The Winchester

(Grand Rapids, MI) The week before the long memorial day weekend gave us many sunny days in a row, and you could almost feel the impatience of other people to get on with their holiday plans. We decide to get things rolling by properly reviewing one of our favorite hangouts, The Winchester, in the burgeoning Wealthy Street district of Grand Rapids...

He Fed:
For me, sunny days are designed for sitting on the deck at The Winchester. Opened a few years ago and named for the bar in Shaun of the Dead, this gastropub does a good job of offering a variety of drinks and food prepared with more style than your ordinary alehouse. Sitting inside can be a bit intimidating; bad acoustics make loud-talkers seem even more obnoxious and tight quarters when it's crowded might mean delays when being served. I'm not ashamed to say we've walked out and gone elsewhere when those conditions exist.

Today, however, we have the run of the place at lunchtime. It is quiet and cool inside. They appear to have modified the seating somewhat and I smell fresh paint or lacquer. Maybe they've made improvements to quell the acoustics? Time will tell. For now, we only want to be outside, soaking up the glorious sunshine and drinking a cold beverage while the rest of the world goes about their daily business.

We snag a patio table with an umbrella, hoping it will protect us from the harsh UV rays. (It does, but only partially; the sun keeps rotating until Juliet feels the brunt and gets a deep burn at the end of the day.) Two waitresses appear, quietly divvy up our table from another active station at the other end of the deck, then disappear back inside. Our chosen server pops back out moments later with menus. Throughout our visit she is efficient, cheerful, playful and keeps our water glasses filled. She's the best server we've had at The Winchester and the best server we've had in Grand Rapids in a long time.

Already, we know we want to start with the deviled eggs and we are starving. We are told they may not be ready yet, but she'll check with Chef Andy. Thankfully, they are done in time! As far as deviled eggs go, these are pretty typical...and that's okay. It's great pub food with a little kick of paprika. They go down quickly, laying a base for the cold beverages. The draught list is unfortunatly out of date, with three or four substitutions so I pick an old standby: Red Hook ESB. It is crisp, bitter and refreshing.

Our friend Kim joins us shortly thereafter, while we peruse the menu. For my entree I gravitate toward the Polish plate. I am a sucker for Polish food, especially cabbage and pierogies. This dish is a twist on the standard Polish fare, however. The pierogies are filled with butternut squash and goat cheese, making for rich, creamy and earthy pasta pouches. They sit atop a low mound of braised, chopped cabbage and onion that tastes smoky and buttery with some firmness left. Split sausage planks flank the outside, still juicy and salty. It is a fun dish that doesn't look like much on the plate but once you dig in, you begin to see the brilliance at work in the kitchen.

I switch to a pale ale while we continue to visit and the ladies finish their entrees (I always eat a little too quickly, particularly if it's good). Then it hits me: I'm still hungry! Juliet had expressed some interest in the Black Pepper Wings earlier, so I flag down our server and order some.

Holy. Moley.

I wouldn't call myself a "wing aficiando" but I do enjoy drumsticks from Hooters (cajun style!), Outback (they are huge), and Buffalo Wild Wings (boneless jerk style). In my estimation, The Winchester's Black Pepper Wings are the best wings in town. I devour most of them, savoring the spicy punch of black pepper and the heavy sauce in the bottom of the mini-skillet. The chicken is meaty and juicy, perfectly prepared, but it is the sauce I will be dreaming about for some time.

After we let our server know how efficient she's been and how thankful we are, we reluctantly depart from our bit of shade and stroll down Wealthy Street, peeking into windows and wondering at the multitude of other eateries we've yet to try.

4 out of 5 mezzalunas
She Fed:
Having skipped breakfast, I immediately ask for ice tea with lemon and an order of deviled eggs as soon as we are seated. I've had the deviled eggs before and know they will hit the spot. Our waitress tells us the deviled eggs might not be ready yet as Chef Andy was just making them, but she promises to check.

Luckily for me and my low blood sugar, the eggs are available! They're so liberally spiced with paprika that the filling is pink. Five of them are nestled in a bed of mixed greens and I would normally knife and fork the eggs with the greens, but I am so hungry I skip the silverware and take a big bite. The egg white is firm, but not rubbery (don't you hate that?) and the filling is just as I remember it: creamy and slightly smoky from the paprika. A comforting way to take the edge off my hunger. I drain my ice tea and feel nearly human again.

Our friend Kim joins us and we spend a few minutes catching up then turn our attention to the menu. The Winchester has a wide variety of sandwiches, small plates, soups and salads, each dish with a unique spin. In addition, our server details the two daily specials: a salad with seared mahi, field greens, grapefruit, strawberries and more, and a beef brisket sandwich with pineapple salsa on ciabatta.

I'm debating between the salad special, the pad Thai (Jeremy says it's the best in Grand Rapids), the smoked mushroom and goat cheese crostini or the fish tacos. I've had the last two before and adored them both. I decide to go with the unknown and order pad Thai with the addition of shrimp ($2) and one scrambled egg (free) for some extra protein. A little overkill after the deviled eggs, I know.

It is quite hot out, probably in the low 80's and our waitress does a first-rate job of keeping our waters filled throughout our two hour lunch. She brings a carafe of ice water to our table and keeps it filled at all times. I'm sure I've mentioned in prior reviews that having to wave down the server for water is a pet peeve of mine. While our waitress is extemely busy, she does an outstanding job of taking excellent care of us.

I always have a hard time selecting a wine to go with Asian food and rose is my standby for Thai. Alas, The Winchester has no rose on the menu! I go with the Albarino, which is normally too sweet for my taste, but will offset the heat of the pad Thai nicely. Our lunches arrive and it's all I can do not to take a bite of Jeremy's "Polish Platter" filled with sausages and pierogi and Kim's grilled Caesar salad with chicken. My pad Thai is served in a large Chinese take-out container with chopsticks and an oversized bowl. The shrimp are grilled to that perfect "c" shape you want (a chef once told me when cooking shrimp, "C" equals cooked and "O" equals overcooked.)

As I dig in, I realize there is a serious amount of food in this small plate. The scrambled egg is enmeshed in the noodles and the veggies, bok choy, carrots and pea pods; all add a fresh crunch. The pad Thai is spicy, sweet and curiously citrus-y...a bit like lemongrass. It's mot at all like the reddish sauce with peanut crumbles I've had on pad Thai before. Again, the kitchen has made this dish uniquely their own and opened my eyes to new tastes.

There are a few things The Winchester could improve upon. The accoustics are pretty bad and it's nearly impossible to hold a conversation inside the restaurant on a busy night. In addition, the menu posted online as well as the menus used in the restaurant are out of date. Our waitress made a point to alert us to a few of the dishes on the menu that are no longer available. I think her words sum it up: "We really need to get new menus printed up!"

That said, I think The Winchester is one of the most innovative restaurants in Grand Rapids. There is some serious talent in the kitchen that should not be missed.

3.5 out of 5 mezzalunas

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