Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mike's Deli Closes in Downtown Flint

I heard the news this morning that Mike’s Deli on Saginaw Street has closed its doors. Mike’s has been a fixture on Saginaw Street for the last seven years, serving good affordable food to their downtown clientele, including the bourgeoning student population who live on and around Saginaw Street.

I’m mad as hell at the closing of Mike’s because it represents a major setback for those students, and others like them, who need a more affordable alternative to Blackstone’s, 501 Grill and the like. I’m not criticizing these places because we need them too. They’re great supporters of the downtown area, they serve great food and drinks, and they obviously cater to people who want to come to downtown Flint. That’s great, but we cannot forget about those who call downtown their home, those who don’t’ want to spend a lot of money every time they go out to eat. With the closing of Mike’s their options just became a lot more limited.

We need to attract as diverse a population of diners as possible in order to sustain and expand the much needed development that’s given new life to the city’s center, to the local businesses, to the colleges and universities, and to the permanent citizens of Flint. After the decades-long smackdown Flint endured from its abusive relationship with General Motors, this hard-luck town has begun to liberate itself, to reinvent itself, to move on and reclaim its identity. The will of the people of Flint to build a better future here, despite the enormous challenges, is impressive. That’s what makes the closing of Mike’s Deli so heartbreaking.

And thank goodness for places like Churchill’s, The Torch, Hoffman’s Deco Deli, the Lunch Studio, and the local coffee shops. The owner’s of these places should be lauded for the work they’ve done to help draw people to the downtown area who loyal serve the thousand or so people who live in the dorms and loft apartments nearby. They offer variety and affordability to a population that is critical to the continued growth of the local economy.

So why am I so mad? One restaurant has closed, but we still have a number of good options. But that depends, I guess, on who you are. If you make a decent living, then the offerings downtown look a lot more appealing than if you’re a struggling college student or a single parent trying to make ends meet or someone trying to get back into the job market. The latter groups far outnumber the former, and perhaps that’s what’s fueling my frustration.

I truly believe the rejuvenation of downtown Flint is happening in the spirit of total inclusion, but the reality on the ground is that the changes aren’t nearly as beneficial to the people whose sheer numbers could prove to be a big shot in the arm to the heroic efforts of the organizations and individuals who’ve gotten us this far. I’m no economist, but it seems logical to me that we need a more balanced approach to rebuilding the infrastructure of downtown that better reflects who and how many people it intends o serve. I’d hate to see students, for example, not have adequate services—food, entertainment, shops, etc.—to make them want to stay, even after they graduate.

I can’t do much about the closing of Mike’s Deli but I can hope that entrepreneurs considering a move to downtown Flint will also carefully consider the wide range of clientele who could help support their businesses. It’s much more hopeful to see businesses open their doors in downtown flint than it is to see them close.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Toad and the Brothel

(a tale based almost entirely on actual events)

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a man with a warped sense of humor, a laptop computer, and way too much time on his hands.

The hero of our story, Sir Writesalot, had to wake up at 5:00 in the morning to catch a flight for the faraway land of Nawlins, where he was to sample, write about, and report back to Queen Stephanie on the local cuisine. Writesalot was only half awake as he drove to the Bishop’s airport to catch his plane. NPR (Nauseously Pretentious Radio) was in the middle of a story about some tree hugger’s effort to save some kind of spotted toad, a story Sir Writesalot had no interest in until he heard the reporter mention something about a brothel.

At that moment, he turned up the volume and leaned in for a closer listen. The property, complete with a full sized, outdoor, clothing optional swimming pool, was owned by a husband and wife team who gave up their funeral home business to run an environmentally friendly whore house. To help with the preservation of this ugly little species (the toads, not the hookers) the brothel owners chose not to put chlorine chemicals in their clothing-optional pool. That way the toads could hop in, have sex, safely lay their eggs, hop out, towel off, and be on their merry way. The brothel even had its own airstrip to shuttle the toads to and from their native Rainforest stomping grounds in Brazil. The cost for passage was steep, however, and few toads were able to afford such a luxury.

Writesalot was intrigued. So intrigued, in fact, that he passed by his exit to the Bishop’s airport and headed straight for the brothel. This would be a much better story to share with the queen, he thought, than simply reporting on what food he ate and where he ate it. Save that for the amateur bloggers, he thought. I’ll bring The Queen a story that’ll really whet her appetite.

And so Sir Writesalot set off to find his story. The plan was this: He’d find a toad willing to talk to him, get a personal perspective on the whole mating-and-egg-laying-in-a-whorehouse-swimming-pool phenomenon, write a charming personal interest story, and maybe he’d spring for lunch in exchange for the information he needed in order to write his piece. (Oh please, I had to get it in there somehow).

As he approached the brothel, he could see people in the distance, hunched over and moving back and forth across the road in front of the property. Were they protestors? Residents of the nursing home across from the brothel? Sir Writesalot was wrong on both guesses, for in reality it was the tree huggers from the NPR story, bent over shooing toads across the road so they didn’t get squashed to death by passing cars. Writesalot, sickened by the possibility that he might flatten the very sources he sought to interview for his story, pulled to the side of the road and parked his car.

The toads were busily hopping to and from the brothel when he arrived. Writesalot did his best to get at least one of them to stop and talk. But the toads were focused on the mission at hand—getting to the clothing-optional, non-chlorinated pool, doing their business and getting back on the road to Brazil. Not one of them slowed down to talk to him. A twin engine Cesna buzzed over head as Writesalot, ready to give up, sat down on a bus stop bench to rethink his plan.

“Why the long face?” asked a deep-throated voice.

Writesalot turned this way and that way but saw nobody. And then he looked down. There on the bench next to him was the biggest, fattest one-legged toad he had ever seen. A deep-throated, spotted, one-legged toad.

“No one will talk to me. I’m writing a story,” Writesalot answered, a little defeated.

“Join the club. These schmucks are like robots. They don’t talk to nobody,” said the toad gruffly.

“Well, what’s your story?” asked Writesalot.

“Me? I got flattened on my way to the pool. ’67 Corvette got my left leg. Sliced it right off. That was two years ago. Been hangin’ around ever since. Can’t afford a plane ticket home. Can’t hop in a straight line with one leg. Can’t catch my own food, so I gotta beg. What I wouldn’t give for a nice hot lunch.”

Writesalot had a problem. The Toad had a problem. Perhaps, Writesalot thought, we could help each other out. He wanted his story in the worst way, and he knew this one-legged beggar was his only chance. He knew the little wretch was starving and would spill his guts for a good meal.

“Say, how ‘bout we make a deal? You dish me some inside information on this bizarre little ritual and I buy you a nice lunch for your troubles. I’ll get what I want, and you’ll get what you want.”

The toad thought about the offer for only a moment. Lunch would be great, but he wanted more. He wanted get out of this miserable place and get back home to his familiar stump in the Rainforest in Brazil And now he began to see a plan emerge. With a crafty Grinch-like smile, he calmly replied.

“Sure. Where ya gonna take me?”

“There’s a place on the other side of town, on the Miller’s road. Telly’s. Hop in and let’s get outta here.”

And so it was. The toad and the writer drove off to Telly’s for their interview lunch. The place was packed by the time they arrived. According to the townsfolk, every day was the same: it was busy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and it wasn’t uncommon to wait ten minutes for a booth. They had not tables. The locals usually went to other restaurants when they couldn’t get a seat at Telly’s. For the toad and the writer the wait was short and soon enough they were seated at a booth by the window.

Their server was friendly and offered them menus and drinks, and in a long single breath she rattled off all of the specials they were serving that day. The toad cringed and the writer blushed when, without thinking, the server announced that one of the specials was a platter of frog legs. The writer knew he needed this one-legged toad to get his story, and without, missing a beat, he sent the server away for a couple of Cokes and began peppering the toad with questions. “How long did it take from Brazil? How long did you mean to stay? Did you travel alone? How did you choose a mate? Was the pool really clothing optional?” And on and on and on, until finally the serve came back ready to take their order.

The Toad had the hot turkey sandwich, the writer had the meatloaf dinner, and they shared a Flint Coney dog which the toad, apparently, had never tried. In deference to the writer, and because it was hard to eat a Coney with webbed hands, the toad let the writer take the bigger half. The writer was pleased at the kindness of the toad and gladly took the bigger half. Little did he know, the scheming toad had something up his sleeve.

To the toad’s delight his first Coney experience was quite good. The sauce had good flavor, good grease, and good seasonings; the bun was soft and warm and the dog itself was hot, fresh, and snappy when bit into. Sir Writesalot declared it to be the best dog in the land, better than any he’d eaten before (it’s actually the frontrunner for best Coney dog in Flint), and within minutes the Coney was gone.

Not long after, their dinners arrived. The toad, devouring his meal in enormous bites, went on and on about how fresh the turkey was and how light and fluffy the mashed potatoes were. The gravy was perfectly thickened and made from scratch, not the powdered stuff that other places just added hot water to. No, this sandwich was perfect in every way. The toad’s glowing review delighted the writer because he knew a full and happy toad would mean lots of material for a really good story. NPR might even offer him a spot on their staff for uncovering such a heart-warming personal interest story.

For his part, the writer loved his meatloaf dinner. It, too, was fresh and made from scratch. The mix of green pepper, onions, and not too much seasoning made for a moist and juicy loaf. Uncomplicated and straightforward, that’s how he liked his meatloaf and that’s how Telly’s served it. The mashed potatoes were not the instant kind you’d expect but mashed from fresh spuds into a sweet and creamy mixture that delighted the writer as much as his chance encounter with his one-legged friend.

After the meal and after the check arrived, the writer reached for his wallet, for he had agreed to buy the toad’s lunch in exchange for the interview. As he pulled the billfold from his pocket it slipped from his hands and fell to the floor beneath the table.

“Let me get it for you,” offered the toad.

“What a nice gesture,” responded the writer.

Little did the writer know that the toad had been waiting all through lunch to make his move, and now the moment had presented itself. While under the table the toad reached into the wallet and stole the writer’s credit card. He emerged with the wallet and handed it back to the writer.

“Why thank you,” said the writer. “How kind of you to help me out.”

The toad, feigning gratitude, thanked the writer for the meal, and the two went their separate ways. The writer hurried back to his office to write his story. As for the toad, well, the toad hitched a ride to the medical store and purchased a prosthetic leg using the unsuspecting writer’s credit card. From there he hopped on all fours, for the first time in two years, and headed straight for the airstrip at the brothel. With a fake leg he felt whole again. And with a one way ticket to Brazil, compliments of Sir Writesalot’s credit card, the future looked bright for the toad.

As for the writer, he got his story but at a terrible cost. He gave up pursuing human interest stories and went back to writing about food, having learned a painful but valuable lesson: Don’t’ jump to conclusions about someone’s character or it could cost you an arm or a leg.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Eating Chicago

I’ve been away on business for most of the last two weeks, but don’t feel bad for me because I drew the lucky straw. I spent time in two of the most culturally and culinarily happening cities in the country: Chicago and New Orleans. As our fair city continues its methodical, intentional transformation from General Motors’ bastard child to a college town with a more diverse economy and a burgeoning food scene, Flint should pay close attention to these two metropolitan gems. (By the way, with more than 33,000 college students in the Flint area—a third of the overall population—the college town moniker is more a reality than a fantasy).


The more interesting of my two trips was the one to Chicago, and instead of driving or flying, I took the Amtrak train. I highly recommend the Flint to Chicago train ride because a) the train leaves from the MTA headquarters right off Dort Highway and I-69, b) round trip tickets average fifty to sixty bucks, and c) the train pulls into Union Station in downtown Chicago, which is close to almost everything. This is without question my favorite Midwestern city. Between the art, the architecture, the music, and the food, Chicago deserves its place as one of America’s great cities.


On my recent trip, I met up with and spent time with my friend Shaunanne, who is one of my favorite peeps on the planet. We share a love for good food (and good wine) and, bless her heart, Shaunanne did a bunch of research ahead of time and found some stunning restaurants. Two in particular are worth noting. The first, where we had dinner on Friday night, is MK on North Franklin. It’s billed as one of the top ten restaurants in Chicago. The prices are steep, but for a high-end restaurant they’re pretty reasonable. And the place isn’t half as pretentious as I expected. Their website is a pretty good sign that they don’t take themselves too seriously. They say,


we believe:
at our core, we're just a mom and pop establishment.
that food is a metaphor for the good things in life.
there's no substitute for live charcoal.
that ingredients are more important than recipes.
in honoring thy farmer.
in sauces and history.
forced formality is for fakers.
our wine list rocks.
if you're not enjoying yourself, neither are we.
that a room full of people dressed for dinner is a thing of beauty.
that visual art makes great foreplay.
in understated elegance and sensual minimalism.
that excellence and consistency are our middle names.
we believe in withstanding the test of time.


How can you go wrong with a philosophy like that? If you’re into Italian and French cooking (I just finished Julia Child’s memoir and now I’m stumbling through French cooking at home), and if you like good wines (the Sonoma Valley Zinfandel is quite good), and If you like stunning atmosphere complete with great art and tasteful, minimalist d├ęcor, then you’re gonna love this place. (Check out some great photos of the food and dining room at www.mkchicago.com).

Our server was the newest member of the staff, and she’s been working at MK for almost three years which, I think, is a pretty strong endorsement of the restaurant. Still, our server, while attentive and polite at first, totally dropped the ball after our entrees were delivered, and we barely saw her for the rest of the stay. I’ve said many times before (geez, I sound like my dad) that if any one of the three standards of a good dining experience isn’t up to par, it could ruin the whole experience. Even after enjoying some pretty great food in a pretty stunning setting, we left with a pretty bad taste in our mouths about the whole evening, thanks to a pretty unprofessional server.

The following night, however, was mostly completely different. The place we chose is called Gilt Bar, and it’s located north of the River on West Kinzie Street. Less expensive and more casual than MK, Gilt is a little slice of foodie heaven. Their website bio says, “You should probably eat here. We have lots of ingredients paired with a bunch of flavors, expertly combined via kitchen magic and a little touch of what we like to call…um, chefery…”

With its low-lit, earth-toned dining room, including a small area adorned with a coffee table and a couple of love seats for a super relaxed dining atmosphere, Gilt was dripping with an unpretentious trendiness. The busy chefs worked their “kitchen magic” in a well choreographed mix of control and chaos, which customers can see through the large opening cut into one end of the dining room. Watching the chefs work with such synergy and focus was a bonus addition to an already electric atmosphere.

The wait staff experience was pretty different than the night before and mostly in a good way but, oddly, none of our servers—at least three staff members took care of us—introduced themselves or offered any introduction of their presence at all. They appeared. They took care of business. And they disappeared. It was a queer approach to customer service, but they were neither intrusive nor un-attentive, and overall I quite liked it.
But the food is why you absolutely have to come here. Gilt isn’t listed as a top ten Chicago, though in my book it certainly should be. The menu was simple, the choices mouthwatering, and the prices astonishingly reasonable (the full menu is on their website at www.giltbarchicago.com). I loved the minimalist approach to the major choices: ON TOAST; SALAD; PASTA; MEAT & SEAFOOD.

The ON TOAST section was the most intriguing and is the section we ordered most of our dinner from. We ordered the Foie gras mousse, served with thick pieces of char-grilled bread that managed to be crispy and soft and warm and sturdy enough to hold the mousse. That’s a hell of a lot to ask from a bread, but the “chefery” at Gilt astounded us even on this level. The foie gras, which is made from the liver of a goose that’s been specially fattened—a practice that’s so controversial, foie gras was banned from restaurants in Chicago until just a year or two ago—was creamy, slightly earthy, and ever so buttery. At one point, I just fell back in my seat and reveled in the taste.

We also ordered the tenderloin steak tartar with slow poached egg yolk, shallots & capers, another knockout selection. The fat level of the steak was just enough to give the meat a smooth, wet texture that, combined with the distinct fresh beef flavor, the fresh cilantro, and the heat of some fresh peppers made this dish every bit as good as the foie gras. We added a pear and candied pecan salad that was accompanied by the best piece of Bleu cheese I’ve ever tasted (it was better than any cheese I’ve eaten from the Flint Farmer’s Market, and those guys set a pretty high bar). This Bleu was as creamy as a good brie with the all of the Bleu cheese flavor you’d expect.

We almost went for the wine list at Gilt but at the last minute decided on their signature IPA. It wasn’t too hoppy, had a good sweet after taste to it, and best of all it was the perfect pairing for our food. Gilt has only been open since February, but the early signs point to a real winner. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and if you go I’d recommend going online for a reservation to make sure you get a table. I’m going back to Chicago in March and Gilt will be the first restaurant on my list.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A PRAYER FOR THE FLINT CONEY

Our Coney whose art is heaven

Koegel be thy name.

Thy steamy bun

Thy sauce be done

Not gross

Like it is in Motown.

Give us this day our daily “One”.

Forgive us the plain dog

As we forgive those who made it before us.

Lead us not into new toppings

But deliver us from all options

For yours is with onion and mustard only

Forever and ever.

Amen.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

In Like Flint

Philip and I have been at it again. We’re working on another big writing project together. Our last collaboration was a full length musical called Howl: The Life of Allen Ginsberg. It was grueling and took several years to write—music and lyrics—but watching it performed on stage got us hooked, and so now we’re giving it another go.

This time, it’s not a musical. It’s not even a play. Well, yes it is a play. It started out as a situation comedy, but the more we fleshed out characters and plots, the more we realized we needed a pilot. That led us to the decision to write a stage play so we could establish the main characters, their relationships, and a beginning to some threads that could be carried into a sitcom. Seeing the pilot on stage, we figured, would give us the chance to see what worked and what didn’t and to work on whatever revisions the piece might need.

The play is called In like Flint. Four of the five main characters feel trapped in their Flint lives and try desperately to get out of town in order to chase their dreams. The problem is that each character has a personality flaw that sabotages their efforts to move on. The problems of each of the characters is offset by the one character who is content with his life in Flint and turns down multiple opportunities to leave the comforts of Flint life for what others would see as much greener pastures.

My favorite main character was created from the inspiration of a dear friend of mine. This particular character is named Helen, and she is working on a local access television program that she hopes will launch her career and shake her out of her miserable existence. The show she’s created is called Helen Haddock’s Hot Dog Cooking Show for Kids. There’s only one problem: She hates kids!

Well, actually she has a second problem. Her dad is a local restaurateur who wants her, eventually, to take over the family business. She’s only concocted the cooking show idea as a way to get out of town, but her dad thinks she’s doing it as training to carry on a family tradition. He doesn’t know that she hates cooking too!

It wasn’t in the original plan when Philip and I started, but our script needs a regular public place where the characters can congregate. It dawned on me that if Helen’s dad owns a restaurant, that could be the meeting place. Like the diner on Seinfeld, or the coffee shop on Friends. After my lunch date with Stephanie last week, we may have found the perfect place: Gillie’s Coney Island on the corner of north Saginaw and Stanley Roads (www.gilliesconeyisland.com).

This place is a character in itself! The building looks like it came from the set of a cheesy Hollywood Western movie. The light paneled exterior is adorned with the skull of a dead steer, a bunch of mining tools, an American flag, and what looks like a drunken cowboy about to jump off the roof.

Wanna eat outside but can’t stand being in the scorching Michigan sun? Then the covered wagon picnic table (which almost blocks the front entrance) is just the spot for you. I imagine this Western theme becoming the inspiration for one of the characters in In Like Flint, perhaps the therapist with anger issues who longs to move out west and tame wild horses. Perhaps.

Gillie’s is a mom and pop operation that opened its doors (sadly, they’re not swinging saloon doors) in 1985. Owners Dave and Cindy Gillie are proud that “both our restaurant and our cuisine have rich histories.” They also have a tag line on their web site that proclaims: Fast Food in a Sit Down restaurant. And in a short, self-testimonial, also on the web site, we learn that their food has “evolved over the years. We now use 100% vegetable shortening to deep fry in and have added items like chicken and salads to the menu.”

The dining room is so busy, I can barely concentrate when we finally get to our booth. Not because there are so many customers but because there is so much crap on the walls, tables, floors, and yes, even on the ceiling, all screaming in unison: “LOOK AT ME!”. The western theme is continued throughout the dining room, but it’s paired awkwardly with an American patriot theme, which makes me feel like I’m in two different time periods at the same time.

But the advertisements strewn about the dining room eclipse all of the dead animal heads and American flags put together. They’re on the table, on the placemats, on the menu, and some of the ceiling tiles have been replaced with two foot by three foot ads that loom ominously overhead. (I’m not sure if this is considered an advertisement, but the whole front page of the menu is dotted with mini photographs of random people.)

I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect set design if I tried.


I’m not sure if we’ll make a running gag of the food in our fictitious In Like Flint diner, but we’d have plenty to work with if we did. The food at Gillies was atrocious, even by Coney Island standards. We made a couple of choices that didn’t totally stink but, overall, the quality of the food was pretty bad. We started out with a rather unusual appetizer, deep fried green pepper rings. When they and their Ranch dressing sidekick arrived, Stephanie and I gave the plate the once-over, shrugged our shoulders, and dug in. They weren’t all that bad. The batter was fresh and thick and the green peppers barely mushy from their vegetable shortening bath.


Our ritual Coney Dog arrived shortly after, and it too was pretty ok. It wasn’t nearly as good as Angelo’s or Tommy Z.’s; in fact, I’ve been disappointed in most of the samplings we’ve had this year. As much hype as I’ve heard about how great the Flint Coney is, I expected more diners to make more of an effort than they have. The Gillie’s Coney Dog is ok, and they also stock their grills with Koegel’s. Our waitress informed us that they use Vienna’s because unlike the regular Koegel’s hotdog, the Vienna “snaps when you bend it because of the extra thick casing.” I did not know that.

The bun, once again, was over steamed and almost rubbery. The sauce had enough flavor for me not to put the whole thing back on the plate and leave it uneaten, but this version had almost no grease in it, which I’m discovering really does contribute to the flavor. With the best sauces, a reddish grease soaks into the bun when you open it up for inspection. Our Gillie’s sauce left only a slight trace of a stain on the bun and it was more tan than reddish. (My Coney vocabulary just keeps expanding, doesn’t it?)

Stephanie’s fish sandwich was flawed but acceptable. I could not say the same for my salmon patty burger and Stephanie’s onion rings. They were both inedible. The onion rings appeared to be the run-of-the-mill frozen variety, somewhat on the order of Burger King’s. What could possibly go wrong then? Well something did because these babies tasted like they’d been dredged in metal. Low quality aluminum, most likely. There was no hint of onion and even less of a hint of batter. If Gillie’s can put out a decent (and fresh) deep fried green pepper ring, then don’t you think they could do the same with their onion rings?

The salmon patty was also an affront to the taste buds. It had a smidgen of fish flavor upfront, but it was quickly overtaken by a similar metallic taste. This one, though, was more like licking the inside of a fifty-five gallon drum. I gave up after just one bite.

Going to Gillie’s was a bittersweet experience for me. As a writer, I appreciate that our visit sparked a creative idea that I plan to use for In Like Flint. Helen Haddock’s Hot Dog Cooking Show for Kids might even tape an episode at Willie’s (I have to change the name so I don’t get sued) In reality, though, I don’t see myself becoming a regular at Gillie’s anytime soon.