Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sweet Lorraine's: More Than a Mom and Pop Op

I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical about Sweet Lorraine’s before going in. I cheated a little by perusing the menu online first, and found the selections there to be, well…let’s just say I wrote a little blurb about it before I even went: “One glance at the menu will make your eyes water with uninspired, regionally random and ambiguous dishes. A dab of Creole, a splash of Michigander, and all-around generic.” And while I will still insist on my initial diagnosis of a lack of focus in the culinary theme, I was pleasantly surprised that a glorified “mom and pop” establishment such as this would have dishes that were just simply good.

Sweet Lorraine’s in Southfield has been around for 22 years now, with additional locations in Livonia and, most recently, downtown Detroit in the Millender Center (a fourth location in Ann Arbor closed in 2000). Proprietor and Chef Lorraine Platman has done well with her unapologetic appropriations of cuisines from around the world, calling her food “World Beat” and insisting that she likes to pay “just the right amount of attention to the food.” For me, the decidedly undecided culinary theme of the menu was a bit off-putting at first, but it came to grow on me—much like the colorfully outlandish mural covering one whole wall, the loud airport-inspired carpet, or the even more random knick-knacks found upstairs in the loft area (mannequins from the ‘50s adorned in a classic country motif and posed sitting in lawn chairs, an Old West-inspired antique piano with a globe and two blue glass vases on it). Everything about Sweet Lorraine’s screams eclecticism—this is the kind of place a diner either appreciates or adamantly does not.

And the food matches the décor—you’re not really sure what they were shooting for, if indeed they were even shooting for anything in particular, and it might take a little acclimating on your part but eventually, for all its seeming randomness, the randomness becomes a theme all its own and it just seems to work somehow. You’re not sure how, just somehow.

You’ll start off with bread, which is pretty standard for most top- and middle-tier restaurants and is typically not noteworthy. But at Sweet Lorraine’s, instead of getting the usual bread-and-butter or bread-and-oil, you receive a large wedge of salty, peppery house-made focaccia with a dish of spicy marinara sauce for dipping, as well as a bite-sized slightly sweet corn muffin (made with whole corn kernels). Again here I will emphasize the nonexistent regard for regional cuisines (pseudo-Italian meets Southern soul food?), but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t one of the best damned corn muffins and tastiest marinara sauces I’ve ever had.

Now, I personally always appreciate a restaurant that appreciates cheese, so when I saw Gorgonzola Fondue, Gorgonzola Potato Chips, Traverse City Chicken and Gorgonzola Pasta, and not one but two different kinds of baked Brie (one was featured on the “Off the Menu” menu—a list of specials not on the regular menu which is updated and printed daily), I was sold on the place.

The Gorgonzola Fondue is everything it should be: thick and rich. And I mean rich. Gorgonzola is a cheese not to be handled lightly, and can usually be used most effectively as a compliment to a dish as opposed to a focal point. A fondue made entirely of Gorgonzola cheese could be a gamble; it could be so incredibly pungent that, after a few bites, it would become inedible. But this fondue exhibited a nice balance: the strong flavor of the cheese is diluted slightly, making it a smooth, creamy, mild yet flavorful dipping sauce for the soft, salty strips of focaccia served with it.

We also sampled the Five Spice Calamari and the Coconut Shrimp. The shrimp were tasty in their coconut “tempura” (yeah, it was just batter) and tropical marmalade—this is a pretty standard dish, and it was done well at Lorraine’s but is altogether not noteworthy. The Five Spice Calamari, however, was different. Served with three kinds of Asian dipping sauces (peanut, soy, and something else with soy in it), the calamari itself was tasty, but the batter was exceptionally noticeable. To me it seemed heavy and greasy, but my companion insisted on just the opposite—everyone has an opinion. The batter used was something very similar to tempura, though it wasn’t quite that, having a presence and flavor all its own, unlike the more “backseat” (and less noticeable) batter preparations typically used with fried calamari. The dipping sauces actually complimented this style of fried calamari rather well, making this a fresh take on another fairly standard dish.

Upon the enthusiastic recommendation of our server—who was, props to her, incredibly patient as we poured over the “Wines by the Glass” list debating which three to choose for our mix-and-match wine flight—I chose the Diver Maine Scallops “Coco Loco” off the “Off the Menu” selections (the pressure was on: they only had five orders left for the evening and I HAD TO CHOOSE!). The “Coco Loco” preparation is made with coconut milk, lemongrass, and ginger. At first I thought, “Mmmmm…” until it was pointed out to me that this was indeed a heavily Thai-influenced preparation (that’s when the light went on in my head: ginger? lemongrass?), at which point I thought, “Arrgghhh.” I have a, shall we say, “thing” about Asian influences in my seafood dishes. I…hate it. This culinary trend that is spreading like wild Asian-fire through most top- and middle-tier dining establishments is, to me, an assault on the poor dead aquatic creatures whose natural flavors are no longer permitted to stand out on their own in restaurants that feature predominantly American or French cuisine, instead now forced to be drowned in a pool of soy sauce and wasabi with some hoison on the side for dipping. Please, I beg you, restaurateurs across the nation: STOP! Leave the sushi to the Japanese AND LEAVE MY TILAPIA ALONE!

The dish came out: 6 plump, “dry” (as in: not injected with water before cooking so as to look larger than they actually are) sea scallops, pan-seared until carmelized, on a bed of saffron angel hair pasta with lemon wedges, lime wedges, and Alice-in-Wonderland-sized stalks of Michigan asparagus on top. Oh, and an edible purple flower. The scallops were fantastic, as scallops usually are (seriously, it’s hard to make these plump, tasty buttons taste anything but tasty). But, as I suspected, the coconut-milk broth was a bit much for me to take, and the angel hair pasta was so heavily doused in saffron it was completely yellow…not good. The pasta was inedible, but luckily the scallops were enough to satisfy.

On a separate venture I decided to stick with something a little more suited to my tastes, sampling the Traverse City Chicken and Gorgonzola Pasta which had caught my eye previously. Sautéed julienned chicken, dried Michigan cherries, wilted spinach (wilted as a result of warming, not as a result of poor quality), and Lorraine’s own spiced walnuts over Italian bow-tie pasta drenched in a rich gorgonzola cream sauce and then doused with fresh shredded Parmesan (and at Lorraine’s, they actually use a block of Parmesan Reggiano and a hand-grater, which lends much more of a personal touch than the rotary cheese graters used in every other restaurant). Here, the sauce somewhat overwhelms the dish, which was no problem for me having the passion for fromage as I do, but might not suit all diners. The presence of the chicken, cherries, and spiced walnuts (think: that spiced almond cart that’s in every mall and at every fair…YUM) was minimal, and it would probably serve the dish well to simply have MORE of those accents present in it. But the flavors of the dish were very complimentary when all were tasted together, with the exception of the wilted spinach which seemed largely out of place. Overall I was more pleased with this selection than the previous one, but make no mistake, this is a heavy order. You may leave feeling like you just might have torn the lining in your stomach. Especially when you still insist on having dessert. I did this both times I was there, and spent hours thereafter just trying to digest.

The dessert tray is hard to pass up, with mostly traditional dessert offerings that just sound so comfort-food yummy. I (being the boozer that I am) tried the Old-Fashioned Run Cake, another “Off the Menu” item, which is a Bacardi rum-soaked mini bundt cake served with monstrously oversized fresh strawberries (seriously, these things couldn’t be consumed in fewer than three bites), fresh house-made whipped cream, and dulce de leche. The rum cake was moist (especially where the rum pooled on the bottom—YUM!), the caramel sauce was thick and buttery and decadent—everything caramel should be—and the whipped cream was rich and absolutely unsweetened, which is exactly how whipped cream is supposed to be prepared. The caramel and whipped cream were an excellent compliment to the cake, and the monster strawberries were fantastic dipped right in the whipped cream. Another dessert item that Sweet Lorraine’s is known for is the Scottish Bread Pudding Cake, which they refer to as “The Ugly Duckling” and which came to me highly recommended on both visits…so I figured what the hell. And yes, this thing ain’t pretty, but gwaaaghh is it good! Served warm, made with macadamia nuts, raisins, nutmeg, cinnamon, and other spices, slathered in the dulce de leche sauce, and served with a side of that same delicious whipped cream with a drizzle of strawberry sauce, this Ugly Duckling tastes like a swan (and I bet swans taste pretty damned good). This is another heavy item that will hang out in your stomach for hours afterwards, but is totally worth it.

If you visit the website, you’ll find that Sweet Lorraine’s like to tout its Wine Spectator "Award of Excellence" (1994-2003) - winning wine list, with over 100 selections and over 25 wines by the glass—which Lorraine’s also offers in a self-selected mix-and-match wine flight, allowing patrons an autonomy of choice not typically found on most wine lists. And their list is fairly impressive, not large by most standards but certainly reflective of the eclecticism present in all other areas of the restaurant. There are some decent selections of west coast wines, including Washington’s Columbia Valley and Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which are mutually kicking out some killers Pinot Noirs and Merlots that are smartly represented on Lorraine’s list. There are selections from around the world—California, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and even some of our very own Michigan wineries—and Lorraine’s offers a fair amount of variety in vintages (mostly in the American reds) with several bottles represented with more than one vintage. The price points are fair and even moderate in comparison to other trendier wine-focused establishments. But for all the notoriety of the wine list, this is clearly not the kind of place being frequented by the connoisseur. On both trips the servers came by multiple times as we pondered over the wine list making our selections, each time being very friendly about it and not necessarily trying to rush us, but clearly these are servers unaccustomed to clientele that spends a great deal of time deciding on a selection.

Sweet Lorraine’s is certainly the casual, fun environment it announces itself as, though I’m still not sold on the “sophisticated.” This is basically a three-and-a-half-star restaurant with the mentality of a mom-and-pop diner…and that’s not a bad thing. Lorraine’s has definitely found its niche as an eclectic, fun dining experience with consistently good food that appeals to a wide variety of tastes and preferences, and thus a wide variety of clientele. The servers are attentive and friendly, and are certainly not of the stuffy five-star mentality—more like the servers in a local diner always full of regulars who treat you like family. Sweet Lorraine’s definitely has a good thing going for it, and with this kind of wide-range appeal and established long-term success, why change anything?

Sweet Lorraine’s
Locations: Southfield, 248.559.5985; Detroit, 313.223.3933; Livonia, 734.953.7480
Hours: Mon-Thurs: 11:00AM to 10:00PM.; Fri & Sat: 11:00AM to 11:00PM; . Sun 11:00AM-9:30PM. Prices: Soups, salads, and appetizers $4-10; Entrees $14-22