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He Ate/She Ate: Red Cedar Grill

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The mystery of the missing morsels

By GABRIELLE LAWRENCE

When it comes down to it, I don’t think a lot of people want to eat so-called restaurant food at home. Restaurant food can be intimidating. What’s congee? How about nigiri? Restaurant food can be tricky to eat, as evidenced by our recent vacation in Maine, when we threw all decorum to the wind and got down and dirty with our lobster shells. I think that most people, myself included, after a long day of responsibilities want to sit down with a comforting plate of something generally recognizable as a protein, a starch and a vegetable.

However, when I go to a restaurant, I expect a few basic elements to be met. I expect a dimension of color to be presented to be on my plate. I expect the restaurant to be equipped with some of the most basic offerings on their menu, unless we are in the throes of a natural disaster.

And I expect the menu to offer something ambitious, something that I wouldn’t endeavor to make at home.

Red Cedar Grill offered one of these elements on a few recent visits. During our trip to Williamston for Sunday lunch, we were intrigued by the crab cake corn dog as an appetizer. Essentially, crab cake filling is shaped into a cylinder reminiscent of a corn dog — lightly battered, fried and presented on a stick with a fresh peach and habanero sauce. We were off to an excellent start, for this appetizer was inventive and approachable. The filling was meaty and rich, and the sauce brought a perfect counterpoint of sweetness to the dish.

It was while we were enjoying the dish that the server came to our table and informed Mr. She Ate, without much fanfare, that they were out of Pepsi — which he had been looking forward to after a 50-mile bicycle ride that morning. No explanation was offered.

Was the CO2 container low? Were they out of syrup? Why could I have club soda if he couldn’t have Pepsi? We were stumped. In my 37 years of eating in restaurants, especially restaurants equipped with a full bar, I’ve never encountered that situation. As she turned to walk away, he asked if he could please have a glass of water, a request to which she acquiesced.

We soldiered on and ordered the asparagus and goat cheese quesadilla. The white and brown color palate was begging for a fresh herb garnish. Maybe a sprinkle of basil over the brown sauce in the corners of the plate? The quesadilla didn’t have much textural contrast and I looked forward to my grilled shrimp tacos. The tacos were serviceable, but again, a chopped cilantro would go a long way to making a more visually appealing dish. The corn in the tacos was shriveled and chewy. Making me wonder if it had been frozen and refrozen or just neglected for too long. It was a shame, especially during the summer months, that fresh corn wasn’t used.

Mr. She Ate was looking forward to ordering the Chef’s Burger as identified on the online menu, but apparently the menu has been updated and the website hasn’t. His peppercorn Boursin burger indeed had a strong peppercorn flavor, but aside from creaminess, the Boursin cheese brought no other dimension to the dish.

The next day a friend and I returned for lunch. I saw diners at another table drinking soft drinks, so apparently the Pepsi issue had been resolved. We started with the fried brussels sprouts, another dish which bears no current resemblance to the item described on the website. They were glazed with maple syrup, which was overly sweet and were overcooked. The outer leaves were disintegrating and the inner pieces mushy.

Our server brought my honey ginger fried chicken sandwich to the table, and as she sat it down, she remarked that they “must be out of fries today.” My sandwich was accompanied by thinly sliced potatoes — not thin enough to be crispy, however, so I was given essentially a side of soggy potato slices. She asked me if that was OK, to which I inquired about other options. Then minutes after I was done eating my sandwich, she brought to the table a plate of sautéed onions and squash — an option which would have been welcomed information when she learned that they were oddly out of fries, but not out of potatoes.

My companion chose the macaroni and cheese with fried chicken. Generally a very healthy eater, she was looking forward to an indulgent lunch. That anticipation was nipped in the bud after a few lackluster bites when she compared the dish to one of those cardboard boxes that you peel the corner from and microwave it before returning to your desk for a sad work lunch. Suffice it to say, we left unimpressed.

More triumphs than flops

By MARK NIXON

By MARK NIXON

A while back I grilled hamburgers. They were a disaster. Last week, I made pickled beets from scratch for the first time. They were fantastic.

Cooking always seems to be on a razor’s edge between flop and triumph, and nowhere is that razor more keenly felt than in a restaurant kitchen.

I thought of this while reading my notes about the Red Cedar Grill. Let me state up front that I counted several more triumphs than flops. Even the worst of the bunch, a pasta dish, was more flawed than floppish.

Two of the best dishes I’ve had in some time came during our second visit. We began with a roasted garlic platter. This $10 appetizer had it all: Plump, roasted heads of garlic, warm Boursin cheese, pesto made with ground pumpkin seeds and roasted red peppers, all served with warm baguette slices. Roasting garlic doesn’t simply tame the garlicky flavor, it transforms it into something buttery, nutty and slightly sweet. Add the pesto and cheese, and a glass of wine, and this is a light but satisfying meal.

Judy’s entrée was wild mushroom ravioli with a small steak ($26). I wasn’t in the mood for steak, but the al dente ravioli was packed with that unmistakable woodsy, smoky flavor that is the essence of wild mushrooms. To top it off, fresh, chopped asparagus cooked al dente in a light cream sauce. The pairing rounded out this remarkable dish.

I chose a bone-in pork chop for my entree ($20). I may be wrong, but the juicy interior makes me think the chop was brined for several hours, which is what we do at home to prevent a grilled pork chop from drying out. Red Cedar’s version, served medium rare and topped with a daub of warm goat cheese, earns a solid A.

On a previous visit, I started out with a take on a county fair staple, the corn dog — an odious invention that apparently everyone loves but me.

Thankfully, Red Cedar’s version was a tube-shaped crab cake on a stick. This $6 appetizer came with peach and habanero sauce, a great blend of sweet and spicy. The overall taste was spot-on, though the batter was overly fried, as was a fish fillet our friend had.

Judy’s $6 Acapulco Shrimp was swaddled in a ceviche-like marinade, a common find in Mexican seaside restaurants. This was the best thing I tasted that evening.

Least on my list was something that held great promise, Angel hair pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, capers, pancetta and a light marinara sauce. Several things went wrong with this $12 entree. The pancetta was overly fried, rendering it tough. The marinara was bland. Worst, the pasta was cut into little chunks as if to spoon-feed to a toddler.

They have all the right things to make this a great dish. They need to rethink how it’s put together.

We tried dessert on this visit and were wowed. The Skillet Blondie ($7) literally came in a little cast-iron skillet. The mix of salted caramel ice cream and sweet chocolate, both hot and cool in one bite, made for a great finale.

Our friends went for an old standby, the $10 carrot cake. Stack two paperback novels together and you have the approximate size of this dessert. It’s shareable for two (or more). Thick cream cheese frosting slathered over the moist interior makes this, as the menu states, “House Favorite Forever.”

Red Cedar Grill’s interior is spare but intriguing. An old wooden ice box serves as a table for the house phone and a reservation book. The walls are a pastiche of posters ranging from art nouveau to a photo of film actress Greta Garbo. 

What really makes the interior endearing is a family-like atmosphere engendered by the servers. Restaurant life can be emotionally fraught. What we observed were funny, spirited servers who chatted with customers and themselves about their daily lives. We saw one server about to go on duty. She brought her children with her before handing them off to Dad. The kids got to see where Mom worked. It was an unremarkable scene of daily life, and, as a result, touching.   

Red Cedar Grill

Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.

Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.

Sunday, 12-9 p.m.

150 E. Grand River Ave, Williamston, MI

Redcedargrill.com, (517) 655-3766

 

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