Ken

Get Your Feet Dirty

I must admit, 4:30 in the morning is not a good time for me. Even approaching the longest day of the year, it’s still dark outside. You don’t even have the chance to get properly hungry for breakfast. Even most of nature has the good sense to be quiet and resting.

So it came as a great surprise that when my alarm went off at that ungodly hour last Saturday, I welcomed the sound. I was even excited to get out of bed.

Racers take to the water as they head for five check points on Lake Lansing.

It was time for Dirty Feat.

Dirty Feat is Lansing’s one-and-only adventure race, for the third year running. Teams of two are given a map with check points marked, a corresponding list of clues, and a time limit to reach them all on bicycle, foot and even canoe. Last year’s race was spoiled by an untimely accident resulting in driving my partner to Lansing Urgent Care. This year would be different. Continue reading

Ken

Fork vs. Spoon: BBQ Throwdown 2012

My eyes grew wide and my jaw dropped to the floor when I first saw the news on Facebook. My two favorite restaurants in Lansing were going to go toe-to-toe in a no-holds-barred old-fashioned another-hyphenated-adjective throwdown.

The sign designating the Soup Spoon Cafe.

If you’ve ever seen the Food Network show “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” you’re probably already familiar with the concept. In short, two people or establishments craft their finest dishes of the same genre and let the people decide whose is better. Naturally, an event this big couldn’t be fit into a single day, so the two restaurants would be serving up their “competition plates” all week long.

But before moving on, allow me to introduce you to the competitors; as if they need any introduction. On one side, we have Soup Spoon Café, a restaurant that began its existence by expertly crafting breakfast and lunch for a couple of years before expanding into the dinner and craft beer market. Located downtown near Sparrow Hospital on Michigan Avenue, the Spoon was by far my favorite dinner spot until their challenger came to town.

Fork in the Road

In the other corner we have the young upstart Fork in the Road. This culinary mecca started just last Spring as a food truck carrying their “slow fast food” throughout Old Town and the rest of Lansing. Featuring slow-cooked barbecue mostly prepared ahead of time for fast service, it wasn’t long at all before demand allowed them to open their own permanent location at the crossroads of Oakland and Saginaw just north of Lansing’s West Side Neighborhood.

The best part about both restaurants is that they focus on local ingredients as much as possible while trying to be good neighbors and building their surrounding communities. If you asked me today which was my favorite, I wouldn’t have an answer. And yet, this throwdown would test me to do just that.

The cuisine? Barbecue.

The rules? Simple.

The clever t-shirt that I just had to buy.

Each patron would go to each location at some point during the week. There, they would order the “competition plate,” costing $18, as well as a vote card that cost an additional $2. It may seem like a steep price, but much of the proceeds are headed for the Greater Lansing Food Bank. So I had no problem splurging a little for excellent food and a good cause.

My original plan was to head to Fork in the Road for dinner on Tuesday – the first day of competition – split a plate with a friend, and head to Soup Spoon Café to sample their wares directly after. However, I underestimated the popularity of the contest; Fork in the Road sold out of their daily competition plate before lunch had even passed.

Plan B.

I met up with a local culinary expert for lunch at Fork in the Road on Wednesday instead. The plate served that day was, “Porchetta.” It looked to me to be a pork tenderloin filleted flat, filled with a delicious spread concoction of herbs eggs, and tied back up before being grilled to perfection. This was served alongside a couple of small medallions of homemade sausage, some giant leaves of ramp, and a rhubarb gastrique (carmelized sugar, deglazed with vinegar, used as a flavoring for sauces).

Fork in the Road's porchetta plate on Wednesday.

Yes, that last bit is from Wikipedia. Apparently I’m not quite that much of a Foodie.

The result was spectacular. The rhubarb gastrique was slightly sweet with a tinge of sour and paired perfectly with the smoky, savory deliciousness of the pork. But quite honestly, my favorite part might have been the homemade sausage. They should seriously consider serving up some bangers and mash or a sausage sandwich with that stuff.

I completed my throwdown challenge at Soup Spoon Café later that night (after a run on the trails at Lake Lansing North). I seemed to arrive at the perfect time. I walked straight to the bar, grabbed an open stool and immediately ordered the throwdown plate. If I had waited much longer, I may have been out of luck.

I got the last plate of the day.

This plate featured three different types of barbecue: ancho braised pork tenderloin with a cherry coriander rhubarb sauce sitting atop miso braised red cabbage; Cuban style smoked ribs topped with orange mojo salsa and a Goslings dark rum sugarcane reduction; and pork belly with housemade sweet barbecue sauce atop sage and mushroom grits.

Soup Spoon Cafe's barbecue trio competition plate.

It was even more impressive than it sounds.

The different flavors were evident from each section and the smoke flavor added by the Northern Michigan Red Hickory that they traveled up north to get just for the competition kicked everything up a notch. All the meat was tender, flavorful and well-cooked. And the accompanying sauces and sides suited everything perfectly. In fact, my favorite part of the plate might have been the miso braised red cabbage.

I washed it down with an IPA from one of my favorite new Michigan breweries, Greenbush, as I contemplated which box to check. Do I go with the porchetta or the red hickory trio?

I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of an answer. Mostly, I don’t want to influence anybody to vote a particular way. That’s because if you hurry, you can still participate! The throwdown continues until Saturday, May 26. And I recommend going to Fork in the Road for lunch that day, as I guarantee their pork belly confit will fly out of the kitchen!

Ken

Starfarm: A Lansing Staple for a Decade

In most of life’s venues, dressing up in solid-color Adidas jump suits, donning a pair of cheesy sunglasses and rocking out to 80s music is completely unacceptable behavior. Unless, of course, you’re actually in the 80s.

But you’re not.

You’re in the 10s… or something like that.

Starfarm at their most serious.

If you’re in central Michigan, however, there is one caveat to the rule. You could just be enjoying one of the region’s most popular tickets, Starfarm. Decked out in fabulously hideous clothing from a period in style most would rather be forgotten, the musical group performs the hits that won’t ever be. I myself have been known to hit the dance floor while screaming the chorus of many a Journey song expertly rendered by the local group.

For more than a decade, the core group of instrumentalists has built quite the following in mid-Michigan. Dana Mirate (drums), Sean Mirate (keyboards), Ryan Tarrant (bass) and “Slammin’ Danny” (guitar) have been together since 2001. And though the role of lead singer has had its instabilities, the group has hit solid ground through the vibrant vocals of Whitney Spotts for the past three years.

Having been members of the Lansing community for so long – all currently live in the greater Lansing area and most have been residents for more than 10 years – Starfarm has seen many changes in the city throughout the years.

If you ask Dana Mirate about the changes in the music scene specifically, he’ll quickly launch into a comparison of the past decade to the early 90s when he first arrived in East Lansing. As a music major at MSU, Dana was involved in the music scene from the word go.

“Everywhere you went, there were a lot of bars and clubs where you could play,” he recalls. “More people were writing original music and you could actually play that at bars. You could be an all-original band and play just one cover.”

Dana from Starfarm, who was gracious enough to sit and chat before a show at The Green Door.

Ryan Tarrant, though, is quick to point out that most all of Starfarm’s members still work on original music on the side, writing and recording songs. They just lament the loss of many quality establishments willing to push original bands.

But if you are looking for some original acts, they suggest checking out Mac’s Bar on East Michigan Avenue. They also identify The Green Door, Rick’s American Café, Lou & Harry’s Sports Bar, Dublin Square, Harper’s and The Exchange as decent places to catch live music in the area. Both agree that none of those, however, have a good house sound system or a good sound technician that really knows the space and how to make a band sounds good.

Which is why Dana makes me promise to mention Starfarm’s sound guy, John Miller, who is, “worth his weight in gold.”

For them, it’s something that Lansing is still in need of, even though they see a lot of positive changes happening downtown.

“The downtown has gone through a lot of changes,” says Ryan. “There didn’t used to be anything down there just six or seven years ago. When the Capital closed down, when the state workers weren’t there, they just rolled up the sidewalks and every single thing was closed. But now you can go down there and there are cool places to eat, there’s a lot of different bars to go to and you can get a lot of different vibes. “

Ryan of Starfarm fame, who was also nice enough to sit and chat before a show. And also nice enough to get me a beer.

“I like it,” adds Dana.

Take, for example, the outdoor Octoberfest music festival that downtown bars banded together to put on last Fall. Starfarm was ready to rock out Washington Street in a giant block party, if only Mother Nature had cooperated. The skies would not stop pouring rain and the temperatures dropped, making it unlikely to pull off the show.

“It was a shame,” says Dana. “It could have been very cool.”

One event that they did manage to pull off this year, however, was a rocking 80s party fundraiser for REACH Art Studio Center, put on by the Capital Area Women’s Lifestyle Magazine. You may remember hearing about it from our own Anika Fassia, who attended with some friends who came to town from Chicago to see what Lansing was all about.

“They go all-out decorating it,” Dana says, noting that it was the second time Starfarm had played the fundraiser and that they already had been booked for next year. “It’s top notch. I’d recommend it. It includes food, all these great party favors, candy from the 80s. You mingle with some pretty important people and, I think it’s cool.”

“And it’s fun,” chimes in Ryan, repeating the mantra of this very blog. “There’s a lot of really cool people, a lot of young professionals, who want to come out and have a good time for a charity.”

After talking to the pair for some time, it becomes obvious that, yes, Lansing has a long way to go. It’s tough to make a living as a musician in the area, getting paid little to nothing for years of tuition, practice and investments into equipment. Working a day job while being gone every single weekend performing is difficult, especially for those in the band with kids.

But there is still plenty to celebrate and use as a springboard into the future.

Starfarm at their finest.

“There’s some great stuff that you can see for free even sometimes like at the Wharton Center,” agrees Ryan.

“I remember once when Branford Marsalis was at the Creole Gallery down here and they just went out and did a show,” continues Ryan. “One of the top jazz musicians in the entire country just kind of on the down-low went in and did a show. You’re just walking down the street and you’re like, ‘Is that Marsalis playing here? That’s pretty cool’”

“Rodney Whitaker teaches jazz at MSU and is one of the most sought after bass players for jazz,” says Dana, chiming in. “And he brings in these cats. He brings in Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis. And that’s here. You won’t see that in Iowa. You’ll see it in Chicago, but you’ll pay a lot of money.

“I’ll tell you right now, every city you go to sucks to the people who are there all the time. There’s a level of suckiness in every single city; but it’s what you make of it. It’s about the community and the effort you put into it.”

Ken

Not So Vacant for a Night

“What’s the password?”

How can you not love the "C" in this?

The question was posed to me as I approached a vacant building on south Washington Street in REO Town. The asker was a sharply dressed 20-something man who looked like he had stepped straight out of the roaring 20s. A trilby hat, suit coat, dark vest. Sharp.

He rubbed his hands together as wisps of white breath floated away into the night. It was a strange question to hear on a Wednesday evening in Lansing. And the fact that I was standing in front of an apparently abandoned building made it even stranger. Luckily, I had an answer at the ready.

“Bum’s rush.”

He smiled and swung the door open as I stepped into what might have been the most anticipated event of 2012 thus far. But perhaps I ought to back up and explain a little bit first.

Continue reading

Ken

Frost Fest Steams the Streets of Lansing

One of the options of frozen games to play throughout the night.

It was almost like a scene straight out of a C.S. Lewis novel. Tables for chess and checkers were made out of ice, as were the etched slabs and pucks used for shuffleboard. Giant blocks served as stools for shivering card players. But unlike the White Witch’s castle in the classic children’s novel, the inhabitants of Frost Fest’s tent couldn’t have been less similar to stone statues. Continue reading