Wednesday, June 10, 2009

OTR Destination: GR Part III. San Chez: A Tapas Bistro

A brief walk down Fulton St. from Peaches is the much talked about San Chez: A Tapas Bistro. We arrived at San Chez early for dinner. Originally, San Chez wasn’t even supposed to be in on the tour of downtown Grand Rapids, but a late week cancellation left us with a Friday evening hole in the schedule and owner Dan Gendler came to the rescue after our host, Jane Lovett made a phone call. He invited us to dine at his establishment which is known for its Spanish tapas. Neither Lynn nor I have had tapas before, so we were skeptical because of the whole “small plates” concept. I just kept thinking, Spanish or not, I’m leaving hungry for sure. Dan Gendler introduced me to my much needed attitude adjustment.

The restaurant is alive with color and tile work. The blues, whites, tera cotta, turquoises are simply neat. It’s not over the top, but fittingly just right. The dining room had only a few patrons upon entering, but we were not there even five minutes, when the place just filled up. Timing is everything. The sizzle and precision chatter is coming from just behind us as Executive Chef Shawn Phillip’s team is ready for business.

We were seated immediately and greeted by Liz, our server. She’s polite and cheery. We explain that we are new to Grand Rapids and tapas so she walks us through it making recommendations and that sharing is strictly encouraged, but only after we start with what could possibly be the best Mojito north of the Tortugas. Everything on the menu sounds fantastic but I really want paella. I reserve ordering the paella as the place already has promise for a return trip. The manager, Jes Savino, stops by to greet us and sit for a moment to talk a little about San Chez. This young woman is electric. Her personality radiates with a smile that lights up a room. She takes the time to explain some of the popular items on the menu but pays special attention to items that are made with fresh local ingredients, wild caught, organic, and Michigan seasonal fares. San Chez is a participating member of the Local First organization that strives to support the local economy as much as possible. That’s the synergy I look for. Earn it here. Spend it here. Keep it here. It was time to order.

Everything on the menu appeared to be what I want. So I threw caution to the wind and let Jes and Liz choose our experience for us. Nothing was out of bounds. San Chez is considered by many to be a “destination restaurant.” We, as well as the table next to us, drove over two hours to be here. That’s how you know it good and we haven’t even had a bite yet. I asked the ladies to order any nine items from the tapas menu and one dessert. It was on.

We started off with a Pan a la Plancha with Serrano ham. It is homemade bread with an heirloom tomato sauce and Spanish ham. The meal was perfectly timed and spaced out with never a rush. Jes told us that a diner spends an hour and a half in the restaurant on average per stay. It’s relaxing and enjoyable; something foreign to guy who is used to quick meals, but really enjoyable. The Champinons were a seared mushrooms with a chorizo and parsley stuffing. Blue cheese fritters. Berejena Azul which was a perfectly blackened eggplant cross-slice with pequillo peppers and Dancing Goat cheese topped with a drizzle of organic honey. Bistec de Lomo was a medium-rare tenderloin, saffron onions, and a blueberry glace. Ostras de Kumamto were the seasonal Kumamto oysters, with gazpacho ice and Spanish sherry. I want a snow cone of gazpacho ice next time!

My three favorites were the Pimiento Relleno. This was a cheese stuffed pablano pepper with a corn-black bean/raspberry chili guava salsa. Incredible. Further, there was the Atun de Escabeche which is a perfectly cooked herb-seared Ahi tuna served rare, served on a spicy mango puree and salsa verde with carrot and leek ribbons. Wonderful. Finally, the Gambas Asadas al Fuego. These were spicy Moroccan fire-roasted shrimp with white rice and a sweet banana mustard cream. I would honestly drive two hours to have this dish again.

The grand finale was a Torta de Chocolate con Trufas. As far as most desserts go, I normally pass. I invest in the meal. The ladies were held speechless after one bite of the torta and the truffle. This clearly was not a cupcake and a Dove square. I tried the cake, it was good but the truffle was exquisite. I save my chocolate moments in life but willingly used a moment there. Attitude adjusted; I did not leave hungry.

After two hours, dinner at San Chez was perhaps one of the best dining experiences I have ever had in this entire state. Clearly, a top three Michigan restaurant but more importantly, a Michigan based favorite. This must have been the place. Tell anyone in Grand Rapids that you ate at San Chez and their eyes light up. They know.

Thank you to Dan Gendler, Jes Savino, our server Liz, Chef Phillips, and the entire staff at San Chez for more than dinner. Thank you for an experience.

Come back tomorrow for Part IV of VI in our blog series from our On the Road series covering our recent trip to Grand Rapids. Tomorrow’s blog will feature The Festival of the Arts and The Cottage.

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