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The Sugar House Opens: A Look Inside the First Day

Just about any bar anywhere would kill to have the publicity and media attention garnered by the Sugar House over the past year. A Metro Times cover. Then an Hour Detroit article. More recently, an Hour Detroit cover. An inclusion of the blog on a Saveur list of 50 must-reads for foodies. And mentions from the BBC travel page, the NY Post, and The New York Times.

The funny part, of course, is that it was simply the promise of what this bar could deliver that drew the hype: During all that coverage, the Sugar House wasn’t even open.

All that changed last Tuesday when manager/bartender Dave Kwiatkowski unlocked his door on Michigan Avenue and served up drinks at the bar’s soft opening. Naturally, I did what any dedicated gourmand lush in search of a cocktail would do: I dropped everything, took a vacation day at work, and decided to capture in photos how the day would ultimately unfold.

(Once you click on the image below to launch the slideshow, you can use the mouse or the arrow keys to cycle through the images.)

Launch the Sugar House Slideshow

Cocktails have become an almost revered form of public alchemy, and there’s a sexy mystique that has begun to surround particular bars, drinks, and the bartenders who make them. At 11pm, when the lights are dim and the gentle mist of a twisted lemon peel is giving your drink that perfect final note, that’s not an entirely unreasonable conclusion.

But as with any small business, the details that create that mystique are a bit less glorious. Dave has rather famously been dealing with red tape for eighteen months, and he had to complete a lot of construction in order to open.

Even on opening day, there wasn’t any real time to celebrate. Since he had no idea when his license would ultimately be approved, he didn’t already have all the right ice on hand, so friends brought him nice, perfect cubes of ice, and they shopped for a box of rye whiskey to help him open. He had to drive to the various liquor distribution hubs around town and collect his initial inventory – except that the distributors had run out of a number of things, including commonplace items like Sazerac rye. And so on.

Still, the daily routine of opening a cocktail bar is about what you’d expect: Dave, bartender Chuck Gellasch, and their bar backs juicing ginger, lemons, and limes; making syrups; mopping floors; stocking shelves; filling ice bins; et cetera.

Having gone largely unadvertised, the first hours of the Sugar House’s first day carried a modest, pleasant pace with a trickle of Slows’ employees, Dave’s friends, and neighborhood folks stopping in for a drink or six. There wasn’t any fanfare – Dave didn’t even have time after his prep work to change into the bar’s signature vest and tie ensemble – there were just good drinks, good folks, and a good night.

He’s still bringing in furniture, hanging artwork, and rounding out his selection of spirits, but all indications are the hype is worth it: The drinks are simply fantastic. But was it worth the wait and the hassle for Dave? It should suffice to say that I’ve never seen anyone so genuinely happy to be fetching a mop or stocking a shelf with bourbon.

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Celebrate the Season

We don’t need a reason to drink beer. But every year around this time, while thousands of people in Munich, Germany are raising liter mugs filled with tasty lager, we get a little restless. It’s as though a metaphysical force reaches over continents and across the Atlantic Ocean imploring us to party. So it only made sense to gather a few people and attempt to make a batch of big-ass pretzels while drinking as much Oktoberfest beer as we could.

Despite its name, the Munich Oktoberfest is actually celebrated through the last couple weeks of September and ends on the first weekend in October. The festival originated in 1810 to observe the marriage of the Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. Today, it is the world’s largest fair and an important part of Bavarian culture. With massive drinking tents, carnival rides, traditional German fare, and an outrageous amount of beer, the festival is known throughout the world.

I was lucky enough to be in Munich during Oktoberfest some years ago. Pictures cannot do justice to the atmosphere in the Hofbräu-Festzelt, the largest of all the beer tents. This tent alone sells around half a million liters of beer and 70,000 roast chickens every year through the 16 day event. Imagine yourself drinking beer all day and singing along with a few thousand new friends while an Oom-pah band plays traditional drinking songs like Ein Prosit and, oddly enough, John Denver’s Country Roads. Apparently, beer drinkers like John Denver.

Naturally, it’s easy to overindulge at Munich’s Oktoberfest. Though I consumed multiple liters and even attempted to pick a fight with an English rugby team on one occasion, I was able to narrowly avoid becoming one of the “Bierleichen” (beer corpses). I did see a couple of people puking into garbage cans but that aspect wasn’t much different than Michigan State’s campus before an afternoon football game.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be sure and perhaps one of my fondest memories was eating soft pretzels the size of a small Rottweiler.

There is no big secret to making a decent soft pretzel. It’s just bread that gets a quick bath in boiling water before baking to create a deep-brown outer crust. Making those authentic, big-ass Oktoberfest pretzels is a different story, and our experiment didn’t quite turn out as anticipated. Handling the large twists of delicate dough after the water bath requires some specialized equipment. We were able to accomplish the water bath using a shallow, extra large stainless pot with a deep-frying basket. Though big-ass pretzels are quite impressive, we suggest going a less demanding route and making them small enough to handle with a slotted spoon.

Recipe for 1 dozen 6-inch Pretzels


  • 2-3/4 cups flour
  • 1 tbsp Yeast
  • 1 tbsp Sugar
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 2 tbsp softened butter
  • 1 cup warm water (~115 deg F)
  • Coarse salt (we like thin, flaked salt. Try Davids Kosher)


  • Combine the water and yeast in a mixing bowl. When dissolved and beginning to froth, add 1-1/2 cup flour and remaining ingredients. Stir until thoroughly mixed.
  • Stir in the remaining 1-1/4 cup flour and knead until the dough loses its stickiness. Let the dough rise in a covered, greased bowl until it doubles in bulk.
  • Punch down the dough and divide into 12 pieces for traditional pretzels or two pieces for big-ass pretzels.
  • With your palms, roll the 12 pretzel pieces into 18-inch lengths about the thickness of a pencil, tapering the ends slightly. Loop the 18-inch length into the traditional pretzel shape, and place on a greased baking sheet.
  • Cover pretzels and allow the dough to rise until approximately doubled in bulk.
  • Preheat oven to 475. In a non-aluminum saucepan, prepare a boiling solution of:
    • 4 cups water
    • 5 tablespoons baking soda
  • With a slotted spoon, carefully lower the pretzels into the water for about one minute.
  • Return the pretzels to the greased baking sheet (or alternately, a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or silicone mat) and sprinkle with coarse salt.
  • Bake the pretzels until they are browned, about 12-15 minutes.

Serve with mustard and beer. Which beer? We’re glad you asked.

Oktoberfest beer, or Märzen, is a style that was traditionally brewed in spring to be cellared over the summer months. The alcohol content was slightly higher to prevent spoilage. It should be malty, clean, and deep golden to amber in color with no little to no hop flavor or aroma.

Because of the many American craft breweries that make a seasonal ale and call it an Oktoberfest, there is a common misconception that these beers should be deep amber to brown in color, fruity, and sometimes even hoppy. While we’re certainly not beer style fascists and like to take a beer on its own merit as well as compare it to a style, it does get annoying when some beer geeks disparage the lighter German Oktoberfest beers for not being made “to style”. It helps to remember that the Germans invented the damn style and imported German Oktoberfest beer is always a lager and will generally be lighter and cleaner than their American counterparts.

The official Oktoberfest may be over in Munich but many of the beers will remain on store shelves well into November. Drink up.

The Beers

Short’s Noble Chaos: Musty, grainy, and chocolate-y, this lager shows why most American breweries don’t even attempt true Oktoberfest lagers, opting for malty ales instead.

Spaten: Nicely balanced and light bodied, this finishes with a moderate bitterness.  Not a remarkable beer but it’s a drinkable brew in a style that can sometimes be a bit too sweet. It’s possible our sample bottle had a bit of skunk. I’m not paranoid of beer in green bottles —  but if they are sitting on a warm shelf under lights, buyer beware.

Harpoon: One of the better American Oktoberfests we sampled, this was more “on style” (in the German sense) than most of the other new world selections. Lighter than most, it was nevertheless malty, a tad fruity, and on the sweet side. Quaffable.

Ayinger: Sweeter and fuller bodied than most of the Germans, this would be hard to drink en masse, but it has its own merits: There’s a lot of depth to the malt characteristics, and for all the sweetness, it finishes fairly dry.

Bell’s: Smells and tastes a bit soapy with a grainy and bready texture. This one had a somewhat unfinished quality to it.

Hofbrau: Arguably the lightest beer in terms of body, it’s still quite malty. While it’s not as sweet overall as some others, it has no bitterness on the finish to clean it up so it comes off as awkward.

Sam Adams: We were pleasantly surprised by this beer, which has historically come off to us as a lower tier effort in the style. Compared to the Hofbrau, which preceded it, the Sam was notably weightier in body but less sweet overall. We went back to this later, and while coming after the Hofbrau was a favorable spot in the line-up, it still tasted surprisingly good later. Slightly more hop presence than the Germans, however.

Frankenmuth: Though drinkable outside the context of a tasting, this local version has an off flavor that makes it mediocre at best.

Schmohz: If the Short’s was a bit off style, the Schmohz shows a blatant disregard for what can reasonably be called Oktoberfest. A dark wheat beer, it was laudably dry, but it tasted like an amateur homebrew.

Paulaner: Almost unanimously the best of the Oktoberfest beers, this had the best balance of malt sweetness up front and a dry, lingering finish. As with most lagers and despite the intentional sweetness, drinkability is paramount with Oktoberfest, and Paulaner hits the sweet spot. Even after going back to the other German beers, this stands out in a casual re-tasting.

Weihenstephaner: Though not a part of our tasting I felt it important to mention this beer as I’ve consumed nearly two cases since the season began. With a malty, full body and just enough hop bitterness for balance, this is one of the more drinkable offerings out there.

Images and the bulk of tasting notes provided by Evan Hansen.

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Where Detroit Meets the South China Sea

Duck at Liang’s Oriental BBQ

Every major metropolitan area has its ethnic neighborhoods and Detroit is no different. Places like Southwest Detroit, Dearborn and Hamtramck all contain multiple restaurants, food markets, and retail stores that offer a small piece of home for their various immigrant populations. Hidden in plain sight is the vibrant Southeast Asian community in Madison Heights. Though sprawling and interspersed with typical suburban strip mall establishments, there are numerous places where one can grab a hearty bowl of pho, a banh mi sandwich, a bag of dried rice noodles, or a crunchy, shrimp-flavored snack.

Start your tour on the west side of John R. Road between 11 and 12 Mile Roads, Thang Long makes a good pho. And what’s not to like about a massive bowl of rich, slow developed meat broth flavored with spices and filled with rice vermicelli noodles and beef? But we are truly into their combo vermicelli with shrimp, crab and pork crispy roll (bun cha gio tom cua). It’s a bowl of those same rice noodles with the addition of cucumber, fresh cabbage, daikon, pickle, carrot, fried garlic and mint. Instead of broth, you’ll get a small bowl of garlic fish sauce dressing to pour over the works. It’s an uncomplicated dish, yet deeply satisfying.

Spicy with chile, lemongrass and shrimp paste, we order a cup of Thang Long’s hue soup every time we dine there. It’s nasal-clearing and belly-filling with chunks of tender beef. Hangovers will run and hide. Other good dishes are the lemongrass beef or chicken. Try quail roasted in five spice with a lime, salt, and pepper dipping sauce as an appetizer. With all the quality Vietnamese dishes on the menu we never find the urge to order from the Thai section.

Thang Long

Two doors up is Chinatown Market where the shelves are stocked with a variety of food from frozen dim sum to fresh, whole duck. Chinatown Market caters to a general Asian clientele and is where we shop for noodles. Ramen, soba, udon, egg, flat rice, rice vermicelli, bean thread (aka glass noodle, aka cellophane noodle) and more, the noodle aisle is like natural history display of Asian food.

Farther north on John R. near 13 Mile is another strip mall restaurant and market pairing. Many claim that Thuy Trang serves the best Vietnamese food in the area. Frankly, we believe that all of these places have their strengths and weaknesses. Find out for yourself. A few doors up, Saigon Market is a good place to purchase prepared foods and drinks. They make an excellent banh mi and many times you can find multi-colored steamed rice cakes (banh bo hap) that come with a sweet and salty coconut dipping sauce ideal as a light dessert.

Across the street, Que Huong is said to have the ultimate banh mi. Filled with shredded pork skin and the other requisite goodies, their sandwich is quite good, though we prefer the chewy texture of a fresh bun vs. the toasted one we received here. But add Que Huong to your pho tour of Detroit and be sure to order the avocado smoothie that is the perfect balance of creamy, sweet and refreshing.

Head east to the intersection of 13 Mile Road and Dequindre Road. This little strip mall corner of Madison Heights has it all. We love banh mi from Pho Hang restaurant if only because they give you the fresh ingredients, cucumber, cilantro, hot peppers, pickled carrot and daikon, in a small bag to add at your convenience. This is another spot to hit on the pho tour.

Next door, Kim Nhung Super Foods sells everything you need to make an authentic Vietnamese meal in your own kitchen along with numerous frozen and specialty products from items as mundane as tapioca flour to exotic canned grasshopper. Stop by on a Saturday and you’ll find Styrofoam coolers full of live frogs, snails, oysters and other surprises.

Smoothie with tapioca pearls at QQ Bakery

Further down, QQ Bakery is a tiny gem that offers everything from bubble tea to curry pastries but they really shine with a simple sponge cake. Airy, moist and lightly sweetened, each bite is a delicate morsel that practically dissolves on the tongue.Try it flavored with pandan, a mildly nutty tropical screwpine leaf, and rolled Swiss-style around a thin layer of cream. We often see diners that were sitting near us at one of the restaurants chose to hit QQ for dessert. Finally, for a quick, hot portion of juicy, roasted pork or duck to go, visit Liang’s Oriental BBQ. While you’re there amongst the hanging, roasted animals you might imagine you stepped into a wormhole and landed square in a Hong Kong side street.

There are nearly twenty ways to order pho at Pho Viet at the corner of 13 Mile Road and Ryan. Most are some combination of proteins — rare beef, well-done flank, brisket, tendon, tripe, beef meatballs, or all of the above. With a depth of flavor from long simmered bones and a delicate hand with the spices, the broth really is the star in this dish. A plate of bean sprouts, Thai basil, fresh hot pepper slices, lime and culantro (a large leaf herb that tastes similar to cilantro) accompanies the soup. Also, try a sweet, sour, salty and refreshing soda made with preserved lime (chanh muoi). Needless to say, this is another requisite stop on the pho tour.

Rarely do these small, independent ethnic markets and restaurants see the type of media buzz that upscale or downtown establishments generate. Yet most of them see steady trade throughout the week and will likely survive whether or not they are revealed to a non-immigrant population. Indeed, even after years of eating and shopping in this area, we’re still discovering places to explore and new foods to sample. We certainly don’t intend for this list to be all-inclusive of what the community has to offer. In fact, we just recently discovered the Filipino flavors of New Lutong Pinoy.

At most, a few open-minded visits to this neighborhood can permanently alter the worldview of an individual that has been long sheltered from the culture of their immigrant neighbors. At least, a tasty smoothie and a glance into the melting pot that is Detroit is half of an hour well spent.

All photos courtesy of Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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Rye Tasting

Distilling rye has a history in America that extends back into the 1700s, a practice that was regularly undertaken by eastern settlers with surplus grain. George Washington was even among those who made whiskey from his rye, a fact which certainly must qualify it as one of our country’s classic spirits. Hence, Gourmet Underground Detroit felt it was our duty as Americans to taste through an assortment of this chronicled beverage.

Equal parts stout patriot and mad genius, my dear friend John thus organized a small group of folks — he and I were joined by Karla and Noah — to gather at his apartment in Northville to taste through a half dozen rye whiskeys.

Unfortunately, Sazerac brand rye, which is generally one of the commonly available ryes in Michigan, is in short supply at the moment, or so we were told by several store clerks in western Wayne County. But we had the other notable state-sanctioned products — Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Russell’s, and Bulleit — as well as two ryes that are among the most popular across the counry in the form of Old Overholt and Rittenhouse 100.

None of these are terribly expensive, and we intentionally ignored products like the $200 aged Rittenhouse product or the “Ri” whiskey from Jim Beam, which at $40+ on the retail shelf isn’t something with which most people would be interested in mixing.

Setting aside our observations and opinions for a couple of paragraphs, it’s worth mentioning a few basic facts about rye, especially considering that it has a pretty limited following in the metro Detroit area.

Whiskey of all sorts is essentially just a distillation of a rudimentary beer. Most whiskey we drink has been aged in barrels for some length of time. Bourbon, arguably the more familiar whiskey to most Americans and certainly to most Detroiters, contains at least 51% corn in that grain mixture. Rye, by contrast and by law, must contain at least 51% rye. The remainder of the grain bill can be just about anything, though in the case of rye whiskey, those grains are generally corn, wheat, and/or malted rye.

Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia were all states noted for their rye traditions, with unique characteristics ascribed to each. After WWII, many of the notable bottlers were bought up and shut down or sold again, and those that stayed open were gobbled up by larger companies. Indeed, Pikesville, a perfectly pleasant drink with a nice fruity nose and smooth flavor, is a whiskey long associated with Maryland. But it’s now manufactured in Kentucky, “rescued” by Heaven Hill distilleries. The same applies to Rittenhouse, a brand in our tasting that represents Pennsylvania rye.

Indeed, as with most spirits, the landscape changed considerably after Prohibition. Bourbon gained favor with whiskey drinkers, and vodka seemed to catch on with everyone else.

Fortunately, we’re in the midst of something of a rye renaissance. In addition to the large-scale products that are enjoyable – like Rittenhouse or Overholt – producers like Tuthilltown, Anchor, and Whistlepig are creating new, smaller batch products that seem to be catching on for drinking straight or use in particularly high end cocktails.

In that spirit of renewal, here are our notes from the tasting. We drank the whiskeys blind, and the notes below are presented in the order in which the ryes were consumed.

Jim Beam Rye
The initial reaction from the entire crowd was that the whiskey didn’t taste like much of anything. There’s a slight sweetness with just a bit of vanilla barrel flavor and a mild spiciness. Very mild body. But beyond that, the Beam was inoffensive enough to be passable for cocktails but rather uninspiring otherwise.

Russell’s Reserve 6
As Noah immediately mentioned, this was lighter in color than our first blind entry: Russell’s 6-year was more of a yellow-ish color than most whiskey. Aromatically, this was simply weak – not much there. On the palate, it was so bland as to be insipid. Karla didn’t get past two sips before passing hers off. There was barely a spiciness to it, something that one commonly expects in a rye, and it ended with a strange bitterness that, while mild, was off-putting. I’ve mixed Russell’s in plenty of drinks and not been too upset about it, but in this naked setting, it was clearly outmatched.

Bulleit Rye
Standing in stark contrast to the first two, this screamed with unique flavors and smelled of honey and herbs. I was somewhat alone in thinking that it had a thyme-ish quality in the nose. The spiciness was prickly but only accompanied by the most mild alcohol burn, and a light honey sweetness with a bit of toffee bitterness in the finish continued throughout the drink. It lasts a long while with that herbal, woody, toffee flavor making for a fairly savory rye. Of course, rye is the grain responsible for those flavors and for spice, so it should come as no surprise to newcomers to this product that it contains 95% rye, an unusually high percentage.

Rittenhouse 100
Arguably the most powerful of the ryes, this was obviously a 100 proof whiskey from the get go. In terms of complexity, it suffered coming immediately after the Bulleit. But as the most potent beverage in the tasting, spiciness and booze shone through with a mild, grassy finish. This is a clean, edgy whiskey that manages to be quite dry and full at the same time.

Old Overholt
Sort of a middling option from the first whiff, this had a bit of spice, a bit of sweetness, a bit of vanilla, and a bit of maple on the nose and honey on the palate. Lower in alcohol, it was immediately characterized as being rounder and while not widely rejected by our group, it wasn’t beloved either. Of course, this is still a value: It’s less than 15 bucks just about anywhere you can find it (not in Detroit), and in a pinch, it gets the job done. In the price range, it’s clearly a better option than Beam.

Wild Turkey
This is the most well-rounded whiskey. It had some body and some mild spice, but despite its higher proof, it’s not at all hot. And however it’s aged, it results in a pleasant, mild vanilla flavor. This whiskey also ranked highly with everyone, and considering the price and the fact it’s readily available in Michigan, it would arguably be our “go to” rye in the state.

* * * * * *

The Manhattan Project

Drinking straight whiskey is fun. No one would deny that. But in the interest of scientific exploration, we elected to make some Manhattans with the top three ryes from the tasting. If it wasn’t obvious from the notes, we chose to use Bulleit, Rittenhouse, and Wild Turkey.

John and Noah preferred the Bulleit best, whereas Karla preferred the Wild Turkey, and I preferred the Rittenhouse. The Bulleit certainly had a lot of flavors going on, though in my mind, it clashed a bit, adding a spicy smoke flavor to a drink that might not best carry those particular sensations. What one man considers complex might be another man’s confused, and vice versa. Wild Turkey carried its round, pleasant qualities through to the Manhattan and blended seamlessly. Rittenhouse created, for me, the most interesting drink: pleasant but not simple, complex but not awkward, spicy but not hot.

A certain someone hosting the tasting disagreed with my assessment and offered this unkind gesture:

It’s hard to lose with any of these three whiskeys — either for drinking straight or for drinking in a cocktail — but for Michiganders not looking to ship from out of state, Wild Turkey is the clear winner.

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GUDetroit picnic 2011


It was an event we’d been anxiously awaiting for several weeks (although some may have feigned otherwise- you know who you are): the second annual GUDetroit picnic on Belle Isle. You may remember my post about last year’s picnic, a 9-hour marathon of food, drink and camaraderie that began shortly after noon and ended only when the last rays of sunlight were extinguished and the city lights began to twinkle across the river in their place. This year was no different in that respect, and once again I was among those packing up at the end of the night after most everyone except Todd and Evan had gone home.

Marvin and I didn’t make it to the picnic until almost 4pm so I missed a few folks who had already come and gone, but for the most part, people were there for the duration (and we weren’t the last to show up by a long shot). There were many familiar faces but just as many new ones, with overall turnout a bit higher than last year- we’re an ever-expanding group! As is often the case with social gatherings whose genesis is online, I wasn’t quite sure whether to just randomly introduce myself to unfamiliar people, even knowing that we’ve likely corresponded in some shape or form already. Some were forthcoming with introductions and others preferred to remain anonymous. Maybe we’ll have to do a name tag thing next time. As long as everyone promises not to write their Twitter handle on it.

One person I was definitely looking forward to meeting was Warda, a fellow blogging friend I recently wrote about whom I’d never met in person. She came with her husband and two darling little girls and brought karantika (photo at left), a savory flan made with chickpea flour that is a popular street food in Algeria.  Although they have lived in the Detroit area for years, it was their first visit to Belle Isle, and I was pleased to have a hand in that.

As the evening wore on, things got loopier, with manly naps and snuggles on picnic blankets, tree-climbing, raucous games of cornhole for all ages, mint-spanking, swinging from willow branches, and even some half-baked attempts at hula-hooping.  We finally packed it up well after dark, with a few hardy souls carrying on the festivities back in Ferndale.

Now that you’ve read this far, I’m sure you’re saying to yourself “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD?!” I hope no one throws rotten tomatoes at me if I say that I thought the spread was slightly more impressive last year. But maybe that’s just the rose-tinted spectacles of hindsight… the “first time” of anything often holds a special place in one’s memory, and last year’s picnic was pretty darn magical. There were some definite highlights this year though, like grilled feta with honey, anise and other herbs, homemade sausage, pork tenderloin, elote, and Warda’s karantika. The mini pavlovas looked enticing but were gone before I could try one. And judging from the speed at which the 5 pounds of kefta and kebabs I brought were devoured, I’d say those went over pretty well too.

For even more photos of the picnic as well as the kefta and kebab recipes, you can hop over to my blog. And anyone who’s posted photos on flickr or elsewhere, please share links (unless of course they happen to contain photos of a certain, ahem, over-aged hula hooper).


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Serious as a Cart Attack: A Look at Mark’s Carts

Delicious food has been available from mobile eateries for a while now in Michigan, and Detroit has long had its share of taco trucks.  But ask anyone who’s had a little dumpling filled with fresh octopus or a bowl of impossibly good vegan stew from a cart no larger than a large hatchback automobile: There’s more to the current nationwide food cart trend than well-prepared Mexican snacks.

Japanese.  Spanish.  Vegan.  Pork.  Korean.  Burgers.  Brisket.  Fish and chips.  Every cuisine has a cart somewhere in the U.S. — a little restaurant with no building, low overhead, and plenty of hungry customers.  All of this is true of Mark’s Carts in Ann Arbor, which opened earlier this month.

Mark's Carts - Ann Arbor, Michigan
Standalone carts have been common elsewhere for a long time, and the concept of a place that serves cheap, crave-worthy food curbside is an inspiringly simple brand of genius.

But why stop there?  Portland has been bragging about its diverse, courtyard-style approach for a few years now.  I’ve seen the concept at work in Austin, and now it’s in Ann Arbor, satiating that quintessential American desire for choice.

Each of the carts has its own focus, and there are over a half dozen options.  I would have written about Mark’s at opening, but given the variety, there’s simply too much food to sample for a single visit.

Among my first selections was a “headcheese hoagie” from the Humble Hogs cart.  The proprietor is Keith Ewing, recently back in Ann Arbor from Houston.  As I discovered in a brief conversation with him, he’s obsessed with pigs – history, farming, culinary uses, and everything in between.  His passion is evident in his use of pasture raised animals and in the sheer deliciousness of the rich heritage pork in the hoagie, which is less a sandwich than a pile of moist, loose headcheese on a single piece of Zingerman’s Pullman Toast and slathered in onions and peppers. It’s an expensive plate for $6, but it’s delicious, the pigs are sourced well, and speaking from experience, it’s much more filling than it appears at first glance.

Humble Hogs @ Mark's Carts
Taking a notably less carnivorous approach is The Lunch Room, a larger, well-organized vegan operation.  Where Humble Hogs’ staff stands next to a pushcart barely larger than a beer cooler, the Lunch Room duo is tucked inside a small wooden hut that happens to have wheels, nicely outfitted and smartly covered in interchangeable menus, literature, and ads for branded goods like shirts and buttons.

The Lunch Room @ Mark's CartsOn one trip, I ate the BBQ tofu sandwich, served on a whole grain bun, which was tasty but not as delectable as it looked.  I found myself thinking, “This tastes pretty good for something so healthy” rather than “This tastes so damn good I’d beat that old man next to me to get the last one.”  Still, I’m not a vegan, and I’d certainly eat that sandwich again, perhaps even aspiring to that level of quality in my own experiments with vegan cooking.  Their slaw is also quite tasty, priced as a combo with the tofu at $5.  And one can add a very well-made (and never cloying) cookie for only a dollar or a smoothie for only a few.  Suck on that, McDonald’s Value Menu.

Immediately next to The Lunch Room is one of the newest additions to Mark’s Carts, an Asian-themed eatery called San Street tied to the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.  If you’re not familiar, Zingerman’s empowers its staff with viable, interesting business ideas to leverage the Zingerman’s name and to work with them to create these new companies based on their passions.  In this case, said passion is Asian street food.

Their weekly offerings will change, according to the proprietors, but the other week, they were serving up pork buns, a la David Chang.  The pork belly is tender but crispy on the outside, and it’s wrapped inside a nicely prepared steamed bun with sweet-and-sour pickles, some sort of relish, and optional siracha.  Each sells for $4, so as with Humble Hogs, patrons are paying for the quality (and, let’s be honest, the omnipresent Ann Arbor mark-up), but I’ll certainly be back to try their other buns.

Interestingly, both San Street and The Lunch Room conduct all their business from iPads, using a small attachment to the top of the device to run credit cards and process all their transactions.  While cash is handy (and, I would imagine, appreciated), it’s hardly necessary.

Visitors may also head to the far back to stand in some of the longer lines (thus far, at least) to eat from Darcy’s Cart, which seems to be doing a fair amount of business with its traditional cart fare: meat and kimchi tacos.  But they also sell a breakfast burrito and a host of other options, each using local ingredients.

Darcy's @ Mark's Carts in Ann Arbor
In fact, many of the carts, including Darcy’s, publish a list of their local food sources.  Among some of the names one might see on any given day are Zingerman’s, Calder’s, Black Oak Farms, and The Brinery.

Chorizo Corn DogsAnother outfit with a similar approach is Debajo del Sol, for which the flagship menu item is paella.  They describe their menu as tapas, and that’s somewhat accurate in terms of the small plates and heavy Spanish influence, though I don’t think anyone would mistake their smoky chorizo corn dogs for traditional tapas.  Hand-ground and hand-seasoned, the chorizo is definitely a treat, and the corn dog batter is exceptionally rich.  One crunchy, fluffy bite will leave your lips coated in grease.

The other cart at which I’ve had a chance to sample is Eat, which has been a staple of the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market in Kerrytown for some time.  They’ve recently been preparing their classic pork and beef sandwiches, the latter of which is covered in Brinery kimchi, though the lamb “Sloppy Joe” with aggressive spicing – I want to say North African flavors – was a new treat to me.

Eat @ Mark's Carts
The Mark’s Carts model isn’t without its flaws – namely higher prices than similar ventures I’ve seen in New York or Austin and a cramped space without much shade from Michigan summer heat, let alone the snowy eventuality of winter.

Shutting down for the colder months aside, the other problems are hardly insurmountable: Quality and sourcing of the food is justification enough for the extra cost. Why not pay $9 for three small, healthy, interesting items instead of paying $7 for a plate of frozen french fries and a mediocre Reuben?  And the mediocre environs are only a problem when it’s exceptionally crowded or hot, and neither people nor the summer sun makes pork belly taste bad.

On the whole, it’s definitely a success.  And as much as I think many people would have predicted a positive outcome, it’s actually a bit surprising considering the regional history with food carts.

As cited in a recent NPR story about food trucks and carts across the Midwest, Mark’s Carts is one of the few success stories near the Great Lakes.  (Of course, not mentioned in the story is the fact that Mark’s also hosts a commercial kitchen next door for food prep, presumably to overcome the requirements of local laws.)  Chicago has a twenty-year-old law that forbids the production of food on trucks.  Even hot dog stands are subject to the rule.  And Detroiters are certainly familiar with the battles fought by mobile and community eateries like Pink FlaminGO and Neighborhood Noodle in order to get their operations running within the confines of the city’s regulations.

Still, this was inevitable in Michigan.  Like sushi a couple decades ago or natural wine over the last five years or craft cocktails this year, it’s one of those fashionable concepts that apparently takes a while to permeate our heartland sensibilities.

Indeed, trends tend to reach the Midwest pretty late. Overlaid on a map, any food trend might look a bit like an epidemic sweeping down the well-travelled, heavily populated coasts before converging inward, like a big national race to Dubuque.

Some people think these food fashions die out over time, but that’s never really true.  The hype is what dies while the food lingers in our local cultures in its own way.  The best trends – sushi, craft beer, good coffee, cocktail bars – all continue past the initial shock and awe inherent to their newness.

So it will be with high end food carts – at least if the early success of Mark’s Carts is any indication.

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Making Good Food Work

Conferences are generally about listening.  At good conferences, one listens and learns.  At bad conferences, one listens a bit and then watches the person one seat away play Angry Birds.  Either way, “participants” are largely passive, absorbing knowledge through digesting lectures, presentations, and panel discussions.

Making Good Food Work was different.

Designed as a participatory conference, hosted in Detroit on April 19 through April 21, and organized by Neighborhood Noodle founder and Michigan State University Ph.D. student Jess Daniel, Making Good Food Work (MGFW) brought together food entrepreneurs, business owners, farmers, and other experts to work on projects and ideas that could shape the future of regional food systems.

While participants came from all over the country, not just Michigan, MGFW still felt like a Detroit event:  After all, only in our uncommonly small, familiar community could an amateur like me learn about an event this specialized and actually attend alongside practitioners with interesting ideas for viable food alternatives.

The conference was purported on its website to be “a creative incubation laboratory, designed for doers.”  After three days of working, talking, typing, thinking, collaborating, researching, and writing, I was exhausted. No Angry Birds, no checking email during lectures, no sitting in the back of the room bored. Just work.

Designed for doers, indeed.

Projects & Personalities

Things began in the ballroom of Detroit’s Atheneum Hotel exactly as one might expect: Introductory remarks, a few well-orchestrated exercises designed to break the ice, and plenty of hotel coffee.  Where things began to diverge from the norm was when we really dug into this “incubation laboratory” concept.

Thirteen team leaders – all who previously had submitted business concepts, ideas for white papers, and projects of all sorts – took to the stage to pitch their initiatives. Each hoped his or her project would resonate with the right people, drawing them to participate in actually developing those initiatives over the next two days.

The 200 attendees split themselves into these teams to begin work.  There were a set of teams dedicated to issues – creating toolkits for general use across the country, for example – but among the seven teams working on defined businesses, hubs, and co-ops were:

  • COLORS of Detroit, a soon-to-be worker-owned restaurant in Harmonie Park that’s an extension of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC), which helps train restaurant workers for better positions in the industry.  The restaurant will be both a training environment and a working restaurant featuring local foods.
  • Delridge Produce Cooperative, a neighborhood food co-op that provides fresh, locally sourced, sustainable food to under-served, generally lower income residents in southwest Seattle
  • The Arcadia Center, an effort to bring local, sustainably raised food to people via a mobile market near D.C in Alexandria
  • Colorado Schools Food Hub, a project in which healthy, local food ends up in school lunches

As a newcomer to food systems discussions but a seasoned practitioner of the black art known as marketing, I chose to work with COLORS since they were looking to draw customers and attention to their restaurant, due to open this fall.

Brief introductions were all I needed to see I’d be working with an interesting team: Angela Newsom from Detroit Evolution was experienced in the local food market and insightful with regards to the Detroit customer base.  Channon Mondoux of the Eclectic Kitchen in Kalamazoo was a chef, educator, and businessperson.  Brother Barry Crumbley served as a farmer, activist, and food policy advisor.  Kathe Piede worked at a co-op outside New York. Add to that another half dozen event planners, community organizers, and community garden workers.

Led by Minsu Longiaru, the project leader, and Cheryl Danley from Michigan State, our team facilitator, we had a great group. I didn’t get much exposure to other teams, but if they were anywhere near as diverse and brilliant as the folks I met, I’m sure every project leader went home with a suitcase full of ideas.

Before we really started to discuss the project and our team leader’s goals, though, we were treated to lunch – and a few guest speakers.

Dr. Kathleen Merrigan is the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and as one of the keynotes, she talked generally about the importance of local food systems and some of the challenges the effort faces.  She has been the person behind “Know your Farmer, Know your Food,” which illustrated to me a sad truth about our government and our food. Merrigan clearly has been an advocate for alternative food systems, but she also noted – mostly when answering pointed questions from an expert audience – that there are times when the USDA is obligated to allow certain foods (e.g., genetically modified alfalfa) to market unless it meets very strict legal criteria.

What went unsaid was that none of those problems will ever change until the massive amounts of money invested by companies ranging from Monsanto to McDonald’s gets out of government.

After Merrigan finished her interactions with the crowd, Senator Debbie Stabenow delivered a thoroughly generic address and left without taking any questions.  It was nice of her to show support for real food, but as it turned out, the extra half hour would have been helpful in working on our projects.

We closed the first day defining some parameters for our project with COLORS, including the need to create a marketing plan.

Getting to Work

Obviously, one of the advantages of being a marketing guy was that I had a few consulting documents and marketing plans I could use as templates. I pulled one out and started re-writing it with COLORS in mind, incorporating the ideas generated by my teammates as I went along. 10 pages, 20 pages, 30 pages. We were machines.

Something that should have been immediately obvious eventually struck me as the discussion evolved: We all shared a love of good, honest, real food. Admittedly, my interests have been rooted in hedonism and an intellectual love of the historical and cultural aspects of cuisine, tea, wine, beer, et cetera. And theirs were rooted more in economics, social justice, policy, agriculture, and business.

Nonetheless, that shared love should elicit smiles from anyone interested in food – because it illustrates something that I think a lot of people don’t understand about food as a hobby or even as a profession.

Specifically, being a “foodie” isn’t just about watching Iron Chef; it’s about understanding and intellectualizing something vital to our existence.  I might be more interested in reading about famed bartender Jerry Thomas than I am about the particulars of what House resolution is up for a vote or what the latest heirloom seed protected by the government might be, but at the core, it’s more or less all the same. It’s recognizing that there’s more to food than swinging through a drive-thru and shoveling fries into one’s face.

Hobbies and jobs are ways of focusing our minds, challenging ourselves.  Food is a necessity.  And a business.  And a hobby.  And an area of public debate.  And a key component of every culture.  It touches everything around us.  So in many respects, is there any more interesting, holistic hobby?  Is it any surprise that being a “foodie” has become so popular?

From the most basic cooks to those with a library of historical food texts, anyone can relate to some component of food.

So working with the COLORS team became a real pleasure as we dug into not merely our task but our shared passion.  I learned a lot, and the second night, a big group of us went to Slows BBQ to hang out.

But mostly, we worked.

Some of us left the group for an hour or two to chat with experts or to attend workshops on topics like packaging, food hub start-ups, and finding capital for new food businesses.  But more or less, we dug in around a table, talking, thinking, and typing. Two days later, we had a 30-page marketing plan, an event planning guide, a concept for empowering workers to promote COLORS via social media, and a host of other ideas.

Winning: The COLORS of Money

What some of us didn’t realize was that there were financial awards available.  Our facilitator, Cheryl, did a fantastic job of guiding some answers to questions that would be judged by a panel on the third day, and Minsu worked with the team on a presentation that highlighted our accomplishments.

We were thrilled to see the results: COLORS won second place among the judges and also won the “people’s choice” award, the combined total for which nearly doubled Minsu’s initial marketing budget.

Obviously, I was pleased to see such tangible results for the project we worked on – but there were other amazing ideas presented that day.

The Delridge Produce Co-op mentioned earlier elected to move to a stand-based concept to lower costs and put together a plan to make it happen for the residents of southwest Seattle.  The Farm to School Hub in Colorado is launching two pilot projects aimed at 14 school districts and over 100,000 children served real food.  The Village Marketplace in Los Angeles (pictured below) learned how to scale their business up and clearly received very practical advice regarding equipment and processes to make the expansion sustainable while paying a very decent living wage to their soon-to-be new employees.

So here was my big takeaway: Living up to it’s name, the conference proved that it is indeed possible to make good food work.

As a society, we may be limited by the bureaucracy and lobbyist-fueled big agro machine that wants us to eat genetically engineered corn-fed beef burgers on corn-based bread and wash it down with a corn syrup laden drink.  But as individuals, we all have interests and ideas.  And we have the power to choose to act on those interests and ideas.  Not everyone can open a community kitchen or a food hub or a stand at a farmer’s market.  But anyone can shop at one, volunteer for one, support one.

So make good food work for you.  It’s not always simple, but it’s never all that hard.

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15 Fine Dining Films

We like food, we like movies. By no means exhaustive, here is a list of films that have stirred our gustatory passions. To keep the list manageable, we have excluded documentaries and tried to focus on movies that are specifically about food. So grab a bowl of popcorn (we like ours flavored with browned butter, Spanish rosemary and red pepper flakes), kick back, and enjoy the show.

Babette’s Feast 1987 (Denmark)
The title sequence will have you begging for a seat around the table as Babette prepares a proper, French multi-course meal that finally gets her aged puritan guests in a lather. A subtle delivery and minimalist aesthetic make this a great movie; the feast will make any food-lover moist.

Big Night 1996 (USA)
With comedic overtones, the film tells the story of two immigrant brothers from Abruzzo, Italy who own and operate a failing restaurant called “Paradise.” One brother is a brilliant, perfectionist chef who chafes under their few customers’ expectations of “Americanized” Italian food. The other brother is the restaurant’s manager, who is enamored of the possibilities presented by their new endeavor and life in America. To save the restaurant, the chef prepares a feast of a lifetime.

Chocolat 2000 (UK/USA)
A feel-good film about a woman and her daughter who open a chocolate shop in a small French village. Her chocolate quickly begins to shake up the rigid morality of the community.

The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover 1990 (France/UK) English language

“Tired of her husband’s boorish lifestyle and difficult attitude, the wife of a barbaric crime boss engages in a secret romance with a bookish patron between meals at her husband’s restaurant, sneaking in liaisons while he and his thugs dine. Food, sex, murder, torture and cannibalism are the exotic fare in this beautifully filmed but brutally uncompromising modern fable.”

Delicatessen 1992 (France)
A stylish black comedy set in a post-apocalyptic apartment building in a France. The story focuses on the tenants and their desperate bids to survive. The butcher, Clapet, maintains strict order by rationing meat supplies. That is, until his daughter falls in love.

Eat, Drink, Man, Woman 1994 (Taiwan)

“Senior Master Chef Chu lives in a large house in Taipei with his three unmarried daughters, Jia-Jen, a chemistry teacher converted to Christianity, Jia-Chien, an airline executive, and Jia-Ning, a student who also works in a fast food restaurant. Life in the house revolves around the ritual of an elaborate dinner each Sunday, and the love lives of all the family members.”

Tortilla Soup 2001 (USA) is the less satisfying American remake.

Eating Raoul 1982 (USA)

“When a Paul enters his apartment to find Mary fighting off a swinger who has gotten into the wrong apartment (and thinks that Mary is just playing hard to get) he hits the man with a frying pan, killing him. Their dreams of running a small restaurant seem to be in jeopardy until they decide to dispose of the body, keep the wallet, and to advertise for other sexually oriented visitors who are summarily killed, bagged, robbed and disposed of. This goes along quite well until one night a burglar named Raoul breaks in and cuts himself in for a piece of the action.”

La Grande Bouffe aka The Big Feast 1973 (France)
A group of four, successful, middle-aged men meet at a villa in the countryside. There, they engage in group sex and resolve to eat themselves to death. This is one of the most surreal and disturbing films with food as a focus that I have ever seen. Unforgettable.

Like Water for Chocolate 1992 (Mexico)
A fine piece of snuggle cinema to be enjoyed with a lover and a glass or two of wine. The film follows the story of a young girl named Tita who longs her entire life to marry her lover, Pedro, but can never have him because of her mother’s upholding of the family tradition of the youngest daughter not marrying but taking care of her mother until the day she dies. Tita is only able to express herself when she cooks.

Mostly Martha 2002 (Germany)

“In a German restaurant, Chef Martha Klein is the undisputed supreme ruler of the kitchen staff and woe to any customer who would dare criticize her cooking. Her life is firmly centered around cooking which takes on a obsessive level with stubborn single mindedness. All of that changes when her sister dies in a car accident, leaving her 8 year old daughter, Lina. Martha takes her niece in and struggles to care for this stubbornly headstrong child.”

Ratatouille 2007 (USA)
A cutesy, animated Pixar tale about a rat that dreams of becoming a chef. If you like your heartwarming messages served all-you-can-eat than this movie is for you.

Ravenous 1999 (USA)
One of the greatest, and most underrated, horror comedies of all time. This film has it all: Excellent acting by Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle, sweeping cinematography, a grand score, and cannibalism – all set in 1840s California wilderness.

Soylent Green 1973 (USA)
“Soylent Green is the people”. A dystopian, sci-fi, film noir tale of future Earth in despair. Earth is overpopulated and survival depends upon water rations and eating a mysterious food called Soylent. A detective investigates the murder of the president of the Soylent company and the truth he uncovers is more disturbing than the planet’s crisis.

Tampopo 1987 (Japan)

“In this humorous paean to the joys of food, the main story is about trucker, Goro, who rides into town like a modern Shane to help Tampopo set up the perfect fast-food noodle restaurant. Woven into this main story are a number of smaller stories about the importance of food, ranging from a gangster who mixes hot sex with food to an old lady terrorizing a shopkeeper by compulsive squeezing of his wares.”

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory 1971 (USA)
Few people have not seen this musical film version of the classic Roald Dahl moral tale. Gene Wilder is simply brilliant as Willy Wonka. What child can’t help but dream about touring that fantastic candy factory?

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Neither Rain, Nor Snow, Nor Sleet: Wine Lovers Shall Not Be Deterred

Wine can make people do crazy things: spend too much money, consume too much alcohol, or in the case of me and some friends, drive 35 miles in a blizzard that ultimately produced 10+ inches of snow.  Of course, these weren’t just any wines.  Nine-dollar bottles of Grenache aren’t worth spin outs and 90-minute car rides.

No, these were older wines.

1970 Cappellano Barolo

Properly stored, old wine offers a unique and wonderful experience.  And while writing about that wonderful experience on a blog is inherently self-indulgent – outright braggotry, really – it’s also a chance to explore one of those aspects of wine that can be intimidating and seem out of reach.   Perhaps more importantly, it’s an opportunity to provide some much-needed context for the mythos and aura of inscrutability that seems to surround cellared wines.

Among all the supermarket wines that have immense popularity among broad audiences and among many of the lighter, so-called natural wines that have justifiably obtained a cult-like status with many aficionados, one thing that’s often missing is the potential for aging – that is, an intense structure of tightly coiled flavors that can unfurl into unparalleled elegance over time.

So when our good friends Steve and Robin invited a number of us over to open some cellared bottles (mostly Steve’s), neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night could have deterred us from that enjoyment.

Jarred and Steve

The line up, in the order we tasted them:

1999 Drouhin – Volnay, 1er Cru, Clos des Chenes
You know that your day is off to a good start when you’ve “warmed up” on Farnum Hill hard cider and your first act is a burgundy with ten years of age on it. Notably floral on the nose with some hints of berry. Nicely structured with surprising tannin for such a lightly colored wine.

1985 Breton – Bourgeil, Les Perrieres
While not the most electrifying wine of the night, this cabernet franc from the Loire Valley proves to be quite illustrative of the concept of what happens to nicely structured, well made wine as it ages.  Many younger bottles of this wine are delicious but are so heavy with astringency from tannins and with flavors of tar that it can be a chore for newcomers to cab franc to enjoy it.  Over time, though, this wine hasn’t lost any of its oomph, but the tannins have relaxed a bit.  There’s a spicy, poignant quality to the finish and a lot of very bright fruit flavors up front.  This would have tasted much different in 1988 than it does today.  I’d guess it would have been more like a knife on the palate – hard and sharp – than so broad and flavorful.  Delicious either way but truly elegant later in life.

Chateau Talbot 1986

1986 Chateau Talbot – St. Julien
Great Lakes roastmaster James Cadariu and his finely honed olfactory senses immediately noticed that “this wine smells like poop. But,” as he went on to explain, “in a good way.” It definitely begins with a very dirty, very barnyard, very fecal nose.  Brettanomyces, perhaps?  In terms of flavor, however, any hint of that flaw is gone. Instead, it’s elegant and layered with chocolatey black fruit and smoke. Nicely balanced with acidity.  There’s still some tannic structure, but a lot of it has faded to let that delicate fruit flavor through.

2001 Voge – Cornas, Vielles Vignes
Pours with just the slightest purple hue, and the aromatics are quite expressive. Berries and flowers hint at what’s to come: While there’s still plenty of tannin and some pepper, it’s fundamentally a feminine and pretty wine.

1988 Fattoria dei Barbi – Brunello di Montalcino
Wines can sit too long, of course. While they can develop complexity, the various reactions taking place inside the bottle can also free up sugars or create off flavors or aromas. I’m not precisely sure what happened to this Brunello, but it tasted like brown sugar and had a very syrupy mouthfeel despite its age. It had a funny, herbal nose, and while it was drinkable, the only descriptor I can come up with is “strange.” This certainly illustrates two of the common myths with cellaring wine – that any red wine will get better with age and that wines can age indefinitely. It’s a living thing that evolves in the bottle. The number of years of age matter, but so does the original juice put into the bottle, itself a product of climate, technique, and the blend of grapes. Wines have a peak, and this wine was looking at its peak in the rear view mirror.

1970 Cappellano – Barolo, Serralunga d’Alba
I might be biased since I brought this to the party, but this was one of my favorite wines of the night. Aromatically complex, this wasn’t nearly so fecal as the 86 Ch. Talbot, but it definitely carried a funk to it that smelled to me like decomposing grass clippings and some funky cheese. That lessened as the wine opened up, but some element of that aroma was always there. On the palate, though, it was remarkably bright with some pleasant acid and lots of tannic structure left. While it was bone dry, there was still enough fruit to keep it in balance. A very elegant but powerful, masculine set of flavors. Surprisingly, while this was expectedly light and transparent, it was also very much reddish in color. Older red wines tend to develop a brick-ish brown color over time.

1995 Vieux de Telegraphe – La Crau, Chateauneuf de Pape
Another standout in an evening full of them. This is arguably the most pleasing wine of the night aromatically speaking, still showing quite a bit of fruit and pleasant herbal qualities in the nose – fresh coffee, pepper, and just a bit of funk compared to some of the much older wines from earlier. Very spicy and fruity on the palate. These wines can be delicious but very closed down early, but this is at its peak, so to speak, just full of flavor that lingers and surprisingly, almost light on the tongue. This is what happens when top flight producers with good grapes make wine that doesn’t force wine media-approved blackberry flavor down your throat.

1997 Luciano Sandrone – Barolo, Cannubi Boschis
While this event wasn’t really planned to be an illustration in the various aspects of older wines, nor a showdown between classic winemaking and modern winemaking, it has certainly turned out that way. This Barolo is from a storied property, but you’d never know it was Barolo. While it’s not poorly made, it only tastes like berries and oak (more specifically, it tastes like vanilla and lotion). It may shed some of the obvious vanilla flavor over time, but this will never show that kind of elegance we saw in earlier wines.

1976 JJ Christoffel – Urziger Wurzgarten, Trockenberenauslese
In contrast to red wines, which get lighter as sediment falls out of the wine, whites get browner and darker as they age. And instead of tannins helping to preserve the wine and breaking down to provide flavor, the high sugar and acid content in Rieslings like this tend to be the preservative element that lets them age so well. And this is a perfect illustration of both: It pours a dark brown, caramel color, a stark contrast to the highlighter yellow of a younger wine, and it is holding up very well. Tastes like toffee and tart mixed fruit jam. Very sweet but still in balance and drinkable. This isn’t a dessert wine; it’s dessert, period.

*  *  *  *  *

Wines made for keeping aren’t inherently better than other bottles, but they’re unquestionably different. Tasting notes, no matter how descriptive, can’t really convey the nuance and elegance of properly stored, cellared wines. And a single blogger living on the outskirts of Detroit with a modest history with aged wine can’t possibly do them justice.

But hopefully, he can convince you they’re worth seeking out.

Without a cool, dark space with relatively consistent temperature in which to store wines for 5, 10, 20 years – or more importantly, without the patience to wait that long – the only way to try old wines is to buy them from a trusted retailer that specializes in holding on to bottles, buying other people’s cellars, or buying up library releases (i.e., when a winery sells older stock that it has kept at the winery for aging).

Locally, our choices are limited. I’m sure that there are other stores of which I’m not aware, but a Detroiter’s best bet is to stop in and see Elie in Royal Oak or perhaps to ask another retailer to special order something if you have knowledge of a library release coming to town. I know that both Western Market in Ferndale and Cloverleaf in Royal Oak have purchased one or two older vintages of Rieslings in years past.

Alternatively, hit the Internet. Places like Cellar Raiders and Chambers Street Wine have a good track record of finding properly stored wines and selling them off. A good retailer will probably offer suggestions or tasting notes – Chambers often does – but if one is uncertain as to a particular vintage or producer, an hour or so of poking around Google will reveal a lot of the information one could need to get started.

Cost becomes a factor for buying cellared wines or library releases, of course. But these aren’t daily drinkers, and the way I’ve hurdled the expense barrier is to (a) only buy a tiny number of these per year, (b) do research, wait patiently, and buy very selectively, and (c) start a tiny side business that gives me a little leeway to blow on a $100 or $125 bottle. Any or all of these are a good way to avoid timidly asking your local bank for a wine mortgage.

Finally, if you’re really desperate to try some older wines and don’t have a penny to your name, you could always come to the next Gourmet Underground Detroit event, hope Steve shows up, and suck up to him. He likes good food, wine, and scotch. And he accepts gifts.

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Where’s the Beef? In Plymouth, Naturally.

Note (9/20/2013): The business featured below, Natural Local Food Express, is now called “Pure Pastures.” The Plymouth operation we discuss is still open, and they have opened a second location in Dearborn Heights. Check them out on Facebook. Our original, unedited feature article follows.

* * * * *

Slicing into a box of frozen meat with a razor blade, Garry Kuneman revealed, “I’ve got one customer who special orders buffalo testicles every few weeks.”  Pushing aside elk medallions, ground venison, and bison ribeyes, he found one to show me.

I’d never seen the testicle of a buffalo, or any ruminant for that matter.  Catching a glimpse of one didn’t really engender a desire to order any of them either, but it’s nice to know that the option is there in case I change my mind and jump on board the testicle sensation sweeping the nation.

But more likely, I’ll be visiting Kuneman’s shop, Natural Local Food Express, to reload on grass fed beef, lamb, and bison.  Or perhaps to get some venison or elk.  Or free range chickens.  Or pork.  He carries just about every natural meat one could fathom, certainly the most complete assortment anywhere in the Detroit area.

Natural Local Food Express

The Meat

My first visit to his store in Plymouth came in December 2010.  Every year around that time, I’ve made big birthday dinners for my wife, and this year, I wanted to do something new.  Having remembered that Will Branch of Corridor Sausage mentioned in the fall that a guy in Plymouth had started selling grass-fed beef, I found the shop and paid him a visit, picking up a couple of bison ribeye steaks.

For our entrée on the evening of the dinner, I served the ribeyes medium rare, cooked for a few minutes on each side in a stainless pan over high heat.  The steaks were placed over a bed of roasted butternut squash that I glazed with a bourbon, maple syrup, and brown sugar mixture.  While there were a few stringy bites, the majority of each of the bison steaks was delicious – and much, much lighter than beef tends to be.

Bison Ribeye with roasted squash
The beef is superb, albeit a bit variable in terms of texture.  We most recently enjoyed a flank steak processed by C. Roy, a meat packer in Michigan’s thumb area that also sells meat through Western Market in Ferndale.  Despite the oft-deserved reputation for stringiness, this particular steak was tender and easy to eat.  There’s no avoiding the fact that the type of grass the cow eats will impact the flavor, so it’s no surprise that the popular Columbian grass fed beef found in some supermarkets is going to taste dramatically different than the stuff from local Michigan farms.  Thus it’s worth mentioning that Natural Local Food Express carries exclusively Midwestern meats, mostly from Michigan and Wisconsin.

Several weeks after trying the steak, we fashioned some simple venison burgers and buffalo burgers.  While I can’t say that I took detailed notes, my impressions where that the venison burgers felt dense like beef whereas the buffalo had a legitimately light texture and flavor to it. (If you’ve never cooked venison before, I’d strongly recommend erring on the rare side; the dense muscle and lack of fat make for excellent hockey pucks when cooked past medium-rare or medium.) Neither was gamey, despite the various myths that are popularly reported and repeated.

Grass-fed products tend to be the subject of quite a few myths, actually: It’s gamey, it’s stringy, it tastes like rotten meat, it’s discolored, and it’s not juicy because it has no marbling.  While some of that certainly can be true, it’s certainly not always true, as this particular store clearly demonstrates.  While it’s the case that without the fat from corn, there isn’t as much marbling, and the more natural fat tends to look yellow rather than white, the flavor and tenderness of their meats aren’t negatively impacted. And gamey flavors tend to come from poorly treated meat, so just as with any food product, only buy it from a place you trust.  It’s not as though chain supermarkets have never sold a rotten rack of spareribs.

All the products I’ve tried have been frozen, but at least once a week, Kuneman orders fresh meat as well ranging from filets to tougher sirloin steaks.  And he’ll special order just about anything one could want – including buffalo testicle.

Frozen Beef and Bison

What’s Natural?

Obviously, I’ve enjoyed the meats I’ve purchased from Natural Local Food Express.  But given the store’s focus, one might wonder what’s so important about the “natural” moniker given to the food.

Several months ago, there was a compelling article somewhere online arguing that the term “natural” had lost its meaning in relationship to particular wines that were made without much in the way of modern winemaking practice.  With little legal framework and no strict guidelines, natural is defined by “the eyeball test” or perhaps a loose set of unofficial guidelines concocted by aficionados and hobbyists.

I’m not typically one for semantic games, but the author has a point.

For example, take Kashi.  I eat a lot of Kashi products because compared to other granola bars or protein bars, they seem to contain fewer mysterious ingredients, ingredients for which the health benefits or risks are largely unclear to me.  Visit the Kashi website, and there is (as of today) a big graphic that says “Eating naturally…” with links to its snack bars underneath.  A few clicks later, one finds oneself staring at a list of ingredients for the Chocolate Malted Crisp Protein & Fiber Bar.

One of the ingredients listed appears to be Calcium Caseinate, which is a protein with a particularly high glutamic acid content.  And if glutamic acid sounds familiar, I imagine that’s because it’s the component of the well-known stomach turning chemical MSG.

I like Kashi, and I’m not going to be overly critical.  But that doesn’t really sound like “eating naturally” to me.

So what is natural?  What does pass the eyeball test?

Kuneman’s meats certainly fit the bill.  As his website proclaims:

Our beef, bison and lamb are always grass-fed and free-range.

Our chicken is always free-range and vegetarian-fed.

Our pork is raised in an outdoor environment with no hormones or antibiotics.

The concept of natural has to be considered a sliding scale, but these meats certainly qualify as fitting any reasonable definition of natural.

Who Cares?

During in the documentary King Corn, the filmmakers undergo some tests to identify how traces of corn are passed into people’s bodies.  The results are fairly astonishing: Despite eating not a kernel of corn, the signs of its consumption are throughout their bodies.

The reason, of course, is that corn is in every popular, mass produced food in the United States – from Twinkies and Coca-Cola to beef and McDonald’s burger buns.  Since being heavily subsidized in the late 60s, corn has become the most economically viable way to make just about anything: food, ethanol fuel, plastic cups, and of course, cattle feed.

Ultimately, this means that many people have never had the pleasure of tasting beef in its most natural state.  I say “natural” because cattle are not typically inclined (or really even able) to consume corn.  They eat grass, which provides very different nutritional value to cows and thus to the people who feast upon said cows.

Since grass-fed animals and other hormone-free, pasture raised creatures tend to eat the animal equivalent of the South Beach Diet, their meat tends to be lower in unhealthy fats and higher in omega-3 fatty acids.  Conversely, corn-fed animals are weaned off of grass, put on a high-starch corn feed diet, and pumped full of hormones and drugs to allow them to keep eating it.

My intent isn’t to get into the politics or ethics of raising animals this way; head to the “food writing” shelf at your local bookstore and look for the giant Michael Pollan display if you want to have that conversation.

Nor am I interested in any of the vegetarian or vegan arguments that meat is unnecessary.  Playing cards, rubber fishing boots, and iPhones are all pretty unnecessary, but millions of people use them anyhow.  There is a sweet spot between environmental activism and utilizing the earth’s resources to improve our lives that humanity has yet to find, and it seems unlikely to me that forgoing all meat for all eternity is necessarily part of that answer.

Suffice it to say, I think that if one can find the meat at a reasonable price, eating natural products carries fewer risks of eating something we don’t yet know to be problematic and also carries more clear and obvious health benefits.  Everyone learns in 3rd grade that nutrients and energy make their way through the food chain: Animals that eat green plants instead of artificial hormones and corn engineered to be extra starchy obviously pass along better things to your body when you eat them.

Know Your Farmer

That’s not to say that even natural farming isn’t without its environmental or ethical hazards – obviously, if everyone ate grass-fed beef, we’d likely need to utilize more land for pastures, and so on.  But an inexpensive supplier that carries exclusively natural products – like Natural Local Food Express – has to be a far better option currently both for omnivores and for the environment than a chain market carrying additive-laden supplies of corn-fed beef.

The Store

I haven’t spent much time talking to Kuneman beyond the standard “how long have you been open?” sort of chatter, but he conveys a strong passion for farming and a genuine interest in providing quality meat to his customers.  So it’s unsurprising that Natural Local Food Express carries chicken, pork, beef, bison, venison, elk, and lamb – albeit some more regularly than others.  And again, the store will order just about anything you want that they don’t currently have in stock.


Quaint and unassuming, the store is at the end of a short strip mall building along Ann Arbor Road in Plymouth. A cute sign with stock art-style illustrations of animals hangs above the front window, and at times, a sandwich board is out on the front sidewalk to let passersby know where to find their natural meats.  Drive around back via the driveway just west of the strip to find the parking lot, and enter through the rear door.

Inside, an unadorned, irregularly shaped white room is packed full of freezer cases, refrigerators, and wire shelving.  Signs are posted above each of the freezers indicating prices and what can be found where.

In addition to meats, they also carry Calder’s Dairy and other local products ranging from salsas and sauces to chips and pastas.

Frozen meat isn’t something for which I imagine most metro Detroiters making special trips, especially on a whim. But curious foodies or anyone planning a spring barbecue party once the weather warms up should give some thought to checking it out.  You’ll be enjoying grass-fed beef steaks and buffalo burgers – maybe with a side of testicle – soon enough.

Natural Local Food Express
1192 Ann Arbor Road, Plymouth, Michigan
Google Map Link

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