Wild, wild (midwest): Day 2

Rikster and I can be pretty determined people when we set our minds to it, and we were determined that, on the Sunday morning following our Salmon Festival/Salt of the Earth excursion, we were going to drink coffee on Susan’s deck while we watched the waves crash on the beach. The fact that it was *maybe* 50 degrees with high winds didn’t deter us from finishing one round of cappuccinos before we finally called it quits and went inside, where keeping our coffees warm proved much less of an undertaking.

The beach

Going inside also offered the opportunity to heat up a little breakfast treat we had procured at the restaurant: Salt of the Earth’s famous Wood Fire Toasted S’more, a ridiculous concoction of homemade marshmallow, graham cracker crumb, chocolate pudding, salted caramel and spice cake.

Breakfast of champions

Susan reheated the dessert in her toaster oven, and the size was perfect to split amongst the three of us. Letting it rest overnight had allowed the cake to absorb all the caramel-y, chocolate-y goodness, and the warm, gooey marshmallow provided an ideal topping. Combined with our coffee, it was an excellent breakfast for a chilly fall morning.

Properly fueled by sugar and caffeine, we asked Susan to lead us down her beach to hunt for beach glass. We were hoping the night’s wind and wave action had churned up some sizable pieces. We hit the jackpot almost immediately.

Rikster’s beach glass!

We hiked back down the boardwalk, admiring the scenery and the waves and making sure that Trixie, Susan’s cat who had followed us on our little excursion, didn’t get blown out to sea.

Walking back to the house against the wind works up an appetite, even for those who have just gorged on a sugar bomb. Susan had an idea in mind for lunch, however, and allowed us to sit at the table and read magazines while she assembled a beautiful antipasti platter comprised of Ortiz tuna, salami, fresh mozzarella, vegetables from a neighbor’s garden, hardboiled eggs and an assortment of crackers. We washed it down with a glass of crisp white wine, and Susan led us in to town to continue on our weekend adventure.

My mouth is watering again…

Salute! Susan’s awesome antique store glassware.

We had decided to check another lighthouse off our list, so we headed to South Haven Beach, home of the South Haven Lighthouse. The weather, which had been fairly mild up to that point, immediately kicked into high gear when we set foot on the sands: the wind whipped, the skies darkened, and the waves started to get crazy. Once again, we set out down the pier, snapped our obligatory photo, and then attempted to make our way back without dying.

Yes, it’s a different one than the last post.

We explored the town a bit before beginning our southeastern journey home. Susan had advised us to take “the back way” from South Haven to Kalamazoo, which in addition to giving us easy access to the town of Paw Paw would lead us right to downtown Kzoo. We took her recommendation and were well on our way when we drove past the Paw Paw Brewing Company.

How could you NOT stop here?

The brewery appeared to be in a trailer. It was extremely small and rested uncomfortably close to the road. Needless to say, we could not resist stopping. This proved to be a great call because it ended up being our favorite overall brewery experience of the entire trip.

The crowd seemed to be made up mostly of regulars, including a trio of senior citizens with acoustic guitars having a jam session in the back room. We sat at the bar and ordered a flight of all ten brews currently being served. We immediately hit it off with the bartender, a girl of maybe 25 who was very candid about what she liked and didn’t like and didn’t hesitate to climb up on a precariously-placed bar stool to check sizes on some of the merch.

“The usual”

We found most of the beers to be pleasant and non-offensive to the taste buds. We enjoyed the Twisted Pumpkin – not as spicy as New Holland’s offering but with a pronounced pumpkin flavor. The stout was a much better entry into the category than our last brewery (Saugatuck) had offered – this one had some weight to it and a wonderful flavor that I can only describe as “breakfasty.”

Then our bartender poured us a special treat:

Root beer!

Root beer! Paw Paw Brewing Company’s house-made root beer tastes like candy. As a delighted Rikster put it, “Buddy the Elf would approve!”

Now, those who know me know that I do not have much of a sweet tooth. The sugar bomb s’more for breakfast combined with post-lighthouse ice cream (Did I leave that part out – that part where Riki and I decided to warm up in an ice cream parlor?) combined with root beer added up to a lot more sweet stuff than I normally consume. Throw in the espresso from the morning…

Rikster wasn’t immune to the sugar high, either – hence the incredible amount of giggling and our decision to stop at an appeared-to-be-deserted winery in the middle of nowhere not in spite of but because it “could be a Texas Chainsaw experience” (quote: Rikster).

Well, once we got inside the winery (Lawton Ridge) we found that it was not creepy at all –  just a slightly over-decorated tasting room and a very nice woman behind the counter that guided us through the wines, some of which we found quite pleasant. I left with a bottle of the AZO Red, a pleasant fruity blend with a peppery kick on the finish.

Heading into Kalamazoo, we knew that we couldn’t in good conscience have a brewery weekend without a stop at Michigan’s craft beer mothership, Bell’s – home of Oberon, Two Hearted, and several other long-standing Michigan favorites.

Bell’s sampler

We ordered the usual sampler and lined up our choices, ranging from stout to mead. Yes, you read that correctly – mead. I was skeptical at first, but I trust the Rikster’s judgment. And she was – as usual – completely on-target. I was afraid that the mead would be cloying and syrupy, but was instead treated to a lightly sweet honey flavor with a light weight and clean finish. The rest of the lineup was solid, if not particularly memorable.

With the beer and wine tasting portion of our trip complete, we made one last stop – this time for dinner. The original plan was to try out Dark Horse Brewing Company in Marshall – this plan was thwarted by the fact that Dark Horse A) doesn’t offer a sampler and B) was incredibly crowded. Not feeling the vibe, Riki and I decided to get our senior citizen on and head to Schuler’s, a behemoth historic mansion with a dark pub (Winston’s) in the basement. We indulged in a plate of Schuler’s famous bar cheese and a couple filling sandwiches before getting back in the car to head home – this time with no stops along the way.

The signs of a great weekend/

Thank you Riki for providing so many of the photos used in these two posts!

Wild, wild (mid)west: Day 1

Rikster and I had a small case of the end-of-summer blahs recently; thus we decided the only cure was more cowbell a road trip to the southwestern side of the state (if you read this blog with any regularity, you know we make the trek north fairly frequently). We decided to drive up to Grand Haven for the annual Salmon Festival, work our way through several small towns, and end up in South Haven, where we’d bunk with my Aunt Susan for the night.

Before our departure, we obsessively researched the area and put together a rather eclectic list of must-sees, mainly comprised of microbreweries and lighthouses. We set off at 9:00 a.m. last Saturday, pumpkin spice and salted caramel lattes in hand.

The total driving time from Ann Arbor to Grand Haven clocked in at right around three hours, with no stops on the way. We easily found a parking spot in a municipal lot and set about exploring the town while we waited for the salmon festivities to begin. We quickly stumbled upon the first item on our checklist, Odd Side Ales.

Odd Side Ales is tucked away in what appears to be an office building, but once you get inside, the atmosphere is much more what you’d expect from a brewery: lots of dark wood, chalkboard menu, etc. Odd Side is known for the use of slightly unconventional ingredients – pineapple, peanut butter, and habenero, for example (thankfully not all in one brew). We split a sampler of the seven beers on tap that day. The Mayan Mocha Stout was the standout: velvety texture, balanced coffee/chocolate flavors, and a serious burst of heat on the finish.

Odd Side Ales sampler

By the time we finished our sampling, the Salmon Festival Cook-off and Wine Tasting was beginning. We met up with our friends Rob and Sandi and headed toward the huge white tent set up in the marina parking lot. For $20 per ticket, we were each given a souvenir wine glass, three drink tasting tickets and five food tasting tickets.  Ten local restaurants/caterers/markets were preparing various salmon dishes, which could be purchased for one ticket each. Several wineries and distributors were there with various Michigan-made products, pouring two ounces per ticket. A number of free samples rounded out the offerings, including a giant vegetable tower, fresh-baked bread and (perhaps best of all) Blue Moon ice cream.

It was a little crowded in the tent, but the vendors kept the lines moving and there was plenty of room to spread out outside. The portion sizes were generous – for example, D&W Market was offering a whole salmon roll. The offerings were varied – we tried everything from salmon salad with capers, fennel and lots of crunchy red onion (a great mix of flavors) to a bacon-wrapped salmon/jalapeno popper (the festival equivalent of “bar food” and actually quite delicious). The majority of the food was interesting without being gimmicky and really let the salmon flavor shine through. Our group thought this food festival definitely gave you good bang for your buck in comparison to similar events.

A sampling of salmon cook-off offerings

Sated with salmon, Rikster and I bid Rob and Sandi farewell and made our way down the street to Grand Haven Beach, home of the Grand Haven Lighthouse. The wind had picked up drastically, causing dramatic waves and wreaking havoc on the seagulls struggling to make headway into the wind.

Grand Haven Beach

Grand Haven Beach

We paused briefly to consider this sign + the gale-force winds:

Hmmmm.

Then we continued down the pier anyway. We tried to stay in the middle and out of the way of the waves that were crashing in a very picturesque yet more-than-slightly-dangerous manner over the sides of the pier. We snapped our obligatory photo at the base of the lighthouse, then made the executive decision that we had gone far enough and hurriedly yet cautiously made out way back.

Grand Haven Lighthouse

The road NOT taken

We had the wind at our backs trekking back to the car, although we managed to get so caught up in scenery and conversation that we trekked right past our parking lot. Our clue that we had gone too far:

Um, how far west did we go?

While we hadn’t managed to wander all the way to California, we knew we would have definitely remembered walking by a (fake) palm tree, so we turned back into the wind and eventually found the Subaru. After emptying the folds of our clothing from all the sand that the winds had wedged in there, we were back on the road – heading in a southern direction, toward Holland.

The salmon-coma was starting to wear off and we figured it was a good time for a snack…and more beer. The logical choice? New Holland Brewing Company, where we could indulge both impulses at the craft brewery and distillery’s expansive downtown pub.

Once again, we ordered a sampler of six beers, plus a small bacon-potato pizza. The pizza was amazing – crispy crust, thin-sliced potatoes baked to perfection, sprinkles of gorgonzola and bacon, and topped with fresh spinach. The small proved to be the ideal snack size – two small pieces each of pure comfort food.

New Holland Bacon and Potato Pizza

Our beer selections were equally satisfying. We had more to choose from here than at Odd Side, so our primary goal was making sure that a variety of styles were represented. I enjoyed the Poet stout immensely: a weighty (but not chewy), smooth (but not watery) mouth feel and a pleasant roasted flavor were highlights. Rikster immediately gravitated toward the seasonal Ichabod Pumpkin Ale, which had a clove and nutmeg finish that I haven’t tasted in most pumpkin beers that I’ve tried. Additionally, New Holland is the home of Dragon’s Milk, a cask-aged brew I was introduced to by one of my partners in (food and drink) crime, David: it’s super smooth, with vanilla-y goodness that can only come from oak. It’s also incredibly alcoholic and weighty and I’m not sure I could ever drink more than a small serving.

Sampler/snack at New Holland

Fortified with hearty fare, we were back in the car en route to Saugatuck. Unfortunately, we pulled into the parking lot of the Antique Pavilion after it had closed for the day (Rikster and I had agreed setting out on this adventure that even though we had a number of items on our wish lists, we wouldn’t hurry or rush to get to any one or the other).

The Antique Pavilion

We were in for a treat, however…if you look at the above photo of the Antique Pavilion, you will see that it is attached to another green building…and THAT green building just happened to be the Saugatuck Brewing Company.

Score!

We ordered our standard sampler, once again trying to include all styles represented on the menu. We weren’t impressed with the stout here (a bit watery) but found the Beach Blonde and Scot ales enjoyable.

Saugatuck Sampler

(Don’t worry, dear readers: the beer portion of day one has concluded.)

We had one more stop planned – this one non-negotiable – before calling it a night: we were bound for the tiny town of Fennville to dine at the farm-to-table restaurant, Salt of the Earth.

Specializing in “authentic Midwest American rustic food experiences”, Salt of the Earth has a menu that changes seasonally, offer fresh-baked breads from their own bakery, and an eclectic craft cocktail and bar menu focused heavily (but not exclusively) on Michigan-made beer, wine and spirits.

There was a short wait for a table, but the host was kind enough to offer cocktail service in the waiting area, so we began with a “Midwest Farmer Fizz” – served in a mason jar and comprised of Grand Traverse vodka, elderflower liquor, house-made sour, soda, and herbs, this cocktail had an incredibly fresh, almost vegetal taste. The sour made a huge difference: the drink lacked the cloyingly sweetness found in store-bought mixes – yet without having an assaulting citrus flavor.

Farmer Fizz at Salt of the Earth

Once seated, we ordered the night’s special appetizer, pork belly cooked and sliced in a similar manner to beef brisket. The thin slices of slightly bacon-y tasting pork melted in the mouth, providing a pleasing contrast to the charred edges.

Pork belly

Our entrees were fairly straightforward and simply prepared: hangar steak (deliciously charred on the outside) served with chopped tomato and cucumber, and handkerchief pasta with sausage and sweet peppers.

The true standout of the meal was a side dish – and a surprise: fried brussels sprouts with bacon and balsamic vinegar. Crispy but not burned, tangy but not too much so, Riki and I devoured these like a kid devours candy.

The bounty of our table

We DID order dessert, but you’ll read about that in the day two entry – we ate it for breakfast since at this point we were (understandably) too stuffed to eat one more bite. (I will assure you, however, that the smell of said dessert almost caused us to pull over and devour it roadside, grotesquely stuffed or not.)

And with that, we were off to our final day one destination, Susan’s lake house, where we would watch the end of the Notre Dame game and part of Saturday Night Live before completely crashing in anticipation of day two.

To be continued…

Taco Heaven

So, as it turns out, there is something of a taco war going on over on the west side of Ann Arbor. I’m not sure that the two parties involved in the taco war realize that it is going on. I’m not sure the patrons of the parties involved in the taco war realize it is happening, either. Before this week, I didn’t realize that either of these two places existed, let alone that both existed and were right around the corner from each other.

The winner? Me, because I ate tacos twice this week and both times were delicious.

To backtrack: I’ve become obsessed with the idea of tacos since I met my friend David, who hails from LA. LA is apparently a magical land of food trucks and taco stands, and as I listened to David tell me about these things, my mouth began to water uncontrollably and I essentially made it my life’s mission to find a taco that did not have a hard shell, cheddar cheese or sour cream.

Enter Taco King and Chela’s. Taco King is located on West Liberty in a building that formerly housed a futon store. Chela’s is a short jaunt down the street, around the corner onto South Maple, in a strip mall. I read about both in the comments section of annarbor.com – NOT a place I normally look for worthwhile recommendations on anything, let alone restaurants. But I saw these places mentioned under an article about a different restaurant, and decided to check them out next time I was on that side of town.

I got my chance to try Taco King post-haircut on Wednesday afternoon. I was driving down Stadium headed back toward my office when I remembered – just in time to make a crazy turn on to W. Liberty – that tacos were in the vicinity. The man that flipped me the bird did nothing to dull my anticipation.

I was in a bit of a hurry, but the lunch counter located in the Tienda La Libertad market wasn’t busy and put together my order quickly. I chose the al pastor (marinated pork) and the chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage). I ordered two of each so I could take them back to David and get the LA opinion.

When I got back to the office and we opened the container, we were delighted to see the tacos packaged in doubled-up corn tortillas (no gluey flour here), bursting with meat, and covered with diced onions and cilantro (does anything smell better than cilantro…I think not). The restaurant had provided fresh limes and salsa verde.

Marinated pork and chorizo tacos at Taco King

The marinated pork was a bit sweeter than I expected, and my LA judge said it was a bit sweeter than he was accustomed to. Still quite tasty, however. The chorizo appeared to be ground rather than diced and had some nice heat on the finish. The cilantro cooled everything down a bit, and the salsa verde provided a but of a kick with the lime adding some zing.

All in all, for $1.50 per taco, we thought this was a pretty good find. Yet we still had to try Chela’s…

Chela’s definitely had a but more ambiance, not being attached to a grocery store. We once again chose chorizo and al pastor tacos, and also threw in some carne asada. According to my LA counterpart, these three taco meats would give us a good gauge on which to judge the restaurant. He also picked up several containers of not only salsa verde but of some spicy-looking red sauce as well.

We started with the Chorizo. This was diced into small cubes, not ground like Taco King’s. Once again, chorizo brought flavorful heat – accentuated by the red sauce we liberally poured over the meat.

Chorizo tacos at Chela’s

The al pastor was next, and in this I dare say we found a mutual favorite. Less sweet than Taco King, with a rich savoriness to the marinade that was perfectly complimented by the slightly tangy salsa verde, these were hands-down winners.

Carne asada was fine, but a bit “blah” after the warm, spicy sausage and richly-marinated pork. The steak was appropriately chewy and had a nice char, but it was by far the weakest of the three offerings.

At $1.85 per taco, Chela’s was ever-so-slightly more expensive, but we considered that $0.35 a relatively small price to pay for flavor profiles that fit our personal palates a bit better.

(Also, at Chela’s, David introduced me to Horchata, a rice-based cold beverage seasoned with cinnamon. WOW. It was milky and a bit sweet and just bursting with that warm, spicy cinnamon flavor. It had a cooling property that complimented the heat of the food extremely well. I loved it!)

Chela's tacos and horchata and our piles or hot sauces and salsas

Although I’d say we preferred Chela’s just a bit, either of these establishments is a solid choice for an inexpensive, flavorful lunch. Next time you’re on the west side, give one of them a try.

Curry on, my wayward son…

The end of July approaches. I’ll end the month the same way I ended it in 2011: spending a week among countless airplanes and aviation enthusiasts in glamorous (read: “glamorous”) Oshkosh, Wisconsin, attending the annual AirVenture with my coworkers. As far as business travel goes, it’s not a bad gig. And we do eat well on our trips – however, options are somewhat limited and by the end of the week, everyone is a little tired of the sushi/hibachi restaurant and the hotel steakhouse, tasty though they may be. (However, no one gets tired of the bar that plays five decades of music videos, heavy on the nineties. It’s physically impossible to tire of that.)

Luckily, I’m being sent off on a high note this year, food-wise.  We gathered with friends on Friday night – the first time in awhile; it’s been a busy summer all around – for beer and pizza on the deck. Sound mundane, right? Well, this wasn’t just any pizza: this was a most perfect marriage of pizza and Indian food and flavors combining to form the incomparable Curry on Crust.

From what I understand, Curry on Crust is the pet project of the wives of the proprietors of a popular Indian street food restaurant. Located on Ford Road in Canton (that’s right, Ann Arborites – you have to – gasp! – leave the city for this deliciousness), the restaurant does a brisk carry-out business, though there is a small seating area inside the restaurant.

The restaurant divides the pie menu into three basic categories: veggie, paneer (a crumbly fresh cheese used in Indian cuisine, often marinated) and chicken (the only non-vegetarian ingredient on Curry on Crust’s menu). We chose one option from each category: #4 – the Spicy Veggie Treat; #14 – the Palak Paneer Pizza; and #20 – the Chicken Tikka Pizza.

Chicken Tikka Pizza (foreground) and Paneer Palak Pizza

We started with the spicy veggie, featuring the house red sauce. The sauce itself had a spicy, flavorful kick (though not hot enough to offend any spice-phobes) while the addition of ginger and chilies kicked up with the usual veggie pizza combination of onions, mushrooms, tomatoes and olives. A healthy dose of garlic rounded everything out. Hands-down the most flavorful veggie pizza I’ve ever had.

We moved on to the paneer, which pretty much wow-ed the entire group at first bite. The spinach sauce was a brilliant addition, both texture and taste-wise. The sauce offered the rich taste of spinach without any leafy stringiness. It was almost pesto-like in composition. The marinated paneer was almost meat-like. Onions and red peppers added additional crunch and flavor depth.

We were all ready to declare the paneer pizza the winner for the night until we tasted the chicken tikka pizza. Everyone in the group had a hard time deciding which, if either, was the better of the two. The crust was spread with a warm-spicy tikka sauce and sprinkled with chunks of tikka chicken, green peppers and – of course – garlic. The warm flavors of tumeric and corriander permeated the dish, complimented by the mellow flavors of the cooked garlic and the toned-down bitterness of the green pepper. Nothing short of amazing.

We washed down the pizza with Spotted Cow beer from New Glarus Brewing Company out of Wisconsin (this was not an homage to my trip – Matt is from Green Bay). The farmhouse-style ale had a touch of fruitiness and a nice weight without being too heavy. I could see this beer being complimentary to many food options. A great summer deck-drinking choice.

On that note, I think I’m ready to head off to airplane land for a week. I’ll be back and ready for more eating and blogging adventures in August, so stay tuned!

Rock (well, roll) Lobster

I’ve claimed to be done with blogging, or at least with blogging about food and beverages. I was feeling uninspired, there were too many people doing the same thing, my writing was getting repetitive and stale, my phone camera (which I rely on for food photos when out and about) is super-crappy (yes, I’m still toiling along with that BlackBerry, AKA the VCR of cell phones)…my handful of excuses all amounted to pretty much the same thing: boredom. My food blogging days were done.

Done until I tasted the Frita Batidos version of a lobster roll, that is.

I could wax poetic about both lobster rolls and Frita Batidos at length – in fact, I’ve done so here and here. The idea of combining the two was almost unfathomable. It was either going to be the most wonderful or most horrible thing on the planet. I knew it would be – there could not possibly be any middle ground with this one.

To recap for those not inclined to click backlinks and read my old posts: a traditional New England lobster roll is served one of two ways: A) hot, meaning the only condiment is lots and lots of clarified butter or B) cold, meaning the lobster chunks are combined with mayo/other ingredients into a lobster salad. Both versions are served on a hot dog roll. This is not the same thing as a hot dog bun. The hot dog roll is split open on the top rather than on one side. The exposed bread on the sides toasts up splendidly. It’s genius, really, and I’m not entirely sure why we don’t get rid of the stupid bun all together.

As usual, I digress.

I have an aversion to mayonnaise that generally makes a cold lobster roll a less-appealing option. I like the sweet meat dripping in butter and not much else. But here in landlocked (or at least freshwater-locked) land of the Mitten, I was willing to take what I could get.

Hot lobster roll at Captain Scott’s during 2011’s CT Labor Day visit.

I really knew nothing about Frita’s version going in other than the fact that it existed (thank you, Facebook – finally, “liking” a bar or restaurant has actually paid off). I placed my order and then immediately placed an order for a mojito to calm my nerves as I waited. (That proved to be an excellent idea in itself. Frita Batidos makes a mean mojito – just enough sugar to take the edge off the rum and tasting more of fresh lime and mint than anything. I highly recommend it.)

The Frita Mojito

I was approximately halfway through my mojito when my meal arrived. After intense visual scrutinizing, I came to the following conclusions:

  • This was not so much a “roll” as a sandwich. It was served on the soft egg brioche bun that Frita’s serves its Fritas on. The interior of the bun was toasted.
  • We were looking at a “cold” roll; AKA a lobster salad situation. However, the goop of the salad was an orange-ish color, which I deduced was most likely the sweet chili mayo that comes on many a Frita and as a dipping sauce for the fried plantains. (Have I mentioned Frita Batidos plantains? The delicious, garlic-y, cilantro-y double-fried plantains? These are a MUST try.)
  • The lobster salad was topped with Frita’s tropical coleslaw, which I knew from experience to be very crunchy with fruity, fresh flavors.
  • The bun was overflowing with chunks of lobster meat – a great sign.

Once the visual inspection was complete, I smelled it (my 201o holiday stint at Zingerman’s Mail Order left me with what some consider the rather peculiar habit of smelling all my food before I eat it). I smelled the chili mayo and a sweet; subtle seafood-y smell (not too strong or fishy – a good indicator that the meat was pretty fresh); and a very slightly fruity smell, most likely from the tropical slaw.

Lobster Frita

It was finally time to take a bite. There would be no going back. Was I setting myself up for an incredible taste experience or the biggest disappointment of my life?* (*That might be a bit of an exaggeration.)

My teeth sank through the soft bun and before hitting the pleasant crunch of the toasted interior followed by the slaw,  immediately contrasted by the slightly chewy meat held together by the not-quite-goopy mayo mixture. I crunched through the bottom layer of bun and pondered the flavor combination as I chewed through the pleasant variety of textures. I noticed that the salad was not quite cold – almost room temperature, possibly warmed from the heat of the bun. It was actually a great temperature and really let the flavors shine through.

And what flavors they were.

Lobster meat has a bit of natural sweetness to it, so adding a little heat from the chili mayo and the fruitier elements of the slaw were actually quite complimentary. It had a kick from the mayo without being “hot” – just flavorful. The bun itself had sort of an egg-y, buttery flavor – extremely subtle and mild, but more discernible than regular processed white bread/buns. There was nothing abrasive in the taste of the sandwich – just very harmonious elements combining for a fresh, slightly sweet mouth explosion.

The lobster Frita – I’m not sure I should call it a lobster roll – is on the messy side – but then again, so are most of the sandwiches at Frita Batidos. They are literally bursting out of the buns. As long as you aren’t particular about things like licking fingers or picking up chunks of food with your hands, this is NOT a problem – just something to note.

I asked our server about the availability of the lobster Frita. She told me it was originally something that the chef (Eve, I’m assuming) wanted to try out for a limited time, but that the reception has been excellent. In fact, it sells  out most nights. Our server indicated that the restaurant might be toying with the idea of keeping it around, but she wasn’t sure.

I hope they do. In the meantime, call, check Facebook, do whatever you need to do to find out if the lobster Frita is being served – and if you find that it, go get it immediately. It’s not a New England lobster roll, but it might just be the most delicious sandwich in Ann Arbor.

The Wurst Place in Town

Just when I was starting to get sick of my usual Ypsi haunts (which, coincidentally, is amazing for my waistline and bank account), the Wurst Bar opened on Cross Street.

Photo: markmaynard.com

The Wurst Bar opened on a block of West Cross that I previously was never tempted to go. An atypical Eastern Michigan University student, I was not even remotely interested in this bar when it was Theo’s*. Seriously. I could not have been less interested in Theo’s. (Nor was I interested in the Tower Inn, though I did pop in there for the occasional post-ENG 424 drink with our old Written Communications crew.)

My, how times have changed. The interior of the former Theo’s – gross college bar extraordinaire – has been transformed into something unrecognizable (well, to be fair, I probably wouldn’t be able to recognize Theo’s interior anyway, seeing as how I really never went in there). The menu has undergone an equally astounding transformation.

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give a warm welcome to the Wurst Bar. Specializing in gourmet bratwursts and burgers, a rotating selection of over 100 veggie burger recipes, and a beer list heavy on craft and microbrews, the Wurst Bar is destined to become Hipster Haven – but it’s also DELICIOUS.

The interior of the Wurst may cause one to wonder if Urban Outfitters opened an Ypsi outpost: the decor is heavy on cardboard animal heads and plastic chandeliers. Vintage movie posters adorn the walls, and black leather (or pleather) banquettes adorn the floor. The menu and specials are written in colored chalk on old-school green chalkboards and the perimeter walls are painted a deep, maroon-y red.

Low-end taxidermy

Classy.

It may take a few minutes to notice all these details, however, as this gloriousness greets patrons upon walking in the door:

Photo: Diane Kay

The meat case, filled with dreams and promises of what’s to come.

We found a seat (at a little past eight on a Saturday night, we seemed to have hit the happy medium between the dinner and drinking crowds) and perused the menu.

We started with the Curry Wurst Mini Corn Dogs.Served with a spicy catsup and a very garlic-y pimento cheese, these nuggets of perfectly-spiced meat arrived encased in cornmeal batter worthy of any county fair. The combination was heavenly, and we agreed these were a keeper.

Curry wurst corn dogs

The brat menu is divided into two columns: “Usual” – featuring the house specialty, a PBR-poached brat seasoned with marjoram, ginger, celery seed, and coriander; as well as a spicy Italian sausage and a couple veggie options – and “Unusual” – with highlights such as rattlesnake chorizo, a turducken sausage, and a rabbit option. The burger menu was similarly divided, with “Usual” featuring both a beef and a veggie patty and “Unusual” getting a little more non-traditional with the toppings. (A burger AND brat together on one bun? Peanut butter on a burger?) Both burger and brat offered the option of a pretzel or brioche bun.

After much deliberation, I ordered the rattlesnake (mixed with pork and and seasoned with chipotle, oregano, and red wine) – which, according the bar’s website is one of their best-sellers. Diane went for the turducken, which was reminiscent of Thanksgiving with additions of pecans, cranberries, and apples. Noe went all in on where meat was concerned, ordering the brat/burger combo that is the Wurst Burger, served up with sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. We all chose tater tots as our side, Diane and I opting to mix sweet potato and regular tots.

Rattlesnake Chorizo and Wurst Burger

YUM. The rattlesnake chorizo was warm and spicy – the chipotle giving it a slightly smoky flavor. The meat was extremely flavorful as well, though quite honestly I could not discern any notably different taste from the addition of the rattlesnake meat (but that could possibly be because I was distracted by the delicious seasonings). I ate it with spicy stoneground mustard (very zingy, almost a horseradish-like sensation) and sauteed onions.

Close-up: rattlesnake chorizo and mixed tots

Diane’s turducken was rich and filling. Her choice of sauteed onions for a topping and the pretzel roll added a sweet and salty element that complimented the richness rather than competing with it.

Noe’s Wurst Burger was an exercise in meat excellence. I pulled a piece of the PBR-poached brat off the burger and ate it by itself – wow. This may be the Wurst Bar’s “basic” brat option, but it is juicy and flavorful and incredibly delicious.

Close up: Wurst Burger

The tots were all extra-crispy (the way we like them) and the sweet potato variety were accompanied by a cinnamon-spiked marshmallow fluff for dipping. I’m not a fan of the sweet potato/marshmallow combo in general but the fluff was greatly appreciated by those at our table who DO enjoy it.

We weren’t overly adventurous in our beer selections – Bell’s all around, Best Brown and Winter White – but none of us are true beer aficionados, though we all enjoy beer and in the case of Diane and I are trying to avoid another potentially expensive tasting hobby. The Rikster did up the beer game when she showed up and order the most amazing chocolately/spicy beer, which was like a Mexican hot chocolate meets chocolate or espresso stout. I can’t remember what it was called, but I’m sure she’ll be able to fill in that piece of information.

Maybe not adventurous, but tasty.

PBR is also available in both draft and bottled form. Rikster followed up her heavier dessert beer with a draft of Pabst, explaining that “Drinking PBR is like drinking a loaf of bread – wonderful.” I couldn’t wordsmith it better!

The prices were extremely reasonable – the beers tend to run in the $4.50 – $5.00 range and brats/burgers range from $5.75 – $7.00. The quality is hands-down higher than the price.

The Wurst Bar is an excellent addition to Ypsilanti and gives that section of Cross Street a much-needed boost of creativity. Definitely check it out next time you’re in the mood for meat or just need a break from Depot Town (don’t we ALL need a break from Depot Town now and then?) – maybe we’ll see you there.

*I mean NO disrespect to the operators or patrons of the former Theo’s – as I said, I was an ATYPICAL college student!

Cabin Girls Strike Again: Part II

When the Cabin Girls go up north, we focus pretty heavily on wine – as outlined in my post yesterday and a similar post from our March buying trip. However, we’re also all about our food.

(I am pretty sure when my grandma purchased the cabin way back when it was intended as a bear hunting/snowmobiling lodge…our ski trips aren’t such a stretch but no one ever expected the cabin to become the stopping point on a foodie tour. Hey, whatever works, right?)

Anyway, now that we’ve done this trip twice, we have our Friday night routine down. We usually get up to Grayling pretty late, so instead of stopping for dinner, we call Spicy Bob’s pizza and pick up our pie on our way in to Frederic. Spicy Bob’s is open late and has delish veggie and Mediterranean pizzas, both of which incidentally pair well with the various red wines we haul up.

Normally, this is a tasty but not particularly notable event; however, this time around, the Rikster saw something called “Cheese-Stuffed Silly Sticks” on the menu, so we added them to our order. Following is a transcript of the first part of this phone call:

(Ring, ring)

Spicy Bob’s: “Uh, hi.”

Me: (Silence)

Spicy Bob’s: “Oh, um. Hey, Spicy Bob’s! Can I get you a pizza or something?”

Me: “Yes. We would like an ultimate veggie for pick-up.”

Spicy Bob’s: “Cool. Did you know your phone number is in our system? That’s neat.”

Me: “Um, OK. Can I also get some cheese-stuffed silly sticks?”

Spicy Bob’s: (Voice cracking with enthusiasm) “CHEESE-STUFFED SILLY STICKS?! Abso-LUTELY!”

When we arrived at Spicy Bob’s, we found the counter manned by one very relaxed-looking teenage boy while another teenage boy literally ran around the back of the room, throwing boxes and banging spatulas around and yelling “WHAT DO I DO WITH THE HAM AND PEPPERONI???” at which point counter boy looked at me, shook his head ruefully, and informed me “Right after you called, we got hit, man. We got hit hard.”

(I should add that this was said with the weight and seriousness of someone talking about, say, the Vietnam war rather than a Friday night pizza rush.)

Anyway, after informing me that he just needed to put the “finishing touches” on our silly sticks (which involved some exaggerated brushing with something that looked like movie theater butter and some heavy-handed shaking of a spice container) everything was packed up and ready to go. We took the two-track in to the cabin, where we promptly changed in to PJs, Rikster opened the kick-off bottle of wine, and we commenced with the eating of our delicious, veggie-laden pizza.

Rikster opens the festivities

Ultimate Veggie and Silly Sticks

We managed that night to only consume four bottles of red wine instead of our usual six, so when we woke up we actually felt pretty good. Fortified with bagels and coffee and with some regular Cokes for the road, we headed to TC, where we tasted wine until we were ready for lunch, at which point we headed to the Hearth & Vine Cafe at Black Star Farms.

We were immediately drawn to two sandwiches on the menu: the Italian (prosciutto, salami, mozzarella, onion, arugula & balsamic reduction on ciabatta) and the Wood-Roasted Chicken (pesto, roasted peppers, chicken, and provolone on ciabatta). Since there were four of us, we ordered two of each and had the waitress plate them half and half. We were not disappointed:

Sandwiches and chick peas at Black Star Farms

We loved them both, and after a much-debated taste test, came to the conclusion that the chicken was just a little bit better…flavorful and moist meat, pesto that tasted more herbacious than oily, chewy ciabatta…mmmm. The sandwiches were served with spiced chickpeas, which we thought were a delightful alternative to chips. (Psst – I just found their blog – check it out: http://saveurthyme.blogspot.com/)

After snacks at Brys Estate and 2 Lads, we headed downtown for dinner. We arrived a bit early for our reservation at The Cook’s House, but this wasn’t a problem as they now have a liquor license. We enjoyed a glass of wine on the deck while we waited for our table.

Enjoying St. Suprey cab on the deck of the Cook's House

After doing the seven-course tasting menu at The Cook’s House in March, we couldn’t wait to do it again in June. Since the restaurant focuses heavily on local seasonal cuisine, we knew it would be different – and hopefully every bit as delicious.

We were NOT mistaken.

We started with asparagus soup, which had a depth of flavor so intense that we were shocked to learn that it was blanched rather than roasted. Drizzled with some good olive oil and flavored with nothing but sea salt, this looked like baby food but was absolutely divine.

Asparagus soup

We moved on to a creamy risotto with small pieces of lamb and spinach. The texture was perfect and the meat complimented rather than competed with the chicken stock and Parmesan flavors in the risotto.

Risotto with spinach and lamb

A perfectly-crisped piece of whitefish on garlic scapes followed. Dressed with a light mustard-y vinaigrette, this was absolutely bursting with flavor.

Whitefish with garlic scapes and mustard vinaigrette

The next course almost killed us, in the best possible way. We were served a thinly-sliced New York strip steak with a beef cheek ragout. The ragout literally melted in our mouths. The richness of this dish was almost over the top…not that that stopped us.

NY Strip with beef cheek ragout

After the beef, we were in desperate need of a salad. What came to us looked like Easter on a plate. The pickled radishes and crispy pig ears were actually very mild, and it proved a refreshing follow-up to the rich meat, if not particularly a stand-out item on its own.

Salad with fried pig ears

One of the main reasons we get the tasting menu is because it includes a cheese course. A mixture of local and non-local artisan cheeses, this is a real treat. In addition to favorites such as herbed chevre and Leelanau Raclette, we were thrilled to find the ambrosial (read: delightfully stinky) Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery. We all sighed audibly when this plate landed on our table.

The highly anticipated cheese course

The last time we did the tasting menu, we were all served a delectable coffee creme brulee. No one was disappointed to see duck egg creme brulee as the dessert this time around – however, since it was a slower night and we’d been chatting amicably with, well, anyone who would stop by our table (chef, waiter, busboy, bartender – we weren’t picky), the kitchen offered instead to send us one each of four different desserts to share. We didn’t hesitate for a second. The creme brulee came out accompanied by a panna cotta with rhubard compote, a savory spiced honey cake with vanilla ice cream, and a flourless chocolate cake.

Panna Cotta with rhubard and duck egg creme brulee

Honey cake - a table favorite

Flourless chocolate cake

We loved them all, but agreed the rich, spicy honey cake was our unanimous favorite. After thanking the entire staff profusely, we stumbled to the car, where we immediately went in to food comas that lasted not only the entire ride home but well in to the next morning.

I can not tell you how much I enjoy these weekends up north with these girls. We have so much fun and we love making friends and chatting with the staff at all the wineries and restaurants we visit. It will probably be late fall before we go on another expedition – maybe even winter – but I already can”t wait until the next one.