Friday, November 25, 2011

Killer Doughnuts. Perfect Apples. A Little Shlock. Robinette's.

On a brilliant blue-sky day just after Thanksgiving, my extended family and I loaded ourselves into a couple of Subarus and made our way to the institution that is Robinette's Apple Haus, on the far north side of Grand Rapids. Robinette's has been serving fresh cider and doughnuts since 1973, and the family has been growing apples since 1911.

Today, Robinette's has spread into a small empire: a barn-sized gift shop selling all manner of occasionally charming schlock; a winery; store-branded popcorn, salad dressings, candies, and syrups; a bread bakery; a fudge-emporium. Throughout, there are constant signs of a place that has grown by addition without edit, to the point that there are no less than 11 typefaces featured on the signage at the front entrance. It's a kind of down-home country chaos that has an edge of interstate-tourist-shop overload.

But the core of the operation, at least as far as I'm concerned, is still apples, cider and doughnuts.

Apples started the ball rolling here, and they are still to die for. Like just about any other produce, apples are best when recently harvested, never trucked, and grown by people who have been growing them for generations. I bought a 1/2 peck of the best Braeburns I've ever eaten, a whole different class of rich and sweet and tart than the Braeburns that make their way here from New Zealand. They've got a half-dozen varietals, all 8 bucks for a half peck. A steal.

The apples not pretty enough to make their way into the retail or wholesale side of the business make their way into cider the old fashioned way, mashed and then squeezed between wooden pallets by an enormous, bright red press. I remember seeing this press in action on school field trip some elementary school year, and I remember that it was 30 feet tall and very scary. It turns out, returning now, that it's not. But it's still pretty damn intimidating. Cider is served in the store hot or cold, totally unadorned, and with all the sweet richness of the apples they grow. It may be the blend, or the freshness, but this is really extraordinary cider.

And the doughnuts. They make a few types, but there's just the one that's worth the time: the cinnamon-sugar. These are cake doughnuts, with all the delicate crumb and moistness that good cake doughnuts have, but they are so light and airy that they eat almost as if they are yeasted and raised, rolled in sugar and cinnamon. If you manage to get one while they are hot, they will change your life, waking you in the middle of the night with intense unrequited longing. Room temp, they're really good, but the brilliance dims a bit.

So three things that totally steal the show. Three amazing successes, exactly the same as they've been forever: apples, cider, doughnuts. And that's where my sizable love for this place ends: the expansions are something to be endured and ignored if possible: the fudge contains as many chemicals and as much corn syrup as something you might pick up at the grocery store; the chocolate icing on the doughnuts comes from a bucket shipped in from who-knows-where. I don't know about the salad dressings or the popcorn - they may very well be brilliant - but to me they chip away at the simple supremacy of the apple-cider-doughnut trinity.

All that extra stuff doesn't kill Robinettes for me. In point of fact, in barely puts a dent in it. Put the distractions out of mind for a bit, get yourself geared up for some serious country charm, partake in the glorious trinity of sweet-autumn goodness in a place that feels like they could have invented it.

Robinette's Apple Haus on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Gilmorazation of Grand Rapids: Red Jet Cafe

The Gilmore Collection has taken root in West Michigan, slowly expanding an empire of upscale restaurants in gorgeous renovated settings, and adding a cosmopolitan sheen to a town that's been steadily reinventing itself for decades. Their restaurants are not the best in town, and I don't think they ever set out to be. But they are near the top of the heap, predictable, generally well managed, and heavily invested in getting the details right.

Red Jet Cafe is in the middle of the Gilmore pack - somewhere between the placid elegance of Rose's and the corporate-edgy Bobarinos. Like many of the other buildings in the collection, Red Jet is renovation project. History here is a little murky, but near as I can tell, this was built as a bank sometime in the early part of the last century, was converted over to the Creston Library in the 60s or 70s, and in 2007 began life as Red Ball Jet Cafe. Legal protests from the remnants of the Red Ball Jets athletic shoe company forced a name change in 2009, when it dropped the Ball and gained the name it currently holds. The building is gorgeous and modern against a backdrop of early 20th century elegance.

Red Jet sports an interesting menu - there's a lot to do with coffee, and breakfast, and wood fired pizzas, and smoothies, and crepes, some of which are on the menu, and some which aren't. And also salads. And booze. To add to the confusion, the sign still says Red Ball, and the web site says Red Jet Coffeehouse. I love all of these things, but even so, there's a lack of identity to this place that is less than ideal - it's as if the menu was designed by a committee filled equally with society types and neighborhood hipsters.

That said, what they do here, they do over the top, and they do it well. The smoothies are excellent - more like milkshakes than anything, but I'm not arguing. My eldest daughter ordered a crepe that would make the French cringe, but was very tasty - filled with scrambled eggs, sausage, maple syrup, and mozzarella. French toast here means a block of custard-coated brioche, covered in berries, drenched in Michigan maple syrup. The pizza I ordered was also well-executed, if a little less showy, with a crust that gave general appearances of being made in house and a subtle, fresh sauce. The one real miss was the arugla/artichoke dip. The dip: awesome. The bagel chips provided for dipping: sad. Would have loved a fresh sliced baguette instead.

Service was spotty, and a bit slow, but the waitstaff was friendly and engaging when they showed up. A little  trouble remembering to bring the check, but given the beautiful spread of the space, and the breeze on a Grand Rapids summer afternoon, waiting was not such a painful experience.

I have seen some anger directed at Gilmore for his particular brand of corporate shellac, but I think the good here far outweighs the bad. These are good restaurants, a preservation of Grand Rapids history, and a strong benchmark against which other local restaurants will be measured.

  Red Jet Cafe on Urbanspoon


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