G-Sync: Palette Pleasures

Some folks are willing to plop down fat bags of cash for airfare, accommodations, and taxis just to indulge in the one meal believed to be the authentic cuisine of a far-off culture.
Luckily for us (including those without such lavish means), and by way of our ever-flattening world, Grand Rapids' food landscape is constantly evolving and highlighted each year at Restaurant Week.

This year there is a new trend emerging, besides the push to include more fresh ingredients from our region: the presence of ethnic restaurants in this annual event.   

No longer is this foodie exploration just for the connected. When Restaurant Week returns for its fourth year, it is really looking to shake things up as our local ethnic restaurants are not just jumping in, but are providing a melting pot experience without breaking the bank. This is the perfect time to venture off the your well-worn dietary path.

While lots of places will be tripping over themselves to ensure the best farm-to-table experience (a term I think is well past even shark jumping at this point), Experience Grand Rapids' event site reveals the delicious simplicity these ethnic entries are offering this year.  

Surveying the list, I discovered three places serving something worthy of your considerations. This is, of course, by no means an exhaustive sampling of what is happening over August 14 - 24.

One restaurant participating for the very first time is Michigan's only semi-fine dining Turkish restaurant, Zeytin, located in Ada.

Owner Ufuk Turan says his establishment has been attracting people from all over the region. And while Turan finds a lot of his guests are familiar with items like hummus, tabouli, and baba ganoush, he really wants people to be adventurous during Restaurant Week. Lesser known but no less tasty dishes include Zeytin's freshly chopped eggplant salsa or its feta borek -- a pastry dish much like an Asian spring roll, but made with cheese and layers of filo dough, rich in a buttery flavor with a recipe reaching back to the Ottoman Empire.

Zeytin will also feature an array of wonderfully flavorful and carb-smart shish kebabs of lamb, chicken, and beef with their special seasoning and grilled to absolute precision. Even the desserts are a delight, including a baked rice pudding with cinnamon.

At Ju Sushi, a restaurant already known for their elaborate and festive sushi boats, they will be importing an ocean's worth of fish to offer a wide variety of choices. Honing in on their roots, they will be presenting many Japanese cuisine options including a Chef's sushi combination, a seafood-rich and broth udon, and a fried katsu entrée.  

At the same time, they are showcasing a couple menu items that represent a Japanese infusion or a modernist flair to match their restaurant's cosmopolitan atmosphere. These dishes include Japanese Blue Lip Curry Mussels and their take on a local favorite, Carrot Cake.

According to General Manager Grant Lee, the entire menu represents dishes created to steal your heart via your eyes and then your stomach. He insists that these special features are "prepared with precision by our chefs" for your dining pleasure.

This is truly fitting with Japanese culture, where the appearance is just as valuable as the quality of the food prepared.  

"In Japan they say, 'you eat with your eyes first, and then enjoy the food second,'" Lee says.

What many of these ethnic restaurants share is not just their commitment to building up delicate and sometimes complex flavors based on a philosophy of simplicity and honesty, but cultural layers on the road to Grand Rapids.

This layered approach to home style cooking is something Lindo Mexico's Gricelda Mata knows very well, as she creates her menu each day using fresh ingredients.

"We say we are a family restaurant because our recipes have been passed down from family members over time," says Mata. "These recipes have moved from my grandma, to my dad, and now to us. My mother would always cook for us everyday -- even my dad would help, too."

Mata's folks both had full-time jobs -- something many families relate to these days -- and yet, they managed to make fresh food for their family.  

"Because we grew up with fresh food, I feel this is why we like to make all of our food at the restaurant from scratch," says Mata. "This is the way we know food should be cook and served."

In keeping with their approach to freshness and tradition, Mata is offering a heritage family recipe of Enchiladas de Mole Ranchero that originates in Michoacan, Mexico, where they eschew the sweet and embrace the spicy.

Even the sauces offered on the table are made from scratch, and any of the servers will gladly answer any questions for the food-shy in your crowd.  

More than 70 restaurants participating this year will be featuring a special cocktail just for the occasion. Some are competing for the cocktail of the year, but at Lindo Mexico, they are more interested in making things fresh than accolades. It is why their RumChata will have you forever bypassing the bottled version once you taste Mata's.

Lindo Mexico's RumChata is made from fresh Horchata -- a beverage made by soaking rice with whole cinnamon sticks, resulting in a marriage of sweet and spice via milk, vanilla, and a few other sworn to secret ingredients. For a Rompope (Mexican Eggnog), it's mixed with Barcardi Rum. It's sure to make your Restaurant Week meal complete.

"I think in the last few years, the ethnic food movement has been growing," says Mata, regarding her choice to join the festivities for the first time. "Grand Rapids palettes are expanding, and I feel people are looking for something different, better, and fresher."

This week, all of us will have plenty of opportunities to travel to exciting, new places and be back to our abodes before 11 p.m. Hopefully, when you look over the choices, you will discover a few venues that are guaranteed to shake up your routine and expand your world of offerings right here at home.

Restaurant Week Grand Rapids is August 14 - 24.

The Future Needs All of Us

Tommy Allen

Lifestyle Editor

To visit the top events happening in our region, click here.

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