Detroit:Where you can Stop and Smell the Flowers and the Stables are Always Greener

I took a March break trip with my daughter and was excited to see that the timing was right allowing me visit the pop-up called Flowers of Vietnam which opens every Sunday night in the  Vernor  Coney Island location in Southwest Detroit.  Starting at 630 pm, after the restaurant closes, the diner is transformed into a makeshift Asian eatery with tables complete with jars of hoison, garlic chili and fish sauce beside a bottle of sriracha, a lantern and a jar of utensils.

I got there around 8 pm and the place was buzzing.  We were seated at a communal table with a quiet couple as a trio of DJs (one who looked like Ashton Kutcher with a porn stash) bobbed their heads up and down to some sort of hip-hop my daughter understood much more than I did.  Our waitress reminded me of the authenticity of Detroit.  Hipsters in this city are naturals; an appropriate mix of angst and oddness that other cities only try and mimic with whatever recipe they read in “Hipsters for Dummies”. She called me darling while at the same time leaving me with my bill to head outside and chain smoke in the rain.

The booze free joint (in fact I think water is your only option) features a small menu with traditional Vietnamese dishes ranging from pho to a fresh mango salad to fried fish as well as a few spins on snack food like caramel chicken wings.

Let’s start with the salad.  The fruit and vegetables were fresh and crisp and I appreciated the ability to use my discretion and add the amount of nuoc mam I wanted and mix the salad myself.  The liberal use of fresh herbs added to both authenticity and flavour of this excellent starter.

flowers salad
Goi Ngo Sen Tom Thjt Salad $14

The noodle bowl,although good, had a flavour profile almost exactly the same as the salad.  That said, the pork was beautifully seasoned and I hoped for a little more of it.  It has the same nuoc mam sauce which they should bottle and sell on the way out. The spring roll hidden within the bowl of noodles and vegetables was a gem and I almost wished I could get an order of them on their own.

flowers noodles
Bun Thjt Nuomg $12

The wings were fried and coated with a sweet caramel sauce (not abnormal in Vietnamese cuisine).  I’m not normally a fan of sweet wing sauces or wings served whole, but there was something about tearing them apart on the side of the  Vernor highway  while listening to Kelso spin vinyl that was the perfect package.  The sauce, when combined with accompanying herbal condiment created a new flavour which I will certainly crave on occasion moving forward.

flowers wings
Caramel Chicken Wings $14

I’m not normally big on Asian desserts but was intrigued by the trio offered at FoV.  In the end, I opted for the Ca Phe Trung and the Yum Yums B cua Rob.  The first was a twist on a Vietnamese coffee which I was hoping had a bit more of the condensed milk (which I consider nectar of the gods) taste than it did.  The second was a dessert which looked like it could be served at a number of fancy places with candles and white table clothes.  The plate as a whole contained a number of South Asian flavours which were great individually but lacked a bit of a togetherness.  The sesame crisps were surreal.

flowers dessert
Yum Yums B cua Rob $8 and Ca Phe Trung $6

Green Dot Stables needs no introduction to any Detroiter.  This iconic eatery is on every “Things to do in the D” list and has been visited by an entourage of the rich and famous. As with Flowers of Vietnam, it is quintessential Detroit.  It’s always busy, non-apologetic, economical (no food on the menu is more that $3) and filled with a mosaic of patrons that reminds you that there is a fantastic diversity in America’s most misunderstood city.

I’ve been a few times and my favorite sliders are the Korean (peanut butter and kimchi) and the Hot Brown (chicken, mornay and bacon). Any of the sides, whether it’s the cucumber, kale, fries or mac and cheese are all well worth a couple of bucks.   The booze is dirt cheap and they carry a small but nice array of craft beer in bottles and on tap.

My Take

It’s no coincidence that Anthony Bourdain ended Season 2 of Parts Unknown with a visit to Detroit. People look at me funny when I suggest that Detroit is among the top 10 dining destinations in the U.S but hear me out.  First, people don’t pretend to be cool in Detroit. Unlike other cities, their “hipsters” are authentic and not the ridiculous rip-offs that exist in every other city. This makes for a unique and real experience as opposed to feeling like you’re an extra in the Broadway version of “Angst”. Second, there is a good diversity of cuisine in the D.  The two restaurants featured in this blog are a testament  to this. Separated by the I-75,  one is a brand new Vietnamese pop-up while the other is a well-established iconic eatery which is as recognized as Vernor’s ginger ale or McClure’s pickles and there are many along  the spectrum in between.  Dearborn serves some of the best middle eastern food in North America. Ferndale is a breakfast haven. The Eastern market has everything from killer pizza to fantastic BBQ and entertainment at Bert’s. Even if you want fine dining, you have a plethora of choice including TV celebrity chef Michael Symon’s Roast or Joe Muer’s seafood haven.   Third, the restaurant scene is economical.  As a rust belt city, Detroit has not lost it’s appreciation of value.  You can still get a $1.50 Coney  dog at many places in town.  Mexicantown almost gives away authentic and delicious food.

In the end, I never just drive through Detroit to get to my destination…I stop every time.  It is the perfect place to stop to get everything from a taco to a shawarma.  You can go to Slow’s BBQ for some ribs or grab a pint of one of the many craft brewhouses that have opened in recent months. Both the patrons and the staff of the city’s eateries are fun, authentic and refreshing so I encourage you to go and smell the flowers and see for yourself that the stables are in fact greener on the other side (of the Detroit river that is).

Flowers of Vietnam Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Green Dot Stables Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

by the power of greystone….i now pronounce you man and wife.

I had an English teacher in grade 9 who I remember well. First, he was a huge Arlo Guthrie fan.  While donning his leather jacket, he would play Alice’s restaurant in class as a reminder of what a generation influenced by Guns n’ Roses and Poison was missing.  At the time I thought he was a bit of a dork but as I matured I gained a greater appreciation for the folk rock of the 1960-1970s.

The reason I mention this was the fact that I remember this same teacher introducing me to the magnificent works of e.e. cummings, the American poet who died a decade before I was born. From what I recall, cummings was known for his descriptive verses which elevated the feeling of an experience to new levels. In particular,  I remember the phrase “puddle wonderful” which describes  a feeling that really can only be compared to hopping  in a post-storm pool of water with an indescribable bliss. He was also known for his preference for lower case letters which may subconsciously be the reason why I sign my emails with a small ‘s’.

Like many things in high school, I doubted I would ever have the need to pull it out my memory vault but it surfaced when I attended a wedding in Napa Valley (I’ll get back to this), specifically at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone. This beautiful property boasts one of the most unique and coveted culinary programs in the United States.  It is also a perfect venue for a wedding and I was lucky enough to be invited to one in May.

The wedding was small and had some stereotypical but also a few surreal elements. There was an Irish priest named Peader who was either really funny, really drunk or both. He was pretty close to a Simpson’s character.  The ceremony was outside so his voice was somewhat muted by a flock of birds who chirped as they watched from the crevices in the old building in the backdrop.   It wasn’t creepy in an Alfred Hitchcock kind of way….more like Cinderella when the animals united to fix her dress in time for the ball.  Instead of the traditional bible readings, one of the passages was “I carry your heart” from the gospel according to ee cummings which brought back high school memories that I found to be puddle-wonderful.

After the ceremony, the festivities  moved inside where one could roam around and look at a variety of cooking utensils and hundreds of corkscrews  on display. It was a foodie zoo (would that be called a foo?).  There was also a stellar market place that was in plain view but guarded by glass walls and  a less than enthusiastic security guard who looked more inclined to drink bourbon with us than make sure we didn’t steal spatulas. While I began down the path of mild intoxication we were treated to a few starters including a delicate scallop which swam in a delicious and spicy puree and a mini bulgogi soft taco which didn’t disappoint. There was also a duck empanada (not pictured) which rounded out the delicious and diverse hors d’oeuvres.

Growing up, in addition to learning about the literary merits of American poets, I was exposed to many  Northern Ontario weddings which involved rubber chicken dinners and cash bars.  The closest thing to culinary innovation was half a dozen Parisian potatoes to complement the prime rib and green beans. Move the venue from Sudbury to the Napa Valley and make the wedding couple a pair of urban foodies instead of a blue collar uncle on his third marriage and watch the sparks fly.  In this case, the food was presented in four food stations which were chosen based on the ethnicity and preferences of the bride and groom.  There were French, North African, Filipino and Korean posts.  My objective was to try a little of everything. The first station featured a salmon en croute but with a twist; the addition of black cod (since it is the bride’s favorite fish) served with an herbaceous salsa verde. There was also an arugula and endive salad.  I love black cod and will be first to admit it would be tough for it to hold up in both taste and texture in a en croute preparation but it was saved by the salmon.  The salsa verde was brilliantly fresh and  a perfect condiment for the delicate cod. The addition of the bitter greens was a smart contrast against the sweet whitefish.

The French Station
The French Station

The North African station featured spiced game hen with a tajine of quinoa and spring vegetables along with a dollop of preserved lemon and olive tapenade. Personally, the hen was my favorite dish of the night.  It was moist and  bursting with flavour.  The quinoa let the hen shine but didn’t disappoint on it’s own. I love preserved lemon and I loathe olives, so I was curious to try the tapenade.  The olives won but that’s not to say that it wasn’t a smart combination for those that enjoy the nasty little fruit.

The North African Station
The North African Station

The focus of the Filipino section was suckling pig which was complemented with truffled mac and cheese and a chilled spinach salad and pickled vegetables. There was also a pineapple mayo and some fish sauce to add some sweet and salt respectively.  The joke at our part of the table was whether the truffled pasta was authentically Filipino or a creative interpretation orchestrated by the groom.  The pork by itself was a little underseasoned but the diverse flavours which surrounded it were more than enough to compensate.  I thought the spinach salad and pickled veggies were brilliant.

The Filipino Station
The Filipino Station

The final stop was Korean which featured short ribs as the headliner.  I was intrigued by the loosely defined “risotto” which was a porridge of multiple types of rice along with barley. The station was rounded out with a sugar snap and sprout salad and kimchee as a traditional condiment.  The ribs were a bit flimsy but well seasoned.  I am typically not a risotto fan but I enjoyed its complexity and mouthfeel.  The salad was fresh but I would have loved a little more crunch from a few more snap peas.

The Korean Station
The Korean Station

Each station was paired with a California wine which included a Charles Krug Sauv Blanc at the French station, the Morgan 12 Clones Pinot Noir for the North African offerings, the Caymus Conundrum for the Filipino food and the Ravenswood Vinters Blend Zinfandel partnered the Korean fare.  I thought the choices were quite complimentary. I’m still a little naive when it comes to all the elements of the marriage between wine and food but I could appreciate these pairings. I had tried the Caymus in the past paired with pasta and was excited to see it on the list.  As for the Ravenswood, I liked it so much I sought out and purchased a bottle when I got back to Ontario.

Dessert (or mignardise) followed the choose your own adventure theme and offered a variety of trendy confections including macarons, eclairs, truffles, creme brulee and chocolate covered strawberries which hit the spot in between the IPAs and the 90’s pop blaring across the dance floor.  The wedding cake was a stunning croquembouche.

Croquembouche Wedding Cake
Croquembouche Wedding Cake

My Take

I was quite keen to attend this wedding in Napa Valley even if it meant a cross continent flight and I wasn’t left disappointed.  Beautiful scenery, great food and a good group of people made for a fun weekend.  I think this is a good blueprint for weddings whether the couple of honour are a pair of foodies or not.  A short ceremony infusing a stereotypical Irish priest, the infusion of the works of an modern American poet in addition to the typical biblical stuff and visually stunning surroundings was a great trifecta.  As for the reception, the wide variety of sentimental and meaningful food choices was brilliant.  The idea of wine pairings replacing the typical chardonnay and cab sav house wines at the table elevated the experience even more.  I tip my hat to the CIA Greystone  for great execution of a rather complicated meal.  Most importantly, I would like to congratulate the bride and groom and wish them  all the success  in their future endeavors and I selfishly encourage them to consider revisiting this concept again in the future.

In sum, I’ll use the same Virginia Woolf quote that was scripted on the back of the wedding program; “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”.  I couldn’t agree more.

Ten Predicted Food Trends for 2015

As usual, I try to predict the wacky world of food trends.  It’s like a horoscope…I get a few right and a few wrong every year but it’s fun nonetheless.  I think there will be a trend toward more interactive dining experiences. From a food perspective, I think extreme tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami) will highlight menus: Here’s what we can expect in 2015:

Tableside Service

Dim sum service doesn’t have to be limited to weekends.  Places like State Bird Provisions in San Francisco and Ma Peche in New York have made tableside service the norm.  A little closer to home, Buca Yorkvile carves branzino crudo while you watch.  Watch this trend to explode in 2015 as diners demand a more interactive dining experience and restaurants see the opportunity for a sweet price mark-up.

I’m a Little Bitter

Look for greens like hickory, endive, dandelion and maybe even radicchio to grace salad plates.  The strong bitterness and varying colours and shapes will be like playing lego for the palates of foodies everywhere. Even better, it might come with a housemade honey/maple vinaigrette for a great contrast.

Getting in the Game

Bison, venison and maybe even elk will compete with beef on menus in 2015.  The strong, gamy flavours will be more in demand than the 86 ounce steaks that graced menus in 2014.  Also, look for rabbit to hop onto menus as a substitute for chicken or pork.

Duck Dynasty

Half the hipsters I see look like these lovable hillbillies, so why not eat the damn stuff too.  I’m surprised duck hasn’t been deemed the other “red meat”.  Although it has never declined that much in popularity, its unique flavour and versatile use makes it a strong candidate to soar up the ranks of fowl in 2015.

Pssst…achios

It’s no secret that the pistachio has been the most aggressive ad campaign to come of the Golden State since the California raisins. Once nothing more than a snack food which left red dye all over your mouth and fingers,  the pistachio’s recent endorsement by the witty, satirical, side-part, spectacle wearing Stephen Colbert coupled with the fact they can used in everything from salads to desserts might result in “pistachio is the new walnut”  t-shirts popping up everywhere.

Root, Root, Root for the home team.

Dainty vegetables won’t be able to withstand the assault of extreme tastes of 2015. Potatoes provide a blank canvas for all sorts of flavours. The sweetness of  beets and carrots amidst bitter and spice should be a great compliment. Foodie favorites like sunchokes and salsify should round out a good year for the root.

Squash the competition

The squash is longer reserved for soup. This local fall favorite is emerging as a player across the board.  It’s a great base for vegetarian dishes and pairs nicely with a number of spices including clove, nutmeg and even sage, The regional production should appease the locavores and the diversity of the gourds available make them ideal for salads and even desserts.   

 Korean- More popular than “The Interview”

Although Korean is already enjoying popularity in the GTA, I think there’s more to come.  Twists on bibimbap and hot pots will become options on fusion menus while hole in the wall Korean joints may be chosen over a sushi bar or ramen house for a quick and inexpensive lunch.  Plus, your playstation shouldn’t  crash over a little bulgogi.

Micro Booze

The popularity of 40 Creek whisky within what was once seen as an impenetrable rye market plus emerging players like Gibson’s in the vodka and gin world make the small batch production of potent potables is as lucrative as  micro brews.  Bourbon enthusiasts will gravitate toward micro booze whether in a clever cocktail or even on tap.  Look for tasting flights of infused shots of gins, vodkas and vermouths to wiggle their ways onto bar menus everywhere.

The Dumpling and Pancake: More than a way to describe your ass

The use of either a dumpling or a pancake as a canvas  has limitless possibilities. To date, dim sum and gyoza have been all the rage.  In 2014, we saw the emergence of savory pancakes such as latkes.  Look for both to explode in 2015.  From perogies to beghrir, the possibilities are endless. So will the choices on menus.

My Take

2015 will be a year filled with intense flavours highlighted by extreme taste profiles.  Much of the sweet may in fact come from fruits and vegetables including beets, carrots and squash.  Bitter will come from a resurgence of fragrant leafy greens  and infused alcohols.  Strong flavoured proteins such as game meat and duck will be needed to compliment these extreme tastes. Dumplings and pancakes will provide an ideal medium for many trendy tastes.  Pistachio is the new walnut.  Korean will surpass sushi and ramen as the preferred Asian provision of foodie nation. Regardless of the food, look for more options to be served tableside or in some other type of extravagant fashion. So, bring me a duck pancake atop of bed of mixed greens served under a cloche with a shot of vermouth and a pistachio cannoli pronto!

Ap Gu Jung and Its Appreciation of Non-Korean Gluttons

Sometimes when I’m out of town I put a day’s worth of effort into carefully orchestrating a dining schedule. A combination of urbanspoon, yelp, the opinion of other bloggers and sometimes Guy Fieri drive my decisions, especially when time is a factor.  Other times, however, I take a walk and see what meets my fancy.  I was staying at the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver and decided to take a walk down Robson with a colleague to see what I could devour on a break between my meeting and the planned rubber chicken dinner later in the evening. This part of Robson is dotted with a number of Asian eateries including Korean, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Japanese.   Based on the cozy decor and gluten-free choices (NB-not me), we sat down at Ap Ju Jung.  Despite the fact it was early in the evening. it was already half full. On top of that, I was the only Caucasian in the house so I was confident in this random pick.

After ordering, we were treated to a bowl of sweet potato soup which had a thin but smooth texture and a nice glisten.   It tasted a bit like baby food (although not unpleasant)  and erred on the side of sweet and was in stark contrast to the spicy dishes to come.

Sweet Potato Soup
Sweet Potato Soup

 

Next, we were both offered a tray of  banchan which consisted of seaweed salad, kimchi and what I believe was a sweet boiled potato. Whether it was our peckish nature or the deliciousness of the dishes, we devoured all three with relative ease  (in fact my dinner date  is well known for destroying a plate calamari on a good day so we can add seaweed salad to the list).  This resulted in a  second round of banchan which I found odd since everybody else around us shared one and didn’t get a second let alone a third.  Perhaps they sensed our grateful gluttony.

Banden- Seaweed Salad, Potatoes and Kimchi
Banden- Seaweed Salad, Potatoes and Kimchi

Shortly after, my homemade dumplings arrived dim su.  The dumpling itself was quite delicate and was stuffed with a tasty pork and chive mixture.  It was a great balance between dough and filling  The coarse filling had a great texture and wasn’t dry or watery.  I had no problem putting the quartet  away.

Homemade Dumplings $7.95
Homemade Dumplings $7.95

I also ordered kimchi stew with tuna.  I can’t complain about the lack of authenticity but it was a humble reminder that kimchi can be overwhelming when it’s the mainstay of the dish. Sour and spicy along with the odd bit of sweet tuna collided on the tongue resulting a pleasant train wreck of flavours. Due to the intensity of the kimchi, it was difficult to finish the whole bowl.

Tuna Kimchi Stew $9.95
Tuna Kimchi Stew $9.95

Not surprisingly, the calamari queen (isn’t that a Billy Ocean song)  ordered spicy squid with rice.  The first bite of squid I had was tough and rubbery but it must have been an anomaly because the rest was spot on.  There was good balance between protein and vegetable (mainly green beans and onions which  both kept their crunch) and the spiciness was aggressive but within the spectrum of a wandering Caucasian.

Spicy Squid and Rice $9.95
Spicy Squid and Rice $9.95

My Take

With the multitude of restaurants in Vancouver, it is easy to over think  each and every dining possibility. Sometimes I enjoy exploring neighbourhoods just to hit a random place along the way.  This was the case with Ap Gu Jung.  Offering an array of Korean cuisine in a clean and cozy environment, the food and service were quite good.  The gifts of soup and banchan were delicious and most appreciated.  The price points of the other dishes were quite acceptable.  Since we were there early, I can’t comment  on the night scene ( I noticed a set of drums on the second floor overlooking the main area), but at 530 pm you could have a conversation even with the funky music playing in the background. In the end, Ap Gu Jung’s gracious experience was much more Ban Ki-moon than Kim Jong-un.

 

Ap Gu Jung Korean on Urbanspoon