For a local perspective, though, let’s rewind the calendar. A few years back, not many area restaurants made in-season, local ingredients their priority. But two local farm-to-table pioneers were ahead of the pack.
They began as food wagons and have since put down brick-and-mortar roots. On the east side: Red Haven, a high-end restaurant with outstanding cuisine. On the west side: Fork in the Road Local Artisan Diner, a long-winded name for a place that prides itself on simplicity — and can be justly proud of its menu.
We reviewed Red Haven a year ago, so we were overdue to dig into the menu of its modest-looking counterpart, tucked between the industrial brownfields that once were home to General Motors plants.
Before you walk in, there is palpable proof of Fork’s dedication to local food: A large mural homage to garden produce. Below it, the diner’s herb garden stands at the ready, once this godawful winter decides to leave.
Inside, the most prominent “art” is a list of area farms, bakeries and producers that provide Fork with everything from arugula to shrimp. Yes, shrimp. Far from the salt seas, an Okemos shrimp farm provides the eatery with those comma shaped crustaceans.
The four of us were obvious virgins to the Fork scene. We sat about 10 minutes without being asked for our orders. Only after inquiry did we pick up on what you’re supposed to do: 1.) Grab a menu, stand in line at the cash register; 2.) place your order and pay; and 3.) pick a table and wait for a server to bring the food.
We shared three appetizers and four entrees. The highest marks went to a side of Crispy Ambercup Squash ($5.50). The pieces were thinly sliced, lightly fried and dusted with sea salt, placed on a bed of dainty sunflower shoots with dabs of horseradish sauce, maple syrup and ricotta cheese. Salt, sweet, crisp, tang — some kind of wonderful.
In descending order, I’d rank these entrées accordingly: Pork Mac ($11.50), Meatloaf ($15.50), Fried Chicken ($13.50) and Shrimp & Grits ($19). All were quite good. Brett’s fried chicken was lightly battered, juicy inside and not grease encumbered. My meatloaf was infused with subtle smokiness, which came with wisp-like slivers of fried red onions and pickled mushrooms.
Judy’s Pork Mac held a creamy blend of bleu, smoked cheddar and mozzarella cheeses. Locally, I´ve only found one better — the mac and cheese with charcuterie at Gracie´s Place in Williamston.
Lisa’s shrimp and grits proved a surprise. The shrimp still had their heads attached, underscoring that these weren’t processed and flash-frozen in a trawler off the Louisiana coast.
Before my entrée, I tried the curried parsnip soup. I love curry and parsnips, but found this to be all about the curry; it was more like curried porridge. Chevre (goat cheese) and apple chunks layered on top were a good choice, though. The Fork folks seem enamored of chevre, since it appears throughout the menu. Obviously they’ve discovered a great little goat farm because this chevre is superior to what I’ve found in supermarkets.
On the second visit, Judy had Rabbit Broth soup ($4) made with white beans and chunks of rabbit. Along with chevre, rabbit takes a prominent place on Fork’s menu. I give the Rabbit Broth a C . Our friend Bruce ordered biscuits and gravy ($9). It landed looking like the mother ship of all biscuits and gravy platters, topped with a sunny-side up egg. He ate his fill; two-thirds was left uneaten.
I was underwhelmed by my lunch choice, the strangely named Ballin’ Ass Tacos ($8). Chorizo-filled flour tortillas are topped with that splendid Mexican cheese, queso fresco, along with fresh lime and cilantro. The toppings were tasty but the chorizo was too spicy. And though the menu said it came with molé verde, I tasted no evidence of that.
There are noteworthy little extras at Fork in the Road. Hot tea comes with a little hourglass timer — three minutes for proper steeping. Restrooms have graffiti boards jammed with messages. My favorite: “921 Evergreen for all the fun.” There are marker pens so you can add your own message. Good luck finding a spot.
Will I go back? Absolutely. Heck, I’d go back for the Backward Float ($5): Sassafras gelato bobbing in a foamy mug of Faygo Creme Soda.
That’s DETROIT-made Faygo, in case you didn’t know.