Grand Rapids food scene in 2016: Where to eat, what to eat and how we should eat it

From new restaurants to many a craft cocktail and meals chock full of Michigan produce, 2016 is shaping up to be an incredible year for Grand Rapids food.
As we welcome the new year, Grand Rapids is perfectly positioned to embrace what’s on our plates and in our glasses.

Michigan is an agriculturally rich, vibrant state that offers produce and proteins in tune with the seasons. This year, we are ready to take hold of that, expand upon it and West Michiganders are prepared to embark upon an adventurous year of meals that celebrate everything from local farms to authentic Vietnamese, Dim Sum and Mexican dishes —and a whole lot more.

It’s 2016, and we need to make it the year we respect our palates. Our local restaurants are increasingly considering the passionate, and, yes, emotional response food can elicit from patrons of their establishments, and we, as consumers, need to embrace that. Here’s what’s happening, Grand Rapids, in your local food scene.

Where We Will Eat

There are exciting secret (and not so secret) projects in the works all over our town. The West Side is blooming, with new spots like Long Road Distillers already developing a strong fan base with their quality cocktails and simple, approachable small plates. Harmony Hall recently opened in the old Rauser Quality Sausage Factory building a spacious, atmospheric and warm two-story place that embraced the history and roots of the West Side, offering craft sausage along with their beer. The West Side neighborhood will also be home to The Søvengård, a biergarten and kitchen that plans on not only being a part of the area’s growth, but the Midwestern food revitalization as well.

Rick Muschiana, The Søvengård’s owner who also happens to call the West Side home, explains that, “we really wanted to embrace the sort of new food revolution that is happening — with local sourcing and local producers, and sort of put that in the blender with a very Michigan culinary standpoint. Many people look at that and say, ‘Well, what is that? There’s no such thing as Michigan cooking.’ It’s really about defining what Midwest regional cooking is, and what it could be. There is a shift happening with food, whether people realize it or not.”

Chris Perkey, the owner and chef of Osteria Rossa and the new eatery, Iron, recognizes this shift as well. Calling 25 Ottawa Ave. SW home in downtown Grand Rapids, Iron will offer atmosphere, food and drink that is “simple, real and honest” — and all about the Midwest. Regional farmers, businesses and brewers will all be a part of their menu. 25 Ottawa will shift dramatically, become more intimate and familiar, the trappings of the former failed restaurants in that space falling away with the plaster dust and ceiling tiles during reconstruction.

“Iron brings you back to the roots of what you grew up eating,” Perkey says. “It’s embracing that Midwestern food culture. [Midwestern food] gets a bad rap in a lot of ways, everyone thinks of heavy, meat and potatoes type food. It is, to an extent, but people forget that Michigan has the second largest agricultural diversity in the United States and it really opens up a lot of what we are able to grow. I don’t only want to embrace Midwestern food from a culinary standpoint, but also the mentality of the Midwest. Iron is as much about the conversation and the service as it is about the food. It goes back to that real, down home comfortable feeling, the old school supper club feel of a restaurant.”

What We Will Be Eating

This is the year for simplicity and experimentation. This year, seek out the authentic, and rediscover the flavors in our backyard.

Craft Cocktails

If you’re going to pay for a cocktail, pay for a cocktail that takes itself seriously. Discover Sidebar, tucked away in 80 Ottawa NW — a tiny, dark and delicious spot that serves up handcrafted cocktails that have quality ingredients, are made with pride and care, and are worthy of your money and time. If you are one of the lucky ones who can manage to snag a seat, try a Moscow Mule — a classic cocktail at its finest here.

Bar Divani, a longtime resident on the Ionia strip, has a new bar manager/head bartender who can make you a helluva cocktail. I enjoy the Whiskey Ward Ambassador, as I have an overly fond attachment for the alcoholic beverage. If you end up going there and aren’t quite sure what you should get, ask Chris. He’ll mix something perfect for your taste buds and your mood.

You’ll also notice that your accoutrements, syrups and mixers are leaning heavily on Michigan-sourced produce and made-in-Michigan options. For example, take Brix Soda Co, a pure cane sugar soda from right here in Grand Rapids that is used in many local restaurants.

Beer and More Beer

Beer City USA won’t be a title leaving Grand Rapids anytime soon, and we’ll continue to see growth throughout West Michigan in this industry. Lucky us, the beer will just keep getting better as the public becomes more educated and willing to step outside of the Bud Light box.

Just on the cusp of celebrating its fifth anniversary, East Hills favorite Brewery Vivant has a rotating tap list of seasonal appropriateness, all with a Belgian twist. Go in and try whatever is in the Firkin or the Wood-Aged beer that’s on tap, and please don’t hesitate to ask your server or bartender any questions you have about the beer. They know their stuff.

Be on the lookout for Creston Brewery, partly owned by members of the local band Vox Vidorra, which will be heavy on the creativity, community and accessible new experiences (for your ears and your mouth).

Speciation Artisan Ales will bring Grand Rapids experimental, spontaneous and sour beers that range from funk to tropical on your palate. Speciation is owned by the husband and wife team of Mitch and Whitney Ermatinger, Grand Rapidians at heart who came back to us from Denver, where Mitch worked at Former Future Brewing Company and helped work on an award-winning wild beer with them.

Michigan Bounty

Locally sourced Michigan proteins, vegetables, simply presented, lovingly prepared. This is what we’ll eat.

The Søvengård crew brought us beautiful examples of how these things can come together.

A root salad, featuring both raw and pickled — carrots, beets and radishes, was dressed simply with a housemade carrot mayo and beet vinaigrette and topped  off with crispy kale and the surprise of candied kumquat, adding that little bit of sweetness to the earthy taste of winter produce.

A pork chop, perfectly cooked, served with charred carrots, kabocha squash and cipollini onion, the tartness of pickled cherries and the fragrant, evolving taste of oolong tea bean puree, served with the cherrjus pan sauce is big, bold, and filling.

Meat pies and traditional Danish open-faced sandwiches called Smørrebrød rounded out the taste test. The pictures speak for themselves.

Michigan Diversity

Step away from anything fusion and embrace the authentic.

Chuancai Fang on 28th Street offers real Sichuan Chinese cuisine alongside the more Americanized offerings. Try the number F05: a fish dish made with pickled chili and tofu, spicy but perfectly so. For an appetizer, order the Sichuan cold noodle salad, a simple, yet interestingly complex noodle dish that you’ll want more of.

The Kim Nhung Store complex at 4242 Division Ave S is a gem of a shopping center, housing not only an amazing Asian supermarket full of fresh fruits, vegetables, and must-haves for Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, but some delicious little restaurants as well.  Go to Wei-Wei Palace for Dim Sum, Pho Soc Trang for Vietnamese style soup, and Ly’s Sandwiches for Banh Mi — a French inspired Vietnamese sandwich on a baguette with a variety of filling options.

Taqueria San Jose on Division Ave is just one of the few places in our city that offers affordable, fresh and authentic Mexican food. Order and eat your tacos the way they should come — skip the ‘supreme’ topping options like lettuce and tomatoes and go with the onions and cilantro instead. Order the taco lengua (tongue) and nibble the roasted jalapeno that comes with your meal. Be brave and eat well.

How We Should Be Eating It

Grand Rapids restaurateurs are practically shoving goodness down our throats. They recognize the shift happening nationwide, and the growth in our city. We, as consumers and diners, need to see it too and be receptive to the change. We might be surprised at how much we like it.

There will be a greater push towards education of the consumer with food, beer and spirits. What does medium rare really mean? How did that pig make it from the farm to the restaurant kitchen and become that sausage on your plate? Your server could very well be a Certified Beer Server, tested and trained to understand what your best beer options are for your meal.

Resolving that cognitive dissonance between the brain and the gut requires us to listen, observe and appreciate what it really takes to make your meals. And our area restaurants are trying to make it right.

Chris Freeman, operator of the 16,000+ strong Facebook group EatGR, offers some wide-ranging perspective: “What I see locally is restaurateurs who are interested in taking a chance on something a little more challenging or different in the way of cuisine...things that are available in bigger cities. But I don't feel that the public is necessarily ready to follow.”

“For example, people kept crying for authentic Ramen noodles,” Freeman continues. “Noodle Monkey switched from Thai food to authentic Japanese Ramen, but the public that said they would be there to support them has been slow in responding. I do see newer places like The Old Goat doing well by tapping into what is already familiar to people here. They take a dish that people are comfortable with but put a fun an interesting twist on it. That is appealing to the population in West Michigan.”

(Sidenote: Go to The Old Goat for brunch, and get ‘The Board of Education.’ Housemade and Michigan-centric, with enough uniqueness to satisfy the staunchest food critic.)

Patrick Conrade, executive chef at the soon-to-open Søvengård, has cooked in our town for the last 24 years and knows a thing or two about where we are, or should, be going with food trends in this city.

“The direction I’m hoping for is smart farming and sustainable crops,” he says. “Working with what we have, not trying to push it beyond just because you can. I look at cooking very simply. That’s the direction that’s happening nationally. That’s the direction I hope Grand Rapids chooses to go.”

This is fundamentally the concept of “The Third Plate” — beyond just farm-to-table. Dan Barber, author and chef, coined this term, noticing that what should be sustainable wasn’t all that friendly. It involves rotation of crops, creating a way of growing and eating that supports the ecology and scope of place.

Chefs, like Conrade, are at a unique point in our community right now that can allow them to cultivate what West Michigan dining is, and redefine what American food means.

So, cheers, Grand Rapids — let’s get out there, raise our glass and eat!

Tiffany Ewigleben is a mother, craft brew aficionado, freelance writer, wife of a chef, and a true Michigander in her heart, despite being from Washington D.C. She hopes you won't hold that against her.
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