In my halcyon youth, I used to write extensive wine lists for expensive restaurants. If you’re a total novice to the game, such an endeavor may sound intimidating, but if you’ve advanced beyond Level Apothic and Kendall Jackson and surround yourself with competent distributors, it’s pretty elementary.
I mostly worked for joints with basic-flavor menus designed to accommodate the Gang of Four—Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. If, as a sommelier, you could wedge in the odd multisyllabic Rheingau, unpronounceable Tuscan or (then) glamorous-sounding Central Otago between familiar First Growths and the Napa powerhouses, you could claim props for sophistication.
Those were the easy days: There weren’t many sommeliers to second-guess you, and there was precedent.
(Another thing there didn’t used to be is wine lists in Keego Harbor—but I’ll get to that.)
The recent explosion of Extreme Ethnic in fine dining may be something the industry owes to Millennials. Traditionally, Gen Xers and Boomers were less willing to push their palates into kinky places, and forget about whatever we call the generation before that, ‘Greatest’ though they may have been.
When I was a kid—at least in my frosty, frumpy corner of the Midwest—ethnic dining meant chow mein at China King or antipasto salad at Mama Mia’s.
And then there was Keego Harbor, an Oakland County lake town where I went to school. In the Seventies, Keego was a clot of trailers and former vacation cottages poorly refitted to face Michigan winters and largely occupied by transplanted Southerners. Dining meant bar food, and when I was in high school, the Brewhaus on Orchard Lake Road used to serve me beer without blinking. Trust me here—when I was sixteen, I didn’t even look sixteen much less 21.
Keego Harbor was, in short, a punch line—if you wanted ethnic cuisine, you went to McDonald’s and called it Scottish.
Then, about twenty years ago, the kids of those transplanted Southerners discovered that some of these lakefront properties were worth millions so long as you tore down the shanties and built condos, and the gentrification of Keego Harbor has continued unabated ever since. A number of cool restaurants have come and gone, but on Thursday last, at the urging of sommelier William Schwab—a man I’ve known for decades, through his dozen years at Papa Joe’s and his stint as a sweat equity partner with Wine Guy—I showed up at his latest venture, directing beverages and front-house management at an exclusive Keego restaurant called Indo.
How exclusive? Turns out that Indo is the only Indonesian restaurant in Michigan; you don’t get much more exclusiver than that.
So, who puts an Indonesian restaurant on an obscure strip of Cass Lake Road, and not only that, but pulls it off flawlessly? That would be Nick Alonso and his wife Malik, who met in Hong Kong, where Malik was the chef of a huge, popular restaurant and Nick was an IT guru in China on business.
Malik is originally from rural Java; she learned her craft from an aunt who cooked for the governor of her mountainous province and at the age of fifteen, she took her mad skills to the juggernaut environment of Hong Kong. Upon hooking up with Nick, she moved to New York, and from there, to Clawson’s remarkable Da Nang restaurant, where she prepared Vietnamese classics to critic’s kudos and magazine awards for five years.
She’s a wisp of a woman; I doubt she hits sixty inches on the height charts or three digits on the weight scale. However, her smile is as big as her ambitions, and she explains the meticulous preparations she relies upon in her lilting, rolling Englonesian accent. Satays and curries are cooked to order; papaya and mango is mandolined fresh for salads and she grinds her own short ribs to make meatballs for Basko—the Javanese soup that Obama raved about on a state trip to Jakarta.
For the most part, Indonesian cooking includes plenty of sweet/savory counterpoints and fruit/flesh juxtapositions, a lot of lemongrass and lime leaves, fresh turmeric and tropical things like candlenuts that you may have to Google, just like I did. Meats are skewered, stewed, and cooked over hot coals, often lathered in fiery sauces; vegetarian dishes, many built around tofu, are equally intense.
Midway through my impromptu course in Indo, Malik’s husband, Nick Alonzo showed up. For an IT guy, he looks pretty gnarly, but in a good way. Long hair, sort of tight-sinewed, Earth First intensity. I could picture him blocking roads in Standing Rock. He’s affable and sincere as hell, and he lays out the basics for a new business venture offering home-delivered, restaurant-prepared meals based on the somewhat radical, exceedingly healthy all-plant diet that derives flavors not from salt or sugar, but the array of exotic spices at Malik’s fingertips.
The website is given at the end.
Schwabbing the Decks
So, that circles us around to William Schwab in his neat tie and hearty, affable laugh that underscores his motto, ‘If I can get you in the door once, I can bring you back again and again.’
He was a regular Indo customer before he ran their beverage program; if fact, it was him who suggested they pursue a liquor license with the promise that he’d help design a wine, beer and spirits list. Of itself, this is not an unusual offer for people in the beverage industry, and plenty of reps with fewer scruples than Schwab will offer to write, print and manage wine lists for restaurants from cultures without a huge wine tradition (like Indonesia), and what you end up with is a generic bunch of crap that neither suits nor complements the cuisine.
Believe me, brother, I can name names.
But Schwab’s approach runs in tandem with his expertise, and the wines he pairs with Malik’s strong, assertive, eccentric flavors are passengers in the same bullet train. He describes Herman Story Grenache as ‘blueberry motor oil’ and his representative Burgundy is actually from Beaujolais—a big, bright, brambly Brouilly from Gry-Sablon. Smoky notes, acidity and high-toned fruit is the common denominator in Schwab’s red wine picks. White wine, especially slightly off-dry, is the course generally recommended for Asian cuisine because a little sugar offsets the spice and saltiness, and Marland Riesling 2014—from Michigan’s incomparable Jim Lester—keeps the palate clean. Gewurztraminer is mentioned so often as the ‘ideal’ choice for this sort of menu that it’s essentially a prerequisite. Banyan 2015, from Monterey County, floral and unctuous, fits Bill’s bill.
The list is currently brief, which is fine, and rounds itself out with a ’15 Picpoul de Pinet from Languedoc and Pomar Junction Viognier 2014. Vintages are optimal and prices reasonable.
The beer is as bold and imaginative as the wine, but it is the cocktail selection that may be the most appropriate pas de deux of all.
I mentioned Malik Alonzo’s near compulsion run her kitchen from freshly-prepared, from-scratch fundamentals, so if I said that William Schwab not only makes his own bitters, but does it from ingredients particular to Indonesian cuisine, you might be inclined toward (and entitled to) a WTF? But it’s true, and I get another quick lesson, this time in the genetics of bitters; they are a triumvirate of aromatics, flavors and bittering, for which Schwab uses (in order) lemon grass/star anise/turmeric/ginger, candlenut and bitter melon.
He marinates his own bar cherries too. That’s dedication—if you’ve never had your quality Maraschino cherry popped, Indo may be your Summer of ’42.
Schwab’s drinks are each unique and impeccably Indo-fusion, with most of them being takes on classic cocktails. The Mule Martini replaces ginger beer with ginger mead from my favorite mead-maker Ken Schramm, and the Lychee Mojito is made with Leblon and lychee syrup. All juices are freshly squeezed, and prices are about half what they’d be in an upscale bar in an urban setting.
Out here in rural-esque lake country, in a restaurant that is unassuming in appearance both inside and out, the fiscal approach is a little more lenient, even within this gentrified setting. Still, it’s fair to say that younger movers and shakers are more receptive to this sort of menu than the dreary denizens of the nearby Brewhaus Pub, which is still selling shots and beers and which finally carded me when I was around thirty years old.
In Keego, all’s well that ends well, especially when Indo’s well.
1535 Cass Lake, Keego Harbor
Thanks Chris! I am humbled.