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He Ate by MARK NIXON
It takes chutzpah to look at a bank and think, “We can transform that old bank into a restaurant. Plus, we can store beer and wine in the bank vault.”
To my knowledge that’s happened twice our midst. The Vault Delicatessen has thrived in downtown Mason for about 10 years. The old bank vault serves as a wine cellar.
A fledgling bank-turned-restaurant arrived in Lansing last autumn, Arcadia Smokehouse. And, yes, there’s a large stash of brews stored in the vault.
Appearances at Arcadia are deceiving. The outside is low-slung and boxy, the kind of building a banker would design on the back of a bad check.
Step inside and all tedious, bankish designs melt away. Beer labels transform some walls into a dazzling pastiche. Lording over a series of tables is a huge painting of Michigan’s two peninsulas. It’s quirky. Embedded in the painting is a Michigan license plate and a sign that implores you to “Push for Help.”
OK, OK, I know. This is a restaurant review, not a treatise on art and architecture. So, let’s get to the meat of the matter, so to speak.
The smoked turkey breast ($12.95) hit all the notes. The requisite smokiness was spot-on. The sizable portion was tender and moist, needing no BBQ sauce. Judy’s sweet bacon pizza ($11.95) was equally outstanding. They got so much right with this dish, including a smattering of spinach and a cheese topping that had a slight cheesy sharpness. I thought this pizza matched up with the ones I’ve had at Cosmos, which has some of the best pizzas in town.
Speaking of Cosmos: I’m a big fan of their deviled eggs. Well, Arcadia’s version (six half-eggs for $2.98) gives Cosmos’ a run for its money. Our server told us the yolk mixture included chili powder and Tabasco. I detected paprika as well. This appetizer drew raves from all four at the table, and it was quickly polished off.
Over the course of two visits, Judy and I tried several appetizers and side dishes. By far the best of the bunch was the flash-fried Brussels sprouts ($7.45). They are lightly coated with honey, then salted slightly after the frying.
By contrast, the sides of mac and cheese and pit beans were just slightly above average (you get two sides with an entree). The beans in particular need a flavor boost; perhaps a dash of liquid smoke and some minced garlic.
The most expensive item I ordered turned out to be the most average. The half rack of baby back ribs ($16.95) were not bad (damned with faint praise) but could have been more tender and crispier on the outside. Better ribs can be found elsewhere in town.
On that same visit, Judy’s smoked pulled pork ($13.95) outpaced my ribs by 20 lengths. I will return to Arcadia for the pulled pork.
Our friend, Bruce, had the smoked beef brisket ($13.95) and pronounced it “a tad toward the well-done side but had enough marbling to keep it tasty and moist. The mustard-based sauce was perfect for my taste buds.”
Speaking of sauce, six house-made sauces are presented at each table. Some are spicy, some are not. They come without labels, so the server has to name each one. “Why not label them?,” we asked.“Well,” she said. “Running them through the dishwasher erases the labels.” Hmm … somehow, I don’t think this problem is beyond the grasp of human imagination. Label them, somehow.
There’s a down-home vibe to Arcadia. I like the fact that many dishes are served on shallow sheet pans lined with parchment paper. It’s a perfect pairing for smoked meats.
In our experience, Arcadia sealed the down-home deal via our server, Brittanye. She was the coup de grace of our second visit. The vote was unanimous. Brittanye was witty, knowledgeable and prompt. She could take a joke, and she dished it right back at us without missing a beat. Memo to Arcadia: Keep her.
I like beer, as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh famously said. If beer is your thing, Arcadia should be your kind of place. I bend toward the darker beers, and recommend the Arcadia Morning Night Cap ($5.95), brimming with flavors of caramel and coffee.
A final memo to the management: Keep doing what you’re doing, and try perfecting some of the items noted above.
Oh, and do something about your online menu. We had a devil of a time finding the menu on your website. It should not be difficult, like labeling bottles of sauce. I suggest you start with a tab that says “Menu.”
She Ate by GABRIELLE LAWRENCE
In recent years, Lansing’s east side has cultivated a cool atmosphere with coffee shops, bars, farmers markets, taco trucks and restaurants. While parking remains at a premium, there’s a case to be made for parking your car in a residential neighborhood and strolling a few blocks to get to Arcadia Smokehouse, especially when the night is young and balmy and Grandma is babysitting.
We sat at a picnic table on the patio, surrounded by lawn chairs, lawn games and an artificial turf surface. We started with the hot honey crispy chicken, and I was impressed with the meaty, battered bites of chicken tossed with a hot honey glaze. In the food world, hot honey is the sexy new star, and I’m joining the fan club and tacking the poster onto my wall.
For my entrée, I chose the beef brisket with sides of pit beans and potato salad. I asked our server for more information about the potato salad and was met with a skeptical look and response that it was mustard-based. Is that a weird question? I want to know if the potatoes are russets or redskins, if there’s bacon or green onions, mayo or mustard. Nothing crazy. The potato salad was a mistake. It was a dish of boiled redskins essentially slathered in mustard. No depth of flavor, nothing to cut the mustard.
The brisket was pleasantly smoky and tender, and I especially enjoyed the six-pack of sauces sitting on each table for me to sample at my leisure. I get overwhelmed with barbecue sauces and find it impossible to choose one when I am asked to do so with a food order. I much prefer this system, where you can read the descriptions and try them all until you find one you like. The pit beans were the true star of the show — loaded with chunks of smoky, sweet brisket.
Mr. She Ate ranks ribs among his favorite foods and was eager to delve into a half rack of baby backs. The texture was right, he said, and they fell off the bone but had a bit of char on the outside. There wasn’t much flavor to the meat itself, and his side of macaroni and cheese was typical of most we’ve found in restaurants – creamy, looks like it should be delicious but tastes like Velveeta.
The brisket and ribs themselves couldn’t hold a candle to some of the other, exceptional barbecue we have in the Lansing area, but the honey chicken bites found us coming back for more the following week. I also ordered the Brussels sprouts, which are a traditional favorite of mine. I don’t typically order them in restaurants because it is dead easy to thinly slice a pound of them at home, toss with oil, blast at a high heat in the oven and go to town until your lips are puckering. I was happy I tried these, for they were wonderfully crispy and tossed with the same hot honey glaze as the chicken.
I doubled down and ordered the crispy chicken salad. When I brought the to-go order home, I eagerly opened my salad box, only to be crestfallen when I was met with a mound of iceberg lettuce, watery chopped tomato, tons of pre-shredded cheddar and cucumber slices without even the tough outer skin removed. I ate the chicken from the top and stared at Mr. She Ate, sucking down a pizza, until he gave me a slice.
His smoked chicken pizza was making him much happier on his side of the table. While unexpected, he loved the honey mustard sauce and said that it was a nice change of pace from typical, tomato-based pizza sauce. The dough was fluffy and chewy, which he likes, and the pizza was an appropriate size to eat the entire thing — after giving your beseeching wife a piece — and not feel uncomfortably stuffed.
In my opinion, salads are an easy place for a menu to take some creative license and create something different and exceptional. Arcadia only offers two salads, and they could easily create something that plays with the line between feeling healthy and decadent. I suggest getting rid of out-of-season sad tomatoes and watery cucumbers entirely, and avoiding iceberg lettuce unless a salad is intentionally using, such as a wedge salad. Spinach and romaine are no brainers.
One final note: Arcadia’s current menu is near impossible to find online. It does not exist on their website or their Facebook page — an oversight that blows my mind. I understand that menus change, but I also understand that it takes but a moment to snap a cell phone photo of the current menu and post it on Facebook. For those of us who plan our lunch around what we’re going to have for dinner, that information is important.
2101 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing
Opens 11 a.m., Monday – Sunday
(517) 482-2739, Arcadialansing.net