Saturday, January 31, 2009

Love at First Taste: Taste Pizzabar

After a friends and family test-run last weekend and three years in the making with planning and development, Taste Pizzabar officially opened for business this past Monday, and the buzz so far is something most new business owners could only dream of.

I stopped in for a bite on Friday because (a) I love pizza, and (b) I love new places, and what I found was a gourmet pizzeria with a menu full of comfort food in a comfortable, loungey atmosphere condusive to just hanging out and meeting people.

And this is really the whole basis of the concept behind Taste Pizzabar: Executive Chef and co-owner Dale Daniels chatted with us for a bit and told us some history on the genesis of Taste. His background is in baking, and though he took what he calls a "backwards route" to get to where he is today he finally ended up back in the kitchen after a stint in the business world, and this is when he fell in love with dough. Daniels has a passion for making and perfecting dough, which by default led to a passion for pizza (as the dough--as any good pizza fan knows--is not just the base but also the single most important component of a good pizza). Daniels wanted to create a lounge-like space that is trendy but also welcoming, where people can come to socialize. The history of pizza is very much about people coming together to share a few slices and socialize, and this idea was the launch pad for Taste.

General Manager Will also came and chatted for a bit, and told us a little more about the venue and his own vision. Taking Daniels's idea for a friendly yet trendy space to socialize, Will (a techno-head and DJ himself) wanted to also make it very Detroit. He insisted on playing house music over the speakers, and they also have DJ Seoul spinning in the lounge during dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. The d├ęcor is very Detroit loft: exposed brick walls, exposed pipes and airducts in the ceiling, large windows running along one wall with a view of the nearby People Mover, airy and spacious and very chill. The lounge and restaurant areas are all decorated in warm tones, from the dark wood tables to the deep red carpets. The lounge area has high-backed chocolate leather booths accented with candlelight. Will refers to it all as a "work in progress," though you'd never think it to just walk in.

So the atmosphere was all right, now how about the food?

The taste of Taste is equally on-point. From the Starters menu, which has comfort food classics like Tater Tot--tossed in garlic butter and parsley and sprinkled with parmesan--and "Wanys," spicy pickles dipped in seasoned batter and deep-fried. You can also order shrimp and chicken wings tossed in their own housemade BBQ sauce, or Veggie Spring Rolls if you want to start a little lighter.

Taste also offers a nice selection of salads and paninis, including the standout "Taste Salad"--mixed greens, red onions, tomatoes, cucumber and smoked mozzarella with a blueberry pomegranate vinaigrette. The Bella panini also sounds like a quick favorite, a gourmet version of the classic club sandwich with smoked turkey, apple wood smoked bacon, smoked mozzarella, lettuce, tomato, and "Taste sauce." Paninis are also served with a side of Tater Tots.

But Taste isn't called "pizzabar" for nothing: they've got 17 different kinds of specialty pizzas, along with 7 meats, 6 cheeses, and 11 "accessories" for you to build your own. All pizzas are made as 10'' personal pies, enough to fill one hungry person or two snacky people. Specialty pizzas range in price from $8.99-$12.99, with the most expensive (and decadent) being the "Ocean 21," made with scallops, lobster, and shrimp with a white sauce, roasted red peppers, garlic, grilled onions, and smoked mozzarella for $21.00. It's Detroit's answer to New York's infamous "Luxury Pizza" at Nino's Bellisima Pizza which sells for $1,000/pie ($125.00/slice). I say leave the caviar, take the lobster.

After tossing around such selections as the "Royale with Cheese" (a classic pepperoni pizza made with imported Italian pepperoni and creamy mozzarella cheese), the "Mona Lisa" (a white-sauce pizza with spinach, grilled chicken breast, roasted red peppers, sweet onions, roasted garlic and smoked mozzarella), and the "Detroit Red" (housemade BBQ sauce with chicken breast, crisp red onions, yellow peppers and premium Dutch Beemster cheese and fresh cilantro), I ultimately opted for my four-cheese comfort zone, the Bianco. Described on the menu as "Cheese lovers say it's the cheesiest!", I didn't even need to read on to where it said "our perfect crust sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil then topped with mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano, smoked mozzarella, goat cheese and oven roasted garlic" to know that this was the pie for me. My fellow cheesehead server Nate confirmed my opinion, and Chef Dale told me that it took him a "long time" to perfect it and hoped that I would enjoy it.

Oh, I did. I DID. Cheese + Roasted Garlic x Perfect Crust = love at first Taste. The different cheeses melded together nicely for a consistently sharp, tangy flavor (oftentimes four-cheese pizzas will not be blended well, and pizzerias often like to present goat cheese and fontina as gobby dollops which, when bitten into, are usually gobby overkill on the tastebuds), the roasted garlic scented the whole pizza, and the crust was a perfect balance of doughy and firm, chewy and tender.

The dough is really the standout with the pizza at Taste, as well it should be. Dough-making is not just Daniels's specialty, it's his passion, and he makes the dough at Taste fresh daily, getting in at 5:00AM to produce this well-balanced basis for the perfect pizza crust made with organic flour and extra virgin olive oil. He also takes his dough quite seriously--when my lactose-intolerant dining partner asked for a pizza without cheese, Daniels had to deny this request as the crust would burn. He wasn't being a prima donna chef by doing this, either--in fact, the better chefs of the world who take their craft very seriously will not always cater to diners' requests when they feel those requests will in effect "ruin" their final product, which they see as their own art. Daniels exhibited this kind of pride in his own work, and I fully appreciate that.

Right now Taste does not offer an official "list" of wines and beers, but both Dale and Will told me that they will be working with a sommelier to create a list of fine wines at fair prices hand-picked for perfect pairings with their pizzas. There will also be a craft beer list on the way--because gourmet pizza and craft beer were simply born to be together.

Oh, and if you have a sweet tooth you need to satisfy, they've got a Caramel Apple Pie and Brownie Bartell, both a la mode, and you just can't go wrong with Cheesecake Cupcakes.

As if great food in a great atmosphere weren't enough, the hours are the best in the city. Grabbing a bite to eat on your lunch break? Head to Taste for lunch from 11:00AM-2:30PM Monday-Friday, and sample one of their hearty and reasonably-priced lunch specials. Dinner is served until 11:00PM weekly, and they are open until 4:00AM on Fridays and Saturdays so you can get your fill after a night of heavy drinking.

And perhaps you did all that drinking downstairs at Premium Resto Lounge, the nightclub/lounge occupying the space that was formerly Times Square Nightclub, owned by the same partnership that owns Taste. Premium has been open for Saturday old school nights and private parties since late November, but was just celebrating their grand opening last night with DJ Jenny LaFemme and Bruce Cobb on percussion. The space is unlike any other Detroit club, but very much fitting Detroit--a pared-down, understated feel with panels of L.E.D. lights in another exposed brick/exposed pipe loft-like atmosphere, with two DJ booths, two bars, a performance stage, lots of chairs and booths for lounging, and a VIP all-white "Miami Room." Premium is primed to become one of Detroit's best lounges, and Taste will be right behind it (or, rather, above it) with more space for lounging, dining, and socializing late into the night (or, rather, early into the morning).

If last night's crowd was any indication, Taste Pizzabar is already a hit. Filled with people doing exactly what the owners had envisioned--hanging out, dining, socializing--and with a staff in which each and every individual from the hostess to the server to the management and all the way up to the owners all seem personally committed to the success of the restaurant, Taste has everything they need in place to make it in this city. And if lounging and socializing and all the rest doesn't appeal to you, just go for the pizza.

Taste Pizzabar is located at 1431 Times Square, 313-962-8700.