese. I expect a nice, crispy dish of rigatoni, aged cheddar, caramalized onions, house made bacon, fresh spinach, and toasted bread crumbs. All of that is in there, but it isn’t crispy, just kind of saucy. It is good, but not great (much like the mojito), and I don’t finish it. As I push away the plate, I am reminded of similar dishes I’ve had in past at Olive Garden, Applebee’s, and Macaroni Grill. It did not help matters when I asked the waitress if she could recommend a glass of red wine that would go with my selection and she replied, “I wouldn’t know what kind of wine to pair with mac & cheese.” Hello!?! It’s pasta! How about a nice Italian red? Pretty awkward.
It is worth noting that, while Juliet thoroughly enjoyed her Blushing Crab Pasta (she raved about it for quite some time afterward) and RC seemed to like her Rocksteady pulled pork sandwich, JC was very unhappy with his Niman Ranch Sirloin. Evidently, the cut of meat was very chewy and not to his liking at all. I also got a cup of tomato soup before my pasta that was lovely, but again, nothing too special.
Though we had high hopes, most of them were dashed. Octopus excepted, none of my food was special enough to warrant another car trip an hour south, when I can get much better so close to home.
We decide to share the brie fondue, the grilled octopus, and out of curiosity's sake, the "house-made" pork rinds. I can't even imagine what wine would go with that motley assortment, so I order the one glass of pinot grigio on the menu. The wine is fragrant with minerals and grassy overtones; nice and refreshing after a hot steamy day.
The fondue is accompanied by bread cubes and steamed carrot slices, thin red pepper sticks, snow peas, and baby bella mushrooms. There's also a smattering of green grapes for good measure. This fondue is unlike any I've had and it seems more like just melted brie than the perfectly smooth fondues I've had in the past. Not all the brie has melted and there are little globules throughout. It's virtually impossible to use anything but the bread cubes and the mushrooms to scoop up any fondue; the veggie slices are too wilted to stand up to the thick melted brie. Overall this just isn't the convivial fondue experience and certainly not worth the $20 price.
The grilled octopus is cooked perfectly. It's fork tender and slightly smoky. The octopus tops a chickpea salad with olives, capers, cubed fennel, and mint. The salad is extremely fresh and bright tasting. It's so good, I make a mental note to recreate the chickpea salad and have it over some greens for a weekday lunch. The smokiness of the octopus with the briney olives and capers, sweet fennel and mint, and toothsome chickpeas is simply divine. And my pinot grigio pairs fabulously with this starter in particular.
The pork rinds are warm and crackling as they arrive at the table. They are tasty and crunchy, but even sprinkled with spicy seasoning (maybe smoked paprika?), we all agree these are no different than the bagged ones you can get at the party store. Although that doesn't prevent us from picking at them and nearly finishing off the entire platter by the time our entrees arrive.
After much debate between all five pasta dishes on the menu (shrimp risotto, mac 'n cheese, and lasagna among them) I opt for the "Blushing Crab Pasta" with Chesapeake Bay crab and Gulf shrimp. Pasta seems like an odd choice for such a hot day, but the air conditioning is blasting and I'm craving a piping hot comfort dish. My pasta comes with a field greens salad but for a small charge I can upgrade to the Caeser or a small version of the "Square Dance" salad, which I've been eyeballing all night. I go for it and am pleased to find it tastes as good as it's described. Field greens are tossed with balsamic vinaigrette and gussied up with farm cheese, toasted pine nuts, caramelized onions. and dried cherries.
The small salad is impossible to finish before the pasta arrives. The spaghetti is twirled into a beautiful mound on the plate, topped with some shreds of pure white crab and encircled with three pink shrimp. The tomato sauce has quite a bit of fresh dill which adds a verdant freshness. I happily discover there is a generous amount of shredded crab meat within the tomato sauce as well. The shrimp are okay, a bit chewy and missing that sweet succulence I love in shrimp. But the al dente pasta with the dilled tomato sauce and yummy crab meat is truly amazing. This is one of the best pasta dishes I've ever had.
I find it odd that the selection of wines by the glass is so slim. Six whites and five reds don't provide enough variety to go with this innovative and wide-ranging menu. Another wine snafu occured when Jeremy asked for a recommendation on a red from the waitress. "Oh a red? I wouldn't know how to pair a red wine with macaroni and cheese" was her reply. My jaw nearly hit the table at this uninformed statement. How ridiculous. In addition to expanding their choices of wine by the glass, the waitstaff should be paid to attend a few in-house wine clinics.
The interior of Food Dance is big and airy with two walls of big windows. The market is cute and the dessert case quite tempting. There were a few missteps tonight, but my two dishes were absolutely spectacular and worthy of all the buzz we've heard.