Have Appetite, Will Travel: A Guide to Grand Rapids Restaurant Week 2014

Restaurant Week Grand Rapids is happening August 13-24, 2014. Sixty restaurants offer three-course tasting menus featuring their culinary team’s skills and the West Michigan harvest. Molly Crist, Experience Grand Rapids blogger and Onward Travel tour operator, fills us in on this year’s RWGR highlights.

Photo courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

Photo courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

Grand Rapidians love food, beer, wine, and getting out on the town… which makes Restaurant Week one of the best times of the year in our corner of the Mitten. It’s time to head to West Michigan and warm a restaurant seat while soaking up the waning summer because RWGR is happening Wednesday, August 13 to Sunday, August 24. Read on for highlights of this year’s event that combines creative chefs, a range of beverages, the peak of Michigan’s harvest, and summertime revelry.

Great food for a terrific value

Three-course menus are $28 per person, though you’ll find two for $28 at several restaurants: Lindo Mexico, Rezervoir Lounge, Fajita Republic and Osta’s Lebanese Cuisine. Check out Fajita Republic’s DIY guacamole – fresh haas avocados with a selection of toppings (spiced pepitas, pico de gallo, bacon, chiles, oh my!) that you can mix until your heart’s content.

Perfect timing

August is the height of harvest in West Michigan. It’s the best time of the year for farmers markets and gardeners (holy summer squash!), which means locavore chefs are smiling, too. RWGR menus celebrate the bounty and your taste buds will, too. From sweet corn, to heirloom tomatoes, to Great Lake fish, it doesn’t get any fresher.

Food and beverage pairing

Alambre_Especial1

Photo courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

This year’s theme is Perfect Pairings. GR’s reputation as Beer City USA is well established with fifteen craft breweries and more popping up all the time. The Great Lake’s ability to insulate coastal farmland, keeping it cool in summer and preventing a bitter freeze in winter, means Michigan has a climate for wine production, and fortunately many local producers are creating delicious wines. Distilleries are popping up around the state, with creative spirits growing in popularity. To celebrate Michigan’s status as a beverage-producing-triple-threat – not to mention all the carefully roasted and brewed coffees – RWGR’s theme emphasizes the art of pairing food and drink.

CitySen is featuring a Southern-Style American menu, from Fried Green Tomatoes, to Chicken and Waffles, to Pecan Pie. Try the Baby Back Ribs braised in Bell’s Oberon paired with a pint of Oberon mixed with Founders’ Rubaeus, a good complement to the fruity house-made BBQ sauce.  Bar Divani has an eclectic, flavor-forward-menu that offers an appetizer, salad, and entree – try starting with the Pulled Pork Rangoons with Sesame Chili Sauce, paired with a glass of Noel Bougrier Vouvray.

Local beverages are in the food, too!

In addition to pairing food and drink, chefs are cooking with locally-made beverages. At Grand Rapids Brewing Company, you can enjoy Michigan’s only certified organic brewery and chef-inspired, gourmet cuisine. The Brewer’s Flan on GRBC’s RWGR menu is a chocolate stout custard with cocoa nibs, salted caramel and mint, no doubt delicious with some stout in your glass, too. The Rubeaus Cheesecake at Licari’s is quite decadent, too, with Amoretti Cookie crust and a suggested pairing of Ferris Coffee Nicaraguan brew or Atwater’s Decadent Chocolate Stout.

Do good while dining

Photo courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

Photo courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

One dollar from each meal goes towards a scholarship fund at the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College. Since 2010, RWGR participating restaurants have donated almost $75,000 to the fund. It’s all about growing our local food culture in Grand Rapids, from farms to classrooms.

Cocktail competition

Local mixologists at participating RWGR restaurants are shaking it up for the Grand Cocktail competition that debuts August 6. Mixologists will vie to win an all-expense paid trip to Woodford Reserve in Kentucky. You can participate by sipping cocktails around town and voting at restaurantweekgr.com. Start at Judson’s at the B.O.B. with a sip of their Bufala Negra, a seasonal concoction of Woodford Reserve, basil, brown sugar, ginger beer and balsamic brown sugar simple syrup. Cheers, indeed!

Be a part of the fun

Beyond the tantalizing food choices, RWGR is an annual dining highlight because of the bustling atmosphere and feeling of culinary-inspired revelry.

Take advantage of an opportunity to visit a spot that might normally be out of your price range, a newly opened restaurant, or a place you’ve never been. invite your friends and enjoy wonderful food, a bustling city, a walkable downtown with many dining choices, and al fresco dining options to make the most of the beautiful summer nights ahead.

Do you plan to check out Grand Rapids Restaurant Week? 

Experience Authentic Mexican Flavors at Grand Rapids Restaurant Week

Restaurant Week in Grand Rapids is coming up August 14-24! Today, Kirsetin Morello of Grand Rapids gives us a behind-the-scenes look at one of the participating restaurants. Read from her below and learn more by visiting ExperienceGR.com.

Alambre Especial. Photo courtesy of El Granjero Mexican Grill

When Mercedes Lopez-Duran was a little girl, she imagined she might go to the head of the class when she grew up—as a teacher. Instead, today she’s the head of a thriving, local restaurant. Lopez-Duran is the owner and creative chef at El Granjero, a Grand Rapids restaurant that prides itself on serving delicious, authentic Mexican dishes like grilled cactus, and bright pink, sweet Jamaica (pronounced ha-my-cah) juice made from the Jamaica flower.

Lopez-Duran’s path to restaurant ownership and culinary creativity took a few twists and turns. As a young woman she entered the business world rather than teaching, working as a secretary in an accounting office. She later pursued schooling to become an accountant herself, but married before she embarked on a career filled with numbers and balance sheets. Once married, Lopez-Duran stayed home and it was more than a decade before she returned to the workforce.

Fifth Anniversary ribbon cutting at El Granjero. Photo courtesy of El Granjero Mexican Grill

When Lopez-Duran decided to return to work, she ditched the accounting idea and turned to her passion: cooking. She inquired at restaurants in Mexico City, but without restaurant experience was only able to find work as a dishwasher. Her new manager assured her that if she worked hard she could rise through the ranks. Such a roadblock might have dissuaded a less determined person, but not Lopez-Duran. Three days after she began her new dishwashing job, she received her first promotion.

Mercedez Lopez-Duran and her daughter, Paola R. Mendivil. Photo courtesy of El Granjero Mexican Grill

In time, Lopez-Duran moved from Mexico City to the United States, and took a job waitressing—her first time serving tables—at Tacos El Ganadero in Grand Rapids.  (At 5’ tall, she didn’t meet the requirement for Mexico City restaurants that waiters be at least 5’ 1”!) When the owner of Tacos El Ganadero decided to close the restaurant and move out of state, Lopez-Duran was concerned about the other employees losing their jobs and decided to buy the restaurant rather than allowing it to close. “Working in the kitchens, my mother always thought about having her own restaurant one day,” says her daughter and El Granjero co-owner, Paola R. Mendivil. “ She just didn’t know it would be so soon!”

Although it’s quite a leap from waitress to owner and cook, Lopez-Duran was undaunted. By that time, she’d worked in restaurants for 15 years and she understood how to run the kitchen. “All the time I was working,” she says, “I was learning.”

Lopez-Duran and Mendivil changed the restaurant’s name to El Granjero, which means “the farmer” in Spanish, to reflect their desire to have farm fresh ingredients on the menu. Lopez-Duran’s creativity didn’t stop with her initial menu overhaul: she still seeks inspiration for new dishes today. On a recent trip to the Mexico City region, she found exciting, new, authentic dishes to try, including quesadillas made with Jamaica flower.

Customers can try her inspired creations during Restaurant Week in Grand Rapids, which runs from 8/14/13 – 8/24/13. For just $25, two people will be able to sample several different tastes during a 3-course authentic Mexican dinner that includes a shared appetizer, two main dishes (one selection includes the quesadilla with Jamaica flower), and two delectable desserts

Molcajete. Photo courtesy of El Granjero Mexican Grill

For a sweet treat, try their Fresas con Crema, which showcases Michigan strawberries (it’s similar to strawberries and cream, but with a slightly different sweet sauce). The Fresas con Crema is Mendivil’s favorite dessert but Lopez-Duran favors the Chongos Zamoranos, a sort of sweet, curdled milk made with whole milk, sugar, and cinnamon. During Restaurant Week, you can try either, or both—or try the third dessert option, a Mexican-style gelatin that made with spiked eggnog, called Gelatina con Rompope.

Whichever option you choose, you can’t lose at El Granjero. With a farm-fresh focus and customer-oriented service, you’ll be sure to enjoy an authentic meal from the Mexico City region, right here in Grand Rapids. And don’t be surprised if Lopez-Duran herself takes your order—she’s as likely to wait and clean tables as she is to cook and create dishes in the kitchen. “I like doing everything,” she says. “I don’t like things to be the same all the time. I like to be moving.”

El Granjero shared this Fresh Cactus Salad recipe for our readers:

El Granjero's Fresh Cactus Salad recipe. Click to enlarge.

Click here to find a list of all the restaurants participating in Restaurant Week, along with the special menus they’ll be offering.

Other profiles in our Restaurant Week series:

Pat Wise, Executive Chef at Grove

For more things to do in Grand Rapids, visit michigan.org.

Kirsetin Morello is a writer, author, and blogger who’s called Grand Rapids home for more than a decade. She’s enthusiastic about yoga, basketball and travel, and is a reluctant runner. Kirsetin, her husband, and their three children love to explore everything West Michigan has to offer. You can find her online at www.KirsetinMorello.com.