Sunday, August 19, 2007

Iridescence: Just Make a Left at the Buffet Line

Iridescence, inside the Motor City Casino, is one of the more-highly-ranked fine dining establishments in the city of Detroit. A “AAA-Four Diamond Award” restaurant and recipient of the 2007 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, Iridescence has largely flown under the radar with the locals. While local foodies love to drop names like Opus One, The Whitney, and (God help me for saying it) Mario’s, Iridescence has succeeded in remaining something of a secret.

Perhaps it’s because of its location. This isn’t Vegas, it’s the D, and here we don’t necessarily equate top-tier dining with a casino-based location (currently The Alley Grille in the Greektown Casino is the only other example of our casinos attempting to break into the fine dining market; MGM currently has plans in the works to introduce its own high-end establishments). So perhaps diners are initially biased against it because of its affiliation with the casino. (I would love to see how that kind of mentality would do in Las Vegas, where world-renowned chefs such as Alain Ducasse; Thomas Keller—whose Bouchon is considered one of the top restaurants in the country; and Takashi Yagihashi, formerly of Michigan’s own Tribute in Farmington Hills, are opening up highly acclaimed restaurants all located within casino walls that are successfully putting Las Vegas on the map as one of the epicenters of fine dining in the country, second only to New York and L.A.)

It might also have to do with the restaurant’s location within the casino itself. This is a 4-star restaurant that patrons arrive at only by walking past a series of buffets and a food court. Perhaps not the best impression for a person to have when entering the restaurant to enjoy a fine meal, though immediately forgettable upon entrance. (Word has it that once the hotel tower is complete, the restaurant will be relocated to the top floor—a very smart move on their part, I think. Plus the view will be amazing, provided the restaurant will be facing downtown.)

Iridescence is a quiet oasis amidst the raucousness of the casino floor. A large, open dining space filled with plush half-moon booths and mahogany tables with modern wingback chairs, Iridescence offers diners a very comfortable environment with a soothing ambiance to dine in. Other decorative accents include single peach roses on each table, and glass sculptures lit from underneath with color-changing L.E.D. lights. What they lack in location they certainly make up for in atmosphere.

And then there is the food. Iridescence has a nice mix of offerings on their menu, but they are at heart a steakhouse. Serving only the highest grade of beef, U.S.D.A. prime corn-fed, and serving every cut of beef with a rich cognac sauce, Iridescence has certainly “steaked” its claim to a high-end chophouse (despite offering only 4 different cuts). But unlike many other chophouses where the focus is all beef all the time, Iridescence offers diners a number of different well-thought-out alternatives to King Cow.

You’ll begin your meal with the standard bread course, though there is nothing standard about these breads. Jalapeño cornbread, sourdough raisin bread, crispy fried breadsticks, and large wafery-crackers that tasted like fried wonton, all served with a partitioned plate of dipping choices—olive oil with balsamic vinegar, a roasted olive tapenade, unsalted sweet cream butter and butter infused with parmesan (cheese! I love cheese!). Next you’ll receive your amuse-bouche (“happy mouth”), a small bite prepared by the chef to stimulate your palette before you begin your meal. Our amuse-bouche was a smoked salmon tartare with a spinach chip, a combination of flavors that worked well though the salmon was perhaps a bit too rich to simply warm your palette.

For the first course, there is a wide variety of options to choose, from Asian-inspired protein dishes to straightforward seafood. We sampled the Spicy Beef-Filled Asian Straws, served with ponzu dipping sauce and a drizzle sesame sauce. These “Asian Straws,” which are basically longer, thinner versions of a beef spring roll, were very flavorful without being overly spicy, and the accompanying sauces went far to enhance the flavor without drowning it (though I will note, the “ponzu” sauce both tasted like and had the consistency of peanut sauce, with perhaps only a hint of the citrusy flavor real ponzu is used for). The second course is strictly salads, which for the most part exhibit fairly common combinations, though the Spring Vegetable Salad with shaved carrot, parsnip, fennel, and celery root with a blood orange vinaigrette and golden beet chips offers a road-less-traveled combination of ingredients, perfect for those who like to go a little more adventurous with their greens.

At this point diners will take another small break in their meal to enjoy a palate cleanser, which is not something that you will typically find in most fine-dining establishments, and is likely extremely rare to see in a steakhouse. We were presented with a Chardonnay gelée in a short champagne flute, with a single large, plump raspberry suspended within. The gelée was phenomenal, capturing the effervescent tartness of what was surely a crisp, clean Chardonnay, likely not aged in oak and absent the buttery heaviness that characterizes so many Chardonnays. The ripe raspberry was a perfect compliment to the gelée, providing an extra measure of tart sweetness to the cleansing quality of this interlude.

For those of you who choose to opt out of steak for your entrée, Iridescence certainly has a selection that will suit your tastebuds in lieu of tenderloin. They do offer a 10-oz. Jumbo Western Australian Lobster Tail, which looks impressive but due to its size and the difficulty in cooking a lobster tail that large, it is more than likely to be a bit tough and rubbery, despite how much vanilla butter you might slather on it—therefore, I recommend you stray from ordering this. The simple Beef Short Ribs “Rossini” offers a classic combination of flavors with a slightly more refined twist: braised beef rib au jus atop a pile of garlic mashed potatoes with a delicate piece of foie gras and a brioche crouton on top. Pity the people of Chicago who can no longer experience foie gras (something about animal cruelty, blah blah), because this small slice of goose liver is explosive with flavor, and adds a prominent kick to the already flavorful and juicy short ribs. The Halibut is also a nice substitute for steak, served atop a bed of prosciutto with chick peas, fried lemon, and chilled virgin olive oil cream. The halibut itself was nicely seasoned with a flavorful crust of spices, and was firm yet moist on the inside, having been perfectly prepared. The halibut paired extremely well with the salty, rich prosciutto, and the occasional hint of lemon was welcomed. Be sure to cast the actual fried lemon itself off to the side, lest you enjoy what tastes like a mouthful of Pledge. The chilled virgin olive oil cream, though interesting, was completely unnecessary to the dish. Served as almost a scoop of ice cream on top of the halibut, the cream, which was mostly solid, melted off the fish and plopped to the side of the plate, where it stayed for the duration of my meal. I tried incorporating it into the dish, but found that the flavor of the cream itself was, well, just cream, and in no way added to or complimented the other flavors on the plate. So there was a big goopy melty mess on my plate for really no good reason. Dear Chef: In the future, this is a great dish, but leave the ice cream scoop to the desserts.

And ah, the desserts. Iridescence has long been touted as having the best desserts in the Metro Detroit area. And though I personally might not make a claim for “best,” I would certainly argue that they offer a fantastic selection of unique and classic cakes and confections.. Crème brûlée is prepared in the traditional way and served with fresh fruit and a sable cookie; raspberry crêpes are prepared tableside and served with vanilla-scented ice cream. Their signature dessert is a Bolivian chocolate mousse, and they offer a trio of house-made sorbets on a brandy snap tuille with fresh fruit. In the face of all of these tempting creations, we opted for the MotorCity Casino “Meltdown” (a classic chocolate lava cake with raspberry sauce and house-made praline ice cream) and the soufflé of the evening—strawberry. The “Meltdown” was terrific, as lava cake usually is, this one being no exception. The raspberry sauce was strong and needed to be sampled in small amounts to compliment the rich dark chocolate liquid center. The soufflé was divine; light, fluffy, with just the right amount of crispiness to the outer edges and a rich liquid filling of smooth strawberry sauce. I had my hesitation about ordering any soufflé that didn’t have chocolate or coffee flavors featured, but this light and airy strawberry creation was a perfect summertime end note.

And then there is the award-winning wine list, full of remarkably priced finds (notably a 1998 Penfolds Grange Shiraz for $280, which could just as easily be listed at $400). The usual concentration of California is here, though several hidden gems from South America, Italy, and Spain are notable picks (Scala Dei Priorat comes to mind). As mentioned, ’98 Grange is less than $300, ’98 Ornellaia is $170, and recent vintages of Tignanello are priced below $100. This is sticker shock in its best form; an opportunity to indulge in break-the-bank wines by merely bruising the bank instead (an added benefit after having to shed the stink of curly fries and Philly Steaks upon entering).

One thing I have not yet addressed is service, which for me in terms of overall dining experience is just as significant as the food. I have refrained from discussing the service up to this point because I would like to believe that the service we received is not in any way indicative of the service in general at Iridescence, but is really just the fault of one server. Due to an extremely overcrowded parking structure, we did not arrive to the restaurant until about 10:30—still ample time before they closed, however, with plenty of other patrons in the dining area. Our server was very polite throughout, though he clearly was not at all interested in establishing any kind of rapport, arriving simply to take our orders and deliver our plates. We could not help but feel as though we were being rushed, with each course being brought out on the heels of the one before it, with hardly any regard for timing or pacing. Another part of the reason why I hesitated in ordering the soufflé was because I knew full well how long that takes to prepare (at least 20 minutes), and at that point the server had made it pretty clear that he wanted to get us the hell out. I decided “Screw it, it’s my night too,” and ordered the soufflé. The server concealed his chagrin rather well, never losing the smile on his face as he noted, “You know that will take a little while to prepare?” Wouldn’t you know, we did not see this server for the rest of the evening, and were left in the care of the remaining bussers and food runners who twice tried to take away my soufflé before I was done eating. Again, I am willing to give the establishment the benefit of the doubt on this one, being aware as I am of the time and of our particular server’s anxiousness to leave. I do not count this as a strike against the restaurant, but I will say to those of you reading this: try to get there before 9:00.

Overall, the experience at Iridescence is a good one, with a nice selection of uniquely constructed dishes and a variety of tastes for patrons to enjoy. The wine list is superb and the atmosphere soothing. I personally think their relocation will do wonders for them, but as it stands right now, I would certainly continue to rank Iridescence on the short list of top restaurants in Detroit.

Iridescence, inside The MotorCity Casino. 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit. 313.237.6732
Prices: Appetizers/salads: $6.00-$17.00, Entrees: $29.00-$64.00, Desserts: $8.00-$12.00
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 5:00PM-midnight