Category: Reviews: Restaurants

The Passing of My Father, & A Review: Scalawags Whitefish & Chips, Brighton, Michigan

This particular blog post has been a long time coming. I began writing it Monday December 29th and was interrupted by a phone call from my sister Barb telling me our dad had passed away. He was 85.

Looking through the draft of this post I found an odd coincidence. Early on I mention the Fish-n-Chips at the family restaurant at the intersection of Belsay and Lapeer Roads in Burton, Michigan. In 2004 dad and I went to see the film Hellboy at the Showcase Cinemas in Burton. Prior to seeing the movie we went to that particular restaurant, where I ordered the Fish-n-Chips I’d enjoyed for so many years.

That was my most recent visit to that restaurant. And I’d included it here at about the same time he’d passed away on Monday.

Goodbye Dad. May you rest in peace.

I’ve always had a thing, multiple cravings, a hankerin’, whatever you want to call it, for good Fish-n-Chips. I’m not talking about anything formed from what’s likely a cheap whiting, and served with a pile of greasy potato chips. I mean a whole piece of cod or something along those lines, dredged in a batter that’s not from yesterday, and served with some kind of deep-fried potato that doesn’t come in a bag.

I’ve had Fish-n-Chips in so many places, so many restaurants, there’s no possible way I could ever remember them all. My old standby is the family restaurant at the intersection of Belsay and Lapeer Roads in Burton, Michigan. They’ve been doing Fish-n-Chips right ever since I can remember. And they still do.

I’ve had Beer-Battered Fish-n-Chips wrapped in newspaper on Charing Cross Rd. in London, England, west of the theater district. I’ve had Fish-n-Chips in a basket in a Greek restaurant in Toronto. I’ve had Fish-n-Chips at a plank-benched family-style restaurant in the Ozarks of Arkansas. And I’ve had Fish-n-Chips in Dubai … but it was served as whole deep-fried crayfish with the shell still on. No, that wasn’t right at all …

A couple months ago I discovered somebody up north had started this thing called Scalawags Whitefish & Chips. With six locations in the lower peninsula of Michigan and one in Mackinac City I knew sooner or later I had to end up at one of their places.

Especially since they serve wild-caught freshwater Whitefish from the Great Lakes.

We went to the Brighton location this past weekend and ended up quite impressed. It’s a cool place. The interior of the restaurant has an old-fashioned coziness to it, with it’s high-backed lodge-style benches, its log-lined walls, and the outboard motor hanging from the upper wall like a hunting trophy. I only wondered what they did with the rest of that particular kill …

These lamps hanging from the ceiling were also extremely interesting. That’s a real minnow bucket, with a compact flourescent lamp (CFL) lit within it in a standard bulb base. It’s all hanging from the ceiling via a chain-style fishing stringer, complete with a few fake fish strung out on it. The power cord runs through the stringer. Pretty cheap, not too cheesy, and I know some guys (and gals) who would appreciate this thing.

This is Chris, dipping one of our pieces of Whitefish prior to laying it into the deep fryer to fry. We didn’t see anyone else … I think Chris was running the place by himself. Chris was taking the orders, collecting the money, cooking the orders, delivering the food to the waiting patrons at their tables, fixing the receipt printer … and did he smile? This kid (he’s younger than me, which means he’s a kid) smiled the entire time, including when I pointed my camera at him through the pick-up window he wasn’t needing to use. Chris seemed seriously dedicated to his work, to this job, to this restaurant. If he was faking, I couldn’t tell. But I don’t believe he was faking it.

I ordered the Whitefish and Perch Fish & Chips, which you saw in the first photo in this post. It was beautifully done, both pieces of fish being perfectly crispy on the outside while flaky and juicy on the inside. It was, to use a word I’d not normally use … lovely to actually be able to see the real shape of the Whitefish in the breading Chris used. Scroll back up to that first pic. See the line through the middle of that piece of Whitefish? Yeah, that’s good stuff there.

Mary ordered the Whitefish Reuben which you can see below. This was another piece of that wonderful deep-fried Whitefish on a grilled rye bun, on a mixture of cabbage and thousand-island dressing and topped with a slice of cheese. As Mary doesn’t like seafood she was planning to order something else, such as the Grilled Chicken Breast or the BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger. However, as she also cannot pass up a good Reuben sandwich she went ahead and ordered this Whitefish version of the classic. To say that she ate all but a bite or two of the sandwich says a lot about this particular version and how her own serving was prepared.

As to the French Fries in both of these baskets, they were decidedly fresher and cooked much lighter than a lot of restaurants prepare fries. One item some people say they like at McDonalds is the fries because they’re made right. These are similar, while also being made better by quite a few notches. The lightness of these fries was actually pleasant surprising. I’d go back for the fries alone.

If you like fish, or even if you don’t, Scalawags Whitefish & Chips is a place to seek out for Great Lakes Whitefish made right.

Dad would have loved that ceiling lamp …

Celebrating A Birthday at J. Alexander’s, Toledo

Update Oct.8, 2014 – Ok, it’s crazier today than it was a year ago. 235 298 views of this page today alone because of pins of the above pic on Pinterest! Alright, here ya’ go folks, maybe this is what you’re looking for … Over on The Kitchen Prescription Sherri in Florida has worked throough a couple iterations of a recipe she calls “Copycat J. Alexander’s NYO (Not Your Ordinary) Mac n’ Cheese“. I haven’t made it, but the comments over there indicate she’s gotten quite close. I hope that helps!

Update Nov. 9, 2013 – This is crazy. I don’t even like Pinterest, even though my wife and daughet are all over the thing. But what’s the most popular post on this blog? This one. Why is that?? Pinterest. Dammit, I might have to go there. But I’m not tweeting anything, ever. I’m old enough that if I tweet I go see a doctor …

Ok, so it’s a ramekin full of macaroni and cheese. Big deal, right? Oh, you are soooo wrong … This is a serving of Not Your Ordinary Mac & Cheese from the J. Alexander’s location on Talmadge Road across from the Westfield/Franklin Park Shopping Center. We’re talking beautifully-made macaroni, swiss and other cheeses, bacon, handmade croutons … definitely worth more than the $4 we paid for this extra side dish.

Mary took me to J. Alexander’s yesterday for my 46th birthday. We’d actually planned on going elsewhere, but unfortunately some confusing information on that restaurant’s web site meant we showed up there a full hour before they opened. Mary had often talked about taking me to J. Alexander’s. Our dear friend Joannie Kitchen, Chief Flight Instructor at Bowling Green, has raved about their salmon, saying it’s the best she’s ever had. Taking Joannie up on her word, the Norwegian Grilled Salmon is exactly what I ordered, with a side of Orzo & Wild Rice:

The salmon was grilled medium-rare, at our server Allie’s suggestion. I’d have ordered it that way anyway … Back in July I’d raved about the Gravad Lax at the IKEA store in Canton, writing “This is the kind of salmon that almost dissolves when you put it in your mouth.” Well, this grilled salmon was just as good, being light and flaky, bordering on ceamy with a little bit of buttery thrown in for good measure. The thinner edge carried a little more seasoning, and there was a more peppery flavor there. But the rest of the filet was so incredibly worth ignoring that one edge. The Orzo & Wild Rice, with its chopped red & yellow bell pepper, dried cranberries, slightly tangy vinagrette and served chilled, makes for an amazing side dish. I brought some home and will have it for lunch today.

Mary ordered their Rattlesnake Pasta. There’s no rattlesnake in the dish. Rather, the linguini-style pasta noodles with peppers and southwestern spices are served with pulled rotisserie chicken that looks like lengths of rattlesnake. It was a wonderful dish.

The open kitchen at the Toledo location of J. Alexander’s is fun to watch. Chickens are roasting in the rotisserie unit on the left, which you can see immediately upon entering the restaurant. A stack of hardwood firewood is near the rotisserie unit … all their steaks are grilled over a hardwood fire. Interesting to note is that a lot of their cooking surfaces, such as the grills just to the right of the wood, are countertop units, making the kitchen simple to reorganize to follow menu changes.

Of course I had to order their Very Best Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream and Hot Fudge. As it was my birthday dinner, Allie had included a lit candle when she served my dessert.

After Mary had taken the first of a pic of my dense chocolate dessert, I took the camera to look at the image on the screen. Suddenly, Mary was wide-eyed, with “UMM … Ahhh … HEY!!” … and just as suddenly, I dropped the camera and grabbed my wrist with a loud, “Oh, SH*T!!!

Mental note: Beware of lit candles next time someone hands you a camera to look at. Maybe the hair on my left wrist will grow back in a month or two …

While sharing my dessert, Mary also had some Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Icing to share with me. Served warm, it’s some of the best carrot cake ever.

We’ll be going back sometime, oh yeah, we will. But any dessert will be requested as “sans candle“.

Review: Trout Town Country Café, Kalkaska, Michigan

It’s not very often Mary and I find a restaurant that we’ll go back to time-and-time again in a very short period of time. This past weekend, however, we visited the Trout Town Country Café in Kalkaska, Michigan, four times between Friday evening and Sunday morning. It certainly wasn’t our intent to have multiple meals there for the sake of this review. Sure, I could have used an excuse along those lines to generate multiple visits. (You know, me saying things like, “Honey, it’s for the blog!“) But frankly, after that first visit to the restaurant on Friday evening we both wanted to go back. And once we took the boys there Saturday evening, the Trout Town Country Café’s Sunday Brunch Buffet was definitely a given. Besides, Mary wanted to try that Baked Oatmeal at least once. Ok, so I’m getting ahead of myself.

I must say that all was not wine and roses. I do have some complaints, which I’ll talk about later on. But I’ll tell you what, with the friendliness of the staff (including Chef/owner Dan Bloomquist himself), and the food being incredible the majority of the time, I’ll give Chef Dan and his crew 4-out-of-5 Titanium Sporks right out of the starting blocks.

We had seen a blue state-placed sign for the Trout Town Country Café along M-72 east of Kalkaska on our way into town. Without a decent internet connection it took us a while to figure out exactly how to get there from our hotel. That it turned out to be walking distance was a bit wacked, and besides, we never did walk to get there. Come to find out, we should have just followed the arrow on that dang-blasted state-placed sign to get there the first time …

Reading the menu, the rather small restaurant showed its pedigree:

Trout Town Country Café is locally owned and operated by Chef Dan Bloomquist. Dan has been in the restaurant business for approximately 23 years …

Hmmm … we know more than one of these kinds of places, particularly Bolles Harbor Café. Besides this, on the wall near the register was a recent award. It seems Chef Dan won for Best Presentation in the Taste of Trout competition at the National Trout Festival in April.

Ok, Chef Dan, this is your home turf. Let’s see whatchya got …


Review: Gander’s of Luna Pier Reopens

As I mentioned a few days ago, Gander’s Restaurant here in Luna Pier reopened this morning almost five months after a burglar-initiated fire. Mary, Caleb and I were there before 9 a.m. to enjoy breakfast as we remembered.

Gander’s exterior, with a lot full of cars.

The counter and waitress station, almost exactly as it was prior to the fire, but completely new.

Gander’s newly-rebuilt dining room, full of very satisfied diners.

The completely rebuilt kitchen, containing mostly new equipment. This was only a few hours after they’d reopened, but they’d been working so hard it appeared the recently spotless kitchen had been operating for years.

Caleb ordered the popular Farmer’s Omelet. Mary ordered pancakes and eggs (breakfast #2), while I ordered the steak (medium-rare) and eggs over-easy (breakfast #5). Everything was done perfectly and tasted as nice as we’d remembered. I also had them substitute biscuits for the toast. When the biscuits arrived, they’d cut them in half and actually grilled them vs. toasting them. It made for a great flavor and a marvelous “crunch” when I bit into them. The steak was moist and tender, and the hashbrowns very crispy on the outside while being tender on the inside.

We’re glad to have Gander’s back as it was, but even better than before because of the rebuild. If you enjoy great diner food that has those few extras that makes it more than just diner food, Gander’s is for you. It’ll be great to be able to start taking visitors over there again when we can.

To get to Gander’s, take exit 6 on I-75, head east toward Lake Erie into Luna Pier and take the first driveway on the right after that overpass.

Addendum, 5:30 p.m.: This afternoon, after Mary’s 17-year-old John had started as a dishwasher at Gander’s, we went back for dessert. Ok, and to harrass John … Mary and Justin each ordered a bowl of homemade rice pudding (made by our server’s sister, who was behind the counter), and I ordered the freshly-made coconut cream pie. The pie was dense, having a consistency more like a thick creme brulée, with a rich coconut flavor, heavy on the cream. The large bowls of rice pudding, the pudding made by the owner himself, were also rich and thick, with lots of tender grains of rice and topped with lots of ground cinnamon. Save room … you’re gonna want some of the stuff we had.