Decade in dining

By Joe Torok

(City Pulse food writer Joe Torok offers an overview of mid-Michigan’s dietary trends at home and out for dinner.)

Dining out

The Lansing area’s local restaurant scene reminds one of the story of the little engine that could; the little guys are climbing a steep hill against ever multiplying chain restaurants. But gastronomic satisfaction is more often found in smaller packages. A few trends have swept through the area, bolstered by national chains and local entrepreneurs alike.

The sushi trend hit mid-Michigan hard in the last decade, with a dozen or so restaurants specializing in seafood (raw or cooked) and sticky rice rolls, served with pickled ginger and dollops of sniffle-inducing wasabi. The international population at Michigan State University has no doubt fueled the fad, but Lansing is also following a national trend. Fusion has become trendy as well, helped along by the sushi surge. Korean cuisine accompanies Japanese style sushi at a number of restaurants, and one recently opened night spot has even attempted to fuse sushi with Midwestern culinary proclivities.

Mexican food remains a staple in the area, although it is disappointingly homogenous. A few Latin variations exist — Jamaican, for one — but tacos, burritos and the like, stuffed with seasoned beef, cheese and a few vegetables, are the norm.

Middle Eastern food remains an ethnic favorite, and even seems to be gaining popularity, because of its reported health benefits in an increasingly nutrition-aware society. Like Mexican cuisine in Lansing, though, menu options are not terribly diverse, though many restaurants will cater to special requests, a refreshing trend, perhaps spurred by increased competition and a tanking economy.

Offering locally produced food became popular in select restaurants. While other industries are scrambling to find solutions for the global climate crisis, a few restaurateurs in Lansing have turned to local farmers and producers to mitigate the carbon impact they and their diners make on world. However, three of the most notable — Restaurant Villegas, Green River Café, and Magdalena’s Tea House — didn’t survive the decade in which they were born.

Fine dining remains limited in the region. A handful of restaurants attempt to combine high quality food, flawless service and classy décor, but few succeed in bringing it all together. Restaurant Villegas and All Seasons Bistro are two recent finer-dining casualties many foodies in the area dearly miss.

Coffee houses have come (Starbucks) and gone (Cappuccino Café), but they continue to proliferate. Chains and local bistros alike have popped up all around town in the last 10 years, led by the East Lansing based Biggby, a franchising powerhouse taking full advantage of the java trend here and in five other states.

Dining in

Stroll down the aisles of most supermarkets and you’ll find organic produce, organic cookies, organic pasta, organic milk, eggs and cheese. Natural, preservative-, hormone- or cage-free labels now emblazon food product packaging only a so-called health-nut would have considered a decade ago. Not anymore; organic is chic.

While the organic/natural trend is sometimes co-opted by clever marketing or deceptive rebranding efforts that have nothing to do with a healthier product, environmental consciousness has seeped into the shopping habits of millions of Americans. And while the Lansing area has only a couple of grocery stores completely devoted to organic and natural shopping, even the chain mega-markets have responded to evolving consumer preferences, providing shoppers with more environment-friendly options than a decade ago.

Along with the organic movement, local production and distribution is slowly penetrating an instant gratification society. For many of us, we must have that tomato (or peach or asparagus or whatever we fancy) for pasta sauce right now, even in the dead of winter. But with a growing recognition of how our consuming behaviors contribute to the looming global environmental crisis, individuals are beginning to take steps reduce their carbon footprints.

Lansing also has its own small but intrepid group of localvores, people who champion local farms and food producers.

Perhaps the most popular method of combatting overdependence on fossil fuels locally is to shop at farmers markets. The Lansing City Market has stocked farmfresh products since the Great Depression, and, in recent years, seasonal markets have popped up at various street corners and parking lots throughout the area on a weekly basis. East Lansing added a farmers market in the past year, a communitybased organic farming collective is preparing for its second season on a few acres of land near Charlotte, and a shrimp farm even set up shop in Okemos, supplying the area with truly fresh seafood.

And hoop houses have sprung up like green shoots in the city, suggesting creative economic pathways that could reinvigorate a post-industrial landscape.