Sunday, November 6, 2011

Zingerman's Roadhouse

Photo courtesy of The Awesome Mitten
It's hard to wrap a label around Zingerman's Roadhouse. The extensive bourbon list and separate menu for fresh oysters makes me want to describe it as classy or high end; the prices certainly reflect this description. The vintage camper permanently parked outside, the oyster shells used as a landscape medium and the tacky yet whimsical display of salt and pepper shakers displayed in cases throughout the establishment authenticate it as a true 'roadhouse.' And then there is the actual menu; corn dogs, hamburgers, five different choices of mac and cheese, pot likker stew, something called Hill Billy Charcuterie Garnie and an exclusive collection of artisan cheeses from across the U.S. on a display board as an appetizer, just to name a few. It's like a dream where around every corner is something unexpected, previously not related to the latter and yet so comforting and natural.
Photo courtesy of RubyJi

The waitstaff was also a part of this dream; friendly, like someone you were meant to be best friends with and just hadn't had the opportunity to hang out yet. She knew everything without being arrogant about this great skill almost as if she attended some sort of grad school specializing in the Zingerman's menu that focuses on where it's food is sourced from, what oysters have the most brine and who makes each beer on the drink list with the exact description of floral hints and honey top notes that are left on the palate after each sip and continue to dance in your mouth. I was overwhelmed with options, I wanted it all.

To drink I chose the New Holland Mad Hatter IPA, one of many Michigan craft brewed choices presented on the drink menu. And then I had to take each step one at a time; choosing an appetizer, oysters, meal and dessert seemed too overwhelming to happen all at once. I sipped the Mad Hatter and decided to tackle the oyster menu: I recall approximately 6 different options for freshly flown in oysters either raw or smoked with barbeque sauce. I haven't had raw oysters in years, mostly because its hard to find good ones around Michigan. I had no idea how to pronounce some of the options that were on the menu and I recall myself saying something like (as I'm pointing to the choice) "this one sounds delectable" so as not to sound incompetent. I ordered the same kind of oyster barbequed and raw just to sample the difference. Barbequed wasn't really my thing, it really took away from what I always enjoyed most about oysters; the freshness of the salt water brine that lingers in your mouth. The raw version was what I audibly described as perfection. Serious perfection. It was topped with home made horseradish sauce just sharp enough to catch your attention but not take away from the oyster itself. The brine was refreshing, cool and sweet like a holiday in the Hamptons.  I wanted to just sit there and enjoy the flavor in my mouth for hours on end. I wish had ordered more than one. Dammit why did I only order one. My husband ordered the Sea Island Sweet Potato Fries they were huge, breaded perfectly and quite addicting. 
Oysters served on ice
Photo courtesy of Gandhu & Sarah

On to the main course. It was a toss up between the Creole Pot Likker Fish Stew and the Lamb Chops. What was so impressive about the lamb chops was the little clover next to it on the menu, this clover indicated this was a lamb purchased at the local Chelsea 4-H fair and actually had the name of the person who raised and sold this lamb right in the menu. There is nothing I like more than seeing local food in a menu and owners who take pride in supporting their community, though it did take me a second to get over the fact that I might be eating little Johnny's pet lamb. I got over it - I chose the lamb chops and I chose them rare. I chose rare because no one ever has the balls to bring out food that is actually rare and it is usually served toward the end of medium rare; Zingerman's apparently has balls, because it was rare. Beautifully red in the center with great texture and surprisingly little as far as spice and salts go. For sides I chose bacon braised greens and topped them with their own pepper soaked vinegar, Zingerman's farm squash blend and a side of mushroom mac and cheese. Of the sides the bacon braised greens were my favorite, with the vinegar they were just the right combination of smokey, sweet, bitter and hot. My husband ordered Chef Alex's Bearded BBQ Plate which included slow pit-smoked Memphis-style ribs, BBQ Beef with Alex's Red Rage Tomato BBQ sauce, South Carolina pulled pork and pit-smoked chicken with green tomato BBQ. Served with mashed local potatoes and bacon-braised greens. A real mans dream come true - this amount of smoked meats on one plate should require a red checked flannel shirt and inappropriately bulky leather boots with no hint of shine to them ever. Neither of the plates were fancy, and the sweet potato fries were actually brought out in a basket like some sort of roadside dive would offer. The portions were sizable and homemade bread was also brought to the table. We were more than stuffed by the time it was all over. I was so sad to see it end. I eye-balled the butterscotch pudding on the dessert menu for a long time before I convinced myself I would be sick if I attempted to eat anymore and passed, promising myself that next time I would save room for dessert. 

Zingerman's Deli
Photo courtesy of *Kid*Doc*One*
At one point during the meal my husband pointed to the 'water boy' declaring that was the owner. I thought differently and assumed it was, in my very own words, "some hippie who needed a job." And yes, of course, our waitress verified the water boy was indeed Ari himself and I felt pretty sheepish about the situation. Ari is one of the co-founders of Zingerman's and the author of several books including "Zingerman's guide to giving great service" and "Zingerman's guide to good eating," both concepts you can clearly see in the roadhouse's service and menu. What a rare treat to see the owner of a prominent restaurant on a Saturday night take the time to ensure his customers water glasses are full and to interact with the staff and guests, apparently this is common practice here. It felt like I crashed some extravagant barbeque and the owner of the house was mingling after he just got done serving all of his house guests his favorite meal consisting of comfort foods and recipes handed down from his great grandmother.

America used to grow their own food, raise their own meat and rely on partnerships with local farmers to prepare the evening meal; what was in season is what was served at the time. Zingerman's has partnered with Real Time Farms to help you understand where your food comes from and changes their menu daily to reflect what is in season and available fresh for your plate. I'm angry that this is considered a 'movement', shouldn't it just be common sense; support local and serve what is fresh and in season because it tastes the best? Sadly Zingerman's is one of the only restaurants I have encountered that does just this, so it's hard to contain them within just one category or label. Zingerman's is also a coffee company, bake house, candy shop, creamery, mail order and deli to name a few. Zingerman's is what every restaurant in America should aspire to be. 


Chelseajean said...

We really like the Roadhouse but love the bakery and creamery out off of Eisenhower. Glad you enjoyed your meal.

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