Zen suds

Clawson's Black Lotus melds craft beer with a coffeehouse vibe

When Mark Harper, his sister Jodi and her husband Mike Allan opened the Black Lotus Brewing Company in sleepy Clawson in the fall of 2006, they hoped to create a comfortable brewpub that would attract the neighbors as well as beer lovers from the metropolitan area. They had not had much experience in the business, as Mark, the brewmaster, had been a school psychologist, Mike a banker, and Jodi had taught high school English. But they knew exactly how they wanted to fashion their Zen-influenced Black Lotus.

Judging from the eclectic crowd they have been drawing — from blue-haired women of a certain age to 21st century beatniks — they must be doing something right. The cool ambience, smoke-free environment and wi-fi suggest a laid-back, somewhat noisy coffeehouse more than a brewpub.

The Black Lotus, which commands the corner of Fourteen Mile Road and Main Street, boasts an airy high-ceilinged space, with wooden tables and couches scattered about, dominated by a horseshoe-shaped fieldstone bar. The adjacent brewery is visible through huge glass windows as it churns out the eight or so quaffs featured daily. During warm weather, the room capacity of 140 is increased by a cozy patio that wraps around the busy corner.

The open "kitchen" at one end of the bar is so tiny that it precludes elaborate culinary preparations. Indeed, when the bar first opened, management encouraged diners to bring in their own food. But as time has gone by, Black Lotus' more than decent, house-made fare has expanded into what one might expect to consume in a tavern devoted primarily to beer.

The generously proportioned starters that average around $5 include crunchy and succulent hot or honey barbecued chicken wings, a large nacho that might have a few too many tortilla chips compared to the amount of filling of cheddar cheese, black beans and jalapeños, and, especially, a loaf of organic beer bread from Avalon International Breads. The other conventional appetizers are a cheese plate, hummus, chips and salsa, jalapeño peppers and chicken taquito roll-ups.

Although a daily soup appears on the menu, it is not, as yet, made in-house. (Not surprisingly, manager Jason Womack sends out for such desserts as tiramisu and chocolate-pudding cake as well.) Instead of the soup of the day, order a generous Traverse City salad ($7.99), thankfully with romaine and not iceberg, and more than sufficient dried cherries, walnuts and blue cheese. Add a chicken breast for a few dollars more and you would have the protein you need for a well-balanced entrée.

The Black Lotus's nine sandwiches ($4.99-$7.49), constructed with organic bread from Avalon, range from veggie or grilled chicken paninis to several Reubens and a vegetarian "tofurkey lurkey" with tofu, swiss cheese, tomato and honey mustard. The kitchen is vegetarian-friendly and the cooks utilize local produce whenever possible.

The highlight of the simple menu is the array of juicy beef, turkey, buffalo and vegetarian burgers ($4.49). Around one-third of a pound, they are carefully grilled to order. Plump hot dogs and spicy coney dogs, like the burgers, come with a little bag of chips and a more-than-perfunctory pickle.

Despite being a brewpub, Black Lotus is kid-friendly with chicken nuggets, grilled cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cold cereal (!) available for the tots.

In the weeks to come, Mike, Jodi and Mark expect to enlarge the menu dramatically, which will be no mean feat considering that they do not have immediate plans to enlarge the lilliputian cooking nook.

As for liquid refreshment, the original raison d'etre for the watering hole, if people in your crowd have an aversion to beer, they can slake their thirst with a white or red wine option produced in-house or from Lone Oak, a new local vineyard in Grass Lake. Teetotalers will be impressed with the large number of organic free-trade teas posted on the blackboard. The owners of the Black Lotus, who emphasize the adjectives natural and organic wherever they can, aim to be politically correct.

Of course, most people come for the suds, many of which go for $4.50 a pint. Monday through Thursday during the 4-6 p.m. happy hour, they are marked down to $2.50. On a typical night, you could select from among a variety of light and dark beer with labels such as People Mover pilsner, apricot wheat, Detroit Hip Hops IPA and Red Tao lager. Many first-timers order the sampling of eight four-ounce tumblers for a reasonable $8.50 to get a feel for the one or two cold ones they might prefer to sip at the brewery or take home in a growler.

The good vibes that surround the place carry over to the music program with live entertainment Monday through Wednesday and occasionally on weekends. Tuesday, a special night, is devoted to Latin jazz.

In recent years, the downtowns of near comatose Grosse Pointe, Dearborn and Ferndale have come alive with interesting eating and drinking spots. The establishment of the Black Lotus Brewing Company (along with Royal Kubo and Due Venti) suggests that Clawson may be ready to join that select group of increasingly hip suburbs.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].

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