Feb 20, 2011

San Chez Bistro - Still Buzzing After 18 Years

Downtown Grand Rapids was a whole different city in 1992. The restaurant and entertainment scene was non existent outside of the Amway Grand Plaza hotel. Sure, there were a few decent restaurants that were scattered on the outskirts of center city such as Gibsons, the Thornapple in Ada and the Sandpiper in Holland; but downtown, it was slim picking.

I was a Chicago transplant that year. While I was very happy with my job as the assistant director of food and beverage at the Amway Grand, life outside of work was not even a fraction of my social activities in Chicago. So when San Chez Bistro opened in 1992, it gave this self proclaimed foodie a glimpse of hope of the possible transformation my new hometown would eventually experience in the years to follow.

My wife and I were still dating at the time and this Spanish tapas oasis on Fulton street became our culinary destination until we moved to the British Virgin Islands in the summer of 1993. Opening a tapas restaurant was a huge gamble that paid off, not just for the owners, but for the entire city.

We celebrated Valentine's Day last Monday with our three kids. It was a spur of the moment deal which my wife and daughter Margaux initiated and the rest of the family obliged to their delight. After 18 years, it was good to see San Chez still humming with loyal patrons.

Two orders of the Gambas Al Ajillo kicked off our meal with a burst of garlic infused sauteed shrimp with olive oil and red pepper flakes ($10.99). A classic bar snack for the Spaniards, this dish did not disappoint in its simplicity of preparation and robust seasoning. With local bread in hand, we all dipped our breads in its juices until the cast iron skillet was bone dry.

Two plates of Calamaritos Fritos ($9.99) followed on a bed of Serrano ham, pork belly, onion, orange zest and squid ink ailoi. The calamaritos' crispy batter glowed to a golden brown, perhaps a few seconds too long in the deep fryer, nevertheless, was tasty especially with the accompaniment of the pork belly and Serrano ham. The squid ink aioli was too think and heavy for this Galician seafood staple. It was good, but I would have preferred a lighter sauce or even no sauce with the dish. We ordered a third helping of the dish, only this time, we asked the kitchen to hold the aioli.

Margaux and I still remember the medjool at Avec in Chicago. Avec's medjool - dates stuffed with spicy sausage and a tomato sauce to die for - was the single most memorable dish we had last year. Such high expectations may have influenced our reaction to San Chez's Medjool Rellenas Picantes ($6.99) which was delicious, however, we would have preferred a lot more sausage inside each date.

The Empanadas De Pato Gordito ($9.99) - duck confit, mushroom duxelle, grilled asparagus, goat cheese & piquillo pepper stuffed empanada - was the dish my wife was raving about for she and a friend were in heaven after tasting the special empanada a few weeks earlier. The empanada with black bean soup and lime sour cream was a sure winner.

My favorite tapas on this visit was the Bistec Lomo ($12.99). The medium rare tenderloin sliced like butter and the saffron onions and blueberry demi-glace that accompanied the lomo was a fandango in my palette. A sure hit on your next visit to San Chez.

The Himalayan black sea salt espresso flan ($5.99) was very tempting but to my better judgement, I held back simply because I was stuffed. I definitely have something to look forward to on my next visit.

Gambas Al Ajillo
Calamaritos Fritos
Medjool Rellenas Picantes
Empanadas de Pato Gordito 
Bistec de Lomo


chongkee said...

san chez is definitely one of my favorite restaurants in the city. imagine my shock when i met a bonafide spaniard a few months ago and he told me (with some disdain) that the food there resembles the food from his homeland only nominally. maybe one day i'll be able to travel to spain and try the real thing for myself.

My Hotel Life said...

chongkee - San Chez has always been one of my favorite places to eat downtown. It's really a Spanish/Mediterranean cuisine that's probably why your Spaniard made that comment. Also, each region of Spain is so different that someone from Costa Del Sol may not be as familiar with Galician cuisine. Authenticity is so subjective. Filipinos, for example, still argue on which adobo style is authentic - soy or no soy, coconut milk or not. As long as the food is good, I'm okay with it.

chongkee said...

Mismo. I've never had it with gata btw, sounds interesting.

filipino women said...

THIS PLACE?! IS AWESOME!!! They have Great food with plentiful choices and you will leave full. Offers and Excellent, warm and professional service. And, Reasonable prices, but could make the alcohol beverages a tad bit stronger!

filipino said...

But, I am not really sure if they have happy hour, but that would be a great if they do and parking is street and lot I think.