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

Review:Toronto:Cabbagetown:Kingyo Izakaya

Kingyo is like a vacation hotspot I never seem to get to.  I see pictures of happy people eating pretty food without a care in the world plastered all over twitter.  At the same time, I’m cordially invited to the join the party and indulge in the daily specials with the fun employees.  I never seem to make it however. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in town on business by myself and know I wouldn’t scratch the surface of the menu or I just didn’t want to head east all the way  to Cabbagetown.

There is a time, however, when you have to ignore the temptation to choose another destination and just book the trip. So I picked up the phone and made a reservation for a friend and I.   I announced my intention on twitter and received a resounding Yay! in return. All was set. I even  pondered taking an Advil in anticipation of a noise level similar that of Guu or other Izakayas across town.

I haven’t walked much past Jarvis for a while.  In fact, I think the last time I strolled down Parliament was when I used to carry groceries back from No Frills while living at Bloor and Jarvis in 1997. I’m not sure much has changed since then…except Kingyo of course. Upon arrival, we swung open the door and entered the oasis, a Japanese eatery carved out of an old brick building.   It was buzzing but not overly loud with the main noise coming from a large birthday party.  We were offered a choice of a table or the sushi counter facing the kitchen.  We chose the latter and our choice was sung out in glee by the waitstaff. A pleasant woman arrived quickly and produced a business card, introducing herself as Akiho.  I guess you could call her our travel agent for the evening.

Here are a couple of things to note about Izakayas:

1.  The menus are enormous.  There’s tofu, seafood, pork, beef, chicken, shellfish,  spicy, salty, sour, rice, noodles, raw, cooked or raw and cooked. It’s like trying to choose between puffin watching, bike riding or a wine tour.

2.  In many cases, you have to trust the waitstaff.  That said, there will probably be one thing you get that you didn’t order.  Call it fate…just smile, nod and eat it. It’s sort of like a foreign  tour guide…you don’t always understand what they say, but in the end it’s usually an enjoyable experience.

3.  Don’t be alarmed by excessive happiness or singing.  You are not on Just for Laughs, in a broadway musical or expected to join a flash mob to Styx’s Mr. Roboto. It’s part of the experience…like salsa dancing on the deck of a cruise ship.

So, after examining the menu like we were studying for an SAT, the ordering began…

I love yuzu and a good gin and tonic.  The three together were an automatic choice for a starting cocktail.  It was presented without bells and whistles like umbrellas or lotus flowers.  I sucked it back pretty quick, a testament  to a good drink. Not a bad price either.

Kingyo Gin and Tonic $8
Kingyo Gin and Tonic $8

The first dish was tako wasabi, It was served beautifully on a stone plate with seaweed paper and a wooden well that Tinkerbell makes wishes in.  If you don’t like wasabi, don’t order this.  I’m not sure if the request for half cooked and half raw octopus was heard because it seemed all  raw but it didn’t matter.  It was a delicious dish.

Tako Wasabi $4.20
Tako Wasabi $4.20

I can’t turn down pickles…or pickels as it was spelled on the menu.  Regardless, the pickles were presented nicely. A cute trio of onion, daikon radish and squash were presented in three distinct ways. Although each may not appeal to everybody, it was like a buffet in which at least one would appease any palate.

Tsukemono Pickels Assortment $6.80
Tsukemono Pickels Assortment $6.80

Since there were only two of us, the 3 kind assortment of sashimi made the most sense.  I have seen the phenomenal presentation of the sashimi on other food reviews, so I was looking forward to a little visual magic.  The plain, white bowl was a bit disappointing (it was like seeing a great hotel on their website only to find the real room a little drab).  Maybe it was because I cheaped out and only ordered the three kind as apposed to 5 or 7.  Although pricy, the sashimi, was delicious. a mix of delicacies stretching the pacific from BC to Hawaii to Japan.

Sashimi- 3 Kind Assortment 25.00
Sashimi- 3 Kind Assortment
25.00

Next was the red tuna & black tiger prawn avocado tartar.  It tasted exactly how it sounded.  The sweet house sauce was a great touch, adding an unorthodox dimension to a normally rich and buttery dish.  There was a substantial amount of tartar for the 4 garlic crisps..maybe a few rice crackers or other mediums of transfer would have been a practical touch.

Red tuna & Black tiger prawn avocado tartar $10.80
Red tuna & Black tiger prawn avocado tartar $10.80

When it came to the meat,  I was intrigued by the stone grilled beef tongue because it required me to cook it myself.  Served with lemon, a hot sauce and and a savory oil, it requires you to slap some raw tongue on a hot stone and listen to the sizzle. The whole cooking process took less than 30 seconds (see below for my simple three step instructional).  It was fun and delicious and each of the condiments added a contrasting sensory dimension to the salty meat.

Stone Grilled Beef Tongue $10.20
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue $10.20- Step 1
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Part 2
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Part 2
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Done!
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Part 3

For those who like sizzle but not a little tongue, the stone bowl seafood sea urchin don is a smart choice. served with an array of seafood including prawn, squid, scallop and salmon roe.  After presenting the attractive dish, the waitress mixed it for us as it sizzled against the bowl. The suggestion was to let it sit for a while so the rice could caramelize a bit.  In the end, it’s a decent dish with a variety of texture and tastes, although with the ingredients, I expected a bit more of a pop.

Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don $13.80
Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don $13.80
Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don- Mixed
Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don- Mixed

By this time I needed another drink so I ordered the signature gold fish cocktail. I enjoyed it…refreshing with a bit of a kick.  As with the yuzu gin and tonic, I do appreciate $8 cocktails in this world of the numerous double digit offerings by other establishments.

Goldfish Cocktail $8
Goldfish Cocktail $8

The last dish was the Spicy Chopped Tuna Mango Roll.  It’s inevitable that I order a spicy tuna roll every time I visit a place that offers sushi.  Based on the rest of the menu, I wasn’t surprised to see that these rolls had a twist.  The spice was moderate and tuna was roughly chopped to protect it’s delicate texture and taste, The tobiko was a appropriate, salty touch.   The mango was fresh, bright and sweet but a bit overwhelming against the rest of the roll.

Spicy Chopped Tuna Mango Roll $9.80
Spicy Chopped Tuna Mango Roll $9.80

Japanese restaurants and good dessert can rarely be mentioned  in the same sentence. but not all offer “famous” almond tofu.  Touched with a cap of jasmine syrup and a belt of  tart berry sauce, it had a silky texture and great flavour balance. The key was digging down to the bottom to experience all the complementing flavours in one bite.

2 Color Almond Tofu $5.80
2 Color Almond Tofu $5.80

The final touch was a couple of frozen grapes hidden among yellow flowers in a tiny vase.  Perhaps picked by Tinkerbell or Pollyanna, they were a final reminder of the attention to detail and artistic flare that Kingyo prides themselves on.

Thank you grapes
Thank you grapes

My Take

The izakaya movement has hit Toronto, leading to a plethora of interpretations.  Some have taken the boisterous, karaoke route and others have chosen to go down the route of creating dishes that look straight from travel brochures.  Kingyo opted for the latter and attempted to create an oasis in an otherwise rustic and some would argue rundown and eccentric part of Toronto. Akiho brought us on a tour of wishing wells, hot rocks and bright flowers (although she did disappear for a bit).    In a world of all you can eat sushi menus similar to  all inclusive vacations, Kingyo offers a unique experience filled with good times, fun scenery and good food with enough variety to please meat eaters, pescatarians, vegans and the gluten intolerant alike. Plus, if you’re lucky, you may get serenaded by the wait/kitchen staff or actually spot a fairy hiding behind a mushroom or casting magic wishes in a tiny wooden well.

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