Smoke-Free Michigan- Or not

Earlier this week, the Michigan House voted on the Senate version of the SmokeFree Workplace bill. The vote tally was 50 yeas to 49 nays.  However, at least 56 yes votes were required to pass the bill.  Eleven members of the House were absent or abstained from voting. I would like to know where those legislators were. Not so much because this bill is the biggest item on their plate but because its closing in on the end of the fiscal year and the end of this session.

The current version of the law allows for zero exemptions.  No special treatment for casinos, cigar & martini bars or bingo halls.

Both sides of the issue have large vocal proponents.

Against the smoking ban are the Michigan Restaurant Association and the Michigan License Beverage Association. These business groups argue that bar and restaurant owners should get to decide for themselves whether or not to restrict smoking in their businesses. They also state that restricting smoking in bars and restaurants will hurt revenues and we shouldn’t be doing that, considering Michigan’s economy.

On the other side are a number of citizen groups, the American Lung Association and me.

On a personal level, I don’t like to pay for food that I can’t taste properly due to poorly ventilated smoking sections. I don’t like that my clothes and hair reek of smoke after leaving a bar. I am more likely to avoid a restaurant that still has smoking and I am much more likely to frequent someplace that goes smoke-free.

I do respect that business owners should generally be able to make their own decisions about how to run their places. I recognize that conflicts with my stance on the smoking ban. I have given careful consideration to my views on this issue. Its very easy to just turn up one’s nose and declare smoking a disgusting habit that should be heavily regulated and restricted. It is disgusting but one of the freedoms we need to guarantee in this country is the freedom to pursue your own happiness.

I think its important to consider the cost to the community to continue to allow smoking in public places. The health risks associated with chronic exposure to second-hand smoke are real and serious. The increased costs of caring for bartenders and waitstaff who develop diseases due to smoke exposure passes directly to the taxpayers. Whether one of these people has health insurance our not, the cost to provide medical care to smokers is reflected in our taxes (medicare/medicaid) and in our health insurance premiums. I don’t like involuntarily helping to pay the cost for an individual who chooses to smoke as it is. It really doesn’t seem fair to make all of us pay for someone exposed to second hand smoke because of their job. I’ve heard the arguments that if the bartender doesn’t like it, they should work elsewhere. Um yeah, have you seen the unemployment rate in this state? Realistically, someone in need of a job is not going to turn it down just because its smoky.

One of the sticky points has been about exemptions, specifically for casinos, cigar bars and bingo halls. One by one:

Bingo halls – Okay, I’ve never been in one. I remember my mom and grandma going when I was younger. Seemed like most bingo halls were run by churches. What would Jesus do, I guess.

Cigar bars – This one, I totally get. You can’t have a cigar bar without cigars. I don’t like cigars so much. But I don’t like the idea that a ban would put these places out of business. I do think that for places that decide to go cigar-friendly should the ban allow the exception, more power to them. Just no money from me to them. And I suspect that in the end, their customer base would suffer. A lot of people don’t like cigar smoke, many more than are bothered by cigarette smoke in a bar.

Casinos – Been to lots of these both in Michigan and out-state plus the Indian casinos. Some are better than others in terms of smoke control. In fact, the best I’ve been in, of late, was an Indian casino up near Traverse City. It was brand new though so perhaps the haze just hadn’t settled in yet. The thing about the Detroit casinos: I don’t think the regulars there are going to drive a couple of hours to an Indian casino, just to smoke while they gamble. If you had an Indian casino next door, that might be a different story. And the stats comparing Detroit vs. Windsor don’t hold up anymore due to the almost even exchange rate these days. Pretty soon, it could be in the favor of Canadians to come here to gamble.

In the end, I’d be supremely pleased if the legislature passed the ban in any form. I am not opposed to some exemptions but I think they should be very limited in scope. Chris suggested that restaurants and bars should be required to clearly post their smoking policies in lieu of the ban. He theorizes that places will use the requirements to say “sorry, no smoking” rather than post a big sign on the front door. I don’t see it but I do think if there are exemptions, those places exempted should have to post big signs indicating what they do and don’t allow. That way I can walk away before I step inside and have to add $20 to the cost of the meal for post-nosh dry cleaning.

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Its raining sushi!

After realizing that sushi meet my special diet requirements exactly, I decided to enjoy some during the first week of the program. And by some, I mean a lot.

I had it twice from Kroger, the one on West Saginaw at Creyts. One night, we went to San-Su in East Lansing. I ate some leftovers from that the next day. Then another night called for a visit to Ukai Hibachi & Sushi on the west side. I really think I could eat sushi every day or at least 4-5 times a week. I love the stuff.

Since I moved on to the vegetarian portion of the program, I probably won’t have sushi this week. Not that I couldn’t, just that Chris probably won’t want to eat carrot or mushroom or kanpyo sushi. A common misconception: sushi means raw fish. Actually, the term sushi refers to the rice- a special seasoned rice vinegar is added to the rice before its rolled in to seaweed or topped with your choice of fish, seafood, veggies or egg. You could probably get fruit sushi too but I don’t recall ever seeing it.

A few definitions:

Make Sushi – These are the rolls you are familiar with, seaweed on the outside with rice and fillings.

Nigiri Sushi – a hand-formed rice ball topped with a slice of seafood (or vegetable, egg, etc). The seafood may not be raw, e.g., BBQ eel and shrimp are both cooked first.

Inari Sushi– Rice is stuffed in to a slightly sweet flavored soybean pouch (kind of looks like an egg roll wrapper).

Temaki Sushi – Hand rolled, this usually looks like an ice cream cone with a sheet of seaweed as the wrapper.

Sashimi– Pieces of fish or seafood served without rice


Sushi @ Kroger

Back when I worked in metro Detroit, there was a Kroger right across the street so I’d split my lunches between their sushi and the sandwiches at the deli in the same strip (a place I miss dearly, by the way). The sushi counters in Michigan Kroger stores are provided by Southern Tsunami. It turns out they are franchises which is very interesting to me, hmmm…..
Anyhow, selections vary by store but I usually have no problem getting my favorite: spicy tuna. After offering California rolls with brown rice for awhile now, I’ve started seeing the brown rice option for all the rolls. It’s a nice way to get the extra nutrition but I’ve noticed the brown rice isn’t as sticky so the rolls fall apart easier. Generally I just grab a packet from the ready-to-go section but during the day, there is a sushi chef on-site who will make your sushi to order. You can also get salads, spring rolls and other specialty items ready-made. And you can buy instant miso soup or some of the ingredients for making your own sushi at home.


San-Su

I’ve been here before but not since they moved in to their larger space (same building just at the front). The previous location was way too small and the wait times were long, even during the week. Being right across from campus and the East side dorms, I’m sure this place is a welcome refuge from dorm food (don’t get me wrong, MSU dorm food is pretty good but the cafeteria is not really a “date” kind of place). The Hagadorn Plaza is kind of a mini Epcot Center World Showcase with Indian, Italian, Chinese, Sushi and Mediterranean among the food offerings all within a block of 3 dorms full of car-less college students.

So Thursday night, I was meeting my mom on that side of town and I knew I’d be wanting sushi. Since its summer break, I figured we would easily get a table. Despite the reduced student population, the place was still hopping at 7:45. We had to wait a few minutes for a clean table. It was kind of strange, being in their new spot. Although unrecognizable now, San-Su had moved in to the old USA Café location, a place of memory for me.

On this night we sat in the regular seating area to the right of the entry. To the left is a smaller area (about the same size as the entire restaurant before) where you can sort of experience a traditional tatami room by sitting on the floor. Except this is no ordinary floor- each table is placed in a pit that allows you to dangle your legs down rather than sit cross-legged and lose all feeling below the knees. From the website, it appears they still have at least one private room with traditional floor seating also.

In addition to a large sushi menu, San-Su offers several salads and noodle dishes, a variety of appetizers and quite a list of dinner entrees including tempura, teriyaki or katsu style chicken and beef. Since I was there for the sushi, I skipped right over the dinner section and missed the Bento Boxes. Bentos are a nice way to get a little sushi sample plus some teriyaki chicken (or beef), tempura veggies and some side dishes like seabreeze salad.

With my mom there, I knew we’d be starting with an appetizer of edamame or steamed soy bean pods. Its kind of difficult to mess these up- steam then top with salt and serve hot. To eat, you pop the beans out of their pods. Don’t eat the pods, they are a little too stringy. My mom also ordered Agedashi, fried tofu served with teriyaki sauce and dotted with fiery hot sauce. Chris, joining us on a study break, went for the stuffed mushroom appetizer (crab, topped with melted mozzarella). I had a few edamame but skipped the agedashi (diet plan says no soy) and looked longingly at the mushrooms (cheese also a no-no for me, dang it!).

Since we spent more than $9 per person on the sushi choices, our meals included miso soup and a small salad with that tasty peanut-ginger dressing. I think San-Su might have won for best tasting dressing. The peanut added just the right touch. The soup was typical miso soup with seaweed.  The appetizers, soup and salad all came before the sushi with longer than expected gaps between rounds. But finally, we got to the good stuff.

As usually happens, we ordered a ton of sushi, some vegetarian for mom.
Mom: Inari (comes with 2 pieces), tamago sashimi (egg, cooked like an omelet), kanpyo (pickled squash) and AAC (asparagus, avocado and cucumber)

Chris & I: spicy tuna, yellowtail with scallion, and green river (bbq eel) plus some tempura-type roll for Chris. He really likes fried stuff and cream cheese in his rolls.

There was enough left over, what with all the appetizers and such that I took home about 7 pieces of sushi for lunch on Friday and mom had at least that much left of her rolls. Leftover sushi is not as good as fresh because the rice starts to dry out and gets a little gummy but as long as you refrigerate it right away, its still safe to eat.

The service should definitely improve to match the higher prices here. There were no mistakes in our order but I’m not sure how things were submitted to the kitchen and sushi chefs. One appetizer came out, then the soups and salad followed by the second appetizer. In between service rounds, we had to ask for a small plate twice and the refill action was also slow. At the end of the meal, there was a long delay in getting the bill and take-out containers. A table next to us (party of two) came in right before our sushi arrived; they ordered, ate and boxed up then paid and left before we received our bill. Most annoying was the server’s constant apology for the delays. Every time she came to the table, she said “sorry for the wait” or some variation. You can say the kitchen was behind but how does apologizing help me pay faster?

This meal was $70 before tip and the only drink was green tea for my mom. Sushi ain’t cheap especially when you order too much, like we did.

Details

Website: http://www.sansu-sushi.com/
Location: 4750 Hagadorn Rd, East Lansing, MI
Hours: Mon-Sat 11:30 – 2:30 & 4:30 – 10:00
Sun: 3:00 – 10:00

Non-smoking, accepts all major credit cards

Before coming to a tragic end by serving some underage drinkers (with fake ID) that later killed themselves by trying to beat the train on Hagadorn, USA Café was… Well, known for serving to the underage. Without even trying, I got served there my first weekend at MSU as a 17-year old freshman.

Ukai Two

After the sushi bonanza on Thursday, I was surprised Tuesday that Chris wanted to check out a sushi place he’d discovered over by Horrocks on the West Side. But I sure wasn’t going to say no!

It turns out that the place was Ukai Two. Ukai now has three restaurants, the original Japanese Steakhouse on Grand River in Okemos, Ai-Fusion (my review here, also on Grand River but inside the East Lansing city limit (its behind IHOP as you go out towards Meridian Mall) and this new West side location. Although not impressed with Ai, we did like Ukai’s steakhouse experience. You are definitely paying for the show of having your food cooked in front of you but the food was tasty and generously portioned.

This new location has both a sushi section and Hibachi tables in the back. Since we were short on time and didn’t want to drop another $50 on dinner, we sat in the sushi bar area. The sushi menu items are exactly the same at all three locations. If you visit Ai-Fusion’s website, you can see complete descriptions and even pictures of the specialty rolls. For this night, Chris and I shared an appetizer of spring rolls; the portion is 5 two-bite chicken and vegetable filled rolls served with a light gingerish dip. The sauce didn’t do much for me but the spring rolls were good with a dominant earthy mushroom taste (from wood ear mushrooms- distinctively Asian flavor). I then ordered a TNT roll plus 2 pieces of Unagi Nigiri. The TNT roll is tuna with avocado and cucumber topped with spicy mayo and really hot sauce. I scraped most of the two sauces off for just a hint of heat. Chris ordered the Shrimp Tempura roll but subbed cream cheese for the cucumbers. As mentioned before, he really likes cream cheese in his sushi (and fried stuff), way more than I do. But I did snag a little bite, just to sample it.

The decor at Ukai Two is more modern than you might expect in a Japanese steakhouse with a lot of light coming in and muted colors on the walls and light colored tables. The sush bar is small but not crowded. On the night of our visit, there were three or 4 other groups eating sushi but no one right at the bar. I didn’t see the Hibachi section in the back nor could we hear anything from that section. Ukai Two also has an outdoor section and there were a few people, all smokers, out there but they all appeared to be drinking and not eating. I am pleased that the restaurant itself is non-smoking but I didn’t like walking through the smoke in to the restaurant. It would be nice if they installed some planters or something to block that cloud of fumes but of course, its only a problem when the wind is blowing the wrong way.

In contrast to San-Su, the service from seating to bill presentment was efficient. However, they hit upon one of my biggest dining pet peeves- service staff that don’t write down orders! The bizarre thing here is that we wrote down our order. I checked off the sushi I wanted on the sheet and Chris wrote his special request down on the back. So we just handed it to the waiter. A few minutes later, he came back to confirm that it was “cucumbers instead of cream cheese” except of course, it was supposed to be cheese instead of cukes. Fortunately, it was served to the table as ordered. Not so much a pet peeve but definitely a poor reflection on the restaurant was our waiter’s appearance. His dress shirt was untucked and the bottom button had been missed so the undershirt (thank god!) was exposed. He was kind of a big guy and I don’t think he could tuck the shirt in anyhow.

The rolls were good and very fresh but the overall experience just does not compare to San-Su. San-Su is expensive but with good service, I’d say worth it. I believe that Sagano Japanese Bistro in Flint is still the best sushi in Michigan (right now) when you factor in selection, quality and price. Back in the day (about 6-7 years ago), there was a great place in Royal Oak called WOW but its been gone for awhile now. WOW also had a wide assortment of rolls, good quality fish, skilled sushi chefs behind the counter and decent prices. Extra bonus points for being just 5 blocks from my apartment at the time. As for Ukai, the prices seem to be typical for this area and probably a smidge lower than San-Su. With Midori (Elmwood, across from Meijer) gone, this is your only shot at sushi on the West side. If you are just looking around for this place, its small and kind of hidden behind Bennigan’s and McDonalds near Creyts off Saginaw. I think I’ve not eaten at every major sushi joint in Greater Lansing except Omi in downtown EL. Its on my list; Chris has been there before and apparently they have a lot of fried tempura-type rolls so I know he’ll be happy. In any event, we’ll probably go back to Ukai Two occasionally- maybe for take-out and I just have to remember that their spicy tuna is really spicy before you add any other spicy sauces on it.

Details

Website: http://www.iloveukai.com/
Location: 754 Delta Commerce Drive, Lansing
Hours: Mon-Thu & Sun 4-10PM, Fri-Sat 4-11PM

Accepts all major credit cards, nonsmoking throughout


Trolling some blogs today, I found a reference to dessert/fruit sushi at Wandering Chopsticks. I’m not convinced about the fruit roll-ups subbing as seaweed but maybe if it wasn’t overly sugary.

**Photo credits: I did not take any of those sushi photos, all were found on Photobucket and link to the albums I found them in.

Gilbert & Blakes

Last week, Chris’s mom and family friend Carol came through Lansing on their way to Traverse City for a family wedding. Because they were traveling with a dog, hotel options were limited. We found them a place over in Okemos and met up for dinner after work.

I don’t know that area of town too well. I do know that we were all quite hungry and wanted to go someplace nearby. I immediately thought of Gilbert & Blakes or Stillwater Grill. I’d never been to Gilbert & Blakes and only to Stillwater once, about a year and half ago.

I knew that Gilbert & Blakes was meant to be a more upscale dining experience and they specialized in steaks and seafood. I mentioned both places and Chris’s mom went for G&B.

I should mention this now: Chris’s parents moved to the Florida Keys a long time ago. Chris and his 2 brothers grew up eating fish and shrimp and lobsters caught with their own hands.  As an adult, he’s extraordinarily picky about what he likes and avoids frozen seafood at all costs. We’ve had fish and shrimp shipped from the Islamorada Fish Company via overnight to avoid the scary frozen fish department at Meijer.  We rarely got to seafood places around here, presuming the fish is frozen.

 

Gilbert and Blake’s flies the fish in daily.  Which would explain why their Ahi Tuna entree was $30.  Way more than I wanted to pay especially since I had no idea what I would get other than a piece of fish.  When we arrived, we were seated and brought waters, given the regular menu and a slip with the current fish and shellfish offerings.  No one ever explained what your options were for the Tuna, Snapper, Sea Bass or other items on the list.  I’m sure you had your choice of preparation: pan-fried, baked, grilled, etc.  But sides?  Recommendations?  None of that.

Our server was obviously a bit harried.  The restaurant was not busy but not dead either.  On one of her whirlwind trips by the table, she mumbled “someone …sick…in the kitchen… earlier today.”  Now, does that mean someone who works in the kitchen called in sick? Or someone was sick in the kitchen?  The implication was they were short-staffed which happens but I wish I’d asked for more clarity on that comment.

Being short-staffed, the service was not great.  I know it happens and certainly the waiters and waitresses have no control over someone else calling in.  And the manager can’t go haul a sick person out of bed just because. But a manager can help out by keeping an eye on drinks, coming by the table to explain and offer apologies, etc.  Not at this place though.  On several occasions I noticed the hostess and a man in his mid-60s standing at the front of the restaurant, looking at the tables but not actually doing anything.

 So, the service was sub-par, let’s move on to the food.  We decided to start with an appetizer or two.  The waitress said the bruschetta came with 4 pieces so that seemed ideal. Fresh bread is also served with the meal so we stuck with just the one appetizer.

The bruschetta is served with a sun-dried tomato pesto and Parmesan cheese.  When she brought it to the table, it was a little sad looking.  Not a lot of topping and the pieces of bread looked limp, if not soggy.  The flavors were fine but again, more fresh topping would have been nice. 

For our main dishes, it breaks down thusly:
Carol: Steak Bites and Crepe Aubergine, both from the appetizer menu

The steak bites are chunks of sirloin sauteed with mushrooms, onions and peppers.  Carol said it was a little too spicy.

The Crepe Aubergine is thin sliced eggplant inside a crepe with cheese, baked.  This was different and pretty good.

Chris and Kathy: both chose the Grilled Duck served with Traverse City Cherry chutney.  Kathy opted for the scalloped potatoes and Chris chose the rice pilaf.  The dinner also included a side of mixed vegetables.

I wouldn’t say the dish got rave reviews but it was considered “all right” by both Chris and his mom.  Kathy thought the duck was a little too fatty, or rather that the kitchen should have trimmed some of the fat off before serving.  Chris liked his duck and the vegetables but thought the sauce was a little weak. 

Courtney (me) went for the Seared Ahi Tuna from the appetizer menu and a Caesar Salad. 

The tuna was exactly what I’d expect, rare sashimi sliced tuna with some soy sauce, ginger and wasabi. There was also a scoop of seaweed salad on the plate.  The dish was served with chop sticks, a nice touch (and I used them) but at $11, seemed a tad over-priced. 

When I ordered, I stated I wanted my salad and tuna together with the entrees for everyone else.  Instead, I got the salad first so picked at that for 15-20 minutes, feeling bad that no one else had anything to eat.  The dressing was non-descript and there was too much of it. The croutons were good and the sprinkling of roasted red peppers was a different but welcome addition.  I have yet to find a place that makes a Caesar dressing quite like the one served at AppleWood Cafe, run by the students at Mott Community College’s business and culinary programs.  Creamy and lots of garlic with no overt anchovy taste, its just delicious.

 


You’ll notice, no major seafood items on our tab.  And the total, before tip, was still $89.  And no wine either. The only non-water beverage was a Diet Pepsi.  In looking for information about the restaurant after the meal, I checked out their lunch menu on-line.  I’m intrigued by the Lobster Grilled Cheese sandwich so a return visit could be in order but I think I’ll stick to the afternoon menu.

Deets:

Web: http://www.gilbertandblakes.com
Address: 3554 Okemos Road, Okemos, MI 48864
Hours:Mon.-Thu. 11AM-10:00PM; Fri & Sat 11AM-11PM, Sun 12PM-9PM

 

Outdoor seating (pet friendly), private party rooms and catering available.