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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!