Hunger and plenty

Jun 30, 2004 at 12:00 am

In the early ’70s I had an office in the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit. On a particularly cold and windy winter afternoon I was walking to my car, in a hurry to escape the elements. As I was passing the arches of the Buhl Building, a hand reached out and grabbed me. Even though I was considerably larger than the man attached to the hand, I was unhappy to be confronted, no less by a man covered in tattered clothing, with four days’ worth of stubble on his face and the odor of someone who had not bathed in a long time. I tried to remove my arm from his grip by jerking it and by threatening to punch him. He said that he hadn’t eaten in three days, that he was starving to death and that he would not let go until I fed him. I told him that he was mistaken if he thought that I was going to give him money for wine. He adamantly repeated that he was starving and that all he wanted was food. Sensing the seriousness of his plight, I agreed to feed the man if he let go of my arm.

“Only if you feed me!” he said. I quickly ruled out my regular lunch spots — the Caucus Club, the Pontchartrain Wine Cellars, the Buhl Bar and Sanders. It was too cold to walk to Lafayette Coney Island. The only choice was the Quickee Donut Shop across the street. Every morning, I would go to the shop for coffee and a smoke. Without fail, a surly woman who stood behind the counter greeted me with a saber-shaped knife in her hand, always acting as though she had never seen me before. She’d say, “Whatchoo want?” I had the feeling that if I ordered anything more than coffee, she’d cut me.

In any event, I thought it would be a good place to take this hungry man. “Let go and follow me,” I said to him.

“I’m not letting go until you feed me,” he repeated. So we walked across Griswold “arm in arm” amid the stares of motorists stopped for the light and pedestrians crossing with us, maintaining their distance. When we entered the Guardian Building, the guard approached and asked if I needed help. I assured him that I was OK; although, I must confess that I said it without certainty.

The guy refused to release my arm. As he caught the aroma of food, he seemed incredulous that he was indeed going to eat. He started to salivate visibly. The knife-wielding server behind the counter approached, not looking thrilled to see us.

“Watchoo want?” she said. I repeated the question to my new pledge. “What do they got?” he asked. I told him soup, sandwiches, coffee, donuts and desserts. It was too much for him. He couldn’t decide. I ordered for him — a bowl of soup, a hot roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy — and coffee and pie for dessert.

With tears in his eyes, he thanked me and told me that I had saved his life and he finally let go of my arm, his body shaking off the cold and adjusting to the warmth of the restaurant and the realization that he was about to eat.

The lady with the knife took a bun out of a bag and slit it open. Then she opened a steamer drawer filled with sliced roast beef in gravy, reached in with her bare hand and grabbed a handful of the dripping meat and slapped it on the bun. The guy looked at me and said, “Jesus Christ! The conditions here aren’t very sanitary, are they?”

Lesson learned: Nobody wants to eat in a restaurant that is not clean. It’s especially the case now with our heightened awareness of food-borne illnesses. The media have reported problems ranging from isolated incidents of tainted food at restaurants to mad cow disease. Allergies to preservatives and agricultural chemicals seem to be affecting us in greater numbers. We have all heard horror stories about deplorable sanitary conditions in one restaurant or another.

We, the public, should not be served food that will make us ill. Demand a standard of excellence. It is your right.

On another note, I used to go to Greektown at least once a week. I abandoned the practice several years ago when it seemed to lose its ethnic flavor. There were too many video arcades and gift shops that replaced some of the old Greek markets and bakeries. At the same time, there were more Greek restaurants opening in the suburbs, giving people the option of avoiding the drive downtown and the crowds. But I missed the lamb chops and the saganaki, served by Greek waiters who enjoyed shocking the tourists at the next table as they ignited the liquor that crisped the edges of the cheese.

I met a friend for lunch downtown recently and suggested that we try one of the many new eateries that have opened in recent months. While we were trying to decide, I asked if he had been to Greektown lately. He asked if I liked lamb chops. Of course I do! He said that the best lamb chops he had ever eaten were at the Olympia Restaurant. That settled it. I cannot say for sure whether they were the best — there are a lot great lamb chops — but they were worth going back for more.

Of course, at $27 for five chops with a side of rice and green beans, they should be good. We ordered them charred outside, pink inside. They were perfect — hot, crispy and salty with plenty of oregano. A squeeze of lemon juice rendered them succulent. I could have eaten five more. The beans and rice were OK. The rice pudding was undercooked and covered with whipped cream, an unnecessary addition for me. I’d still go back for the chops in a minute.

The Food Network recently had a segment with Emeril Legasse at New Hellas. I’ll be there soon too. More lamb chops. I’ll let you know.

Olympia Restaurant is located at 532 Monroe St., Detroit. Call 313-364-4774. New Hellas is located at 583 Monroe St., Greektown, Detroit. Call 313-961-5514.

Jeff Broder is a chow hound for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]