Monday, 30 July 2018 15:27

Sip, Savor, Sample: A firsthand preview of Restaurant Week 2018

Written by  Revue Staff
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Linear's Beet Gnocchi Linear's Beet Gnocchi COURTESY PHOTOS

Now in its ninth year, Restaurant Week Grand Rapids has more than 60 restaurants participating in the 12-day event, running 8-19. Each eatery creates a menu specifically intended to branch out and create something new while staying true to its core concept. It’s a chance for newcomers to try new restaurants and regulars to try new dishes, and it’s happening at nearly every restaurant in the Greater Grand Rapids area.

We decided to do a little “investigative journalism” and hit the streets to see what this year’s week has to offer, even if it meant getting our fingers, mouths and bibs a little dirty. We know, we know; we’re brave. But we do it all for you. Just don’t let our hard work be in vain — get on out and try something new yourself.

Bistro Bella Vita

by Josh Veal

Bistro Bella Vita is now old enough to drink from its own bar, entering its 21st year in Grand Rapids with no signs of slowing down.

Despite food culture changing wildly in recent years (Do y’all remember the restaurant scene here 10 years ago? No? Me neither), the modern French and Italian restaurant has stayed relevant by keeping it fresh, flexible and creative.

The restaurant industry is notorious for its turnover, yet Head Chef Aaron Van Timmeren has been in the kitchen since 2001, a true testament to Bistro’s staying power. He said staff tends to stick around because of the autonomy they're afforded, as well as the restaurant’s high expectations, which create a culture of community, creativity and evolution.

As for the food, it’s all as fresh as humanly possible, with fish flown straight from Hawaii and local short ribs cut to order. This naturally extends to the Restaurant Week menu, which Van Timmeren sees as a chance to show off Bistro’s capabilities without trying to overdress or put people off. For dinner, Bistro is going with a three-course menu for $35, and I was lucky enough to try two of the many options.

Chef Van Timmeren started me off with a Tuna Carpaccio, the titular fish served raw and thin over a cuquillo olive caramel and topped by a caper-herb salad. Being a bit basic myself, I’m used to my raw fish wrapped up in rice with cream cheese and cucumber — so to enter the world of Italian hor d’oeuvres was exciting.

The olive caramel was as rich and thick as they come, almost reminiscent to me of a mole sauce without the heat. It tasted deep, solid and earthy, acting as the perfect background for the star of the dish. If the mild, unpretentious tuna is the viola of the dish, this sauce is the cello, providing a fuller sound and worthy accompaniment. Meanwhile, the caper-herb salad would be the violin, lifting the dish with an herbal lightness and a tangy orange sauce that provided the proper acidity to cut through the rest and cleanse your palate with every bite.

Then we moved on to the Sockeye Salmon, which features a very different fish in a very different way. This Restaurant Week menu is highly seasonal, so the kohlrabi-cabbage salad and spicy potato was sadly unavailable. However, the salmon was served on a bed of expertly roasted broccoli instead, along with a light, creamy sauce that I was not sad at all to have binding my dish together.

The salmon itself, of course, was cooked without fault. Its scales glistened in the afternoon sun and crunched in my afternoon mouth, providing the perfect crispiness to the moist, tender meat. It was rich and buttery but no means overpowering, as salmon can so often be. And then there’s the sea fennel aioli, a beautiful verdant sauce that is beyond belief. When paired with the fish, you get an ocean explosion in every bite.

By the time my two plates were empty — and I mean empty — I only had one wish, to cap off the meal with a Honey Savarin, a cake with poached peach, goat cheese ice cream, almond and basil. But alas, it was not meant to be. I guess I’ll just have to return for Restaurant Week.

Divani

by Kelly Brown

If your answer to “Have you ever been to Divani” is something like “Oh, that wine bar next to HopCat?” or just straight up “No,” then you’re missing out on one of the coolest establishments in West Michigan.

A classic-style restaurant with comfortable lounge seating (and music), Divani is a favorite among local chefs and restaurateurs. Restaurant Week is the perfect time to check out this beloved, sometimes “secret,” place in Grand Rapids.

Owner Molly Kopen purchased Divani and set about to transform the wine bar into an actual restaurant with a fully developed menu and kitchen.

“I wanted to create a new atmosphere that was sexy and lounge-like without being intimidating,” Kopen said. “Divani is a place where you can have an actual conversation over your meal. And we’re serving food that you recognize.”

Consider the Deconstructed Beef Wellington on the Restaurant Week menu. Swimming in a beautiful bed of red wine demi-glace, the Beef Wellington is perfectly paired with a light, earthy mushroom pastry and fresh, snappy green beans.

If you have your choice of table, the window seats are a great spot to people-watch while you enjoy a dinner over romantic candlelight.

“We have a lot of first dates here,” Kopen said. “It’s our service that sets us apart from other restaurants in the area. We are a staff of 11 and every server is cross-trained as a bartender.”

The cocktail menu is a collection of drinks crafted by the entire team.

If you’re looking to try something different, the Thai Curry Stir Fry on the Restaurant Week menu is a solid option. Wonderfully crisp and tender vegetables are paired in a slightly sweet (and equally spicy) coconut sauce. Gluten-free rice noodles make this dish great for anyone with food allergies.

Divani has the feel of a restaurant any chef would love. When you enter, the staff greets you like they’ve known you for years. They get to know and understand your tastes and curate your dining experience based on your preferences. Divani offers a special kind of service, and they’ll serve it up with a perfect cocktail and delicious meal too.

MeXo

by Nick Macksood

MeXo is one of the latest additions to downtown Grand Rapids’ dining scene, Chef Oscar Morena bringing with him not merely the diverse tastes of Mesoamerican cuisine, but its history, tradition and memories in a refined space that, honestly, GR has been lacking.

MeXo’s focus is the regional ingredients of Mexico, as they were before Spanish colonization and influence. It takes intense care and a lot of work to prepare ingredients in the traditional way that Chef Oscar grew up with in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

It’s a more impressive process than we have room to describe here, but rest assured, MeXo’s Restaurant Week menu will be no less ambitious than what you would find any other day of the week. The lunch special: the Empanadas Mexicana and Traditional Tamales. At $15, this packs as much creativity as you could possibly muster into corn, pork, peppers and salsa.

The empanadas, featuring MeXo’s own chorizo verde blend and corn pastry, are dynamic — the dough nearly sweet and light enough to steal the show from the chorizo. The tamales, both chicken and poblano rajas, are a sweet and smoky revelation of the senses, while the cilantro rice and nopal salad are a cool complement to what is a sensational lunch.

But truly, it is the imagination of Chef Oscar’s dinner offering that deserves your reservation. A four-course symphony of sea and land starts with the Yucatan ceviche. Red snapper is mixed with a manzano chile purée not as bracingly acidic as a citrus-based ceviche. The snapper is beautifully light and spooned onto a blue corn tostada dressed with finely diced sweet potato and yucca for a very earthy, humble version of a fine dish.

Next came the Puebla pork chalupas: amazing ancho-braised pork atop tiny chalupas, light and airy, with salsa cruda and salsa morita. These are simple, in the style of street food. The surprise here is how each salsa takes a different smoky, spicy, herbaceous turn.

But the Tampiquena is, for lack of a better phrase, a banger. A tender marinated strip of sirloin grilled and served alongside a red chile and cheese enchilada, poblano rajas con crema and a delicate little flower of guac and chips, honestly stunned me as to how I should approach it.

“The best way is to mix the flavors together: the corn and the rajas, the enchiladas and the steak ... or wrap everything into a tortilla,” Chef Oscar said. It’s all very good no matter what way you split it up.

And as if you couldn’t be surprised any more at what some very familiar ingredients are able to taste like, the Chef’s dessert course features coconut and prickly pear Mexican gels, each dotted with a splash of eggnog. It’s a graciously light way to end the dinner, after the tight-wire balance of smoke and spice, of cream and crunch; your previous ideas of Mexican food slashed to rajas.

Linear

by Jack Raymond

In its current state, the Grand River is pretty much just window dressing. You can wade in to try to catch a fish but you’ll probably end up with a sea lamprey attached to your calf instead.

That said, plans are underway to restore the city’s namesake river into something more, well, “Grand,” and Linear was one of the first with the foresight to scoop up a spot with a view.

Chef and co-owner Chris Weimer spent years collecting awards at Vivant for his take on Belgian cuisine, but now he’s decided to pare back, shifting toward smaller, healthier choices — a reasonable rubber-banding after busting out piles of duck nachos en masse. For restaurant week, Linear will offer a five-course tasting menu at a bargain-bin $35 with optional $15 beverage pairing — the Long Road Aquavit Negroni worth the price of admission alone. 

Chef Weimer and I parsed through the courses a little out of sequence, but that didn’t distract from the tastiness. Starting at course four, I ate the wagyu flank steak. A drippy medium-rare, the morsels seemed fit for a tiger’s last meal on death row. And yet it was a humble carrot that truly wowed me. Lightly grilled and seasoned with a pinch of S&P, it tasted like the first vegetable ever pulled from the earth. This carrot, Crayola orange with marvelous crunch, reinforces Weimer’s ideology: a chef should let his best ingredients speak for themselves.

Rewind and we have course two, the beet salad. To those who grew up in fear of beets, a fresh one tastes and looks nothing like those crinkle-cut pucks you’d see vacuum-sealed in jars. Presented in three forms — red, golden and candied — the dish highlights the vegetable’s versatility. The golden are bright and tangy while the red are more neutral and earthy. Elsewhere on the plate, cubes of ashed goat cheese provided a rich counterpoint to the focal beet.

Next, the beet gnocchi. Yes, more beets. Get used to it. They grow all over the place and they’re good for you. Hidden beneath a squid-ink tuile, these little bites had a Tempurpedic (in a good way) squish. If Weimer hadn’t revealed the secret ingredient, I wouldn’t have guessed that what I tried was a bunch of beets in disguise.

Other selections I missed include Steelhead Salmon, Farro Risotto, Chocolate Mousse and yeah, I’m salivating too, take me back already. Linear is clearly set up for success.

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