Back to Basics

Back to Basics

NOTE: Both of the below-mentioned restaurants have since closed and re-opened under different names with different (or slightly tweaked) concepts. I have been to neither.

For a few short weeks, I am back in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I went to college, fell in love, and lived on my own for the first time. It was here in the early nineties that I drank my first microbrew (a Bell’s Oberon at the Cottage Bar), ate my first tapas (at San Chez) and tried my first latte (Kava House).

As I’ve come and gone over the years I’ve followed the city’s culinary coming of age story, charting it alongside my own. I remember when my sister’s boyfriend started working at a bakery that churned out artisanal loaves and then a gourmet food store opened next door to it. In my day there was one Thai restaurant, a long hike out in the suburban wastelands of 28th street; now there are three between Eastown and downtown. Last year, I accompanied a friend, one eyebrow raised, as she drug me to Bartertown, the city’s first vegan restaurant – a place whose tasty sweet potato tacos and squash Reuben put it in league with anything, vegan or not, that I had eaten in New York that year. During restaurant week last August that same friend and I went to a newly opened farm-to-table establishment called Grove. In spite of the glare of the television screens in the bar and decor which, like many establishments around here, feels like a Sheraton hotel lobby, I agreed with the Grand Rapids Press reporter who said that with Grove, Grand Rapids had arrived. My martini was exactly how I like it. The service was flawless. And although it was one year ago, I still remember both my appetizer (chicken made three ways) and the slow-cooked egg over a kimchee broth. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

So it was with anticipation that I followed the development of Trillium Haven. My sister and I were at her CSA last summer when she sent me to the herb section where I found a huge patch of shiso. I remember thinking to myself, “Do people know what to do with this?” My sister didn’t – she thought it was basil. As we were leaving, Sis informed me that this was the farm’s last season: the owners were going to open a restaurant. My first thought was, “They’re crazy.” My second was: “I can’t wait to see how they use that shiso.”

I’ll save you the suspense. There is no shiso on the menu. It’s not on any of the plates coming out of the kitchen nor in the cocktails coming from the bar. In fact, my meal there this August felt strangely devoid of the abundance of vegetables I saw on the farm last summer. High season in Michigan and I found myself ordering a fried porkchop on polenta with some sort of vegetable that had been cooked beyond recognition. My companion had lamb in a stew-like tomato sauce. None of it was bad, but it was lacking in both creativity and flavor. The interior at Trillium is, however, something to write home about. I want to hang out there all the time. I love the open kitchen and the bar with the herbs stacked on the shelves beside the glasses. It has the feeling of a farm – and there are tables – I just wish there wasn’t such a disconnect between the two.

Upon leaving Trillium that first night, I spied the inconspicuous new signage across the street. The premises had been home to a bar that was opened in conjunction with Bombay Cuisine, the Indian restaurant next door. I had my first kofta here sometime circa 1998. But while they succeed at churning out delicious Indian food, their bar effort had never drawn me in.

“What’s that place?” I asked my dinner companions. They weren’t sure.

“It’s supposed to be southern food,” my sister told me later. I was curious. And I like southern food.

So as Sis and I finished our walk Wednesday night, we pondered our options. We decided against Grove because of our pocketbooks. We nixed Bartertown because they don’t serve alcohol. As we walked by Trillium, I longed for a meal in my imagination: a salad with nasturtiums and curried, pickled, farm-fresh eggs. A slab of blackened eggplant topped with shredded cucumber and mint. A pizza with flowering broccoli and roasted garlic. Slow, spit-roasted chicken drizzled in a spicy shiso pesto. I looked at the diners eating out on the sun-drenched patio, knowing they weren’t eating these things.

Then we walked across the street. By any definition, Radix Tavern was dead. Maybe six people were seated between the bar and the various areas of the large dining room. The interior is a bit dark, but I was drawn to the tables along the window where I could sit watching the bar and looking at the mural made by a local artist. Then I looked at the menu. I had to caution myself not to get too excited. Many a chef has failed to deliver on the promises of the menu. But the fried green tomatoes said: it’s September! And the mussels with andoille sausage sounded pitch-perfect.

We settled into our bar chairs and ordered drinks. The cocktail list used familiar terms like “Hendrick’s” and “Bulleit.” Along with the regular menu, which is extensive, we were given a special daily fare menu, which was also lengthy. It was altogether a little too many menus for my taste, but I was drawn to the list of small plates and side orders that encourage grazing. We would have ordered more – like the succotash or the roasted cauliflower – except our server came out with the larger portion of the mussels and we two little girls were full before our second order arrived. We shared everything, starting with the mussels and an order of hush puppies; then the fried green tomatoes and an order of grits.

The mussels were excellent. Sis said she thought they needed salt, but I made sure to eat each one with a little sausage and that satisfied me. The hush puppies were tasty, and let’s face it, they are not on every menu, which makes them interesting. If I had been in the kitchen, I would have dredged the green tomatoes in cornmeal or panko instead of batter, but they were delicious, and the dish was lightened up by a salad of mixed greens. The grits had me wanting to wipe the bowl with my finger. (I refrained.) We topped it off with a rootbeer float, with suds from Schmohz, a local non-alcholoic brewer.

It’s easy to pass through this town and make hasty observations. After living in New York off and on for many years, eating the best food imaginable most nights of the week, it’s hard not to want things you become accustomed to. (Why is no one here using KOLD-DRAFT ice in their cocktails? When oyster bars are on every street corner in Brooklyn, why are there none on any menu? Did the charcuterie ‘trend’ not make it to the midwest?)

Then again, I’ve eaten expensive meals at three-star restaurants in Manhattan that I don’t remember nor care to re-expereience. That’s because what matters most is not what ice they use or if they make their own sausage, the measuring indicator is really very basic: is it yummy? Will I crave it later? Radix Tavern joined the ranks. Maybe I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I got what I needed: delicious, creative and seasonal fare. And I’m planning to go back for more.