@GRMAGAZINE: Why Did The Chef Cross The Road?

(Grand Rapids, MI) — The August 2012 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine focuses on "Farm to Fork", and our article therein explores that concept, as envisioned by The Winchester restaurant. They take the idea one step further and actually planted a garden across the street to help supplement their vegetable needs, but also to distance themselves from the glut of other establishments crowing about locally-sourced ingredients. (In some cases, "local" can mean Wisconsin, so the term has lost some of its cachet lately.) Over the course of two recent visits, we purposely ordered dishes that feature veggies from across the way...

We meet friends for a weekend lunch to sample some of the dishes that best exemplify the bounty of the Winchester Garden. As we usually do with a group, we decide to order a mess of starters, starting with calamari, spicy Thai lettuce wraps (sans chicken), and deviled eggs. Calamari is good, doesn’t strike me as anything particularly different than you’d find anywhere else, though it’s lovely with a garnish of fresh spinach, pickled cukes, and heirloom carrots. Lettuce wraps are zesty with lots of mushrooms subbing for chicken. It’s hard to feel anything but virtuous when you’re eating a big leaf of romaine filled with more veggies. That is, until the deviled eggs arrive, sunny cooked yolk filling sprinkled with paprika. Is there anything that just screams summer more than a deviled egg? (Besides a margarita on the deck.)

Staying on my veggie crusade today, I order the bibimbap minus the flank steak. It’s an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous dish and a favorite of mine on the road after a late night or a bit too much wine! Winchester features a bed of steaming hot Jasmine rice, topped with a lightly fried egg, streaks of chili paste, and strips of nori. The perimeter of the rice has little mounds of breakfast radishes, pickled cucumbers, kimchi, and an impressive copse of enoki mushrooms.

I know the purpose of bibimbap is to stir all the ingredients together and then partake. Indeed, in some restaurants the bowl is scalding hot from the oven and the egg is served raw only to be cooked as it’s combined with the other ingredients. But I want to try each element first before I mix it all together. The pickled cukes are perfectly puckery, neither too sweet nor too tangy. The radishes give a peppery crunch while the chili sauce provides a nice little kick. The enoki mushrooms are bland and a bit woody, giving them a mildly off-putting mouthfeel.

I’ve never had kimchi before and frankly, was not expecting to like it. Back when we lived in the suburbs of Kentwood, we had a neighbor who used to bury jars of it under her deck in the early summer to ferment and by mid-August the smell was unbearable. We avoided any outdoor activity on that side of the yard until she moved the jars back inside. Had I known there was a virtual smorgasbord of pickled cabbage goodness next door, I would have made more of an effort! The kimchi is spicy and slightly sweet with a whisper of smokiness.

Once I mix everything together, letting the yolk break and ooze throughout, the chili sauce co-mingle and the enoki break into bits, it all tastes even better. Sweet, rich, spicy, earthy, and crunchy. Yes, please!

The second time we hit Winchester, Jeremy and I share the garden beet plate and order pad Thai and fish tacos, respectively. I’m a sucker for a beet salad and this one does not disappoint with the trifecta of red, golden, and candy-stripe beets. I’ve had the fish tacos here before and always find them top-notch with fresh pico, pickled radishes, chunky guacamole, and perfectly grilled wahoo fish. I’ve never had the pad Thai and which Jeremy declares is “the best in GR.” When he offers me a bite I find myself going back for seconds. Then thirds. It’s exactly what Thai food should be—sweet, sour, salty, and bitter all at once. I’ve only had Thai this good in Manhattan. And to think this little gem of a dish is not only right here in Grand Rapids, but the veggies literally come from the garden across the street!

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