Monday, August 13, 2007

The Lark: The Menu, The Myth

Okay. So you’ve heard of The Lark in West Bloomfield, right? (Well, if not, you have absolutely no business reading this review because you clearly have no concept of Detroit-area fine dining, and probably not even fine dining in general.)

That being established, we’ve all heard of The Lark in West Bloomfield. We’re familiar with the endless bevy of awards, honors, and recognitions it has received, both locally and nationally. We are aware that by and large it is considered by most critics and connoisseurs to be one of the top ten restaurants in the country. We all know this.

Hour Detroit’s 2007 Restaurant of the Year winner The Lark is an experience to be had, no doubt. The problem is, it is preceded by its reputation—and, as is so often the case in these kinds of situations, it has a difficult time standing up to its own myth.

Not ALL of this attention is overhyped or undeserved. The Lark does have a wine list that is outright jaw-dropping by any standards. Bound in leather and at least 4 inches thick, the wine list is indeed impressive. Heavily detailed and often daunting, this is the kind of wine list that one can sample both horizontal and vertical flights from dozens of different producers and dozens of different vintages, with pricing that is at some points expectantly overpriced, and others surprisingly underpriced. Was Jim Lark, owner (along with his wife Mary), the Maitre Sommelier Vins de France and the mastermind behind the masterpiece, getting careless, or is it simply a matter of him having purchased a number of cases at a discounted price which are now collecting dust in the extensive cellar? Unfortunately, they’re not sharing that information, but I will recommend you skip over the hundreds of French selections and head straight for our Spanish friends, which seem to have the most conservative pricing (and which would presumably not be a big seller in a French country inn-style restaurant where the clientele mostly believes that the bigger the price tag, the better the wine, and if it isn’t French it isn’t expensive enough).

Okay, so I will offer absolutely no argument whatsoever as to the superiority of The Lark’s wine list. But as for everything else? One would be tempted to believe that in a restaurant that has received such critical adornment, that everything would be nothing short of outstanding. Correct? Well, such is not the case at The Lark. While everything is certainly quite good, none of it is truly great.

First of all, they offer no valet service at the door. Which I’m okay with, as I would have refused the service anyway in lieu of having to tip a valet attendant with the absolutely no cash that I had, but still…what kind of high-end dining establishment doesn’t offer valet? That just seems so…uncouth.

The restaurant is in a converted old home, which makes the dining area rather small and lends to the air of exclusivity that surrounds the place (due to limited spacing and the absence of the “turn and burn” mentality that lower-end restaurants exercise, wannabe-diners often have to make reservations upwards of weeks in advance). The size and the limited capacity is, on the one hand, refreshing—patrons are always very well attended by the staff, and do not have to deal with an overcrowded atmosphere with a constant background din as they try to enjoy their dining experience. This is nice, absolutely. However, if the dining area were twice the size it would still be manageably small, but The Lark would almost entirely lose its air of exclusivity as a table would no longer be quite so difficult to procure—which is yet another myth of The Lark I’ve regrettably debunked.

The menu is prix fixe , with a handful of a la carte additional appetizer options (namely oysters and caviar). You will begin with a carte blanche selection of cold appetizers from the hors d’oeuvres trolley. This trolley service is something you certainly don’t see frequently in other restaurants (or the standard prix fixe menu, for that matter). And while it is certainly a nice touch, adding to the French country inn charm, it is a bit off-putting when your selections are slopped together on a small appetizer plate. As for the hors d’oeuvres themselves…well, suffice it to say I was not bowled over. Some standard pasta salads, a cold curried duck (which was good, but not great), and jumbo shrimp cocktail comprised the selections. And all I could picture is the meat counter at most delis where they have the various pre-made salads and dips. That’s probably not what a highly acclaimed French country inn wants their patrons to be comparing their food to. That’s just my guess, anyway.

The second course is your choice of soup, salad, or hot appetizer. I chose Le Salade a la Provençcale, which featured heirloom tomatoes, summer greens, grilled asparagus and Fourme d’Ambret cheese with a fig vinaigrette. Honestly, this salad was probably my favorite part of the meal, with the different elements being perfectly proportioned and the flavors perfectly balanced. The scallops with the acidic yellow tomato reduction were the hot appetizer selection for the day, and these were also good. But not great. And frankly, scallops are almost always consistently good, wherever one might have them—the little buggers are pretty difficult to do wrong by. And while I’ve had endless experiences with good scallops, I’ve had few truly phenomenal experiences—black-trumpeter-encrusted day boat sea scallops from Northern Lakes; sea scallops bathed in truffle oil at Bacco—and at this particular establishment, I would have thought this would have been another memorable experience to add to the short list. It was not.

Following the second course, once again in very traditional French service style, a palate cleanser, a granita (Italian ice) flavored with cassis, was served. And again, the palate cleanser course is one that is not often found in most dining establishments (even the finer ones), so the nod towards French tradition is certainly appreciated here.

For the main entrée, I sampled the Veal Medallions with King Crab and Roasted Herb Gnocchi with Red Currant & Cassis Sauces. This was good. Very good. But not great. The tart yet sweet red currant and cassis sauces worked very well with the veal, though the gnocchi seemed a bit out of place here. But it was still very good. Just not great. However, the Rack of Lamb Genghis Khan, served with Dauphinois Potatoes and Glazed Carrots, was admittedly phenomenal. The Lark’s Rack of Lamb Genghis Khan is legendary, and they have been serving them numbered for about 20 years now. Ours was #63604, according to the kitschy recipe card given as a gift after ordering it. If this dish is The Lark’s claim to fame, then it is worthy of that title, and is almost worthy of justifying their great epicurean myth. Almost.

Up to this point, I found myself not quite yet disappointed but very much unimpressed by the offerings. Certainly by comparison The Lark is still one of the better restaurants in the Metro Detroit area, and the food they serve is certainly quite good. Newly appointed Chef de Cuisine John Somerville has certainly concocted a creative menu which utilizes a number of different, fresh area ingredients and introduces influences from various different cultural cuisines, all prepared with traditional French cooking techniques. But given all the accolades and general build-up, I found that The Lark failed to meet such high expectations.

The savior could have been the dessert cart. It was not.

The dessert tray offers a carte blanche selection of fresh fruits (including the somewhat rare red currant), tortes and cakes and pies and truffles. Sweets for the sweet, to be sure, but not exactly my cup of tea. Or, to be more specific, my plate of cheese, as I would have it. There was nothing particularly outstanding about the tortes and cakes and pies. The house-made dark chocolate truffles were quite good, but nothing one would not be able to find at a fine chocolatier. Shocked at the absence of any assiette de fromage at a European country inn, I felt compelled to ask the maitre’d about it. Apparently they previously offered a selection of fine artisanal cheeses, but were forced to dispose of such great quantities of expensive fromage due to infrequent orders that they decided to part with the concept of the cheese plate. This is criminal. Criminal, I tell you. I find this incredibly unfortunate (probably moreso than most people would), and a poor decision on their part (it would seem a number of other area restaurants have worked out this problem just fine). Some candies were our parting gifts, and despite all the sweets, I was soured on the experience.

The service was certainly top-notch, and worthy of the southern European country traditions Jim and Mary Lark have modeled their establishment after. Extremely attentive (though, by European 5-star service standards, perhaps a bit too casual and conversational), with a number of different staff members constantly in attendance around the table to cater to every special request and sullied plate, we certainly were never in want of an unattended need or unanswered question. And with the prix fixe menu, diners may request additional portions of any entrée (except the Rack of Lamb and Soft Shell Crab) provided it is timely and practical—an added element in client-focused service that certainly makes The Lark unique. The décor screams old-world European country, with a great deal of oak furniture and floral-patterned wallpaper and upholstery. A wall of windows open up to the extensive gardens, which are maintained by Mary Lark with daughter Adrian and are really quite beautiful to gaze out at. Overall, the dining experience is a good one, but not a great one. And with this kind of notoriety, it should be great. And so the myth of The Lark is debunked.

The Lark. 6430 Farmington Rd., West Bloomfield. 248.661.4466.
Prices: Prix Fixe Menu $65.00-$79.00. Dessert tray $9.50 per person.
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, dinner only.