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Thursday, February 2,2012

Quest for quality

The search continues for first-class dining in Lansing

by Joe Torok

We have a well-fed culture of eating in the Lansing region. What we need to nourish is a culture that appreciates great food.

Many of us seem to have an assembly-line mentality when it comes to dining out, and perhaps that’s understandable in a car town: We want to eat cheap, fast and in vast quantities. Maybe it’s an American thing, like in retail, in which we sometimes consume just to consume. Around here, we sometimes eat just to eat.

As a lifelong Lansing resident and a food writer for four years, I’ve seen such a culture of eating around this town (and restaurateurs’ corresponding eagerness to feed, feed, feed) both in the dining room and behind the scenes. Quality suffers when a restaurant’s goal is to stuff people full — and then some — for less money than it costs to see a movie. That’s a recipe for mediocrity.

A Michigan State University administrator who wishes to remain anonymous told me the dining scene around Lansing has made deciding on where to host moderate-sized meetings relatively easy.

“Hotel facilities are comparable and ease of travel is not much different,” he said. “The deciding factor was the quality and quantity of restaurants. Ann Arbor was the choice in each case. There was no comparison.”

Such anecdotal feedback, along with restaurant profiles that some considered fluff without a discerning voice, spurred City Pulse’s shift to writing more nuanced, critical reflections of restaurants, reflections that chronicle one-time dining experiences at eateries around town.  

A handful of these reviews have been unflattering. Letters to the editor have cast shame on me, and my writing has been described as crass and ruthless. I’ve been accused of throwing local restaurants — and their small business owners — under the bus.

Other readers value a critical perspective. Such a perspective is necessary, they say, if the Lansing area is to reach culinary parity with towns of similar stature.

Dan Stockwell is an East Lansing information technology consultant who has dined in fine restaurants around the country, from Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in New York City to the Buena Vista Caf' in San Francisco.  He comes from a culinary family, too, and is the first in four generations to not own a restaurant. But that hasn’t stopped him from appreciating food done well.

“The Lansing food scene needs critical voices,” Stockwell says. Stockwell is an articulate connoisseur of restaurants and, along with his wife, Donna Clingersmith, looks for excuses to dine out — of town. Among other destinations, they frequent Zingerman’s establishments in Ann Arbor, in part because of the limited number of consistently reliable restaurants in the area.

“You can go to a place and it can be terrific,” Stockwell says of dining in the greater Lansing area, “but go back two months later and it’s like (the food) came right off a Gordon Food Service truck.” 

Disagreements over the value of critical reviews aside, few would make the case that Lansing is a foodie destination. Yes, there are good places to eat in town — a few great places, in fact. 

But for culinary adventurers looking to plan a road trip, Lansing’s not on the same map as Ann Arbor. Despite an internationally oriented university in the area, a tremendous public sector infrastructure as the state capital and a substantial professional class, Lansing’s not even on par with a much smaller Michigan town like Traverse City. 

A lackluster dining reputation has certainly not resulted in a shortage of places to eat, as demonstrated by a wealth of both locally owned and chain restaurants. But more choice hasn’t necessarily fostered a culture that demands and appreciates great food.

On the western edge of Lansing, a culture of food, literally rooted in the community, may be burgeoning with a more forceful identity at Fork in the Road Artisan Diner. 

Owners Jesse Hahn and Ben Ackerman are delighted to be on the cutting edge of a different way of dining in this town. Their enterprise is local to the core: Fork in the Road works with area farmers and food producers to secure as much local produce, meat, cheese, eggs and whatever else they can find from the region’s fertile and diverse farmland to put on the menu. Local is the way to go, they say, when serving high-quality food is not an option.

“It’s fresher, it’s crisper. Take our carrots and take a chain restaurant’s carrots. There’s no comparison,” Hahn says. “We have a strategic advantage.”

Fork in the Road encourages a respect for food at the most fundamental level. The owners plan to maintain a small garden outside the restaurant next summer and take staff field trips to local farms.  

Ackerman says he spent 10 hours on a farm one day last summer. Getting his hands dirty gave Ackerman a greater appreciation for the dishes he serves.

“It helped me understand what it takes to get food from the earth to the table,” he says. “It’s important to know where your food comes from.”

A culture that demands high-quality food may be malnourished in this town’s restaurant scene, but that’s nothing new. Fine dining has come, gone and reappeared in various forms through the years. On Lansing’s eastside, Soup Spoon Caf' has grown into a destination for good eats.

Owner Nick Gavrilides says Soup Spoon’s success comes from the talented staff he’s assembled and people in the area who respect food done right.  Building a success story like Soup Spoon, though, is difficult, to put it mildly.

“People don’t realize how small, how tiny the profit margin is,” Gavrilides says of owning a restaurant.

Food costs are just the start; regulations, licenses, security, heating, lighting, d'cor, staff, accidents and so many other variables chip away at what is already a tight operating budget.

“My advice to someone who wants to start a restaurant is work in one, for a long time,” Gavrilides says. “Know your business inside and out, and care about your guests. They don’t have to come in.”

That kind of foodie-focused attitude embraces both a commitment to plate first-rate meals and a mission to making the dining experience both pleasurable and memorable. It’s what great restaurants are known for, and it’s what regions with outstanding dining offer in more than isolated pockets.  

Self-described foodie Mark Nixon, communications director for the Board of Water and Light, has witnessed the vicissitudes of local dining over the years. A former writer for the Lansing State Journal, Nixon wrote an editorial in April 2001, bemoaning the dearth of quality dining in town.

Things have improved since he penned that opinion, he says.

“I would call it above average and getting better,” Nixon says of the area’s restaurant options. “To put it in automotive terms, it’s not Car of the Year, but it’s only a few years away from being mentioned with Ann Arbor and Traverse City.”

Perhaps.

This area robustly supports a culture of fine arts, sports and entertainment. We pay premium prices for world-class performances at the Wharton Center. Many of us are thrilled at the opportunity to spend thousands of dollars for season tickets to collegiate football or basketball games, and we’ll travel thousands of miles to bowl games and Final Fours. We even support professional baseball — and a shiny new casino could be on the way next. 

We can support a renowned dining scene in this town, too, and a growing identity linked to locally sourced food production wouldn’t hurt.

But a culture of copious consumption is no way to do it. It’s unhealthy beyond the corporeal; it’s a culture that’s unsustainable for many local restaurateurs who operate with miniscule profit margins, without the safety net of a corporate superstructure that includes lawyers, extended credit lines and supply chain perks. In the end, a dismal culinary ethos of eating more, more, more for less, less, less lowers the food service bar to the least common denominator.

Julia Child was quoted as saying she didn’t learn to cook until she was 32; up until then she just ate.   

For the Lansing region to raise its culinary reputation, both diners and restaurateurs must think beyond merely eating. If haute cuisine is on the menu, we must continue to cultivate great love for great food.

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