Roadtrip: M-53ish….

17 Sep

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From now until the white stuff starts falling from the sky, we take advantage of every nice day we get and hit the road. Today is perfect; blue sky, sunny, t-shirt temperature, let’s go! There’s still a lot of country surrounding the big city of Detroit; Kris points the Jeep north toward Imlay City, on the way we’ll stop to check out a unique collection of balloon-tire bicycles, classic cars, toys and lots and lots of old stuff located on the grounds of a quaint make-believe town called Chestnut Hollow. The father and son duo, Jerry and Jerry, have been collecting for over 40 years; when a building could hold no more, they simply built another one. Each unique and old-fashioned looking, they are designated as blacksmith, pool hall, general store, etc. creating their own personal village. There are no official business hours, I get the phone number off their website and give them a call; they say they’ll be there most of the day, we’re welcome to stop by.

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Driving down Bordman Rd we spot the Chestnut Hollow sign, up the driveway a little, we are warned: Beware Of….. the rest is missing, it appears a giant something has taken a bite of the sign, I like a good sense of humor, this is going to be fun. Gravel crunches under the tires, veering right, we spot our hosts, ask where to park and make our introductions. The younger of the Jerry’s will be our tour guide, his father is in the process of mowing a large expanse of land. Stepping inside the first building, we come face to face with a beautiful green, early 1940’s, Ford  sedan delivery. To the right an antique Coke machine is for sale, around the corner from that is a 7-Up machine. Stuff is everywhere; old sleds hang from the ceiling, vintage strollers, car parts and signs fill up the space. A glass case is jam-packed with parts and accessories. Walking over to the building that houses the bicycle collection we pass the Pool Hall; antique stoves and weathered barrels take up residence on the porch, vintage signs are hung on many of the structures, rusty bike frames lay in piles.

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When the door is unlocked, we enter classic bicycle heaven. Wall to wall balloon-tire bikes are laid out in rows, vintage posters and calendars are hung on walls, a traffic light hangs in the corner. Prominently mounted on a shelf above the other two-wheelers is a Bowden Spacelander  in Outer Space Blue; they only made 544 of these fiberglass frame beauties, making them very collectible. One must be conscious of  where one steps, it’s a tight squeeze between Roadmaster, Elgin, Monark, Murray and Columbia bikes, Jerry claims this the largest collection of balloon-tire bikes around, I don’t doubt it. The frames are sturdy looking, they sport features such as front and rear fenders, tanks, skirt guards and large (comfy-looking) seats. Many have springer front-end suspension, head badges are fancy, designs are highly detailed. Kris’s favorite thing is the headlights, some are Deco, others, space-age, all of them are super cool! While wandering I come across an antique cigarette machine; dark wood and mirrored it’s gorgeous, Jerry tells me it is still full of matches, sweet. An airplane hangs above us,  a room to the side has hundreds of tires, bike seats and rims. Here and there we pass once cherished toys, cameras and long-forgotten games.

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The next building seems to specialize in TV and movie memorabilia; autographed photos, a hat from Forbidden Planet, foreign posters and items used in films are proudly displayed. From room to room we admire collections of King Kong pieces, robots and other objects from Lost In Space, lunchboxes, Erector sets, aviation pieces, even a little bit of Abbott and Costello. Back outside the old Ford is sitting in the sun, looks ready for a ride, veteran gas pumps and some old milk cans take us back to another time. It’s impossible to see everything; from funky to fabulous, there’s just so much! We thank our hosts for allowing us to visit, then continue toward Imlay City.

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Seems everybody’s talking about Mike and Matt Romine’s gastro pub called The Mulefoot. It doesn’t get more fresh and local than this; they raise the Mulefoot pigs used in the pork dishes themselves, produce comes from the family garden and nearby farmer’s fields, even the money raised to open the place came directly from community members, how awesome is that? Seems the twin brothers have shared a life-long interest in food, both growing and preparing it. After culinary school then working in some of the finest restaurants in the US and abroad, they returned to their hometown of Imlay City to open a place of their own. The former banquet hall has been transformed into a hip, stylish, yet comfortable space. Old barnwood, and animal skulls remind us we’re in the country, the art work is bold and colorful. The food menu changes frequently in keeping with the seasons, Michigan craft beers and spirits are featured along with about 50 wines.

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It’s Sunday, everything on the brunch menu sounds delicious; Kris picks something sweet, I choose the savory. Our server is friendly and outgoing, he takes the time to explain the restaurant’s farm to table philosophy. I sip on a glass of luscious red wine recommended by the sommelier; now, as fancy as that sounds this is really a very chill, blue-jean friendly place. Our food is brought to the table, the kitchen was nice enough to split both dishes for us…..I love when they do that! I start with the MF Huevos Rancheros; house-made chorizo and beans in a yummy sauce topped with a chunk of bread and a fried egg, it’s sooo good! Make sure you get a little bit of everything on the fork at once for a perfect bite. The french toast, made with homemade bread, of course, is topped with strawberries and whole almonds. Fried in the perfect temperature butter it creates just the right crunch when you bite into it. The strawberries are fresh, not mushy, and lightly sweetened, the almonds nice and crisp. We had a chance to talk with Mike before leaving, his knowledge of food is incredible. From making vinegar from apples to sauerkraut and homemade walnut liquor, his enthusiasm for all things food is contagious!  I’d advise making a reservation, word is getting out……

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We get on old Van Dyke and begin going south, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven down this stretch of road since I was born; surprisingly, things haven’t changed that much. In Almont we see an open farm market, Blake’s, and pull into the lot. A large bin in front holds the biggest ears of corn I have ever seen, bushel baskets are filled with ripe, red apples in several varieties, mums and mini pumpkins are piled on a table reminding us Autumn is right around the corner. Following the aroma of donuts being fried, we are drawn inside. The building is fully stocked with fresh peaches, plums, tomatoes, jars of jam and honey; it’s very cute inside. In the distance, hot donuts are calling our names……At the bakery counter we watch as the donut machine is being filled with batter, the batter is then dropped into the hot oil, it travels down the short river of fat where it is then flipped, cooking the other side. Finally the hot bundle of goodness lands in a wire bowl where it will cool. It’s a simple and effective process that leaves one longing for one of life’s tastiest treats: cider mill donuts. Kris and I eat one each, if it hadn’t been for brunch beforehand, there’s no telling how many we may have eaten. The batter has a hint of vanilla, the outside is slightly crunchy, the inside still warm, in other words, perfect! Can’t ask for a better ending to the day.

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FENTON: Daytrippin!

9 Sep

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It’s a hotter than expected September day, a good excuse to escape the city and head north for the day!  We are taking a northwesterly scenic route through the country; roads wind, twist and turn past long-standing barns, fields of corn, old-time churches and historic homes. The mild summer has left the landscape green, horses graze behind split-rail fences, here and there maple leaves are thinking about changing colors, the ride is peaceful and relaxing. We arrive at the Heavenly Scent Herb Farm in Fenton, an unexpected surprise on White Lake Rd. A 1910 barn is painted to look like three European storefronts; the rustic, quaint, interior is filled with lovely things for the home; candles, cement statuary, charming decor items, body care products and spices. Pumpkins and Halloween items are on display. There’s a buzz of activity; chairs and tables are being set up for a wedding that will take place later in the evening. We head outside for a stroll through the gardens, there’s beauty in every direction. Pathways lead us through a series of themed gardens; metal sculptures, ground covers and annuals fill large beds, hanging baskets overflow with pastel-colored flowers. An old shovel has been transformed into a piece of art; a hummingbird design as been laser cut into the rusty metal blade, items on display are available for purchase.

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We find ourselves in a charming mushroom-themed garden, it’s the kind of place I imagine Tinkerbell and her friends would live in. Wandering through a narrow gateway we pass a small pond, wood benches encircle large tree trunks, mounds of Hostas show off their lavendar-colored blooms. Mobiles hang from decorative hooks, climbing vines cover arbors, flowering shrubs and funky metal roses grow side by side. The pergola is quite a sight, a gravel pathway is laid out underneath; purple and white flowers are tucked in among lime green leaves in raised beds that run along each side of the structure. We hear the gentle sound of trickling water, up ahead an elegant fountain serves as a focal point. Enormous dahlias in peach, yellow and pink are stunning, bunches of white alyssum perfume the air, a statue of an angel is nestled among the greenery, sedum are beginning to bloom. It’s worth a drive to just come and see this place.

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We park on Shiawassee Ave in Fenton’s downtown area, there’s a lot of activity going on here these days; new shops and restaurants are joining picturesque neighborhoods in drawing folks to town. We amble down the sidewalk, mature trees cast shadows over manicured lawns, enchanting Victorian homes are decked out with urns, flowerbeds and hanging baskets. Each house is architecturally different, some sport columns, others have turrets or balconies, windows are leaded glass, many exhibit sizable American flags.

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Near the Jeep, a row of cute little shops have open doors, inviting people to take a look inside. La Petite Maison is a pretty, little, home decor store. The space is set up like a home with different rooms; new, old and repurposed items accessorize each room in shabby-chic style. The Iron Grate features home goods such as candles, linens and pillows along with an adorable kids section done up in primary colors. Next door is Fenton’s Open Book, you guessed it, it’s a bookstore and next to that is Sweet Variations chocolate shop. We walk through each shop satisfying our curiosities, its late afternoon, time to catch lunch.

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Fenton Fire Hall on Leroy St is the latest addition to Fenton’s growing restaurant scene. The building has stood on this spot since 1938; behind the building is a park and a waterfall, across the street is the fetching Community Center designed by Eliel Saarinen. Brought to us by the same folks who run Clarkston Union, Union Woodshop and Vinsetta Garage, it’s an extremely popular eating spot, which is why we are having lunch at 3 pm on a Friday. To our relief, we are seated immediately, the place smells wonderful, a mix of wood-fire and meat. The menu offers a nice variety without being overwhelming, we decide pretty quickly. The interior pays homage to the origins of the buildings, much of the stylish decorating features the color red, old hoses make up a light fixture, the firehouse theme is carried out well throughout. It doesn’t take long for our food to arrive, metal baking sheets piled high with food are set down before us, just looking at it makes my mouth water! First up, the Korean Pork Tacos; three Detroit-made flour tortillas are filled with the house pulled pork combined with their own Korean bbq sauce, topped with cilantro-lime slaw, the tacos are outstanding, nice choice Kris! The Gather is a house-made vegan patty, wood-fired veggie goat cheese spread, broccoli sprouts, shitake bacon, all stacked on a house-made bun, it’s really good. Then we come to the fries, freshly hand-cut and perfectly deep-fried they are wonderful as is, dipping them in the Fire Hall mayo, takes them up to a whole other level.  When we are finished, we walk up to the roof-top deck strung with lights overhead, you can eat up here, have a drink at the bar, shoot a game of pool or just have a seat and overlook the park. In the stairwell, black and white photos of Fenton’s crew of firefighters hang on the walls, a nice tribute. The lower level has a cozy lounge area with original wood paneling, tables line the wall of roll-up doors, funky red upholstered barstools are pulled up to the bar.

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Just outside is the original pump house, today it serves as an ice cream stand: Pumphouse Custard. What makes this unique is the house-made ice creams, custards and sorbets are made with liquid nitrogen… really! The list of flavors is long: Faygo Rock n Rye, CEO Stout, 24 Carrot Cake, Blue Moon, Gimme S’more, well, you get the idea. You can get it in a cup, cone, sundae, malt or shake. After many samples and much deliberation, Kris chooses the honey cinnamon flavor to have as a malt and I try the Strawberry Basil Bash…. tasty!? Umbrella’d tables with milk crate legs are set up on the patio, eat there or go for a stroll like we are. We walk across the bridge to the park, metal sculptures and colorful potted plants dot the landscape, ducks float in the stream, a photographer is busy taking senior pictures for a group of girls. Yep, it certainly is a nice set up they have here.

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Back on Holly road we pass a sign with an arrow directing us to the Great Lakes National Cemetery, we make the turn to check it out. Off Belford Rd we spot the stone wall and avenue of flags; American flags as far as the eye can see. Turning into the cemetery we are taken aback by the rows of white headstones. Open to the public during daylight hours, we realize we don’t have much time as dusk is beginning to fall. We drive as far as the main road will take us, the landscape is one of rolling hills and a lake, 544.3 acres in all. Burials began in 2005, by 2013 there were over 16,000 interments; any member of the armed forces of the United States who dies in active duty, or  discharged veterans, are eligible to be buried here. A public information center is located about midway into the cemetery, specific gravesites can be found using an automated gravesite locator kiosk.

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We get out of the car and begin to walk around, it’s beautiful, solemn, peaceful; benches overlook the lake, ducks, swans and other waterfowl are having conversation. Rows of above ground columbariums are near the water, we read the names of those who have passed on. Meandering on, we pass hundreds of gravesites, all branches of the armed forces are represented, as are wars ranging from WWII, the Gulf War and Afghanistan, along with Korea and Vietnam. The oldest birth year I spotted was 1911; many of the deceased were moved here from another place when this cemetery opened. They say they average 10 burials a day, which surprised us. One feels very patriotic walking these grounds, feelings of both gratitude and sadness fill my heart. 

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DETROIT: Far East Southwest ??

2 Sep

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Today we are in East Southwest Detroit; the tiny section of Mexicantown east of I 75. I need a few things from the store so our first stop is Honey Bee Market . There are so many things I like about shopping here: the space is brightly lit, pinatas fill the top shelves surrounding the aisles, produce is fresh, colorful; my favorite thing, of course, is the guacamole. As soon as I step in the door, tubs of guac, pico and salsa are being chilled on ice, bowls of chips are plentiful, allowing one to sample freely. If you can walk away without a bag of chips and a container of dip, you have much more willpower than I! Avocados and tomatoes are piled high next to tomatillos and jalapenos, in case you’d like to make your own tasty dip. The first section is venduras frescas-fresh vegetables, along with everyday items, you will find a huge assortment of peppers, varieties of cactus pieces and yucca root; it’s all so appealing. Cheese is next; it’s fun to try a different kind from time to time, haven’t found one yet that isn’t tasty. Corn chips come in blue, salted or unsalted, the list of tortillas is long; flour, corn, crunchy, soft, in a multitude of sizes. Thirsty? How about some coconut or cactus water? If you’re looking for something fruity try a juice or nectar from Jumex or a Jarritos Mexican soda; hibiscus, strawberry and tamarindo are just some of the thirst quenching flavors.

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Signs hanging from the ceiling are written in Spanish and English, brings back a little of my high school Spanish; funny how some things stay with you. The meat counter is huge; beef, chicken, pork, marinated or plain. The chorizo is made from scratch using a secret family recipe; try it in tacos instead of ground beef-yum! The store is filled with Central American ingredients; beans, mole, dried peppers, unique spices…..this aisle smells so good. Much of the packaging is written in Spanish, many have their own characters affiliated with the product; a cute little bear adorns cookie and snack wrappers. Prepared foods are available for take-out or you can eat at one of the picnic tables in front of the store, they also carry items from Michigan’s own Calder Dairy including ice cream and the most incredibly delicious chocolate milk you will ever drink…….just sayin’.  I check my list before we check out to make sure I have everything; we’re good to go.

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Looking at all that good food has given us quite an appetite, Mexican Village is just down the street, sounds good doesn’t it? This is the oldest Mexican restaurant in Mexicantown, it definitely caters to area visitors. Inside, a beamed stucco ceiling, archways and wrought iron sconces and chandeliers are intended to put one in the mindset of Mexico; it’s lovely. The space is large, yet charming; murals and sizable paintings fill the walls, there are several dining areas in addition to banquet rooms. As we are led to our seat servers carry trays of chips and salsa to surrounding tables, the menu is vast, filled with mouth-watering selections. The best way to try a bit of everything is a combination plate; once our order is taken, we have to restrain ourselves so we don’t fill up on chips and salsa; not an easy task. Food arrives quickly, the village combination comes with 2 beef tacos; one flour, one corn, a chicken flauta, bean tostada and cheese enchilada. We also asked for a tamale, rice and beans. Everything is tasty; we both agree we like the cheese enchilada the best.

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There’s a neighborhood market right next door: Algo Especial Supermercado; we take a peek inside. There’s a little bit of everything tucked into the narrow space; souvenir-type items, trinkets, produce and tortillas greet us near the door, along with festive pinatas that hang from the ceiling. Up a couple of steps, a small area is host to CD’s and DVD’s by Mexican artists, lovely, authentic costumes hang from a rack, American and Mexican flags are side by side. Just a little further you’ll find the meat counter, household items and the noteworthy tamale counter; be sure and take a few home. We walk back to the front passing tons of loose spices and teas, many I have never seen before. It’s always a fun adventure when exploring another culture!

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Until recently, Detroit hadn’t distilled a drop of spirits since prohibition; next we are stopping in at the city’s newest vodka producer, Our/Detroit Partners Kate Bordine and Sara Aldridge have teamed up with Pernod Ricard Vodka, who supplies the recipe and distillery. The all-female-owned and operated end of the business is in charge of sales, marketing and most importantly production. This is global vodka made by local partners, using local ingredients, giving the spirit a unique taste from city to city. In Detroit, cocktails are created using products from local businesses such as Mc Clure’s, Mc Clary Bros. and Wolf Moon Mixers; it never ceases to amaze me the way in which the business community here supports one another!

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The building itself was formerly the Bagley Billiard Center, it sat vacant for a number of years before its current incarnation as distillery and tasting room. Fresh white paint and a cool mural by Ndubisi Okoye covering one side of the structure peak the curiosity of passersby; many peer in the front windows to see what’s going on inside. The decor is simple and elegant in black and white, art is the work of local artists. The tasting room has a chill vibe, shelves are filled with bottles of vodka and mixers, a well-placed window affords patrons a view of the working distillery. We sit at the counter, glancing at the menu, it doesn’t take long to decide, I’m having a vodka tonic with lime and Kris is having Summer in the City, a refreshing combination of vodka, lemonade, blueberry-nutmeg simple syrup and a splash of sparkling soda; it tastes even better than it sounds. The drink menu is seasonal, it will change quarterly; can’t wait to try out Autumn’s offerings!

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DETROIT: Past, Present, Future

26 Aug

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It has been called one of America’s greatest fountains, one look at the James Scott Memorial Fountain, and I’m sure you will agree. Designed by Cass Gilbert (Detroit Public Library) and completed in 1925 at a cost of $500,000, the construction of the fountain was surrounded by controversy. The story goes like this: Detroiter James Scott was a man of great wealth with a penchant for gambling, womanizing and vindictive behavior, a real scoundrel; let’s just say he wasn’t well-liked. He died in 1910, and bequeathed his estate to the city of Detroit to build a fountain with the condition that it must include a life-size statue of himself, which caused a huge raucous among community and religious leaders who were against honoring such a man. Fifteen years went by; finally, then-mayor Philip Breitmeyer decided it would be wrong to refuse a gift for such a good cause, the fountain was built. Herbert Adams was the sculptor of the bronze statue of James Scott sitting in a chair, overlooking the glorious fountain he had paid for. When you visit the fountain, be sure and read the inscription on the back of the chair that ends with, “From the good deed of one comes benefit to many.”  Indeed.

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Through the years the fountain has encountered various states of disrepair, copper pipes were stolen, then in 2010 during a repair to the basin, the magnificent original Pewabic tiles were damaged, removed and thrown into a dumpster! Today we are here in a celebration of sort; all levels of the beautiful fountain are running once again, thanks to unofficial caretaker Robert Carpenter and lots of money from sources such as Roger Penske and the DNR. Marble has been cleaned and restored, corroded cast iron pipes have been flushed; water spills from basins, spouts from 109 water outlets, upper and lower cascades flow freely. The detail is amazing; dolphins, turtles, frogs and lions join Neptune and cherubs in the splash-filled fun. I can’t even remember how long its been since all five tiers and both cascades have circulated, it’s gorgeous.

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The fountain has long been a gathering place, a constant in family photos from generation to generation, the site of proposals, weddings, a meeting place and one of our biggest tourist attractions. That much hasn’t changed. While walking the circumference of the huge Vermont white marble basin, I overhear a story telling of the days when these folks had come here with their parents, it’s a familiar tale. Even now, after coming here for decades, Kris and I each notice things we haven’t before; I never get tired of  looking at it. The past is alive and well. The fountain is located at the western tip of the island and runs from 10 am to 10 pm  Memorial Day to Labor Day.

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We are having lunch at Roses Fine Food; Opened only a month or so now, they serve breakfast and lunch Tuesday – Sunday from 9 am till 2 pm. The tiny, unassuming building with a small parking lot sits on E Jefferson; a tall sign has recently been erected. The main seating area is the counter, which runs the length of the dining room, high stools are mounted to the floor. A hand-written chalkboard lists today’s specials. We sit at one of maybe a half-dozen tables resting on the green tiled floor, paper menus and glasses of water are brought right over. The food is of the simple, made-from-scratch variety; pancakes, eggs, sandwiches. It’s near closing time, we are informed there are only three items available, guess that makes deciding easier. Patrons continue to arrive but are told the food is sold out. Our meal arrives quickly; the Egg Sandwich of the Day is a fried egg, topped with 2 strips of bacon and aioli served on a homemade biscuit. The Cluck is house-smoked, pulled chicken, dressed with Rose’s bbq sauce and picnic slaw served on thick toast with a pickled carrot for garnish. Portions were smallish, but we liked everything we had.

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On May 17, over 1,400 volunteers gathered on Detroit’s lower east side to plant more than 15,000 trees on 20 acres of vacant land, in an effort to create the nation’s largest urban tree farm: Hantz Woodlands. We keep saying we want to go see the area, so today we are. Hantz Farms owns about 150 acres in the square mile bounded by Mack and Jefferson, St Jean and Van Dyke streets. This once densely populated neighborhood had become almost forgotten with its broken sidewalks, abandoned homes and overgrown lots.  John Hantz came up with a plan to transform the neighborhood, make it safer, more livable with the urban tree farm project. We drive up and down several streets, then, on Pennsylvania, we see rows of saplings soaking up the afternoon sunshine. From there we see lot after lot, some big, some small; tiny hardwoods such as Oaks and Maples stand in straight lines, mulch piled high on the ground. Huge, old trees stand around the outer edge of the lots, they have borne witness to the full cycle of the neighborhood.

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Looking at all the trees, one can’t help but feel hopeful for the future of the area; blight has been replaced with beauty. Mothers had to walk their children past vacant homes and land that had grown wild, just to get to the school bus, now many of those homes have been demolished, replaced with tree farms where the grass is mowed regularly. It is a source of pride for neighbors. The majority of trees are in the area bounded by Crane, Pennsylvania, Mack and Vernor, not too far from Indian Village. The work continues. While I was looking at the Hantz Woodlands website I came across something I’d like to share with you: “Before Detroit became an industrial powerhouse, it was part of a great farming region that fed thousands.” In Detroit our past, our present and our future are all connected.

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DETROIT: Music Mecca

19 Aug

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Have you ever stumbled upon something super-cool and asked yourself, how did I not know about this? That’s exactly what happened to Kris and I a while back when we showed up for a tour of the United Sound Systems Recording Studio on Second Ave in Detroit. Turns out this place was one of Detroit’s first independent recording studios. Early on it was used for industrial and promotional film production, then it became a full service recording studio that gave artists, musicians, writers and producers the ability to record music, cut the record and get airplay without being signed to a major label. You may be asking yourself, I wonder who recorded there? Are you ready for this? Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Jackie Wilson, The Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, Isaac Hayes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Seger, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Marvin Gaye, MC5, and Whitney Houston…….to name a few! For more than 70 years some of the best vocalists, musicians and sound engineers came together at United Sound Studios to record an astounding variety of successful Jazz, Rock, Soul, Blues, Rockabilly and Funk records.

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It’s a gorgeous afternoon, we have driven by this building a hundred times over the years and never realized what it was. From the outside it looks to simply be an old house with dark windows on the second floor; a blue sign splits the levels with the name United Sound Systems in white letters. We park in the adjacent lot, walk to the front door; finding it locked I give it a knock and it opens immediately. Explaining we are here for the tour we are welcomed inside and ushered to the gift shop where we purchase tickets. The interior is still a work in progress as tours and events are being established. We wait for the tour to begin in the basement level with a number of other visitors; framed album covers from MC5 and Aretha Franklin hang on the walls. We are led up to Studio B as our guide gives us a bit of history, United Sound is a recording studio, not a label; initially commercials and advertising jingles were recorded in the building. Upstairs, a large window divides the space between the engineering room and studio, the large console is a sea of levers buttons and switches, walls and ceiling are covered in soundproofing materials. Our group gathers in the studio area; folks take turns putting on earphones and make-believe they are singing into the mike, making their own record. A photo of a young Whitney Houston, taken in this room, hangs on the wall.

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Up a flight of stairs we are now standing in what was the original reception area; Rolodex cards that once sat on the secretary’s desk, bear names and phone numbers of Ike and Tina Turner and Bootsy Collins, I love that kind of memorabilia! Through the door is a small theater room, we all take a seat; a short film shares the story of United Sound. Founded by James (Jimmy) Siracuse in the 1930’s it was moved to this residential space on Second sometime in the early 40’s. In 1947, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter and Max Roach recorded “Klaunstance” for Savoy Records, 1948, John Lee Hooker records “Boogie Chillen”, Dizzy Gillespie records tracks here in the 50’s, Jimmy Work recorded his hits “Making Believe” and “That’s What Makes The Jukebox Play” here in the mid 50’s. United Sound was around before there was a Motown; Berry Gordy recorded Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me” at United Sound in 1958 and later released it as the first single on his Tamla 101 label. In the 60’s Bob Seger recorded “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and “Heavy Music”, MC5 recorded “Back in the USA”. Don Davis purchased United Sound in 1971, the studio continued to thrive; 1985 brought Aretha Franklin to United Sound to record “Freeway of Love”, Anita Baker’s Grammy winning album “Rapture” was recorded here too…….. I know, amazing!

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When the film ends, we pass through a room; commercial records cover the walls, upstairs, we check out yet another tiny studio, before heading back downstairs. In the kitchen area, framed and autographed gold records hang on the wall, below that, the echo chamber that helped create the ‘Detroit Sound’ is cut into the wall, a set of blue silky costumes worn by The Dramatics, have been donated and are on display; we take notice of renderings depicting how this space will be used in the future. On to Studio A……. it’s huge! Tons of fancy looking equipment fills the engineering space, the recording console looks as if it could launch spacecraft. Today only, studio A is hosting a Rockabilly reunion; authors of the book Detroit Country Music Craig Maki and Keith Cady are joining some of Detroit’s veteran Rockabilly musicians for some music and memories. Our group files into the performance space, five musicians are busy playing an old Rockabilly tune; pieces of vintage equipment and black and white photos connect the past to the present. When the song is finished Craig Maki introduces the guys who were instrumental to Detroit’s country and bluegrass music scene in the 1950’s; Jimmy Kirkland, Jack Scott, Dave Ronelier, Johnny Powers and Dave Morgan. Each of these men recorded here back in the day; they played in bands that drew big crowds in southeastern Michigan cities like Mt Clemens, Sterling Heights, Pontiac, Utica, Troy, Flint, Detroit and throughout the Midwest.

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The family of Chief Redbird is on our tour; Redbird organized several bands, played fiddle, sang and wrote songs, he was extremely popular. Jobs in the auto industry brought many southerners to Detroit in the early 20th century, making the city a natural for the creation and enjoyment of this genre of music. We listen as musician’s fingers move across guitar strings, vocalists sing the same lyrics they sang more than 50 years ago, everybody is having a great time. This studio was in constant use until 2008, the list of people who have crossed the threshold is mind-blowing; it’s wonderful to see it up and running again! More of Detroit’s incredible past preserved, I’m so happy we came!

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Hygrade Restaurant and Deli was started over 60 years ago on what was then a busy section of Michigan Ave; today, not so much. About a mile outside of Corktown, the deli is definitely worth a visit. The current owner’s family bought the place in 1972, looking just as it does today: metallic gold, blue and red chairs, Formica tables, light wood paneling and white globe lights that dangle from the ceiling; this is not retro, it’s original! There’s still a decent lunch crowd when we arrive; we choose a table along the wall that affords us a great view of the interior, yellow paper menus are already on the table along with glass salt and pepper shakers and the old-fashioned glass sugar dispenser. There’s really no need to look at the menu, the Reuben is the house specialty, can’t argue with that. We do add a cup of mushroom barley soup and a side of potato salad.

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A few patrons sit at the counter, it’s way cool with its low counter, multi-colored stools and great colored panels behind; the work area is all stainless steel and sees a lot of action. Before long our meal arrives, the sandwich is split onto two plates, each with its own pickle spear. The corned beef is fantastic; cooked to perfection, it is so tender and lean it just falls apart, there’s a good ratio of sauerkraut and dressing too. The soup was flavorful; the barley makes the broth silky. The potato salad is the traditional mustard-style, exactly what you’d expect from an old-school deli. There’s no shortage of nostalgia in Detroit!

 

HAMTRAMCK: Poletown Pleasures

11 Aug

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Today we are in Hamtramck, the tiny city inside the city of Detroit. There has been a lot of buzz surrounding a new chocolate shop that opened just off Jos Campau on Evaline; c’mon, let’s check it out. Parking on the residential streets of Hamtramck can be challenging, this afternoon we fall right into a space within feet of our destination: Bon Bon Bon (which translates to Good Goodie). Alexandra Clark is the woman behind the chocolate, she has created quite a stir with her unique goodies.

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A black sandwich board on the sidewalk announces the shop; at only 650 sq ft, most of which is taken up by production, the customer area is quaint and snug. We find ourselves face to face with a row of display cases featuring the much celebrated chocolates; each has a name and a number; #37 Sticky Bun, #16 Bacon & Egg, #34 Smores; you get the idea. Though these rectangle-shaped chocolates come in 45 flavors, the shop features 24 flavors considered the “Detroit Collection”. Better Made potato chips and bread crumbs from Avalon Bakery are used to create flavors such as Better Butter Crunch and pain au chocolate, they even have a Paczki bon bon! Hand-written tags offer descriptions of each flavor, a single piece of each is displayed on one of their clever, open, boxes. The ladies behind the counter each wear a coral-colored bandanna—–Rosie The Riveter style; to say they are cheerful is an understatement………..could have something to do with being surrounded by chocolate all day!  The shop is well thought out; black bands are wrapped around t-shirts and boxes, declaring the item ‘Produce of Detroit’ or simply Bon Bon Bon; packaging is cute and clever, everything has a hand-stamped, blue-collar work ethic look; pretty cool. Decision making is tough, we manage to narrow it down to five; each one decadent, delicious! Here’s our insiders tip……no matter what else you choose, you must have the #1 Hot Mess. A chocolate bon-bon shell is filled with a warm chocolate concoction from a squeeze bottle; you have about 30 seconds before the whole thing melts, so put it in your mouth quickly and embrace the heavenly chocolate deliciousness. Bon bons run $3 each, the shop is only open to the public on Saturdays……… you’re welcome.

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There’s a gorgeous church over on McDougall that we’d like to visit, being a Saturday we’re hoping to find it open. As we arrive, a wedding party is finishing up picture-taking in front of the Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church; carefully, we dash behind the festivities and go inside. First words that come to mind: fantastic, beautiful, sacred, holy, gold. A long red carpet leads from the back of the church to the front intersecting rows of wood pews on each side. There’s so much to look at; arches, columns, patterns, scenes, all aglow in sunlight. The priest has begun removing white bows from pews, I ask if it’s ok to look around, he welcomes us. Our eyes are drawn to the ornate gates on the altar, we each take a side aisle to the front; along the way are paintings of the Stations of the Cross. Every surface of the arches bear decoration, a zig-zag design rings columns, capitals wear intricate designs. Shiny marble steps lead to the altar, an up-close look of the magnificent gates leave us mesmerized. Angels and Saints cover the walls and ceiling, the large dome is reserved for Christ, the teacher. Along the back wall Mary looks out on all who visit, her arms are open, she is surrounded by gold. Speaking of gold….. it’s everywhere, halos, crosses, trim, it adds a sense of richness and importance to the messages of the church. Delicate chandeliers hang from long chains, window glass is clear, stars cover the barreled ceiling.

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I read the first Ukrainians arrived in Detroit around 1910, they founded their first parish, St John’s, on Detroit’s west side shortly after that. As more and more Ukrainians moved to the east side, near Hamtramck, there was a need to construct another church; the Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church. The parish continued to grow; in 1936 a committee was formed for the building of a new, larger church on Mc Dougall, that is the church we are standing in today. Remarkably, this was not the way the interior looked when it was built in the 1940’s; it was redone in 1962 to resemble a Byzantine Rite Ukrainian Catholic Church. Mychailo Dmytrenko, who did the original paintings, was also commissioned to re-decorate the entire church in icons depicting the life of Mary; his work includes the frescoes and paintings above the sanctuary and ceiling, the church is a work of art, a jewel. Kris tries to capture it all in photos, but it just isn’t possible.

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Above the center aisle, diamond shapes contain representations of original sin, Noah’s Ark and the Burning Bush; the more I look, the more I see. We take the stairs to the basement, large black and white photos capture the Ukrainian culture. The space looks like it is used for social gatherings. When we are satisfied we exit the church, we didn’t have a chance to look around the outside when we arrived, but now we can. The building is a massive, gold brick and stone structure, beautiful paintings cover the space above the entry doors. Intricate designs are carved into the stone, a large cross hangs in the palladium window. The building is surrounded by gardens, pink roses and red gladiola are blooming. 

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Over on Caniff we stop at Delite Cafe & Deli for lunch. Up a few steps refrigerated cases hold Boar’s Head products used to create a multitude of tasty sandwiches. We scan the chalkboard menu, order at the counter then take our seats at a small table near the door. The deli has its own coffee bar, tall stools are lined up against the counter; there’s a wonderful space in back for lounging and eating too. Our sandwiches arrive in the traditional wax paper-lined red baskets; the Pastrami Reuben is served on marble rye with coleslaw and Russian dressing. It’s really good, a nice proportion of meat to toppings. I have to admit the #14 was my favorite; Mesquite smoked turkey breast, banana peppers, Muenster cheese, onions, lettuce, tomato and a Pepper House dressing all pressed on a sandwich press tucked inside a ciabatta roll—-very tasty! As we looked around, the owner of the shop told us the building used to be a music store, it hit me, this used to be Carlow’s Music Center. The former owner, Al Carlow, was a good friend of my dads; the two of us would stop in the store and visit on Saturday’s now and then, it’s where we bought my clarinet for 5th grade band class. Walking down the few steps to the door, I took notice of the entry way; it still looks the same as it did back then; it’s nice to know some things never change.

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Hamtramck is loaded with art, culture and interesting sights as diverse as the the folks who call the city home. Kris drives around neighborhood streets scouting out graffiti; sides of buildings and garden walls are enriched with the abstract, alluring and the avant-garde. Lovely faces of young women donned in cultural dress fill a huge wall, the eyes are so life-like, the piece is gorgeous! Across the side street a powerful eagle resides under a Hamtramck banner, cartoon-like characters look busy on the side of New Dodge. Just down the road is the city border; a bear on a low wall cordially welcomes visitors. Indeed, Hamtramck is welcoming to all who live and visit here.

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DETROIT: Wayne State Walkabout

6 Aug

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Kris and I consider the campus of Wayne State University to be one of Detroit’s hidden gems. You may have driven by Old Main on Cass Ave, remarked on the attractive building as you passed and not given it a second thought. Most do not realize that a walk through WSU’s campus is a study in Modern architecture. Present day WSU began its existence as a university in 1933 when a combination of Detroit colleges came together to form a single institution. The former Central High School building at Cass and Warren became what is now Old Main; other residential and commercial buildings in the surrounding neighborhood were re-purposed to fill the needs of the college. A master plan for the campus was created in 1942 by yet unknown architect Suren Pilafian; the GI Bill passed in 1944 and enrollment swelled; buildings had to be built. The end of the 1940’s were just the beginning of the Modern architectural style; the tone was set. 

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In 1948 State Hall, designed by Pilafian was the first building built specifically for the university, followed up by the Community Arts Complex and College of Engineering, all were designed in the Modern style. The names of other contributing architects is pretty much a who’s who list of Modern design; Alden B Dow, Harley, Ellington and Day, Glen Paulson, Albert Kahn, Giacomo Manzu and Minoru Yamasaki. It doesn’t matter if you recognize these names or not; what I want you to know, or, what I’d like you to appreciate, is what an important place Detroit has always been. This city was prominent, wealthy and proud; buildings were designed by the best in the business —– many lived here in metro Detroit. The money was here to attract the best of the best whether in business, music, art or design. Let’s go for a walk…………

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Our main agenda for the day is to spend some time at the McGregor Conference Center’s newly restored reflecting pool, designed by none other than Minoru Yamasaki. The building was the first of four that Yamasaki would design for WSU between 1957 and 1964, in my opinion it is one of his best. Finished in 1958, the pool had suffered much damage to its foundation through the years, it was drained in the late 90’s; repaired and restored, it received much attention when it was again filled with water in 2013. I knew it would be lovely, but I really wasn’t prepared for just how wonderful it is. It’s large L-shape design and shallow pool project peace and tranquility; large boulders are scattered about the onyx colored bottom, rectangular concrete islands are connected by dark planks. On one end a single figure on a pedestal gazes into the water thoughtfully; Giacomo Manzu’s The Nymph and The Faun bronze sculptures look perfectly at ease on one of the islands; the nymph reclines in the sunshine as she lifts her head to study the crouching faun; this piece was added in 1968. The water is perfectly still, the clouds and blue sky are mirrored on the surface. Large circular white planters add a pop of green to the black and white background. I love the floating staircase that leads from the McGregor to the center island. The College of Education, another Yamasaki building is seen in the distance.

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We continue our walk through the urban campus on sidewalks, under porticos and through grassy expanses intermixed with concrete plazas, sculptures and sitting areas. The Community Arts Center and Music Building has a very 50’s feel to it, The Shapero Hall of Pharmacy starts out small at ground level and gets bigger with each story; elongated windows look out over raised planters and lush lawn. Alumni House with its smoke colored glass becomes part of the surrounding landscape. Newer buildings have been integrated and seem to fall into place with original structures, it all works together. The Jacob House, built in 1915 in the Mediterranean style is now the residence of the President of WSU, the Chatsworth Tower apartment building is an elegant 9-story building built in 1929, not far from that is the new Mort Harris Recreation and Fitness Center. After the McGregor, the Helen L DeRoy Auditorium is my favorite building here, also a Yamasaki, it has such great lines; the ribs and eaves create an almost floral design; I hope one day the reflecting pool will be restored. Walking back toward Cass we cross the Meyer and Anna Prentis Building, designed by Yamasaki and built at the same time (1964) as the auditorium, it is distinctly Modern. We pass the former William C Rands residence, a huge stone house designed by George Mason, built in 1913, now used by the university, the Music Annex and finally our car……time for lunch.

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Northern Lights Lounge has a new patio; just a short ride from WSU, we are there in no time. It is mid-afternoon and we have the brick patio all to ourselves; newly planted trees take up residence along with pots of colorful annuals. Sandwiched between two buildings and closed off in back by a bright orange fence, the space feels secluded from the rush of the city. We are no strangers to the menu here, so ordering was quick and easy. We relax under the comfort of a large umbrella, sipping our drinks and watching pedestrians pass on Baltimore when our server arrives with lunch. The veggie nachos here are outstanding; white corn tortilla chips covered with two kinds of melted cheese, piled with black beans, tomato, onion, green pepper, black olives and pickled jalapeno, yum! The Julienne Salad is loaded with ham, turkey, swiss, american and a hard-boiled egg scattered over salad greens, we like the homemade ranch dressing. 

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Dessert is a great way to end such a nice afternoon, we head over to  Avalon Breads, they always have an excellent selection of sweet treats. We stare at cookies, brownies, sticky buns and scones, then we see the sign: Ice Cream Sandwiches! Choose either Sea Salt Chocolate Chip or Oatmeal Raisin cookies, a scoop of Ashby’s Vanilla in the middle and there you have it. Without hesitation we go with the chocolate chip; as the sandwich is being assembled I order an iced coffee and meet Kris back at a table. The cookie is soft and chewy, the vanilla ice cream a perfect complement to the salty and sweet flavor of the cookie….add iced coffee to the mix and you have perfection! 

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EASTSIDE: Divine Dining

28 Jul

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As Detroiters we work hard and we play hard; beautiful summer days are something to celebrate. Today we are doing just that. It’s Thursday, a perfect July day; the sun is hot, the sky is blue, we are meeting friends for dinner at 8pm. With plenty of time before we have to be there, we take a spin along Lakeshore Drive through the Grosse Pointes; the sunlight sparkles off  turquoise water, boaters are out in numbers, we make a loop around the Lake St Clair shoreline, then duck into Grosse Pointe Park. There are a lot of changes taking place on this section of Kercheval; restaurants have opened, a bakery is in the works, and then of course, there’s the new Brewery: Atwater In The Park. That’s right, the good folks of Atwater Brewery have converted the former Grace Community Church on the corner of Lakepointe and Kercheval into a Biergarten and Tap Room. 

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We secure a parking space on Kercheval, two brick columns and a metal arch form the entrance to the Biergarten; the patio can seat up to 100, there’s a covered bar with limited seating and a table or two. We enter the tap-room/restaurant through the original church doors, the hostess stand is the former church’s pulpit, today we seat ourselves. Rounding the corner there’s a small dining area on the left with a fireplace, the main dining room is to the right, this is where mass was held. The sun is in a perfect position to illuminate the three stained glass windows at the front; this is also where the brewing process takes place. Original light fixtures hang from the wood-beamed ceiling, leaded glass makes up the side windows. We take a couple of seats at the large horseshoe-shaped bar, additional tables line both walls, church pews are re-purposed for seating. A clipboard holds menus, the selection is huge……they have 40 taps! I am trying the Shaman’s Porter, Kris, the Blueberry Cobbler Ale; patrons all around us are enjoying dinner and a beer. The bartender returns with our selections; Kris’s comes in a plain pint glass, I can smell the blueberry, mine comes in a fancy footed glass. First off, we take a sip of each other’s beer; Kris’s is delicious, like blueberry cobbler and beer——–in a good way! The Porter is dark and smooth, having been aged in a bourbon barrel. Not a bad way to start the evening. Off to our dinner reservation……

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 We drive through a traditional suburban neighborhood in Harper Woods, not far from Eastland Mall, turning on Old Homestead Dr we keep watch for the monastery. A white picket fence runs the length of the property, blue onion domes rise above surrounding rooftops, buildings have a distinct Russian flare. At the covered entryway we are greeted by a monk, following the red-colored concrete pathway, we find ourselves in one of the most charming settings around. St. Sabbas Orthodox Monastery began with the purchase of a single property in 1999, a lone house that now serves as the Monastery Library and Visiting Monastic Quarters. Later that year construction began on the Monastery church, which has been added on to in stages and still has several to go. Today the monastery is situated on roughly 6 acres which include the Monastery Kathlicon, library, Abbot’s quarters, trapeza and candle making shop. The Royal Eagle Restaurant also occupies the monastery grounds; built in the traditional Venetian Style to honor the memory and bequest of an Italian-American church patron, it serves traditional Eastern European Cuisine. Royal Eagle operates as a non-profit, all proceeds go directly toward the building and maintenance of the institution.

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Beautiful gardens surround the monastery, fountains and mosaic shrines are tucked into the greenery replicating the style of the ancient monasteries of Jerusalem, Russia and Poland. It’s beautiful everywhere I look; flowering shrubs, petunias, lilies, purple coneflower, marigolds and hostas are blooming in beds and urns, water trickles in the distance, you would never imagine this paradise exists in the midst of a neighborhood… We requested a table on the patio, we are shown to our seats and delighted to find we are sitting by the pond with a perfect view of the gazebo and bridge; there is definitely a sense of tranquility and serenity in the air. The four of us look over the menu, it all sounds delicious; everything is prepared in house. It’s impossible to pick just one thing; we order three appetizers and each of us chooses a different entree……. plates will be passed around the table.

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 Guests are permitted to bring their own wine, so we did. We start with a sparkling white from L Mawby in Suttons Bay, our appetizers arrive, we commence to cutting them up and passing the plates; the Tower of Basil is a stack of ripe red tomatoes, alternating with fresh mozzarella and basil, drizzled with an aged balsamic vinaigrette, oh, so good! The crab cakes are meaty and delicious the lemon aioli and pomodoro sauce are perfect sides. The Siberian Pelmeni are little round dumplings stuffed with beef, veal and pork accompanied by a garlic dipping sauce, wonderful. When we are finished we open the bottle of Rioja as the rest of our meal arrives. There are four of us at the table, we have enough food for eight! As plates arrive and glasses are filled, the sun sets, throughout the gardens tiny white lights illuminate the grounds, the glow of the gazebo reflects on the water, it is so enchanting I don’t ever want to  leave. The food is magnificent, truly one of the best meals any of us have had in recent memory. I cannot list it all, but here is a sampling of what we had: the most heavenly Chicken Paprikash with divine Eastern European style dumplings, potato pancakes, homemade sausage, barley/mushroom kasha, pirogi dumplings, salmon, and the most amazing sauerkraut ever! We ate and we drank, we shared stories, then we ate and drank some more.

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It seemed impossible to eat anymore, but when dessert was offered we couldn’t resist. While we waited, we wandered over to the church to get a glimpse inside. Built and beautified in original authentic iconography, over 30 icons adorn the walls and ceiling, it’s gorgeous. The gold surrounding the renderings of saints reflects off the glossy floor, they are hand-painted by a local iconographer in the strict, traditional Orthodox style; a tiny chandelier is the only source of light. There is not another Katholicon church like it anywhere in the world. Returning to our table we notice night has fallen, strings of lights are draped across fences and over the entrance, it’s lovely. Coffee is served as dessert arrives; the yogurt cheesecake is rich and delicious, but it’s the Russian Napoleon Cake that we all go crazy for, absolutely outstanding. Talking over candlelight, somebody notices the time, it’s after 10 pm, our server who is dressed in a traditional Russian costume approaches, she couldn’t be nicer; she offers boxes for left-overs and tells us to take our time finishing up. We can eat and drink no more, we are the last people left on the grounds, alas, it is time to go. We all walk out together, leaving this magical place; it is a night that will stay with us, it was an extraordinary experience shared with good friends.

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DETROIT: This Is How We Roll

21 Jul

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In 2005 a group of high-spirited, hard-working, competitive women joined forces to form The Detroit Derby Girls, a women’s flat-track roller derby league based in Detroit. Through the years the league has grown to include more than 120 skaters, 5 home teams and 3 travel teams that compete inter-league. This is not the old-fashioned banked-track derby of the 1970’s where hair-pulling, tripping, punching and chair-throwing was the norm. Today skaters have backgrounds in speed skating, hockey, even figure skating; they are very athletic. These women pay-to-play; they spend their hard-earned dollars buying equipment, practice time, massage therapy, band-aids and ice packs. They practice several times a week, pay for their own travel expenses and manage the league. Players come in all shapes and sizes; during the day they work as doctors, teachers, lawyers, mothers and shop-keepers. 2009 was an amazing year; Drew Barrymore arrived in Detroit to film “Whip It“, many of our local skaters took part in the film, how cool is that? That same year the DDG were ranked #2 in the North Central Division and made a trip to the Nationals. Home bouts are played at the magnificent Masonic Temple; ticket cost is minimal, bouts offer everything: hard-hitting action, speed, competitiveness, live music and lots of fun. The girls still use great names such as Black Eyed Skeez, Ghetto Barbie, Cool Whip, Fatal Femme, Racer McChaseHer and Zooma Thurman, keeping the kitsch part of derby alive. It’s a blast!

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Today the DDG is having a FREE bout outdoors at Eastern Market, using the parking lot behind Shed 3. It’s one of those days when the weather changes every five minutes; we are flip-flopping between pouring rain and sunshine. When we arrive it’s pouring, spectators and skaters are gathered inside the shed waiting for the rain to stop. Today a mix of skaters from all home teams will make up the Motown Wreckers vs the Motor City Dis-assembly Line; dressed in blue and yellow jerseys they are ready to roll. The sun comes out, refs and skaters alike make short work of sweeping the puddles off the asphalt; the temperature hovers in the 80’s so it dries quickly. The track area is laid out with spray paint lines, rocks and debris are cleared and the pack lines up. One blow of the whistle and the jam begins; blockers, pivots and jammers whirl around the track, to say it’s a little tricky skating in a parking lot is an understatement, but the teams rise to the challenge. Spectators who planned ahead are sitting comfortably in lawn chairs, the crowd grows with passers-by checking out the action. Kris makes his way to the top of the parking structure to get a great overall view and take pictures, others are there just to watch. Rows of white folding chairs make up the team benches, the skyline of the city peeks out above the roof of Shed 2, the sky cannot make up it’s mind if it will rain again. It’s inevitable that skaters will fall, one good hip-check or shoulder is all it takes,  the parking lot surface is unforgiving; instead of sliding the surface grabs hold of both clothing and skin…ouch! Taking it in stride the two teams battle it out, the crowd loves it! Keep an eye on their Facebook page for upcoming bouts and events, the regular season usually begins in November.

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We are having lunch at Topsoil, a vegetarian/vegan restaurant located inside MOCAD on Woodward.  We enter the museum and hang a right down a short hallway to the restaurant/performance space; rectangular tables are pulled together creating long community tables, sunlight pours in through the glass roll-up door in an otherwise dim space. I walk to the counter to check out the menu and place our order. It’s really hot outside so we’re looking for something cold, something light; the cold sesame udon, blk seed, sea salt, carrot salad  and the kale, Farro, lemon and evoo salad fit the bill. Everybody who eats here tells us we have to try the hot dogs, well, Tofu dogs, so I ask the gent behind the counter which one he likes best, ‘Zombie’ is his reply, Zombie it is. I join Kris at the table while our food is being prepared in the open kitchen, before I know it a tray is placed on the counter and my name is called. I am sure to grab silverware and plenty of napkins, we’re sharing everything. The first thing we dive into, of course, is the Zombie, a tofu dog tucked into a bun topped with house-made peanut butter and house-made vegan kimchi………..it is soooo good! The dog tastes like a regular hot dog, no funny texture or anything like that, the combination of flavors is excellent! Both salads are generous portions and quite tasty; when all the food is gone, Kris says, we should have gotten 2 hot dogs!

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The museum is still open, so we have a look around. MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit) is a non-collecting institution, its purpose is to explore emerging ideas in the contemporary arts. The 22,000 sq. ft. building is a former auto dealership; the huge open spaces are perfect for art exhibitions. In addition MOCAD hosts lectures, musical performances, films, literary readings and educational activities for children in the historic space. Today the main exhibit is a show called La Bella Crisis by Jose Lerma, a Puerto Rican artist. The gallery is transformed into an art fair; Lerma created a ‘booth’ a day for 30 days, now complete, the floor is covered in a silver tarp, canvasses hang at different levels, each space is unique. Detroit Native Steve Locke has an exhibit in one of the smaller galleries; “There is no one left to blame” is a series of male portraits on canvas. Midwestern Voices and Visions showcases the work of highly talented artists of color in Midwestern residency programs. Along the back wall is Dana Friedman’s video installation “Projecting”. We like that the museum is ever-changing, there’s always something new to see anytime we pop in. If you’d like to check it out you don’t have much time, the museum and restaurant will be closed from July 28 through September 11 for renovations, so get there soon!

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PORT HURON: I Saw the Light…..

14 Jul

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After a long, cold, winter we have consistently been rewarded with warm, sunny weekends. To us, summer = water; fortunately, living in southeastern Michigan, Lake Huron is just a short drive away. Today we are taking the scenic route, M-25, along Lake St Clair, around Anchor Bay then hugging the shoreline of the St Clair River, gorgeous! The ride itself is a treat, but we have more planned once we reach Port Huron. The city itself is the eastern most point in Michigan, it is also the eastern terminus of both I-69 and I-94. In the 1850’s the town was hopping because of the successful lumber trade and ship building, which in turn resulted in a picturesque downtown; Victorian style brick buildings line Huron Ave. In 1890 the world’s first international under-water tunnel was built here under the St. Clair River to connect the US and Canada, pretty fascinating stuff!

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The city is also home to the first lighthouse established in the state of Michigan: the Fort Gratiot Light Station. Built in 1829, it is the second-oldest lighthouse on the Great Lakes after Marblehead. Just north of the Blue Water Bridge, it resides on five acres that also include a lighthouse keeper’s duplex, fog signal building, crew quarters, former coast guard station and equipment building. In 2008, the Coast Guard closed the building to tours due to disrepair. Lucky for us the complex was transferred from the US Coast Guard to St Clair County Parks; with lots of money and hard work, restoration was completed in 2012, the building was once again opened to the public. We are here today to take a tour; we purchase our tickets in the gift shop, it is just the two of us so we get our own private tour, cool. Walking through the grounds there is much work going on, projects near completion as money allows. Our first stop is the fog signal building; a fresh coat of white paint covers the door and windows, the buildings are matching in red brick. Inside, our guide tells us a bit of history before moving on to the duplex building. Groups of 20 or more can stay overnight here; a friend of mine recently did a sleep over with her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. Tables and benches fill the main floor, pictures and newspaper articles hang on the walls, rows of bunk beds fill the upstairs space.

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On to the main attraction……This lighthouse actually replaced an earlier one destroyed by a storm; built of red brick and painted white, the 84 foot tower is newly bricked, it’s beautiful. The old circular cast iron stairway is very narrow, be careful as you make your way to the top, it’s kind of creepy/cool. We pass a few random windows on the way up, I can’t wait to see the view from the top. Emerging from the stairwell we walk through the doorway out into the open; a slender observation balcony rings the tower, the big lake is stunning! A sandy beach gives way to turquoise blue water, the deeper the water, the darker the shade of blue, straight across, apartment buildings rise from the shore in Sarnia. To the left, Lake Huron opens up as far as the eye can see, to the right sits the new Coast Guard Station, further on, the double span of the Blue Water Bridge and the entrance to the St. Clair River. The wind is gusty but it feels wonderful. Kris makes his way around the tower taking pictures; you get a complete lay of the land from this height, he even gets a pic of the light itself which was automated in 1933.

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We are having lunch at Fuel Woodfire Grill in downtown Port Huron. Housed in a building more than a century old, the restaurant serves Texas-style BBQ. The tin ceiling, brick and mortar are original, the hardwood floors have been restored. Decorated with vintage artwork of old fuel pumps and service stations, the place has a comfy, casual feel. The menu is full of things you’d expect to find like brisket, ribs and pulled chicken, they also serve up wonderful salads with house-made dressings, steaks and seafood…….did I mention their wide selection of craft beer? I am having a limited edition beer from a Michigan brewery, Kris takes a long pull and we decide to order another. The mixed green salad arrives, the honey white balsamic vinaigrette is delicious. Our server brings the entrée, sides and an extra plate, we taste as we divvy everything up. The brisket is outstanding as is the pulled pork, the jalapeno mac and cheese is excellent, it has a nice kick without being too hot. For the other side we took the sweet potato tots, oh yeah, shredded sweet potatoes with cinnamon, shaped into crunchy tater tots and deep-fried, they’re really good! 

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Good things are starting to happen in Port Huron; new restaurants are opening, a hotel is coming to the old Sperry’s department store space, things seem to be moving towards a more tourist-friendly destination, that’s great! Hey, they even have two places to get coffee, the Raven and The Exquisite Corpse, which is where we are going. Located at the other end of downtown in the Desmond District, the Exquisite Corpse and Gold Rodent Gallery share a space in a lovely historic building. The owner, an artist herself, has done an amazing job transforming the shop. Through the front door hardwood floors gleam, cozy seating areas combine with an extra-large table connecting the two spaces. Original artwork hangs on the wall, works are creatively displayed; we recognize some of the pieces from studios and galleries in Detroit. We walk through to the back and order coffee at the counter, this area also has its own entrance on the side of the building. Taking a seat at the big table we drink our coffee and nibble on chocolate covered coffee beans as we chat with the barista. The day has given us the illusion of being much further away than we actually are. Next time you want that Up North experience without the drive, give Port Huron a try.

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