Throughout my life, there have been many meals that are recounted and relived in a dreamy haze time after time: the morel dinner at Five Lakes, the chef at my favorite sushi joint in Santa Monica making the octopus fresh out of the tank just for me, wild asparagus munched on during hikes through the UP. Moments like this are wonderful and well worth seeking out, but it is a rare thing indeed for me to end a meal energized, eager to get back to my computer so I can write and sort through photos and tell as many people as possible about what I just experienced. Today was such a day.
As a Midwestern writer, I feel an overwhelming urge to preface any article about a meat free restaurant with reassurances about my place as a red-blooded lover of all things animal, to make sure *you* know that *I* know what eating is really about, but to do so would be a disservice to both your intelligence and the caliber of food I found at fuel. Instead let me say that there is nothing in my life or yours that should keep you from paying this unassuming-in-appearance-only vegetarian establishment a visit. The meat was neither needed nor missed.
Have you ever walked into a diner from a bitingly cold Michigan morning, sat down, and had your server put a space heater at your table? Sing ballads about kale chips and champion your organic vinegar selection, but this is the greatest thing ever to happen for the restaurant world. Having warm toasty toes in the midst of a snowfall is the Northern Hemisphere equivalent of burying them in tropical beach sand: it really does make everything better. This alone would’ve endeared fuel [unpredictably vegetarian] to me, but it’s hard not to be comfortable in that dining room, reminiscent of the chic, off-the-beaten-path places you sometimes find Up North. Especially in the middle of winter, the bold colors in the artwork and the lush shades used on the walls insulate you from the icy fingers trying to slip between your buttons. It is all warmth and comfort.
When dining alone I often find the best way to get to know a place is through the magic of “Surprise me.” Sometimes it’ll be your server choosing, other times the kitchen, but either way, if you’re in a place that cares about what they do, you know you’ll be getting something made with great care and pride. Hoo boy, was that the right way to start things at fuel! While the entirety of the brunch menu had appeal, I couldn’t have been happier with the call my server made, a dish called chilaquiles. I’m a huge fan of non-western breakfast foods for breakfast, so when a plate of creamy black beans arrived topped with scrambled eggs (or tofu, which can be substituted in any dish), freshly made tortilla strips, and pico de gallo I may have giggled just a little bit. Oh how I love raw onions in the morning! Aside from preferring a softer scramble on my eggs, this was a perfectly balanced dish: fried crunch, red onion bite, sweet egginess, and a smooth blend of spice. Hot tortilla strips used as scoops for egg, veg, and bean feels like such a luxury on a flurry-filled morning, even though the ingredients seem so straightforward at first. Nary a scrap would’ve been left on that plate had I not known there was more to come. Anyone who had this wouldn’t judge you ill if you happened to accidentally lick your plate clean.
Texture, we are frequently told, is something the average American diner has a problem with: we don’t like gritty, we don’t like spongy, and clutch the pearls, you tried to serve us gelatinous? Horrors! To all those folks, I say nerts. When my server told me about her favorite way to enjoy the sausagish gravy and grits (topped with a fried egg and green onions), I may or may not have shouted “Bring it on,” my head swimming with thoughts of creamy and crisp swirling together in a miasma of herby comfort food goodness. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea due to the viscous nature of the dish, the addition of egg and onions brings a perfectly balanced one bowl dish. Add a few dollops of the house-made hot sauce and it transforms into a dish of Alabama pho, equally at home in a hip food truck as in the kitchen of someone’s grandmother, provided grandma’s into Anthony Bourdain. Having the right mouth feel on a dish of this sort is tricky. Too often greasy and chalky, good sausage gravy is something sadly hard to find on most brunch spreads, even in nicer restaurants, but at fuel, when atop the firm, dare I say al dente grits, its silky execution only highlights the other components, never distracting with something gone awry. I would’ve preferred a runnier egg, as the idea of bright yellow threads weaving themselves through the layers of grits and gravy makes me salivate, but the firm yolk was an appropriate counterpoint to the rest of the bowl.
For those looking for a more traditional selection, the French toast is sublime. When one finds oneself face to face for the umpteenth time with six brownish triangles of semi-cooked white bread next to a heap of rubbery, yellow protein and a few hardened nuggets that were once a potato, it’s easy to forget that this is not the way things were meant to be. Fortunately, fuel has not forgotten and they’re well-armed to remind the rest of us. A light coating browned enough to set the mix allows the bread to be bread and actually be tasted, and while I’m usually against anyone putting syrup on my goodies but me, the staff knew what they were doing. The addition of a touch of powdered sugar and apple-pear preserves atop the toast was a master stroke, neither too sweet nor overpowering. There’s even a buttery finish that gives the sensation of doing something slightly naughty. In this round I did get a runny egg, as ordered, and each bite swirled in that golden nectar made me grateful I had so many tastebuds. As for the potatoes, I was impressed. Deep frying in the morning isn’t something I generally look for, but the home fries done more akin to flash fried French fries were crunchy and maintained a solid spud flavor and texture, traits often lost in the mush-making far corner of the grill. A poorly tended tater can mar an otherwise fine meal after all, but that’s of no concern here.
Food notwithstanding, and it was spectacular, one of the most heartening things about fuel is that it’s owned and staffed by (mostly) women. In the world of food, be it the lowliest diner or the heights of Michelin dining, it’s still the norm to find women relegated to status as lesser beings in their craft. To see a successful, quality business in Kalamazoo – one that took a conceptual and geographical risk when they opened – run by women is incredibly heartening for a myriad of reasons. The fact that they’re delivering the goods day in and day out makes it even sweeter.
Welcoming in every way, fuel is a great place for the solo diner, as well as those looking for an intimate dining experience without the formality or fuss of other restaurants to which that word is applied. Each sizable window looks out onto the corner of Alcott and Burdick, which means that no matter the season, there will be something to look at. Depending on the time and day you visit, fuel isn’t the best people watching venue, as everyone is too close to not notice you sneaking curious glances, but if you like talking to new people and interacting with those who make your dining possible, it will soon become a regular haunt. One of the nicest features is a pair of doors mounted on the wall between tables. If you want some privacy, you’ve got it. If you have a party of ten and need to move some tables together, you can go that too. No small feat for a space that size. At no point does the design or décor work against fuel’s apparent credo, found below the clock in the dining room: “Enter as a guest, leave as a friend.”
Though places like Bravo! may have more sizable spreads or been around longer, fuel has supplanted them all in my mind as the definitive, not-to-be-missed brunch in Kalamazoo. I’m eager to return another day and experience what they can do with lunch, dinner, and anything else they set their spatulas to. It was a treat to have such a wonderful meal on their one year anniversary and you better believe I’ll be there for the second.