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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