Villegas Restaurant in Okemos?!
- Edward H. Crimmens
I am an Oregon physican with family in the greater Lansing Michigan area and just had an amazing meal at Restaurant Villegas in Okemos. Much to my surprise I found the listing in Hour Detroit Magazine and couldn't have been happier. I have been eating in the greater Lansing area for a number of years and never thought much of the food, but now i cant wait to go back. I would be interested in hearing if anyone else has eaten there and what they thought of it.
Restaurant Villegas is hard to define but easy to like! The space is upscale with a strong arts and crafts look to it and the dress code is what my brother calls, "business casual." The restaurant is owned by the chef and his wife (who is the manager and wine buyer).
They seem to have two menus one is the regular menu that has wood oven pizzas, spit roasted natural meats like chicken & pork, prime grade beef tenderloin, some pastas and a few meatless items then something called a "torta rustica" that looked amazing and a "sweet potato taco!" Then there is the daily special menu that had this funny rambling story at the top that i think the chef wrote. It goes over some of the specials that he is offering which seems to emphasize fish ( I had grilled black cod on wilted winter greens and my wife had handmade pheasant and pork sausages on garlic mashed potatoes). The desserts and bread are all made in their bakery at the restaurant and the wine list is a Wine Spectator Award winner.
The prices start at around $9.00 for pizzas with entrees anywhere from $13 to $30. As for the style of food they called it, "contemporary midwestern", but to me it's really a personal chefs menu, he just seems to cook what he likes!
They have website,
The site has all the information and menus but it's located in Okemos on Grand River Avenue in a strip mall called "Dobie Court". I would advise reservations at least on the weekends and they are only open at dinner and closed on sundays.
I would love to hear what you think about it my wife and I can't wait to go back!
re: Edward H. Crimmens
(A) location: If you come from the Detroit area, take I-96 to the Okemos Rd. exit, and head north to Grand River. Go east on Grand River (right turn) past Marsh Road. If you get to Dobie Rd. you've gone too far. It's on the south (right) side of the road. I don't remember if there is much in the way of a sign for the restaurant and, since it is in a strip mall, it's not near the road. It's at the east end of its strip. The location is anomalous for its owners ambitions.
(B) I ate there 4 times over 5 years ago, and have not been back since. Two of the meals were great (but I ordered the same entree both times); the other two were wretched. Three of the visits were with my boss and her family who quit going when their favorite waiter left (they actually walked out the night the found he wasn't there any more, although subsequent pregnancy and the birth of twins might have had something to do with their not, as far as I know, returning). But that was quite a while ago and the menu has certainly changed since then. I'm not sure that "contemporary midwestern" is a very accurate description, not with foie gras on the menu. My other recollection is that the service could be terrible (incompentent or careless, sometimes pretentious, never rude). I mentioned it once to Trisha Villegas and she agreed that they were having a tough time training the waitstaff to do things like scan to room to see if diners were trying to make eye contact, even if the diners weren't in their sections, and to help one another out if a waiter had to take out an order for a party of 4 or more. Of course, she might have been feeding me a line; when I mentioned my favorite restaurant in New York (my boss has compared them when she first told me about Villegas), she said it was one of their favorites and that they wanted to emulate it; I certainly didn't notice the resemblance. Maybe they've cleared up these problems. I'll have to try it again soon. Thanks for the report!
Just an additional observation and few questions!
I haven't had the pleasure of eating at Restaurant Villegas more than once which i guess isn't really a fair way to review a restaurant but we did truly enjoy the evening. We usually find the service in college towns to be a bit lacking yet we found our server to be not only attentive but suprisingly informative. Your comments did peak my interest though in what you ate, some you liked and some you disliked. Do you remember what they were? And if they still offer them?
Also my wife and I are traveling to NYC soon and would love to hear what your favorite restaurant was!
And finally, what other restaurants do you like in the greater Lansing area? I will be heading back for a visit in late spring early summer.
Thanks for info!
re: Edward H. Crimmens
Actually, I was glad you posted your review after 1 meal; I have decided to try Villegas again, soon, I hope. I rarely eat out in Lansing, but you might want to consider All Season's Bistro at the northwest corner of Lake Lansing and Coolidge in East Lansing (about 2 miles from MSU and downtown East Lansing). It is about a year old and is, I think, Villegas's main competition in town. Do a search for Lansing, there are other posts on chowish places in the area. Indian Palace on Grand River near People's Church has been recommended to me by a native of India. There are good, although quite informal, middle eastern places in town. Sultan's in Hannah Plaza across Hagadorn from the MSU campus, Woody's on Grand River in downtown East Lansing, and Alladin's Delight in Frandor Shopping Center on the east side of Lansing, between EL and I-127. There are also good Thai restaurants in town: Thai Kitchen on Grand River near Northwind Drive in East Lansing; Bangkok Kitchen (or House or something) on Saginaw at Cedar, north of downtown Lansing (but I'm told it's Vietnamese owned and staffed!); and Lamai Thai, a very inexpensive diner in Oldtown on the north side of Lansing. Don't believe anyone who tells you Lansing has Mexican restaurants ... they are all Tex-Mex and they are going headed downhill, in my experience.
Some portions of the Villegas Restaurant website are kind of dorky and it was not until after I had made my last post that I found the regular menu (in addition to the daily specials, which don't seem to change all that much from day to day ... maybe it's weekly). At least two of the dishes that I had are still on the menu, although somewhat modified from what I recall. One was the lamb shank. The good news is that it was the one that I thought was very good. (And thank you for including the restaurant's link.)
I also had a grilled vegetable plate which is still on the menu. It was terrible. A lot of the vegetables tasted like they had started to ferment. I was a guest of my boss and her husband and I didn't speak up like I should have. My recollection of the other entree I didn't like is not as clear. It was a variety of meats, pork cuts I think, that was bland and very boring, like they had all been steamed.
I agree with you 100% that the service and waitstaff are not college town amateurish. I think the waiters tend to be pros for whom this is a career, not a temporary gig to earn living expenses in college. This was definitely the case with the waiter my boss and her husband liked so much. I think the problems I had with the service (which, of course, might not be the case any more) was that the Villegases had not been able to train the waiters to work as a team with joint responsibility for the entire room. If the waiters had been working together all the problems I am about to enumerate could easily have been eliminated.
One minor complaint: some of the waiters, although knowledgeable about the menu, tended toward pretentious-speak: "Chef Villegas's cuisine is blah blah blah." This preciosity is also reflected in the current menu where "my," "our," and "hand-crafted" appear so frequently.
The real problems (all at one meal!):
Waiter brings out meal for a table of 4 (or maybe 6) carrying stuff on a large tray plus a little stand to open up to put the tray on. Before opening the stand, everything on the tray slides to the floor (with loud crash). So much for that night's profits!
Our party was a party of 8. Our waiter brought out the dishes for each course 2 at a time. It would have been better (and in the case of the crashing food, cost-effective) if waiters pitched in and brought out 2 dishes each simultaneously so that a table can be served at once. The waitstaff ought to function as a team (and, of course, pool tips).
At this same meal, I was brought the wrong entree and it took some time before I caught the waiter's eye to make the switch. Had all the entrees for our table been picked up at once (instead of ferrying them in 2 at a time) this problem might have been avoided. I am assuming all 8 dishes would have been together and a team of 4 waiters would have picked up the entire order at once, rather than our waiter making four trips and, on the last trip inadvertently grabbing a dish that was perhaps sitting next to mine, and might well not have been there when he made the first trip.
For dessert, I ordered a pear cider from the bar (excellent!) and, as a result, the woman sitting opposite me didn't get her dessert. Presumably, waiters teaming up would have made this oversight less likely. Again, it took forever to catch our waiter's eye to get the overlooked dessert. This is because (problem 3), none of the other waiters cruising through the room appeared to ever cast an eye over any part of the room that wasn't their section. (I belong to the school of thought that, in a "fine-dining establishment," one doesn't call out to get staff attention, one makes eye contact. This works in New York; it obviously doesn't work if the a waiter's gaze shifts away from the diners' heads as soon as he leaves his section. This was the problem Trisha Villegas told me later they were trying to solve.)
I did discuss Villegas with a friend who ate there once not long after it opened. She never returned because the room was so chilly (temperature, not ambiance) and because she got her entree lukewarm, suggesting that it had been sitting around a while before it was brought out to her.
The solution to these problems is twofold ... train the waitstaff to think as a team and see the entire room as their responsibility; consider hiring addition waiters or hiring employees whose job it is to clean tables between courses and at the end of the meal and to ferry food from the kitchen to the dining room (the cost of which would be partly offset by reducing the number of waiters whose job would then be reduced to taking orders, answering questions, and carrying communications from the dining room to the kitchen).
The second step might not be necessary. If the waiters ferried out food as a team, waiters would give up time they would otherwise devote to their own tables, but that should be balanced by the assistance they get from their coworkers when it was time to serve a large party in their section.
My favorite restaurant in New York is JoJo (160 E. 64th St., 212-223-5656, dinner and lunch 7 days (brunch on Sunday; link below). It's a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant (note Vongerichten link at the Villegas website; and that Villegas copies his well-known warm soft chocolate cake (with a credit on the menu! good job, Eric). When I'm in New York, I tend to eat at high end establishments because, well, I'm in New York! Now that I've found Chowhound, I plan to check out places that don't get the publicity in the Times and other publications for people with a lot of money to blow.
Other restaurant's I've particularly enjoyed in New York are: Jean Georges (Vongerichten's 4-star establishment in the Trump International Hotel at Columbus Circle) which I recommend for lunch ... a long lunch; Montrachet, 239 W. Broadway in Tribeca; Chanterelle, 2 Harrison at Hudson in Tribeca, but I haven't been in quite a while; Le Bernardin, 50th between 6th & 7th, again I haven't been in quite a while. On my last trip I also ate at Gramercy Tavern and the Union Square Cafe (a very late lunch and a late dinner, respectively, both times at their bars) for the first time. Both were excellent. I had a late dinner at I Trulli, E. 27th between 5th and Park, south side of the street which was good but not great but with awesome pasta. And I went to Jacques Torres's shop in DUMBO (in Brooklyn) where I had the best hot chocolate I've ever had).
We braved a blizzardy, high wind snowy evening to keep our reservations at Restaurant Villegas last night. White knuckle drive, electricty out in parts of Okemos. What we found was a warm, personal, idiosyncratic restaurant full of enthusiasm and warmth.
The interior is sophisticated, and urbane, belying its location in a strip mall. Chocolate-colored hanging curtains covered the windows, banquettes ringed the dining room, charming floral centerpieces--very simple--and interesting rectangular ceramic ware dishes. Very individualistic, yet comfortable. I loved the small angular bar area as well. A fire-roasted rotisserie cooker in the lobby was in obvious use.
The menu is sprawling and ambitious, outlining the chef's food philosophy, his upcoming activities and passions. Apps range from stacked salads to daily foie gras presentation. Entrees tend more toward carniverous pleasures- double pork chops, marinated roasted chicken, lamb shank. A nice variety of seafood/fish as well--last night was black bass with capers and brown butter. Also a smaller selection of veg oriented or pastas, which were both complex and varied in their ingredients --special of fresh crab, hand shelled peas and fava beans with lemon.
My confit of lamb shank was beautiful on the plate --gorgeous in tenderness, served over spectacullary creamy mashed redskins --which were room temp. No problem getting a fix. Roasted vegs were underdone. The lamb horseradish sauce was wonderful as was the handful of baby watercress adorning the top--slow cooked, rich flavor with a sharp, fresh vegetable ad. The lamb was good, but I thought a little salty.
My husband had the Bolivian mac & cheese--an iron skillet of rich, rich three-chesse w/ lots of garlic sauce, bits of bacon and crunchy toasted breadcrumb top. He could finish only half. The accompanying salad was spectacular--baby greens with a tart, smoked tomatoe vinaigrette--quality of greens amazingly fresh with perfect amount of dressing.
The special Cotes du Rhone (Fr) was spectacular--deep fruity with a peppery finish (sorry, can't recall the maker).
So, while I can't say this is a total first rate dinner, I appreciate--even embrace--this young couple's enthusiasm, range of offers and willingness to follow a strong individualistic menu. They're artists--some things work, others don't --the goal is the journey and passion and the expression of your own vision.
Bottom line, I'm delighted there are still folks out there who march to their own music, endeavor to share their joy of maximum deliciousness with others, and bring their world to our own. Long may they prosper!
And, of course, we gave them a copy of your chowhound review, which was received with total delight!
I hope you'll post next time you're in Lansing...interested in what you'll experience.
Thanks for a great tip...
Our son graduated from MSU, in early May 2003. We wanted to celebrate by going out for dinner. As luck would have it, I came upon the Villegas Restaurant on the internet. There were 5 of us, and we all had something different. Every meal was fantastic, the taste buds were tantalized. What a treat! For an appetizer, we had Cheviche. We lived in Peru for a period and had cheviche regularly, but nothing to compare to the Villegas's. Thank you Villegas for being a part of our celebration. We would highly recommend the Villegas and can't wait to go back.
I'm so glad that you happened to post the update on this restaurant even if my hopes of finding a good restaurant in this area have all been but shattered now. From what I have heard and know of this area, there aren't many chow-worthy places here to eat which presents a major problem as my husband just accepted a job here and we will be moving to this area shortly. Coming from Miami and originally from New York/N.J. area it has been a major shock in more ways then you can imagine. So....if you have any suggestions on other great places to eat,, gourmet markets and general shopping etc. for me, they would all be much appreciated in helping to ease my pain.
P.S. Just got back from Michigan this week,(house hunting) and while in one of the grocery markets, all I kept thinking was how much mail ordering I would be doing...soo hope you can help. Thanks again.
And you won't be that far from Detroit area or Ann Arbor--plenty of decent markets and restaurants in both places.
I understand that the owner of Villegas closed the restaurant in order to concentrate on his "Fork in the Road" PBS cooking show. If he would just tone it down a bit, I'd love that show.
Chocolate, welcome to the greater Lansing area. I'll toss out one suggestion for you, Dusty's Cellar. Dusty's is both a gourmet market and restaurant/wine bar. In fact Eric Villegas used to be the chef/co-owner at Dusty's until he left (12 years ago) to open Villegas. Dusty's is on Grand River Avenue in Okemos (just a stones throw from Restaurant Villegas, RIP). While it may not compete with top whack in NY or Miami I have found their food to be consistently tasty and well executed.
For groceries (and if you don't mind a bit of a drive) a Fresh Market (isn't that a Miami operation?) just opened in Grand Rapids. It is a 45 - 60 minute drive (depending on your location in Lansing) and is immediately off the expressway (I-96) in Grand Rapids so it is stupid easy to get to.
In the spring/summer there is the Okemos Farmer's Market on Wednesday and Saturday. There is also the Lansing City Market in Downtown Lansing but honestly I haven't been there in years so I can't say how good it is.
You must not miss All Season's Bistro. It has long been my favorite. Make reservations, as they seem to be getting some of the Villegas crowd.
For any old time steak place (in the best possible way) try the Knight Cap (warning you have to use Internet Explorer to see the site
Welcome to Michigan! I've lived in the Lansing area most of my life (with short stints in Paris and Washington DC). It is NOT the culinary wasteland that some folks seem to think it is. You just have to be resourceful, that's all. Oh, and don't read any restaurant reviews in the local paper. Ugh.
Lansing City Market - Great in Spring/Summer/Fall. Make sure to check out Hills Cheese, the Middle Eastern bakery, AppleSchram (organic pork, beef, lamb, eggs, apples, cider, applesauce) and Otto's (chicken, eggs).
Goodrich's Shop Rite - Best local market for "international" stuff and great wine selection. Best in town for ordering meats and more exotic proteins.
Mirrendorf Meats - Locations in Mason and Williamston. Worth the trip to stock up on local protein. Great sausage.
Horrocks - Out on the west side (Canal & Saginaw), locally owned massive vegetable stand with a deli, bakery, wine/beer, cheese, flowers. Everyone forgets about this place but it's wonderful.
EL Food Coop - Lots of local, organic foods including a big selection from Zingerman's. I like the granola, raw nuts and locally grown/ground grains.
Local Ethnic Markets - From Asian to a halal butcher, there are at least a dozen markets around the Lansing area. I'm partial to the one that's across from Goodrich's on the corner of Trowbridge and Harrison and I like the other one down by the EL Food Coop on Grand River.
Farmers Markets/CSAs - Most local Chow folks end up getting into a CSA or going to the Meridian or Allen Street markets during the warmer months. I'm a Meridian girl so I can vouch for the great produce, honey, cheese, butter (!!!), eggs, lamb... it's all good.
I echo the sentiments expressed above for Dusty's Cellar (and Tap Room), the Knight Cap and All Seasons Bistro. Here are just a few of my other local favorites:
Mama Bear's Cafe (Old Town) - local, organic, amazing pastry
Portable Feast (Old Town) - local, fresh, great sandwiches/salads
Mediteran (Downtown) - completely unknown gem
Troppo (Downtown) - higher end, white table cloth but good with proteins
Traveler's Club & Tuba Museum (Okemos) - funky, crazy menu
Gone Wired Cafe (Near Downtown) - local, organic, best pancakes
Midori Sushi & Korean BBQ (Near Lansing Mall) - clean, fresh, simple
Flap Jack Shack (Frandor) - locally owned, best breakfast in town
Asia's Finest (South Lansing) - Vietnamese & Thai, great pho
Airport Tavern (NW Lansing) - Steaks, prime rib, no ambiance
Big T's Deli (Mason) - Best burgers anywhere. So good!!!!!
That should get you through your first week or two...
"Thai Food From Lamai's Kitchen" sets out an awesome array of Thai food, buffet style. Don't miss it!