In January, as the magazine staff tackled the difficult task of choosing the top restaurants for this month’s 2013 Grand Rapids Magazine Dining Awards, we interviewed some local chefs and restaurateurs about what’s happening in their kitchens — and trends they expect to see going forward.
They talked about everything from comfort foods to culinary mash-ups. They agreed the demand for gluten-free foods and healthier fare continues to grow. Kale is still hot, but they expect some new veggies to soar this year. Pickling is big, they say, and so are house-made ingredients, like charcuterie and pasta.
But above all, chefs confirm the farm-to-fork philosophy is here to stay.
One of the local pioneers is Patrick Wise, a founding partner of Essence Restaurant Group who oversees the culinary teams at all three Essence eateries. He started at Bistro Bella Vita in 1996 at age 19, opened The Green Well in 2007, and for the past three years has been executive chef at Grove — named Grand Rapids Magazine’s 2013 Restaurant of the Year. Grove received the same top honor in 2012 and was named 2011 Best New Restaurant.
Terra GR’s Seared Sea Scallops are served with butternut squash puree, Brussels sprouts, maple brown butter, greens and pickled apple.
Since his early days at Bistro Bella Vita, Wise has partnered with area farmers to showcase the agricultural products of West Michigan, but he also combines a variety of ethnic traditions to create unique flavors.
“First and foremost, our food is locally and regionally sourced,” he said. “But in the Midwest, we have such a rich heritage and we can draw on so many different influences, like Scandinavian, Polish, German and more.”
The key is taking classic favorites and giving them an innovative twist.
“Like lobster pierogi, a high-end version of a familiar Midwestern dish — kind of a rich man, poor man thing.”
When we talked to Wise in January, he and his staff at Grove were getting creative with root vegetables and spicy seasonings.
“Our favorite thing to do this time of the year is play around with cuisines of the sun,” he said. “So we introduce South American and Latin influences because we have dried chiles and beans to utilize. We want our food to have great flavor.”
Other top chefs in Grand Rapids also tout the Midwestern infusion style, taking locally sourced ingredients to make unique dishes.
At Reserve, Chef Matt Green says people seem to be rediscovering their culinary roots.
“They’re remembering the thing they ate at their grandparents’ table, and that’s what they want to eat now.”
His winter menu includes dishes that draw on Polish and Dutch traditions. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking at this region. Right now we’re doing a lamb kielbasa with sauerkraut.”
He also purchased a deer — “so we’ll be working through some venison.”
Christian Madsen, executive chef at six.one.six in the JW Marriott and former head chef at The 1913 Room, is thrilled the rest of the country is discovering what the Midwest has to offer.
“I think what people want now are comfort foods, but more upscale,” he said. “They’re looking for an innovative twist.”
He says diners today tend to be very savvy. “I think we’ll see more people coming to Grand Rapids to experience the restaurants, as well as coming for the art or museums. People travel to Napa Valley for the wine. In Grand Rapids we have a strong focus on local beers and brewing. I think we’ll see beer used as an ingredient.”
Back to basics
At Olive’s in East Grand Rapids, Chef Erin Jeffers sources from local farms and she’s also a fan of pure and simple ingredients.
“I’ve been playing around with making my own version of things,” she said. “Like artisanal butter. All it takes is one ingredient, one tool and 10 minutes of patience. It’s really fun.”
Besides great tasting butter, one of the side products is fresh buttermilk “that does something insanely good to cake.”
Trattoria di’ Stagione’s Saffron Risotto with red and yellow peppers.
And that’s right up her alley. Jeffers changes her dessert menu at Olive’s monthly, always challenging herself to come up with sweet creations using seasonal ingredients.
At Trattoria di’ Stagione — named 2013 Best New Restaurant — veteran chef Dan Chudik is making cheese and gelato in-house.
“I think there’s a big trend in the way restaurants are making their own ingredients,” he said. “We’re making our own ricotta, and we’re looking to getting into more of that this year with in-house charcuterie and more.”
Not only do today’s chefs have to be creative, they have to address a variety of health concerns. That means everything from vegan options to recipes that cater to dietary restrictions.
San Chez Bistro, winner of the 2013 Best European Restaurant, provides diners with 10 specialized menus to meet most allergy issues, including capsicum, tree nuts and citrus.
“We’re not just a steak and potatoes restaurant,” said Cindy Schneider, general manager of the downtown restaurant that has been whipping up Spanish-style tapas for 20 years. “Preparing tapas, we are combining so many different ingredients. Our chefs create and write the recipes for each item and we’ve created separate menus. If you need dairy free, that’s what you get.”
More people are requesting gluten-free dishes, said Green, who says it’s an easy request for his staff at Reserve. “We don’t use any processed foods so it’s not really a problem.”
In the grain category, chefs predict quinoa will continue to be strong. “But I think we’ll see other grains like amaranth and farro that will gain in popularity,” Jeffers said.
Madsen likes freekah, a green wheat kernel. “Part of the appeal of quinoa is the health benefits,” he said. “The challenge is how to incorporate those healthier super foods with old favorites.”
At Grove, Wise said fish dishes have been big sellers. “I get the feeling that people are eating a little lighter and that’s something we’ll continue to focus on.”
He said he tries to buy fish and seafood from responsible sources. One of his favorites is Harrietta Hills, a West Michigan fishery. He also looks for less known varieties like cobia, a farmed white fish. “We get it from a company called Open Blue,” Wise said. “The owner scubas with the fish to make sure they are healthy.”
Pass the veggies
Chefs say the abundance of farms in West Michigan is a huge plus. Expect to see more vegan and vegetarian dishes both as sides and as entrees.
And don’t be surprised to see some veggies you’ve never tasted.
“This year I think we’re going to see a broader range of vegetables, things that most people aren’t really accustomed to,” said Chef Abigail Therrien at Terra GR, named 2013 Best New American Restaurant.
Desserts at San Chez Bistro & Café include Tarta de Chocolate con Trufas, a flourless dark chocolate torte served with chocolate ganache, semi-sweet chocolate truffles and raspberry sauce. The after-dinner cocktail is La Bebida de Granos de Café, with Stoli Vanil, Frangelico, Tuaca, Kahlua, espresso and crème de cacao.
Like kohlrabi. “I did a demo at the farmers market last summer, and people kept asking, ‘What is that?’ Even things like beets. People see them and hear about them, but they don’t really know what to do with them.”
Luckily, folks today are open to trying new things.
“Fifteen years ago, San Chez introduced a warm wilted spinach salad on the menu,” said Schneider. “People were too afraid to try it — ‘You’re going to cook this lettuce?’ It’s so funny that today it’s one of our most popular salads.”
Chefs say kale and Brussels sprouts will continue to be popular, but all predicted cauliflower will be the next hot vegetable.
“Romanesco cauliflower is the most beautiful vegetable you’ll ever come across,” said Green. “It’s not a new thing; it’s an old variety. People have rediscovered kale and, hopefully, we’ll see the same enthusiasm for cauliflower.”
Winter months are a challenge, but chefs say they try to stock up on lots of root veggies.
“Our carrots are as good as they’ve ever been,” said Wise. “And white turnips. Charlie Ham (of Ham Family Farm in Allendale) has been on his knees in the snow digging up some amazing veggies.”
At your service
There’s more to a successful restaurant than innovative, locally sourced food.
“I think the biggest trend for us at Grove right now is hospitality,” said Wise. “Food is always a part of that, but our job is to make people feel special when they are out for a night.”
Jill Norris, Grove’s general manager, said it’s all about getting to know the guests.
Leo’s grilled mahi mahi with fresh mango salsa.
“When we take a reservation, we find out if the person has been here before or it’s a first time or a special occasion. That way we can set them up for a great experience when they arrive.”
At Leo’s — 2013 Best Classic American Restaurant — owner Leo Beil says “hospitality is at the cornerstone of all we do and how we think. We’ll do whatever we’re physically capable of doing.”
He’s been known to send a staffer to Martha’s Vineyard to find a wine that someone wants.
“Sometimes people want to sit in our dining room but they want a Big O’s pizza, so we have one brought over,” he said. “And cab service isn’t always great so I’ve been known to run people around town.”
At the JW Marriott, Madsen says technology also plays a role in the way restaurants give good service. “Marriott is developing a lot of initiatives, including one where guests can order limited food items via smart phone and have them ready when they get to the hotel,” he said. “That option may transfer into the restaurant, so people can do some preordering.”
Local restaurants also offer a variety of events, from wine and beer dinners to cooking classes.
At San Chez, the chefs teach everything from mastering knife skills to preparing wild game in a slow cooker. “It’s all about helping people enjoy the culinary arts,” Schneider said. GR