Monday
Mar182013

What's the BIGA Deal?

I’ve read that the Inuit people have over 100 words to describe snow. I feel the same way about pizza.

For a host of reasons I’ve spent the last two years avoiding one topic. Pizza. I’ve come to appreciate that talking pizza is like discussing politics or religion… or in the case of Ann Arbor, both. Most of us were imprinted at a young age. Our opinions of good pizza are mired in emotion and sentiment. I grew up ‘Motor City’ which means I believe in the big three; Buddy’s Loui’s and Shields…square (technically rectangular) Sicilian deep dish. My brother in law is from Phili. He prays to an extra large, thin and foldable circle served by the slice and covered with Parmesan and “Son of Italy” seasoning. For the record, both rock.

Last fall rumors about [James Beard recognized] Chef Luciano Del Signore bringing his Pizzeria Biga concept to Ann Arbor started a meditation on Neapolitan Pizza. It’s suddenly everywhere. Now that the rumors about Biga are confirmed I’ve decided to put pen to paper (or pixels to screen).

 

Guido goes Gucci

While Pizza is a sacred thing, it’s forever been a culinary outcast, relegated to the lower end of the food-glamor hierarchy.  Glamor be damned. Pizza’s like the honey badger, he don’t care. Over the last fifty years this “outcast” has grown into a multi-billion dollar category. Unable to ignore dollar signs, the culinary elite have started paying attention to pizza.

Like most great trends, it started on the coasts. One brand in particular, CPK, has single handedly elevated pizza from fast food gut-fill to an affordable luxury item (AKA casual dining). A decade later we’re witnessing a new pizza-elite arms race. Celebrated chefs have joined the fight.  For some, it’s an empire building brand extension (Wolfgang Puck’s Pizzeria and Cuccisa and frozen pizzas). For others it’s a savvy tactic to offset declines in fine dining (Chef Luciano’s Biga). Regardless of motivation, it’s a thing.  If you don’t believe me read this 2009 collective piece from New York Magazine. 

 

 

 

This is not your Father’s Oldsmobile / Dr. Atkins Kills the Carb / Pizza Rises Again

It’s important to acknowledge that as the market has evolved, so has the product.

Case and Point: I’ve made my crush on Vinsetta Garage public. When I learned that they served pizza I assumed it would be akin to Buddy’s.  This is Detroit of coarse; they serve Casserole dishes of Mac-n-Cheese to single diners. It seemed predestined that it would be dense, comma-inducing Sicilian pizza. Not so fast. While they are 100% Motor City, this is post-bail-out Detroit. Everyone is leaner and smarter. The studied option was to install a stone hearth and sell a more refined pizza (no offense intended to Buddy’s). Well played Curt and Ann.

 So what is Neapolitan Pizza?

There’s a few critical attributes that define success for the Neapolitan Pizza. 

The Dough     Pizza dough has a fairly simple ingredient list. Still, what seems “simple” quickly becomes a complicated science. Neapolitan Pizza dough is graduate level dough science.  The result is a light, chewy, richly flavored dough with huge cell structure. When done well it’s marvelous. The name of Chef Luciano’s pizzeria is taken from the foundation of this dough, Biga.  In the Spirit of lazy journalism here’s a fine explanation compliments of Wikipedia:

Biga is a type of pre-ferment used in Italian baking. Many popular Italian breads, such as ciabatta, are made using a biga. Using a biga adds complexity to the bread's flavour and is often used in breads which need a light, open texture with holes. Apart from adding to flavour and texture, a biga also helps to preserve bread by making it less perishable. Biga techniques were developed after the advent of baker's yeast as bakers in Italy moved away from the use of sourdough and needed to recover some of the flavour which was given up in this move.

Bigas are usually dry and thick compared to the French poolish or a sourdough starter. This thickness is believed to give a Biga its characteristic slightly nutty taste. Biga is usually made fresh every day, using a small amount of baker's yeast in a thick dough, which varies from 37% to 50% water by total weight or 60% to 100% as a bakers percentage, and is allowed to ferment from 12 to 16 hours to fully develop its flavour.

After fermenting overnight, biga is then added to the bread dough in place of, or in addition to, regular baker's yeast, depending on the recipe, and the bread dough is mixed, kneaded, raised, shaped, proofed, and baked like any other yeast dough.

 

What’s On Top     The second key to Neapolitan Pizza is in the way it is topped. The American tradition of mounding cheese and meats would weigh down the light and delicate dough, preventing a proper rise. If there’s any sauce at all, it’s a minimalist painting of crushed tomatoes. More common is a drizzle of olive oil. The rich, almost nutty dough flavor lends itself to more savory pairings.  The most widely recognized is a Margherita Pizza, with a sparing few dollops of fresh mozzarella and fresh basil. I’ve become a fan of more adventuresome flavors, like the “Countryman” at Michael Isabella’s Graffiato in Washington, DC (black truffle, fontina, farmed soft egg). Locally we call that Tartufo.

The Oven     The final step is in cooking method. All dough perform better when cooked on stone. The slab holds a hotter, more even heat that conventional ovens. And it takes a significant shock of heat to activate this dough. Most pizza hearths remain between 800 and 1000 degrees. In addition to quickly activating the rise, it cooks the pizza much faster, some as quick as three minutes versus the 20-30 minutes it can take to fully cook a Buddy’s deep dish; another smart reason for table-turning restaurateurs to pick Neapolitan.

 

The Neapolitan Pizza Movement in Ann Arbor

In relatively short order we’ve gone from zero to multiple high profile options. Here’s a run-down.

Mani   Yes, I’m a fan boy. Still, you need to give Adam and the crew props. They’re more than just pretty faces. They perfectly executed on the ideal.  The dough at Mani is lustful. The topping combinations are inspired. While I’m addicted to Arugula & Prosciutto, all are worth note.  Highlights include Red Onions & Pistachio (red onion & pistachio, Goat cheese, rosemary, chile flakes) or Burrata & Balsamic (burrata cheese, garlic spinach, balsamic onions).

And while this is a post about pizza, I would be doing you a dis-service if I did not mention a few of the other Mani highlights. Of coarse the pickled tomatoes have become an obligatory signature. For me, the charred Octopus has become a moral imperative; the lemon and celery add an acidic punch and crunchy bite that perfectly partner the mellow and chewy grilled sea creature. I’m also a big fan of the Branzino (fish).

NeoPapalis      For an entirely different reason, I am exceptionally intrigued by NeoPapalis. It’s one thing for Mani to flaunt a high fashion concept. It’s another thing entirely for a man who’s made his career selling deep-dish pizza to suddenly create a well financed foray into a ”thin crust.”   

For those out of the know, Neo Papalis is the latest project by Joe Sheena, the man behind’s Detroit’s famed deep-dish Pizza Papalis. Sheena is a savvy businessman. His Neapolitan pizza is more than personal interest. He’s investing in the next big thing. Whereas Mani is a boutique, Neo Papalis represents mass-market commercialization. His ovens are gas and steel versus Mani’s brick and fire. The space is designed for high-volume and replication. This would not exist if there were not a compelling business plan. Neo Papalis is proof that Neapolitan pizza has officially gone main stream.

Pizzeria Biga (opening Summer 2013)     Perhaps the bigger story is that Washtenaw will soon have restaurants worth visiting.  Biga joins Café Zola and another yet-to-be named concept in the still under-construction Arbor Hills Crossing (formerly Arlington Square, formerly Goodman Oldmobile, Cadillac & Isuzu).

For those of you who don’t venture Beyond Washtenaw County, Chef Luciano Del Signore owns a celebrated fine-dining Italian bistro in Southfield named Bacco Ristorante. After the financial crash of '08 he decided to diversify and open a casual dining concept. Enter Pizzeria Biga. 

Many will compare Biga to Mani. On the surface they are very similar concepts. Emotionally Chef Luciano and Adam Baru connect with their community in very different tones. I am confident that both can thrive simultaneously. The fact that they will exist in such separate ecosystems, downtown and suburban, lends tremendous distance to their competition.

What do you think?

Monday
Mar042013

MORTALITY BITES

What are the healthiest restaurants in Ann Arbor? Hold that thought. Author’s Note: If you’re a twenty-something ‘kid’ who clicked through from Damn-Arbor look away. This doesn’t concern you. You’re young and healthy and indestructible. Your body doesn’t creek. Fuck you and your skinny jeans. Well all right, since you’re here, scroll to the end and respond to my restaurant picks.

Click to read more ...

Sunday
Feb172013

Cocktail Hour

If wine is romantic, cocktails are sexy.

I've had an affinity for cocktails since childhood. I'd like to believe I come by it naturally. My maternal grandparents had a daily 4:00 PM Manhattan ritual. When I was lucky enough to visit their house during "cocktail hour" I was served a Cherry Coke, before the modern brand extension, made with grenadine. We would relax on their mid-century mod furniture, listen to the radio and enjoy some creamed herring or Schuller's Cheese on Ritz crackers [insert Wes Allen video cut here]. I couldn't fathom anything more decadent or sophisticated.

As much as I cherish the Manhattan memories, I’ll admit that my personal drinking career started rather humbly with cheap beer, wine coolers and Zima. The only liquor I drank came in the form of a shot, commonly Pepper Stoli served with a pickle (Sveiks!). My idea of a cocktail was actually a mixed drink (gin & tonic). 

In my twenties Vince Vaughn and the Movie Swingers introduced me to the Martini. A few years later a buddy grooming his taste for scotch got me into whiskey. We explored the global regions of mash and debated cigar pairings. While I still don't care for "Peaty" scotch the process lead me to Bourbon, my one true love, which in turn brought me back to the Manhattan. Life comes full circle.

 

MIXOLOGY

In the last 2-3 years the sport of cocktails and the art of mixology have gone from modest fad to full blown social craze. New restaurants can't open without a well-planned cocktail strategy. A host of craft distilleries are cropping up.  And most notably, a new breed of artisan bartenders have started opening establishments dedicated to the fine art of mixology. These drink houses are so thoughtful and skilled that referring to them simply as "bars" is naive and limiting.  

Which brings me to the purpose of this post. It's been brought to my attention that I am not "A2Whiskeyboy." More than one reader has challenged my opinion of cocktails at local restaurants.  In retrospect, using the word “Epic” to describe Lena’s cocktail menu was a bit aspirational.

So what is an Epic Cocktail?

It’s appropriate to share that just as I am not a “Foodie,” I do not consider myself  a “Mixologist.” I enjoy good flavor, witty banter and a ‘spirited’ buzz.  I enjoy cocktails.  Having said that, I do not have the time nor inclination to research twenty versions of bitters, let alone brew my own. When someone turns me on to something great I am forever grateful.  

Back to the matter at hand…In an effort to separate genuine artifact from hipster showmanship I decided it was time to do some research on cocktails. As a public service in my on-going campaign to eradicate douche bags everywhere I thought I share what I know.

 

HISTORY LESSONS & RESEARCH

(fair warning – this section gets dense. If you’re not in the mood for a thick read scroll down to the next section)

For the purpose of this piece, a Cocktail will be defined as an alcoholic mixed drink that contains three or more ingredients—at least one of the ingredients must be a spirit. An alcoholic drink containing only two ingredients (EG Rum & Coke) is simply a “Mixed Drink.”

As you might imagine, there are literally hundreds of “experts” on the topic and even more opportunistic blowhards. Luckily almost every reputable thought leader references two specific tombs. Written nearly one hundred years apart, these two books shape a significant portion of the modern cocktail.

The first, published in 1862, is “The Bartender’s Guide” by Jerry Thomas AKA “the Father of American Mixology.” Many reprints refer to this book as the Bon-Vivant Companion. Mixologists often list this book as a key inspiration and invaluable reference. I dare say the punch revival owes its entire existence to this book.  Thomas is also credited with inventing the Tom Collins.

Understand, this book is almost entirely recipes. There are fantastic step-by-step instructions for brewing, blending and concocting tens, if not hundreds of “social drinks.” Given it’s age and command of nineteenth King’s English I can’t help but imagine it as a steam-punk era reality show.  And while the recipes are fascinating, I was more entranced by the historical social commentary woven within the Preface.

“In all of the ages of the world, and in all countries, men have indulged in “Social drinks.” They have always possessed themselves of some popular beverage apart from water and those of the breakfast and tea table. Whether it is judicious that mankind should continue to indulge in such things, or whether it would be wiser to abstain from all enjoyments of that character, it is not our province to decide. We leave that question to the moral philosopher. We simply contend that a relish for “social drinks” is universal; that those drinks exist in greater variety in the United States than any other country in the world; and that he, therefore, who proposes to impart o these drink not only the most palatable but the most wholesome characteristics on which they be made susceptible, is a genuine public benefactor. That is exactly our object in introducing this little volume to the public. We do not propose to persuade any man to drink, for instance, a punch, or a julep, or a cocktail, who has never happened to make the acquaintance of those refreshing articles under circumstances calculated to induce more intimate relations; but we do propose to instruct those whose “intimate relations” in question render them somewhat fastidious, in the daintiest fashions thereunto pertaining.

…It struck us, then, that a list of all the social drinks – the composite beverages, if we may call the so – of America, would really be one of the curiosities of jovial literature; and that if it was combined with a catalogue of the mixtures common to other nations, and made practically useful by the addition of a concise description of the various process for “brewing” each, it would be a “blessing to mankind.” There would be no excuse for imbibing, with such a book at hand, the “villainous compounds” of bar-keeping Goths and Vandals, who know no more of the amenities of bon-vivant existence than a Hottentot can know of the bouquet of champagne.”

 

As I’ve mentioned, the book then moves on to recipe after recipe. It’s a wonderful resource for researching ingredients. That said, it lacks context or discussion. For more commentary on the subject I prefer David Embury’s 1948 classic, “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.” Like A2GastroBoy, Embury is not a bartender. He is a discerning patron of the art. This distinction creates a more studied meditation on the topic.

In Embury’s book he outlines a few core tenants that, while not totally without exception, articulate what many may intuitively understand. Like Thomas’ book, this is very much a recipe book, though Embury adds a significant amount of rationale for each section. He opens by defining his six-part criteria for a cocktail. In the absence of a formal governing body, I will adopt these criteria as the definition of a cocktail.

  1. It must whet the appetite, not dull it
  2. It should stimulate the mind as well as the appetite
  3. It must be pleasing to the palate
  4. It must also please the eye
  5. It must have sufficient alcoholic flavor to be readily distinguishable from papaya juice, yet must not assault the palate with the force of an atomic bomb
  6. Finally (and remember I am speaking now of cocktails only and not aperitif wines) it must be well iced

Embury goes on to define three necessary ingredients.

  1. The Base: “This is the fundamental and distinguishing ingredient of the cocktail and must always comprise more than 50 percent of the entire volume…Strictly speaking, the base must always consist of spirituous liquors – whiskey, gin, rum, brandy, etc.”
  2. The Modifying Agent: “It is difficult to find a word that exactly describes this ingredient (or group of ingredients) and, for want of a better term, I have called it the modifying agent or modifier. It is the ingredient, in combination with the base spirituous liquor, which characterizes the cocktail. Without this ingredient, the base, no matter how violently shaken and how thoroughly chilled, would still not be a cocktail but would remain merely chilled liquor… in general, modifying agents may be divided into three classes:
    1. Aromatics, including the aromatic wines such as French and Italian vermouth, Dubonnet, Byrrh, etc.,; bitter of various types and misc. aromatics.
    2. Fruit Juices with or without sugar
    3. Miscellaneous “Smoothing” agents – sugar, cream, eggs, etc.
  3. Special Flavoring and Coloring Agents: There include all the various cordials or liqueurs as well as non-alcoholic fruit syrups. Moreover, the ingredient used as a modified in one cocktail may be used solely for incidental flavoring or coloring in another…Of all the factors involved in the mixing of cocktails, flavoring agents are undoubtedly the most abused. They should never dominate or overpower the flavor of the base. The special flavoring agents should be measured by drops or dashes, not by ponies or jiggers.

The book goes through nearly every conceivable drink category, providing background and offering multiple variations on core recipes.  It’s a fascinating read. And while there are likely hundreds of recipes in the book, Embury lays claim that six basic cocktails would satisfy the majority of all drinkers. I’ve listed the six basic cocktails below.

 

Martini

7 parts English gin

1 part French (dry) vermouth

Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, twist lemon peel over the top and serve garnished with an olive, preferably one stuffed with any kind of nut.

 

Manhattan

5 parts American whiskey

1 part Italian (sweet) vermouth

dash of Angostura bitters to each drink

Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass and serve garnished with a maraschino cherry.

 

Old Fashioned

12 parts American whiskey

1 part simple syrup

1-3 dashes Angostura bitters to each drink

In an old-fashioned glass, add bitters to simple syrup and stir. Add about 1 ounce of whiskey and stir again. Add two cubes of cracked, but not crushed, ice and top off with the rest of the whiskey. Twist lemon peel over the top and serve garnished with the lemon peel and a maraschino cherry.

 

Daiquiri

8 parts white Cuban rum

2 parts lime juice

1 part simple syrup

Shake with lots of finely crushed ice and strain well into a chilled cocktail glass.

 

Sidecar

8 parts Cognac or Armagnac

2 parts lemon juice

1 part Cointreau or triple sec

Shake vigorously with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon if desired.

 

Jack Rose

8 parts Applejack

2 parts lemon juice

1 part Grenadine

Shake vigorously with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon if desired.

[edit]me juice).

 

To fully address the subject of spirits and the craft of cocktails one should study the grain bill for each base, the chemistry of modifying agents and the sensory impact of each coloring and flavor ingredient. That’s too involved for this piece. I will, however, comment on two external attributes of the cocktail.

 

Ice

David Embury makes it clear that a cocktail should be well iced. In whiskey circles there’s a pretty heated debate over whether or not one should use ice to drink a fine whiskey. Purists argue that the melting ice dilutes the subtle flavor notes, thereby undermining the experience. There’s even a line of “whiskey stones” that one can keep in the freezer. You achieve a chill without watering down the flavor. Yes, I know sipping whiskey is a different sport than cocktails. Stay wih me.

I’m an “on the rocks” kind of guy, and not because I’m low-brow, which I most certainly am, but because I enjoy the evolving experience of  a drink with melting ice. I find it pleasant to start the ride by spiking my spirit with the full strength sting of a good Bourbon. As my mood warms and the ice melts, the drink moves from a sipping elixir to a more sizable gulp. It’s a process. That same principle can apply to cocktails. 

Recently Ice has become a front line weapon in the arms race of mixology showmanship. It started with large 1.5" square blocks of ice. The theory being, the larger mass retains it's temperature longer thereby slowing the melt and reducing the dilution, still providing a palatable chill. Pretty cool. Very quickly that grew into a fad of flavored ice cubes. The best local examples are at Lena. The execution can be hit or miss. I absolutely loved the peach fruit sphere used to chill a drink. It became a delicious dessert. Conversely, I was unsettled sucking on a spent lce cube that contained lime-mint juice.  The “Rad or Fad” jury is till out.

Finally, on a recent trip I was formally introduced to the “ice sphere.” The sphere takes the large block science and add a sense of artistry. Apparently this sport began in Japan where bartenders hand-carve the sphere from square blocks. It’s unthinkable to service an entire bar with hand carving. Check out this video where it takes a well trained bar keep four minutes to make a single sphere [ LINK ]. As you might imagine, there are now plenty of opportunistic marketers ready to sell you pre-fab ice sphere molds. Is this "Rad or Fad?" Discuss. 

 

Glass Ware

I could write an entire piece about glassware. It’s an area of total obsessive fascination, further fueled by sky mall catalogs. For now I’ll simply say this…don’t go crazy. Standards of identity exist for a reason. A single splash of champagne to finish a drink does not warrant a flute. And don’t go cheap. The glass matters. Just as wine should be served in Reidel, don't serve my bourbon in Sysco-grade glassware. My final thought on glassware is this…  can we all agree that the coupe is utterly emasculating?

 

LOCAL MIXOLOGISTS / DRINKING IN ANN ARBOR

Thirsty? There’s quite a few fine local establishments ready to make you a cocktail.  Here’s just a few. Some are simply Restaurants with tremendous bars, others are dedicated Cocktail Houses. All are worthwhile watering holes. 

The Bar at 327 Braun Court: I recently read a piece that referred to the interior as “the living room of the coolest person you know.” Seriously? You need better friends (we love you Eric. Now wash your hair). All joking aside, Bravo to the team at Braun Ct. Not only are they single-handedly leading the fight to brink back punch, they refuse to rest on their laurels. Every few months they reinvent the menu with new ideas and new flavors. Well done.

Raven’s Club: Yes, I’m publicly suggesting that folks visit the Raven’s Club.  And no, I didn’t hit my head. It’s clear that the team at 207 South Main are dedicated to continuous improvement. And on a flattering note, there’s rumor of a Pappy Van Winkle bottle on site.

Pacific Rim: Before the renovation that doubled their space I would never consider Pacific Rim a drinking destination. Today it’s a highlight on the Main Street area circuit.  Pacific Rim bartenders apply the same meticulous attention to detail that made their dinner menu menu a success. The staff is exceptionally knowledgeable and well skilled.

The Grange: We cried when Bartender Jen left. Luckily her successors have done her proud. If you've never had it you MUST try the  GKB Manhattan (Bacon infused Bulleit Bourbon, maple syrup, blood orange bitters, brandied cherries). I'm also a fan of their GGGinger (fresh mint, ginger syrup, lime juice, Tanqueray, ginger beer, crystallized ginger). As a bonus, every time you walk up the stairs you get to pretend you're a pirate (seriously, doesn't the banister remind you of a boat, climbing up to the captains watch?). 

The Last Word: The fine lads from Big Ten Burrito fame appear to have successfully revitalized the Good Night Gracy’s space. While I’ve yet to visit, they’re getting high marks for their version of the craft cocktail scene. The "kids" in my office rave.   

Café Habana: There’s a healthy debate in town regarding the quality of drink at Habana. Some believe they specialize in exotic Latin-American classics. Some argue they’re watered-down fruit juice. I tend to sway towards the former, though I recognize opportunities. In either case, the space is fabulous and it was the first bar (in it’s former location) to bring the Caprihania to Ann Arbor.

Café Felix: Why, I still remember when they had yet to score a liquor license and only the bourgeois hispter-want-to-bes went to Felix - so they could sit outside smoking and scribbling in their Emo journals.  Today there’s a few reasons to like Felix. The latest reason will be its’ familial connection the Detroit’s soon-to-open distillery, Two James.

Bab's Underground Lounge: This choice will likely illicit debate from the craft cocktail elitists, still I think Bab is a fabulous barkeep. Her decision to offer pitchers of booze is a riot. She even broke down and posted a sign. Now all the drunk undergrads who wander off campus can find her. 

Where else? This is by no means a complete list. Where do you drink? What do you drink?

 

Final Note (AKA Snark attack): While I’ll admit my research is not yet exhausted, I can’t find any pragmatic correlation between armbands and the quality of cocktails. Can anyone help? I’m sure I’m missing something. It can’t truly be a hooky gimmick, right?

Tuesday
Feb052013

Eat Meat Repeat | Meat Week 2013

Perhaps you’ve seen the hash tag on Twitter. Or maybe you saw the brew-ha-ha-ha on HuffPo when PETA demonstrated at the Washington DC chapter’s event on Friday  [ LINK ]. Maybe you’re blissfully oblivious. In any case, I’m here to tell you that Meat Week is REAL!

Here’s the quick history lesson… Eight years ago Florida co-workers, Erni Walker and Chris Cantey, created a week-long event devoted to meat, more specifically, barbecue. Per their site, “Meat Week is a national holiday that started in 2005. Each January, for 8 consecutive [days or] nights [starting the last Sunday on the month], people across the country gather over piles of BBQ. In every participating city, there is a devoted Captain who creates the schedule of restaurants. Each city develops their own traditions, but Meat Week typically focuses on good ol’ American BBQ: Pork, ribs, brisket, barbecued chicken, and anything else you can smoke and smother in sauce.”

Pretty cool, right? I think it’s downright inspired.

Meat Week Founders Chris & Erni (yes, Erni is the chick)

I learn about Meat Week shortly after the 2012 festivus.  I mourned missing it and vowed to celebrate Meat Week in 2013. Here's the rub. There's no Ann Arbor Meat Week Chapter. And while being a captain does sound like an admiral position, my life is already ridiculously over committed. The last thing I needed was another project. Besides, as a few reads have alleged, I’m anti-social. Luckily the fine folks at Meet Week Headquarters anticipated my predicament and created an option for folks like me…

There are those who walk this earth alone, wandering from town to town, determined to find the best BBQ this land has to offer. One man's Meat Week cannot contain them and they answer to no captain.

They are renegades, Meat Week's lone brethren who saunter into smoke shacks, rest their road-weary rumps, and order up the tallest feast available. They are true pioneers in meat's untamed frontier, too wild to be contained by one city.

These nomads will go unrecognized no longer. This is the outpost for those who courageously celebrate Meat Week without a crowd of faithful followers. This is our tribute to those brave enough to be:

FLYIN' SOLO

I’m A2GastroBoy and this is my story.

Now, before you start showering me with adoration, let me admit that I did not complete eight nights of BBQ. My crazy, over-committed life makes eight straight days of any personal pursuit impractical. What I did do, however, was spend a significant amount of time obsessing about BBQ, researching BBQ and visiting a few local BBQ joints for investigative lunch runs. There’s some pretty amazing BBQ in our midst. Allow me to elaborate.

First, the learn’n.

It’s said that you should write what you know. In full disclosure, I’m no pit master. There are many men (and women) more qualified than I to write this piece.  I do, however, love eating some good ‘Q’. And I aspire to become a pit master. So I did me some read’n to validate and tune the few things I do know.  If you’re looking for a graduate level BBQ class move on. If you want to get sloppy sucking on meat, stick around (get your head out of the gutter!).

COOKING METHOD     This is where it begins. Every culture has a method for cooking on an open flame. And in some parts of the good ‘ol USA a Webber Grill would pass as a BBQ. Not quite. That’s a grill. A “BBQ” is larger. Think of it as a Meat Alter. And for the purpose of this piece, BBQ specifically refers a method of low heat and long dwell-time. You might refer to this as smoking.  I’ll also note that the type of fuel used will significantly alter the flavor of the meat – ie Hickory or Mesquite.

CHOICE OF MEATS     Here’s one for debate. By nature, smoking meat lends itself to lesser cuts of meat. The slow, low heat renders tough cuts tender and juicy, IE it can be “pulled” off the bone with a light fork. To that end, most authentic BBQ is pig, arguably the toughest of all meats. There are a few theories about why; it’s low cost, the availability of wild boar in the Carolinas. I’m not inclined to care.  Coincidentally, the second most common choice of meat is beef brisket – another “poor man’s” cut. I personally don’t discriminate. I believe a good smoke can make just about any meat glorious. Pick something you like and go to town. 

SAUCE     Believe it or not, I’ve sat through culinary seminars on regional BBQ flavors. Still, I get confused on the lines of demarcation between mustard and tomato, smoky and hot. Modern day marketing has diluted traditional regions of flavor. I even tried to find a clever info-graphic that would lend insight. No luck. So in the spirit of “necessity is the mother of invention” I made my own.

Most historians agree that “Southern BBQ” originated in the Carolinas. There sauce was made with vinegar, ground black pepper, and hot chili pepper flakes. It was not sweet. The vinegar makes it thin and sharp. It penetrates the meat and cuts the fats in your mouth.

Now while BBQ may have originated in the Carolinas, it quickly spread through the territories. As it traveled local pit masters began adding their own flavor. The more you study, the more fractured and local the story. I’ll boil it down to these two simple traits, sweet and savory.

The “northern route” adds sugar and tomatoes; attacking the sharp tones of vinegar. In many recipes the sugar is replaced with molasses. In either case, the result is sweet and red. The “southern route” embraces the vinegar base and simply adds flavor. Depending on where you land, the flavor is more peppery-heat or more savory flavors. In addition to sweet and savory there’s a third element I’ll call smoke – or smokey. Smokey tones have been found in both sweet and savory, but I’ll put a pin in the map and call this Memphis style. Finally, for those of you who are asking, Mustard is a South-Carolina specialty. I’ve let to find a good explanation for why it came to be. I’m just glad it did.

AUTHOR’S NOTE ON SMOKE: Anyone found to use “Liquid Smoke” to gets serious demerit points. It’s a horribly artificial substitute for real smoke.

One last thought about sauce, this one practical. Sauce is used to baste the meat while cooking as well as a condiment while eating. They key word there is “condiment.” Don’t smother your meat in sauce. It masks too much of the wonderful smokey flavor that comes from hours on the pit. I tend to eat me BBQ dry. Let the diner decide how much, if any, to put on.

SIDES     Perhaps the greatest gift the South has given the culinary community, beyond BBQ, is the “Meat and Three.” While the center of the plate will always be protein, you can’t have a full BBQ experience with some amazing sides. And frankly, this is where the real angst lives. I can never choose. They’re all awesome. I’m talking about beans, slaw, green, potato salad and the best southern vegetable – Mac-n-Cheese. And don’t forget a big ‘ol square of cornbread.

 

BBQ in A2

Back to my Meat Week adventure… As I mentioned, I didn’t have time to visit eight joints in eight days. I wish I had. It took no time at all to think of more than eight restaurants known for good BBQ.  Luckily I chose well and the three I did visit were proud Meat Week contenders.

THE NEWBIE: R.U.B. BBQ     Here’s proof that you don’t need to grow up in the south to make great BBQ. Ann Arbor’s newest contender is R.U.B. BBQ on Packard, AKA Real Urban Barbeque BBQ – yes, it’s redundant. Who cares.  RUB was founded by a Chaldean family in Detroit. This is their third location. They’ve successfully revitalized a space that’s languished since ERC gave up the lease over ten years ago. The proximity to U of M’s sports campus is sure to help make this stop a game day favorite. I pray the lack of parking won’t undermine their business on non-game days. As this was my first and only visit, I’ll be brief on my thoughts about the food.  I will say that the brisket was more than promising. A buddy has been three times and can’t stop talking about the pulled pork.  Welcome to town RUB.

THE TOWNIE: Satchel’s     I once wrote about Satchel’s. You can read about it here [ LINK ]. I’ll save you the full play-by-play and simply say that I love this place. First of all, you can’t help but like the owner and pit-master, Hugh Morgan. His eight-foot tall congenial smile smacks of good -ol-boy in a trust-worthy, I-wish-he-was-my-neighbor kind of way. I also relish in the fact that he quit a “respectable” day job to pursue his BBQ passion.  Good on you Hugh. Everything at Satchel’s is great. That said, this is the place to try pulled chicken. It’s masterful. I also think Hugh makes one of the best collard greens in town. You can also hire Satchel’s to bring the smoke to your events. Next summer block-off the street and let the Satchel’s wagon cook you a party.

THE BONE DADDY: Chef Chris’ Boogie Woogie BBQ     As I stared asking around it became clear that Boogie Woogie BBQ was a moral imperative. Yes, I did the unthinkable, I drove to Livingston County. And yes, Barnstormers is still closed, but there’s a fancy new DQ Grill & Chill in Hamburg. All the “red-state” Livingston politics aside, when you get to Chef Chris’s place you realize why everyone is raving. Chef Chris, I want to party with you.

    

Chris celebrates the natural marriage of music and food. His lobby is a shrine of sorts to Boogie-Woogie southern blues music – something he also knows more than a bit about. In the middle of the day the smoker was billowing out free smells and laughing at the falling snow. Inside friendly folks were prepping colossal batches of good eat’n. This may now be my favorite brisket. My only regret was that I couldn’t crack a beer and scream Bocephus.

For the record, there are MANY great BBQ joints in and around Ann Arbor. Should you have the time, here’s a few others to consider.

  • Ron’s Roadside BBQ (Pontiac Trail)
  • West Texas BBQ (Jackson)
  • Zingerman’s Roadhouse
  • Blue Tractor (can anyone confirm that they actually smoke their own meats?)
  • Red Rock (Ypsilanti)

PS: If you suggest Damon’s you’re banned from the site

Before I go I want to share another BBQ confession. I’m thinking about joining a cult. No, I’m not talking about NorthRidge Church, I’m talking about the Big Green Egg. For a few years now I’ve been listening to a buddy and my brother-in-law go on-and-on about the splendors of cooking on their big green eggs. At first I thought it was puffery, a feel-good campaign to justify the hefty price tag.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’m an impractical gadget hound too. I’m crazy enough to own four life-changing Sonos units. I know puffery.

Then I spent a weekend in Atlanta visiting one of these eggs. We spent two days sipping off the kegerator and cooking on the egg.  I was in awe. It was decided, I’m getting an egg.  Now that the kegerator buzz has worn off I’m questioning my decision. Will I actually use it or will it become a dusty ornament of opulence (Sonos anyone)? I only cook one night a week at best. Should I take the plunge? I’m asking because I need advice. Guide me Obi-Wan.

Sunday
Jan272013

A2GastroBoy Annual Restaurant Survey Results

Alternatively…

“Assholes and Opinions – everybody has one” (my snark-driven mindset) or “Data Are Sexy” (my wonky attempt at research humor).

 

What makes a restaurant popular? What dictates popular? Can you be successful without being popular? Can you be considered good, even great, without being popular? For two years I’ve conducted an annual restaurant survey.  And while I appreciate the longitudinal insight of repetitive surveys, the survey results were not dramatically different to prior years (though there were changes!) and the idea of writing this year’s results post was seriously boring me. I needed a hook – a reason to care. To find a reason I purchased a premium account from Survey Monkey and started cutting the data five ways to Sunday. I even petitioned a pretty cool brainiac to plug the data into statistical software ‘R’.  I came at the data from every angle looking for some insight.

BORING DETAILS

At this point I'll remind readers of a quote credited to Mark Twain, “There are three types of lies: Lies. Damn Lies and Statistics.” This survey is 100% crap. The respondent screening process is arbitrary at best. There is zero oversight in my reporting. I have no formal training in research and my only tool is a survey monkey account and Microsoft Excel. That said, nearly 200 fine folks took time of their busy days to indulge my curiosity. The following is based on their answers.

Historically the survey is comprised of six contextual probes and the final “question 7” where respondents rate a list of restaurants. This year’s survey includes 65 local eateries. To be considered for the A2GastroBoy survey said establishment must possess a liquor license, be open for more than 30 days at the time of research and be located within a “reasonable” distance from downtown Ann Arbor. I intentiaonlly include some outliers. The list is by no means exhaustive and the almighty survey administrator reserves the right to add or subtract restaurants as he sees fit.  This year we added two additional questions to probe reader’s interest in future dining concepts.  No animals were harmed in the making of this survey.

And the winner is…

Here’s where I jump the rails. In prior years my focus was the rating from question 7… “On a scale of 1 to 5, with one being the worst and five the best, rate your overall opinion in each of the following Ann Arbor Restaurants.” But here’s the rub, question 7 has another option… “If you have never been a restaurant, please select 6) Don't Know / Never Been.”

As I reviewed this year’s results I noticed a pattern. The restaurants with the highest ratings had some of the smallest attendance scores. Logan, a fine establishment, scores a 4.3 on a scale of 5. Still, only 37% of the survey respondents reported having eaten at Logan. Is it appropriate to include Logan in the ranks of Ann Arbor’s best? In fact, of the top ten scoring restaurants the average attendance rating was only 56%.

INDEXED SCORE

To investigate a different perspective I decided to index the overall liking score against the attendance score. The results were jarring. Only four of the top ten rated restaurant remain in the top ten. And even more curious, Seva (the Liberty Hippie joint, not the State St. adolescent Diva joint) made the top ten. Seriously? The process also resulted in Mani losing the crown to Zingerman’s Roadhouse…perhaps the only scenario involving Mani losing the crown that I could stomach.

 

At this point the heat was on. I became pretty interested in looking at the results based on different contextual attributes. First I took the top 5 raw scores and separated them by the average amount spent per respondent. Keeping our focus on Logan, their score once indexed to attendance was 1.6. That rating drops below 1.0 for folks who normally spend $10-20 per person at each meal. But that score more than doubles for folks who normally spend over $30 per person on meals.

 

The phenomenon works conversely as well. While many restaurants rating improve with affluent diners, some drop. Both Jolly Pumpkin and Arbor Brewing score worse with more affluent diners.

 

Now consider this…only 13% of respondents spend $30 or more per-person per dining experience. Should ABC care about them? Who should care about them? Now are you starting to appreciate Mark Twain’s line about Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics? When I find that elusive free time I’ll also cut the data based on dining frequency.

 

 

LOOKING FORWARD

It warms my heart to know that a full quarter of A2GastroBoy readers would like to see more Banana Stands in Ann Arbor (For the record, NetFlix has finally announced that the next season of Arrested Development will be released in May 2013). This year’s survey included two additional questions probing reader’s ideas about the future opportunity in Ann Arbor. And while the city administrators show no signs of making this easily accomplished, the most highly desired food trend in Ann Arbor is more food trucks and street vendors.

 

This question also included an open ended space for folks to list ideas not included in the standard answer options. Without boring you with the entire list, here’s a summary of what folks requested.

  • Inexpensive, ethnic, healthy and/or vegan (WHAT!!!)
  • As it relates to ethnic, there was a spectrum of answers, but by far the most common were Asian, specifically regional Chinese, better Thai, Vietnamese, Pho and Indian
  • “A bar that is not an undergrad dive, that is cheaper than the ‘the bar’ that could maybe be a regular hang out”
  • And finally, my favorite two responses…”Places that aren't slightly modified versions of the sad slate of the already tired establishments” – or – “We have more than we can banana Stand.”

I love my readers.

The last question of this year’s survey sought to identify the geographically underserved. I asked folks, “where would you most like to see that missing link established?” Curiously Downtown was #1. Apparently there’s no such thing as saturation of good taste. Folks also want more food options in Kerrytown. Given the spotty survival rate for Kerrytown restaurants I find that score aspirational at best. I was also intrigued by the Westside (Stadium Corridor) dominance over North, East and South.

 

Would your interpretation of those results change if you knew that half of the respondents live in 48103? They do. My guess is that there are plenty of folks who would love a new Banana Stand on the Northside. They just didn’t take my survey. Again I say, “Lies. Damn Lies and Statistics.”

 

So there it is, the 2012 GastroBoy Restaurant Survey Results. What’s your favorite? Do you agree with my readers? Do you think I’m full of shit? Hit comment below and get prolific. 

 

BONUS VIEW For those of you who love data, here's your moment of Zen. The following image is the original output fron 'R.' Enjoy. 

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