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Photos by Jacqueline Leapheart Photography
Review by Jenny Blair
We found it while looking for fresh strawberries. On a visit home to Saginaw after living for six months on rice and salted fish in Borneo, Indonesia, my husband and I couldn’t wait to taste the summer berries we could only dream of there. Along with my aunt Judy, who owns a business in Hemlock, we drove along Gratiot looking for a pick-your-own sign.
Instead, we found the Maple Grille. “Is that place open?” Judy asked, craning her neck. She’d driven past it a few times and been intrigued by the giant grills and maple syrup boiler in the front yard. Hungry, we turned the car around. Picnic benches, red-checked tablecloths, a chalkboard menu—all good signs. Wonderful smoky aroma—another good sign. We got a friendly greeting and sat down. And that’s how we discovered what I suspect is the first locavore restaurant in the Tri-Cities area, if not greater Mid-Michigan. They serve a phenomenal meal.
It was only the day after their opening, and chef Josh Schaeding and his co-workers were eager to make us feel welcome. All they needed to do, though, was let us taste the food, which Josh and his father grill outdoors themselves over maple wood. Wow. Think great American picnic food—pork, corn bread, potato salad. What the Maple Grille calls bacon is a slab of melt-in-your mouth, fatty, slightly sweet meat, nothing like the crumbly, oversalted strips we fry on the stove. Their chops were savory, flavorful, and perfectly cooked, tender with an element of snap. When we returned a few days later, barbecued ribs had appeared on the menu. My husband grew up in the South, while I’ve tasted barbecue in Memphis and at Dreamland Ribs in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. So maybe we’re qualified to tell you that Josh makes some seriously stunning barbecue, sweet and tender and with depths of complex flavor, like the memory of barbecue from a good dream. Every meal comes with three sides included—we chose the Michigan asparagus, al dente without a hint of mush; the cast-iron corn bread (with a side of maple syrup), with its agreeable, outdoorsy grill-smudges; and the baked beans. The latter were the only sour note; two of us found them unpleasantly vinegary. My husband liked them, though, so maybe it depends on how you take your beans.
The place is more Atkins than Moosewood, with no protein entrees (so far) for vegetarians. Perhaps those of us who eat meat only with a troubled conscience will take comfort in the fact that this was a local pig. Josh had chosen it from a farmer who uses organic techniques in the Ovid-Elsie area near Chesaning, and he also supervised its butchery in Alma. But his commitment to fresh local food goes way beyond the pigs. He built a moveable chicken coop behind the restaurant; it’s full of Isa Brown roosters and hens, some of which will eventually be on the menu and others which are expected to start laying in October. Behind that is Josh’s vegetable garden, a tidy half-acre plot employing almost entirely organic techniques, including hand-tilled rotors and organic manure. He expected to begin harvesting broccoli in early July, and the tomatoes, squash, and zucchini would soon be ready as well. A greenhouse is in the works.
The Maple Grille’s menu was slated to change every two weeks based on availability of the ingredients he grows and buys in the area, thus remaining faithful to locavore principles (though he hasn’t figured out how to source some ingredients, like olive oil, locally). “We really appreciate the farm-to-table thing,” Josh told me. Given that mid-Michiganders live in such a rich farming area, it’s surprising that restaurants committed to local ingredients haven’t caught on here sooner, the way they already have in much less pastoral areas like New York City.
A native of Shields and a graduate of Northern Michigan University’s Food Service Management program, Josh Schaeding has worked at Bay City’s Doubletree Hotel and Saginaw’s Horizons Conference Center and the Davenport Grille, but says the Golden Glow Ballroom is where he built his reputation. It was while working there that he won a 2011 Saginaw News Reader’s Choice Award for Best Caterer; last fall he began privately catering events, and this April began to plan his full-service restaurant.
There are some kinks to be worked out. The restaurant doesn’t have a commercial dishwasher, and we struggled with flimsy plasticware while going through a grim number of throwaway dishes. (Josh says he is working on a more sustainable dish-and-flatware solution. The restaurant’s vegetable scraps, at least, are not thrown away; they’re composted or given to the pig farmer.) Though there’s plenty of outdoor seating, it’s unshaded, and the indoor dining area had an unsure-of-itself atmosphere. A file cabinet stood in one corner. The chairs had a honorable pedigree, their maplewood seats salvaged from old school chairs and their frames built of leftover construction metal, but they were stiff. The décor consisted mostly of a bookcase (Eat Like a Wild Man, The Forager’s Harvest) and some photos of boys posing with prize pigs. Seat cushions, cool posters, and a little music might warm the place up. The Grille will get there. Even if it doesn’t, that hardly matters. Any place that makes such magic out of fresh local ingredients can afford to slide a little on the atmosphere.
The best part of the afternoon? We got our strawberries after all—Hemlock strawberries on perfectly grilled shortcake, beneath freshly whipped cream and a drizzle of maple syrup. We weren’t in Borneo anymore. Eating at the Maple Grille made us happy all over again to be back home in mid-Michigan. “I don’t want to be five-star,” Josh said. “I just want to serve real food.” His cooking was as real as sunlight and warm soil, and every bit as wonderful.
The Maple Grille LLC
Restaurant and Catering
13105 Gratiot Road
Between Shields and Hemlock, just west of Orr Road
Serving lunch and dinner 11 am-8 pm
http://www.themaplegrille.net; also on Facebook
© Jenny Blair, 2011