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by Bob Barnett

Before the revitalization of Downtown Flint began to take hold a couple of years ago, I never would have imagined myself having dinner at a nice restaurant in the heart of the city’s center on a Sunday evening. In fact, I could almost picture the tumbleweeds blowing down an empty corridor of vacant buildings and boarded up store fronts.

That has all changed, however, and Flint is finally getting national attention for the wonderful things that are happening here. Saginaw Street is lined with flourishing businesses awash in clientele both local and beyond. And the restaurant scene is leading the charge. Top on the list for making a dramatic entrance onto the local culinary scene is 501 Bar and Grill, an Art Deco Tapas Bar. I know! Isn’t that the coolest thing to come along since the Coney Island hot dog? It opened last year on the corner of First and Saginaw Streets in the building that formerly housed Dale’s Health Foods. The investment group that runs 501 also opened a pizza joint adjacent to the Tapas Bar, WizeGuys Pizza. [].

The concept of 501 is simple, according to its owners: “Art Deco, Modernistic. Inviting with sophistication and flair, the 501 is reminiscent of a classic Manhattan martini bar. Our unique menu delivers a variety of tastes filled with small plates perfect for sharing and comparing among friends.” Having dined here a half dozen times now, I agree wholeheartedly with their characterization. The food is elegant, the atmosphere is hip, and the service is professional, yet 501 maintains a friendly, unpretentious identity that’s remarkably consistent with the collective identity of the local community.

Tapas is a uniquely Spanish tradition, and Chef Luis Fernandes does the tradition proud. The Empanadas, for example, are exquisite. I like them all (beef, chicken, and vegetarian), but the curried vegetable version is astounding. The light flaky crust holds a perfectly blended combination of tastes and textures that, with the accompanying cucumber yogurt sauce, creates a work of edible art.

On this night, we ordered a combination of small and large plates. Tapas bars are fun because you can be as communal or individual as you choose. And there’s a lot to choose from. Most of the front side of the menu is taken up with small plate choices. Chef Frernnades, while honoring the traditions of Spain, puts his own touch on the Tapas concept with an unapologetic fusion of Asian and Mediterranean dishes.

We started our evening with the Seasonal Vegetable Tempura plate, served with Ponzu sauce, a citrus based mixture that’s usually made with mirin, rice vinegar, and soy sauce. The tempura batter made for a thin, crispy coating that really let the flavor of the vegetables speak for themselves. Some of the heartier vegetables were undercooked and a bit too crunch for my taste. I appreciate a good al dente tempura, but some of the vegetables in our dish were closer to raw. Despite that little hiccup, the waitress did remove the dish from the table with nothing left on it.

As we settled into our dining experience with a dozen or so other guests, enjoying some nice Spanish wine (the selection is impressive), a second wave of food arrived. My two dinner companions went for the small plate option, and I chose one of the large plate dishes I had yet to try at 501. The small plate selection consisted of Pork Potstickers with a pickled ginger dip; Calamari Fritti—strips of deep-fried squid with roasted garlic chili mayonnaise; Crispy Moo Shoo Duck; and Potatoes with Piquillo Peppers tossed in onion, sea salt and olive oil. (My mouth is watering just remembering how good these dishes were.) Each plate had its own distinct set of flavor combinations and the attention-getting presentation of the food was on par with the restaurant’s larger Art Deco ambiance.

In my frequent travels around the country, I’ve eaten a lot of good quality fusion food in places like Chicago, D.C., Seattle, and San Francisco, but I have never experienced anything close to 501’s Spicy Seafood Pasta Jambalaya. I rank it as one of the top ten best entrees I’ve ever eaten. Chef Fernandes is masterful at bringing together ingredients in a way that, mixed with the right sauces, take your taste buds to places they have never been, yet he exerts just enough control and balance in his presentation to keep the tastes from overwhelming the palate.

Chorizo sausage, fresh shrimp, scallops, and mussels mingle with a multi-colored bowtie pasta, all bathed in a spicy Creole cream sauce that will keep your fork stuck in your hand until the last piece of meat mops up the excess sauce. And if you’re like me, the fork will get traded in for a spoon to collect the last dregs of one of the best spicy sauces I’ve ever tasted.

As shocking as it may sound, after all of the plates were taken away—most of them empty—we asked the waitress for the dessert menu. Not that we needed it by then, but a meal as good as ours deserved the exclamation point of a good dessert. With little discussion, we settled on the Mini Chocolate Meltdown and the Cheesecake with raspberry sauce. (Chocolate and raspberry make perfect dessert mates, by the way).

While the cheesecake was unimpressive but good (I have perfected the New York style cheesecake in my own kitchen, so I’m admitting to a slight bias here), it didn’t bowl me over. Without the perfect sweetness level, a cheesecake suffers from what I call the more-texture-than-taste-syndrome. The raspberry sauce helped, but I left most of this shared treat for my dinner guests.

The Mini Chocolate Meltdown was another story altogether. That thing rocked! The combination of good quality, warm gooey chocolate oozing out of a flourless cake, situated in a mini mote of more chocolate goo is pure heaven. We had no trouble finishing off this must-have gem.

501 Bar and Grill is a welcome addition to a city whose brightest days are being shaped by a new era of collaboration, creativity, and pride in the place a lot of us call home. But don’t take my word for it: the AirTran in-flight magazine, which is proudly posted in the men’s restroom, makes mention of 501 as one of the must-eat-at restaurants in the state. The air carrier’s shout-out to 501 Bar and Grill is well deserved, and with that kind of high flying publicity, 501 is already setting a new standard of culinary excellence in Downtown Flint.

Bob Barnett is a Flint food blogger.  You can follow his musings on local food and culture at his blog, Eating Flint.

© Bob Barnett, 2010