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 Group–Grand 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.