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Sharing Good Times with Good Friends at Reserve Wine and Food – Tony Gates and Michelle McKormick

 

STORY: BRIAN VANOCHTEN
PHOTOS: IAN ANDERSON

RESERVE WINE & FOOD

Location: 201 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids 49503

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday; 4 p.m. to midnight Saturday.

Fare: Modern American cuisine, impressive wine list and cocktail selection, located in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, offering a constantly changing menu that creatively reflects West Michigan.

Ambience: Clean contemporary meets urban chic. The atmosphere is fun, friendly and conversational.

Executive Chef: Matthew Green

Server: Josh Middleton

Phone: (616) 855-9463

Website: www.reservegr.com

Email: info@reservegr.com

Facebook: facebook.com/ReserveGR

Twitter: @ReserveGR

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GRAND RAPIDS – In the latest installment of our “Breaking Bread” monthly series that spotlights some of the region’s finest restaurants, Stellafly sits down with WLAV-FM (96.9) Morning Show host Tony Gates and the effervescent Michelle McKormick for a special Restaurant Week Grand Rapids edition at Reserve Wine & Food. The special three-course meals for $25 continue as Restaurant Week runs through this Saturday at more than 65 locations (see all of the menus at experiencegr.com) in the area.

Gates, a longtime Grand Rapids radio personality, has spent 28 years at WLAV. His first stint there spanned a decade, before leaving to work in the record industry with such famed recording acts as Whitney Houston and The Grateful Dead. He later returned to WLAV, where he has been for the past 18 years.

McKormick has spent nearly three decades entertaining the masses on the local airwaves.

She is a big part of the WLAV Morning Show, which includes Uncle Buck (Ed Buchanon), imparting her unique sense of humor, and also hosts a regular segment on WJRW-AM NewsTalk 1340.

Our dinner conversation turns to the farm-to-table dining trend right from the start.

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FIRST COURSE

Michelle orders the market gazpacho with tomato, cucumber, onion, old bread and older vinegar, while Tony chooses the three young cheeses (dairy, goat, sheep) with honey, chutney and rice crackers.

Stellafly: Why is it important for us to know where our food comes from?

Michelle: I love the local farm-to-table thing. I know, ooh, it’s new, but I love the farm-to-table experience. I once made a mistake on-air of saying factory farms, saying ‘I’m tired of these factory farms.’ I had a guy who lives outside of town, he owns a farm, and he called me at the radio station and said, ‘I want you to come out here and experience eating your food 10 minutes away from the table.’ So, he showed me what it was like to do farm-to-table and I finally understood there are great West Michigan farmers here.

Tony: I think a lot of it is trendy these days and maybe more of a marketing campaign. I think, for me, it’s not o much knowing where my food comes from, because, if I have a craving for pineapple, I’m not going to get it in Hudsonville. Or something to that effect. But I do like the idea of supporting the local businesses.

I’ve always loved the concept of ‘let’s keep the money here’ and the cream will rise to the top. If it’s a good local restaurant and they have good food and they have a local flavor and they cater to people who like that, they’re going to be even more successful. I’m more about supporting the local operations, even if it’s an independently owned franchise. I try to take that into consideration.

Michelle: The beauty of Restaurant Week is maybe people who can’t afford to come out to these somewhat-expensive, high-end restaurants are getting a chance to see this type of food at a really great price. The $25 price is great for people who probably wouldn’t come out and spend the money and now they can.

Stellafly: Do you seek farm-fresh ingredients as part of your dining experience?

Tony: No, I look at that as an added treat, if you will. I look for somebody who knows what to do with the ingredients, and I think that Grand Rapids has gone through such a transformation of successfully catering to a younger population. Younger people have the disposable income, they don’t have the mortgages yet or the kids yet or the ties and they want to go out and spend their money and have a drink. I think that’s why the breweries and the craft beers are doing so well … and also to go eat.

It used to be that Grand Rapids catered to the frugal Dutch mentality that if you paid $8 for something, you had better get a big enough portion that you end up taking home something in a bag.

I think the younger people here demand a quality of life and I think the restaurants are on their list. There are more chefs and a better selection of restaurants than there has ever been, so, if there’s a freshness to it or a local element, that’s just a win-win.

Michelle: I have a bunch of chef friends. Fresh ingredients makes all the difference in a meal. Absolutely. Fresh rather than frozen. I think we’re getting better restaurants, fresher ingredients, better food here. I love the farmers markets. I use all of them – Fulton Street, the one on Plainfield, I’m just a big fan of fresh food.

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SECOND COURSE

Our main course offers up choices ranging from a grilled cheese gnocchi in tomato broth, cherry tomatoes and basil to chorizo verde sausage with frybread, grilled summer squash and braised beans to Bangs Island mussels with a sweet white miso and topped with ratatouille. Michelle orders the sausage, while Tony selects the mussels.

Stellafly: Do you base restaurant choices on farm-to-table offerings?

Michelle: I do. Grove is one of the best restaurants in town. I love the chefs that go to the local farmers markets, absolutely.

Tony: Apples can be grown on 7 Mile and be local, but they can also be sprayed and polished.

Michelle: You’re right.

Stellafly: Are you willing to pay more for a meal if it’s farm-to-table fresh?

Tony: I do if I’m a sucker. If it’s organic or free-range, does it taste any different? I’d like to believe that it does, but no.

Michelle: If you knew everything was from a Grand Rapids farm, though, you would go there, because it’s local.

Tony: No, not if I don’t believe it.

Michelle: Ohhh …

You’re talking to a guy here that hunts and kills his own food a lot. Probably 60 percent of what he eats is … from elk hunting, moose hunting, he has a freezer full of meat. That’s what he does. That’s his life. He eats the fish he catches. The majority of his meals he has slain. It’s the truth.

Tony: We were someplace last night at a restaurant downtown and risotto is a great dish, but the lobster risotto was $48.

Michelle: Uh-uh, no way.

Tony: I make a good living, thank you, but really, honestly?

Michelle: It’s not worth it.

Tony: Are you eating there because it’s a trendy restaurant or it’s local? Is the lobster local? I don’t think so.

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THIRD COURSE

The final course is a selection of desserts that includes assorted chocolate truffles, sweet-fried gnocchi with summer berries, mint and chevre or a Baltimore snowball. Michelle chooses the truffles, while Tony opts for the gnocchi.

Stellafly: Is Grand Rapids worthy of its growing reputation as a destination for foodies?

Michelle: Everything’s kind of exploded in Grand Rapids the last few years – from ArtPrize to the Medical Mile. Things are kind of happening and buzzing here. What I like are these chefs who’ve worked for years at places like, let’s say Gibson’s, and now they’re going out on their own and opening their own places.

You’re finding there’s a higher demand for great restaurants. It’s been a great boom.

Tony: I think timing is everything. I came to Grand Rapids in the ’70s. I remember when you couldn’t get a meal downtown on Sundays because it was rolled up. I think we had the only McDonald’s in the United States that was closed on Sundays. I don’t really think there was an outlet for any culinary experimentation other than meat and potatoes. It was always a meat-and-potatoes town. The chefs were limited as to what they could do. As the town started to develop, and I give a lot of credit to the Grand Action group, there was a lot of planning ahead and things started to move forward.

After Van Andel Arena was built, people started experimenting with more than just bar food. It’s supply and demand.

Michelle: It has a reputation as a beer town. By the way, craft beer is the new wine, and people are demanding good food. I think there are a lot of foodies here with a lot of the new restaurants.

Tony: I think Grand Rapids has earned a reputation as being a food town. I think people in the know are appreciative of it and are working hard to make it better. A lot of people come in from out of town and they rave about the restaurant here. Yes, I think we have established Grand Rapids as being a food town.

And it’s getting better all the time.

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FINAL IMPRESSIONS

Stellafly: Your final impressions of the meal?

Michelle: You know what? I liked the experience. I loved the atmosphere and the experience, and the staff was wonderful. It was a really eclectic mix of food.

Tony: You’ve got two-tops, four-tops people who are enjoying the experience and no one’s in a hurry. Everyone’s having a great time. I love to see that. In Grand Rapids, the sidewalks used to roll up at sundown.

It’s cool to see something like this where you can order a world-class glass of wine at an affordable price or have an assortment of truffles like Michelle just had for dessert … which, by the way, she put in her purse.

I think it’s really impressive. And I think it’s the hardest part they’ve been able to overcome is that people used to treat these places as a special occasion – for an anniversary or a birthday – but that’s not the case anymore. We’re drinking $7 glasses of champagne. I mean, c’mon, most glasses or wine are $9 or $11 anywhere you go. I love it, it’s affordable, I think it’s world-class and I just love the overall experience.

Stellafly: What was your favorite part of the meal?

Michelle: Dessert. The truffles. The wine list was awesome and the champagne was ridiculously great.

Tony: I had the cheese plate and the ratatouille was really good, but my favorite was being able to sample the cheeses as an appetizer as part of a meal. You try something new and you just go, Wow!’ The cheese platter was outstanding.

Stellafly: It’s good to be out and about during Restaurant Week, huh?

Tony: Look at us. Are we thin?

Michelle: We like to eat, we like to eat.

Tony: Plus, we got paid today. I love it!

Sharing Good Times with Good Friends Every Month at Ramona’s Table in Gaslight Village


TABLE TALK

Story: Brian VanOchten
Photos: Ian Anderson

EAST GRAND RAPIDS – In our first installment, Stellafly sits down with food blogger George Aquino and entertainment writer Todd Chance, both of MLive Media GroupGrand Rapids, as part of a monthly series featuring local foodies and prominent personalities at Ramona’s Table boutique deli.

Aquino, originally from Manilla, Philippines, is the vice president and managing director of Amway Hotels and has a popular following as the food critic and blogger for The Grand Rapids Press. Chance, a native of Rockford, Ill., is a former radio show host who serves as Entertainment Concierge for The Press.

Our meal, prepared by chef Matthew Kemper and his expert staff, consists of appetizers and entrees from the remarkable catering menu and a wide selection of gourmet deli salads, sandwiches and dessert items.

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RAMONA’S TABLE
Owners: 
Charlie Palm and Jackie Ziehm

Location: 2232 Wealthy St. SE, Gaslight Village, East Grand Rapids

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday; Private parties available upon request.

Fare: Boutique deli focussed on farm-to-table, locally sourced ingredients in sandwiches, wraps and salads, plus homemade pastries. It offers RT2U carry-out and home-delivered meals every Tuesday and Thursday, and also specializes in catering.

Ambience: Dark wood tables and a fireplace help create a modern and cozy setting for casual lunch and dinner conversation. Order off the menu, pay for it at the counter and food is delivered to the table.

Phone: 616-459-8500
Website: www.ramonastable.com
Facebook: RamonasTable
Twitter: @ramonastable
Email: info@ramonastable.com

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Appetizer round

The first items brought to the table are from the catering menu.

From blue jeans to black tie, Ramona’s Table caters private parties, private airline catering and events on-site and has additional seating capacity outside during the warmer months.

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A couple of platters filled with candied bacon, stuffed cherry tomatoes, chipotle BBQ meatballs and Ramona’s signature boursin cheese bruschetta.

Stellafly: Hey, guys, thanks for joining us. Tell us about the impact social media has on your everyday life.

Chance: I had my own social media network because the morning radio show I hosted was my life. I shared everything that was happening within my life, so, when that went away, it was just a natural extension to still be able to have an audience and still be able to share it. Now, I found the business world and the personal world kind of merge. There’s that overlap between the two, which I kind of like.

You’re still able to get that feeling of connection with people, who are no longer listeners that are now readers, of what’s going on in my personal life. I think George and I are the same where our personal lives and business lives get blurred a lot. It becomes the same.

Aquino: Except, people know my wife’s name, people don’t know his girlfriend’s name.

Chance: (laughter) You know why? It’s your wife.

Aquino: Actually, my Facebook page, during work, I usually don’t mess around with it too much. Except during meals. I started Facebook just as an opportunity to connect with my friends in the Philippines.

Once I started posting what I do and I started my blog, what I’m doing in Grand Rapids, all these strangers started finding me. I’ve maybe friended 100 people, but then I realized when you’re out in the public and I started writing for MLive and The Press, every day, there’s always people who are following me or reading my articles. There’s a mix there. You really mesh your professional and your personal lives.

But if you love what you do and you’re passionate about it, it doesn’t feel like it’s work.

I’m posting what I eat and who I’m out with, but the impact on people, if they see you eating, it’s funny how if people read a positive review that restaurant’s business picks up. I was talking to a chef at Bistro Chloe Elan, who said, “My God, ever since you talked about the fish, we were doing five a day and now we’re doing 20. It’s getting exposure. I’ll always be honest, but my goal is promoting Grand Rapids whether it’s food at Ramona’s, an event or the people around. I’ll promote them because this is where I live.

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Sandwiches/Gourmet Sides

A sampling of sandwiches (all $8.95) and gourmet side salads followed.

The menu price at Ramona’s Table includes choice of homemade roasted redskin potatoes, kettle chips, homemade coleslaw or any of the gourmet salads. Forget the typical bag of pre-processed potato chips and a pickle here.

The mouth-watering selections off the sandwich board:

  • Merry Mary: House roasted turkey, swiss cheese, tomatoes, wild mixed greens and cranberry aioli on cranberry walnut bread.
  • Spring Chicken: Chicken, basil pesto, Havarti cheese, roasted red peppers, balsamic drizzle, lettuce and tomato on homemade tomato and herb focaccia bread.
  • Tandoori Chicken: Spice-rubbed chicken breast, tomato jam, curried yogurt sauce, red onion and wild mixed greens on pita bread.
  • Grilled Pork Tenderloin: This farm-to-table monthly special is comprised of spice-rubbed pork tenderloin medallions, goat cheese, Fuji apples, mixed greens and honey mustard on a french roll.

The gourmet deli salads featured broccoli with almonds and raisins, cheese tortellini with basil pesto and a pleasantly surprising wheatberry salad that everyone was one of the highlights of the entire meal.

Stellafly: Social media is the perfect outlet for a food blogger.

Aquino: I think if you want to make your community a better place to live, you have to be a part of it. There isn’t a better avenue to promote that than social media, because it impacts so many people right away.

Chance: Yeah, what’s the most Twittered thing out there? Pictures of food. It’s like, “Oh my gosh, who cares what you just ate, it’s a grilled-cheese sandwich for crying out loud.” Comedians joke about it, but everybody likes to take pictures of food.

You’re an individual channel or brand. If you have spent the time and proven yourself to be a trustworthy source like George has with food, like I have with entertainment, you’ll follow that person.

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Entrees

A trio of dinner selections from the catering menu is up next.

It features succulent beef tenderloin bourguignon with a rich demi-glaze, mashed potatoes and carrots, grilled swordfish and a fresh salad consisting of mixed greens, squash, apples and blue-cheese crumbles.

The beef dish is love at first bite for Aquino and everyone else at the table.

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Stellafly: Your impressions of the current food scene in Grand Rapids?

Aquino: I just reviewed a restaurant, it’s not published yet, it’ll be in April, and the article is about food in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and what we have here. All of these foods I’ve discovered, whether it’s in Hong Kong or Ko Samui (an island off the eastern coast of Thailand), I’ll compare them to what we have here.

I think there has been progress. Some restaurants might not have a solid menu, but they have two or three items that are really fantastic. We’ve come a long ways. There are naysayers, but, I mean, I travel all the time. A lot of what you will find outside Grand Rapids is already here. You just have to look for it, although you don’t have to look too far. Especially the last five years. You go down Cherry Street, you’ve got a solid caliber of restaurants. They weren’t there six or seven years ago.

I’m starting to see a lot of the elements of fine food here. There’s some things we’re still missing. I think we’re missing a good neighborhood Italian restaurant and we’re short on hip Asian restaurants like you see in L.A. or Miami.

Stellafly: Your favorite type of local cuisine?

Chance: For me, it isn’t a certain type of food. It’s the farm-to-fork concept. That’s my type of eating. Anything that can locally sustain West Michigan and make us self-sufficient, I love that concept.

Aquino: Well, of course, when it comes down to my last meal, it’s going to be something that’s close to my heart.

Filipino food will always be that special place.

Stellafly: So where might someone find good Filipino food here?

Aquino: My house and my friend’s house. I love to cook, I love Thai food, I love Vietnamese food. So, I have certain things that I just love. I also love Italian food. My wife’s Italian. Certainly, Asian food is near and dear to me. I always have to eat rice with a meal a couple of times each week.

You go to New York now and all of the critics there are saying Filipino food is going to be the next big thing. A couple of restaurants I just went to in New York feature Filipino and Thai, and it’s just awesome.

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Dessert round

The fresh-baked items to finish our meal include carrot cake, turtle cookies and butter pecan cheesecake.

The carrot cake ends up being an epiphany for all of us.

Aquino puts the exclamation point on the night with a foodie alert to his blog via Facebook proclaiming co-owner Jackie Ziehm‘s scratch-baked carrot cake is the finest he has ever tasted in West Michigan.

Inside of a half hour, he gets 16 likes and numerous comments about the posting.

Stellafly: Your final impressions of the meal, fellas.

Aquino: I admit I’m a little bit ashamed I haven’t been to Ramona’s Table since I literally live a half mile from here. Word of mouth is so crucial. The wheatberry salad is stunning, the beef bourguignon was just spot-on, just a delicious meal, and I know I just had the best carrot cake in West Michigan this evening.

Those are three items that I would bet my life you would love if you come here.

Chance: “The candied bacon was delicious. I’ve had goat cheese rolled in cocoa and different treats before, but I’ve never had red grapes rolled in goat cheese and pistachios. I would’ve come here for the bruschetta and the goat-cheese-covered grapes alone. If Aquino says it’s the best carrot cake in town, I’ll have to back him up because I don’t even like carrot cake and I ate more than a couple of bites of that.

I really liked the Merry Mary sandwich the best – it’s Thanksgiving in a sandwich. I thought that was phenomenal.

Aquino: I must add that half the items we ate here tonight are from their catering business. I’ve been to enough events that have crappy catering food, so, if that’s an indication of what you serve, that’s something to look forward to.

It’s also a small business, family owned, a husband and wife here every day. We’ve got to support local businesses like this. They dished out high-caliber food. It’s really pretty impressive. I’ll be coming back to Ramona’s Table. I get my coffee just around the corner, so it’s going to be carrot cake and coffee for me. 

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Future guests

Tell us which local foodies (chefs, sommeliers, bloggers) and prominent personalities you’d prefer to share their thoughts on topical issues when Stellafly sits down for a meal at Ramona’s Table.

Please submit suggestions in the comments section.