Archive for August, 2007

International comfort food—in a tuba museum?

August 29, 2007

Quirky, comforting little places like the Travelers Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum in Okemos, Michigan, are why you leave the Interstate. It’s not quirky in an it’s-so-bad-it’s-good sort of way—owners Jennifer Brooke Byrom and William White are in on the joke of its charm. Neither is it quirky in a calculated, corporate theme restaurant sort of way.

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Instead, everything about the Travelers Club—the decor, the friendly, relaxed staff, the ambitious, multi-paged international menu—seems to have grown organically from the owners’ own travels and lives. You get the sense that the restaurant is the way it is because this is the kind of place they want it to be.

And the way it is is comfortable and charming. The whole place has a relaxed, slightly homemade, slightly shabby [in a hippieish good way] feel. Tubas, sousaphones, French horns and fluglehorns adorn the walls and ceiling, along with an assortment of world maps for the traveler in us all. In addition to the handful of tables and booths, there’s an outdoor garden patio with the world’s only Sousaphountain. The music, when someone remembers to put it on, is an eclectic mix.

The tuba collection [or museum, as they call it] grew just as organically. William is a tuba player. He started leaving horns around the restaurant to play with visiting musicians [speaking of WTF?] and ultimately decided to create a museum. Most of the horns on display are in playable condition.

An overnight Michigan road trip led us to the Travelers Club. We’d driven past it on previous trips, so when Marion found a positive write-up of it on Chowhound, we decided to give it a try for dinner. We liked it so much, we went back the next day for lunch.

As I said, the menu is ambitious. It goes on for pages and pages, embracing American classics along with latin, asian and middle eastern dishes. Pulling this off would be a feat for any restaurant; for a small place like this that does breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, it is a formidable challenge. Not everything succeeds. But the stuff that is good is really good. And when we sent back a weirdly subpar gazpacho, the waiter cheerfully announced he would take it off the bill, without even being asked. Among the successes were the buffalo burgers and the ridiculously delicious Deluxe Nachos Grande with chorizo. There were plenty of excellent vegetarian offerings too.

A dinner special, Pescado en Tikin Xik—a fish dish from South and Central America, grouper fillet charbroiled in an achiote paste [a mixture of garlic, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and vinegar]—was wonderful, but just not plentiful enough. And let me clarify: We are not big eaters. But the fillets were tiny, probably weighing in at three or four ounces. We would gladly have paid a few dollars more than the far too modest price of $10.95 had another small fillet been added.

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The prices across the board are insanely modest, even after factoring in my Chicago-trained threshold for wallet pain. This extends to the equally ambitious beer and wine lists. They serve 120 beers, all well-priced [although, of course, they were out of the first one Marion ordered]. And the well-chosen wine list—including more than a dozen Californias, a truly international selection of imports and even a few Michigan wines—has by-the-glass prices starting at $3.50 and topping out at just four dollars more.

It all adds up to this: Travelers Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum is a delightful, cozy, quirky place that would quickly count us among its regulars if we lived there. Not precious, not hip. Just real. Best of all, it’s run by people you know you would end up calling your friends. And what more can a traveler ask for?

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Who put the F in the WTF?

August 22, 2007

This is supposed to be my forum for going off-topic, “sometimes wildly so.” But the past couple of weeks I’ve talked about food and health, wine and health… This week, I just want to give you a good, healthy laugh.

I WARN YOU, THOUGH: If you’re at work or the kids are up, proceed with caution. If you’ve read my What’s with the name? page, you know that I can speak fluent sailor on occasion. But the star of this video blows right past me, carpet bombing with more F-bombs than I’ve ever dropped on the worst night in the kitchen. Nothing sexual or offensive here [unless you’re offended by the F-bomb itself]—just a guy expressing his, shall we say, displeasure over the way things are going during a corporate video shoot.

I can totally sympathize. I work in advertising and have been on some hellacious TV shoots. On one little 10-second TV spot for a bank, for instance, the client-picked talent could not for the life of her nail the line. The director talked to her. As the writer/creative director, I talked to her. We both delivered the line as it should be read—all she had to do was mimic us, for crying out loud, but no dice. Finally, after more than 30 takes, we got something out of her that we all agreed was close enough. Afterwards, the director came to me holding an entire 35mm reel of film, all unusable takes, and asked if I was sure the last take [on a fresh reel] was what we wanted. I said it was. We threw away the entire unprocessed reel of film rather than pay to have it processed.

Sometimes, it’s not just the talent that’s the problem. We did a 30-second spot for a St. Louis restaurant chain once that again required thirty-something takes. The entire commercial was a single shot, with the camera dollying to follow the talent across the set. So in other words, if any one part of a take was bad, the whole thing was unusable. Sometimes, the problem was indeed the talent, one of the chain partners, blowing his lines. Other times, it was a bad camera move, the plate of pasta looking flat or not steaming enough [the restaurant chain’s executive chef kept making plate after plate for us as the shoot progressed], a key prop failing to fall on cue… Unlike the guy in the video below, our client was a great sport about it and kept up the energy. Still, I was glad that since we’d put him through so much, I was able to tell him that we in fact used the very last take.

Okay, without further ado, the video. Either enjoy or consider yourself forewarned.

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Drink to your health. Really.

August 15, 2007

wine_spectator2.jpgFor those of you who’ve been living in a cave the last few years, it turns out drinking wine in moderation not only isn’t bad for you—it’s good for you. For the rest of you who already knew this, here are some specifics I’ll bet you didn’t know.

The folks at Wine Spectator magazine, being no fools, have paid close attention to the whole health benefits issue concerning wine. At their website, you’ll find article after article on the topic. You can even sign up for their Wine & Healthy Living email newsletter. I did and here are some of the things I’ve learned.

The best wines to fight heart disease. All wines offer some benefits in fighting heart disease—so do all alcohols, for that matter. But it’s generally acknowledged that the tannins in red wines provide the most benefits. This Q&A explains how to choose the best reds for the job.

Sulfites in wines. Nearly all wines contain sulfites, some of it naturally occurring. They prevent bacterial growth. Unless you’re among the tiny percentage of the population allergic to sulfites, they shouldn’t pose a problem. This Q&A has more information.

Moderation, moderation, moderation. More than one or two glasses of wine a day quickly erodes any health benefits—and can indeed create health risks. But how much wine is a glass of wine? With all those supersized wine glasses out there these days, it’s hard to tell. This Q&A spells it out for you.

And finally, gargling with merlot? According to recent research, both red and white wines kill bacteria that cause tooth decay, periodontal disease and strep throat. And unlike Listerine, you don’t have to rinse and spit wine. Read the complete article here.

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Turns out eggs really are good for you

August 8, 2007

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The people over at the American Egg Board need to get on the stick. Studies showed that wine in moderate amounts is good for you, especially red wine. Bingo. That story is everywhere. Winemakers are even trying to get legislation passed to tout the health benefits on labels.

Ditto chocolate, especially dark chocolate. Not only does it deliver antioxidants, which are good for your heart and arteries. Most of the fats in dark chocolate are the good kind like those found in olive oil, and even the bad ones appear to have a neutral effect on cholesterol. The chocolate marketing machine went to work and now, show of hands, who out there doesn’t know—at least on some level—that eating chocolate is actually good for you?

Well, back in 2001, nutrition researchers at Kansas State University published the first evidence that, even though eggs contain considerable amounts of cholesterol, the lecithin in eggs prevents the absorption of cholesterol from eggs and other sources too.

In 2004, a University of Connecticut report went further, stating that eating eggs is not related to body cholesterol levels or cardiovascular problems and recommending that “people with normal cholesterol levels and no family history of cardiovascular diseases should not worry about eating one or two eggs a day.”

How many of you knew that? Yeah, I thought so. The American Egg Board [still touting their innocuous “incredible edible egg” line, but only supporting it with the most timid, tepid information on their website] has been asleep at the wheel for six years. And all that while, we’ve all been quaking needlessly in our egg-white-omelet-eating boots.

To recap: Eggs good, not bad. Low in fat and calories, very high in quality protein. And most important, studies show that the lecithin in eggs actually prevents the absorption of cholesterol.

So go eat some eggs. Have some dark chocolate. Wash it all down with some red wine. Just do it all in moderation—Oscar Wilde would have wanted it that way.

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Little prairie on the, um, prairie

August 1, 2007

The entrance to the prairie was less than auspicious. Less than promising, for that matter. We arrived at the tiny gravel parking lot at the end of a dead-end street to find the narrow gate on the tall, rusted chain link fence secured with a heavy chain and padlock.

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We’d driven some 30 miles down to 159th Street in the southern suburb of Markham, Illinois, to hike around in “the largest remaining example of high-quality grassland in Illinois” only to find it seemingly closed. But looking closer, I realized that the chain had a lot of slack in it. I gave the gate a push, and it swung open enough for us to duck in under the chain. Obviously, it wasn’t meant to keep hikers out—just ATVs, dirt bikes and such.

aphrodite-on-bw.jpgThe rest of the Indian Boundary Prairies [incorporating the Gensburg-Markham Prairie] are equally basic in terms of services. There is no visitor’s center, no gift shop—there are no restrooms. What there is, though, are more than 300 acres of prairie looking much as it did 8,000 years ago. Prairies or grasslands once covered the entire central part of the North American continent—more than 140 million acres. Less than one percent of that original prairie still survives.

Prairies don’t knock your socks off like mountain ranges. They don’t immediately inspire hushed awe like forests. When we stepped inside the chain link gate our first visit, I have to admit I was less than impressed. Off in the distance, semis rumbled along I-294, and utility poles strung with power lines cut right through the middle of the huge open space. [One set of power lines has already been buried, we since learned, and the Nature Conservancy, Northeastern Illinois University and the Natural Land Institute, who own and manage the site, are negotiating to have these lines buried too.]

dickcissel.jpgAs soon as we headed down one of the trails, though, and started taking in all the wonderful details around us, the beauty of the prairie became apparent. There was life everywhere. Wildflowers were scattered throughout the grasses. Butterflies, bumblebees and other insects flitted, buzzed and hopped around. And there were birds. Some only made their presence known with their songs, but others flew overhead or perched on fences, power lines or plant stalks. Hawks, redwing blackbirds, goldfinches. A pair of unfortunately named Dickcissels plotted our progress for a while, moving from plant to plant, announcing that this was their territory.

Suddenly, it was easy to imagine the prairie stretching to the horizon in every direction and to understand its quiet power. We spent a couple of hours hiking around, stopping often to just look and listen. [Okay, and freaking out over the ticks. When we realized we’d forgotten to bring insect repellant, I was thinking mosquitoes, not ticks. I was happy to learn that these are not the Lyme disease-carrying ticks, just the annoying ones. For our second visit, we used insect repellant—end of tick problem.]

As we were about to leave that first afternoon, another visitor appeared. We talked for a moment, and when our geeky enthusiasm for the place became apparent, he excitedly asked if we wanted to see some wild orchids. We of course did. Turns out the other “visitor” is Northeastern Illinois University biologist Ron Panzer. He’s spent some 25 years helping restore this patch of prairie, successfully reintroducing the Franklin’s ground squirrel, the Regal fritillary butterfly and a host of other creatures and plants.

We ended up spending an extra half an hour or so trying to keep up with Dr. Panzer as he bounded around, pointing out countless subtle things we’d missed and filling us up with more facts than we could possibly retain. It was great.

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At his urging, we came back to Indian Boundary Prairies a few weeks later and found it completely different, as he said we would. Grasses taller, new plants in bloom, even more butterflies. And for me, at least, I found an even greater respect for the subtle beauty of the prairie.

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