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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Gourmet Underground Detroit's content archives are organized by date and catalog the aggregated content of our Features pages as well as our blog.

Curious Foods of the North – Stories behind some of northern Michigan’s most popular fare.

Driving East on U.S. Highway 2 through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula between Naubinway and St. Ignace you are sure to see three things: a crystal blue Lake Michigan to your right, thick evergreen and hardwood forest to your left, and ahead, signs for pasties, smoked fished and fudge. How did these three distinct foods come to symbolize the north?


A Moveable Feast

Although regrettably sharing the same name as decorative nipple coverings, Michigan pasties are much tastier. Similar to pot pies but without the pot, these portable meals were a favorite of immigrants working Upper Peninsula mines before they were standard tourist fare.

Introduced in the 19th Century by Cornish miners, the hearty pasty could easily be eaten end to end, without knife or fork, and even reheated on a shovel held above a headlamp candle. Finns and Swedes, who were also working the mines, contributed their own culinary influences to the UP pasty.

The mining industry eventually collapsed but the UP pasty remained. Today, you can find pasties filled with chicken, fish, or simply vegetables. Some places will smother them in tomato sauce and melted cheese. You can even find them “Mexican style”.

The most satisfying UP pasty is filled with beef and diced vegetables (we like it with earthy, sweet rutabaga), has a solid crust, and comes with a cup of brown gravy on the side. It is best eaten on a chilly autumn day while the wind whips the Mackinac Straights into a white froth. A couple glasses of whiskey as digestif are optional though highly recommended.


Are You Calling Me a Fudgie?

The world is flooded with candy that has been processed and packaged in factories then shipped to corner convenience stores. But in Mackinac it’s old school copper kettles, marble tables, and sweet cream.

Every batch of fudge is handmade. When the syrup reaches what candymakers call the “soft ball stage” it’s poured onto marble and slowly manipulated with spatulas into logs. It’s said that this long cooling process, particularly during humid summer days, is what makes Mackinac fudge unique – its terroir, if you will.

True or not, this type of candymaking hearkens back to the days of people working with their hands and fits right into the wistful Mackinac Island experience where many a summer vacation memory has been made.

We prefer enjoying locally made fudge away from the throng of tourists in and around Mackinac. A short drive west is Wilderness State Park. Or head east to Cheboygan State Park. Both parks boast amazing forest and shoreline hiking opportunities. No better way to work off a giant hunk of fudge than a brisk few miles on foot, Bald Eagles soaring overhead.


Just Water, Salt and Smoke

It’s not so curious that a land and people surrounded by freshwater seas enjoy their fish. From Leland near the popular Sleeping Bear Dunes to remote Whitefish Bay to Houghton-Hancock and all points around and between, smoked fish finds its way into most every cabin in the northwoods.

Unlike thinly sliced lox that’s cold-smoked for preservation, northern Michigan fish are hot-smoked and thus the flesh is textured more like cooked fish. The process is simple. The fish, normally whitefish, salmon or trout, is brined in saltwater and placed in racks over smoldering logs. The wood used for smoking is often maple, another abundant local resource.

Though smoked fish can be made into a dip or even a sausage this classic northern Michigan dish is best enjoyed simply on a cracker. Pair it with a glass of crisp white wine, a lover, and the remains of a day gone orange behind the pines.

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Slideshow: The Next Urban Chef

Chef Andy Hollyday wandered out from behind his burners to check on our table, “How was everything?” We all nodded, our mouths full of food, and mumbled our appreciation. It’s a scene I’d witnessed several times, the chef taking a few moments to check in with his customers. Except generally, I’m seated at Roast, and Andy’s cooks are typically old enough to grab a beer after work.

Last Saturday, though, it was an entirely different setting: Andy’s kitchen was a range and a few tables in the corner of Eastern Market’s Shed 5, and his team consisted of a handful of local students participating in The Next Urban Chef, a food system education project put together by Detroiter Alison Heeres.

Hollyday joined Corrdor Sausage’s Will Branch, The Sunday Dinner Company’s Eric Giles, and Supino’s Dave Mancini as team leaders, about a dozen students learning and working under their guidance to learn about food, local agriculture, and teamwork.
Launch the Slideshow

The competition was judged, with each team preparing three dishes and their subsequent scores being allocated based not just on the food but on their ability to work together and their use of Michigan ingredients.

Hollyday’s team, which won the competition, besting reigning champ Dave Mancini, prepared sweet corn ravioli with shrimp, roasted chicken with an apple cider vinegar sauce and Swiss chard, and an apple rosemary tart with homemade vanilla ice cream. I’m fortunate enough to say that I tried all three courses, and Chef Andy and his students did a great job.

To learn more and be privy to info about next year’s event, check out their Facebook page.


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The Last Word in Ann Arbor Cocktails

Rosemary's Baby - at The Last Word

Turning toward the bar, the gentleman to my left instructed the bartender, “Make him that drink you made me last night.” A few minutes later, I was sipping on a clever concoction of coconut, rum, and a hint of Laphroig. This contemporary take on a tiki drink was the delicious brainchild of Giancarlo Aversa, a bartender at what has arguably become Ann Arbor’s best spot for cocktails, The Last Word.

Open since February 14, 2012 and named after the classic drink that originated at the Detroit Athletic Club in the 1920’s, the bar occupies the space previously inhabited by Goodnight Gracie’s lounge near the corner of Huron and 1st Street. Gone are Gracie’s plush lounge sofas and garish faux-tinis. Instead, The Last Word presents a simple but elegant, dimly lit room and libations inspired by the Prohibition era.

My drinking companion that night was co-owner Paul Drennan, a veteran of the bar and restaurant business for more than two decades. “I’ve always had a passion for booze,” he says, which explains in part how a Scottish-born chef finds himself overseeing a cocktail bar and the adjoining music club, Live!

After a culinary career that saw him working in Michelin-starred institutions and took him around the globe, Drennan discovered that the kitchen wasn’t necessarily the place for him.

“Working in those environments, I took a lot from it, but it made me recognize I’d rather be in the front of the house,” he discloses. He came to work for a large hotel and hospitality organization, a career which took him to Ypsilanti in 1999 where he grew fond of the region. After another stint in New York, he ended up working at the MGM casino in Detroit opening the first iteration of those restaurants.

He and his colleague Robbie Schulz left the hotel to bring their expertise to the Alley Bar. They took their shared love of craft cocktails to what is now Ann Arbor’s favorite dive, offering mixed drinks alongside plenty of PBR. But they still longed to do something grander.

With the success of the Alley Bar, Drennan and Schulz entered the fold as partners when the Alley Bar ownership later took over Live! and the old Gracie’s space. The latter became The Last Word and gave them a chance to exercise their creativity and put great drinks to the fore.

It’s not necessarily uncommon to hear a former chef speak frequently about drinking. But it might be a bit less common to sense a true passion for the subject of spirits. Drennan traces it back first to his father introducing him to Scotch and later to a drink he had at the Ritz in London, “It was 1984, 85, I think. A bartender who was old school made me this gin fizz.” Almost three decades later, his bartenders are putting together entirely new cocktails, unquestionably among the best in town.

Creativity – the kind that Drennan and Schulz are encouraging – is critical to The Last Word’s early success. Schulz has developed many of the recipes himself, but all the bartenders are part of the process. “We believe the bartenders need to buy into the place. So they came up with the original menu,” Drennan says.

The menus are cleverly presented in small binders made from the covers of old hardback books and organized from lightest to biggest and most complex. Drennan and Aversa note the popularity of drinks across the entire cocktail list. Among the most requested to this point are, a Lavender Sidecar ($8), the Sangre de Fresa ($9), a refreshing mix of cachaca, Cointreau, lime, strawberry, basil, and balsamic, and the vodka- and rum-based Barbary Flip ($9).

Eventually, they’re hoping to employ a seasonal approach to the menu, changing drinks more frequently and exposing people to more options and more ideas. For the time being, they’re taking their role as educators seriously. Between shaking drinks, Aversa chimes in, “We do a lot of talking with our guests, a lot of brainpicking. Asking people what they’ve had before.”

Beyond interactions at the bar, Drennan and company have begun to add promotional evenings – half off whiskey on Tuesdays and tiki nights on Wednesdays – to their offerings both in the hopes of adding business on off nights and allowing people to experiment more.

Drennan adds that the clientele is constantly surprising them, helping the bar evolve, “You get the most unassuming people with a wealth of knowledge walk through the door, and you’re saying ‘Holy shit, where did you come from?’”

That only supports a notion about which Drennan is adamant – that Ann Arbor now has a vibrant cocktail scene, one that he’s particularly excited about. “We talk up Raven’s Club. We talk up Mani’s. Because everyone improves, and it improves the landscape of Ann Arbor,” he says, “I just want people to recognize Ann Arbor and really the whole state of Michigan. There’s a whole scene here now.”

What he doesn’t say is that The Last Word is a critical piece of that scene. Only a few months into doing business, cocktail aficionados have recognized it as the best of the downtown area cocktail outlets. For anyone in Ann Arbor looking for a good drink, it’s worth a visit.

Finding the bar isn’t hard if you know where to look – it’s tucked under Live!, around the corner on Huron, west of Main Street – though The Last Word doesn’t have a sign or a website yet. Drennan insists this isn’t part of any guerilla marketing effort as some have speculated online. It’s merely a reality of trying to get the bar open as quickly as possible and focusing on the building and the drinks before the marketing: “We’re not aiming to be a speakeasy – just a bar that makes great fucking cocktails.”

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