Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Grinch Didn't Take THIS Roast Beast: Roast

I must admit, I'm a bit skeptical when it comes to "celebrity chef" restaurant ventures. I don't think Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse are among the finest chefs in the world (far from it), and any chef that will market himself to the point of having his own section in the frozen food aisle has, in my book, officially traded in his culinary knives for commerce instead. That's it. That's a wrap.

Michael Symon qualifies as a "celebrity chef" somewhat by accident. After winning the Food Network's Next Iron Chef competition in 2007, Symon's name has launched from the lips of Food & Wine devotees and travelers to Cleveland (where his first and second ventures, Lola and Lolita, garnered rave reviews and brought him into the culinary spotlight) to those of every casual Food Network foodie across America. Wonderful for him, and more wonderful still that with his newfound fame he opted to open a restaurant here in Detroit.

But. What inevitably seems to happen with these "celebrity chef" places is that the restaurant becomes more name than substance, and the other chefs in the kitchen don't always get their chance to shine and instead must continuously cook up whatever pre-designated menu items the "name" chef created. Not always, mind you, but often enough. The food then becomes second-rate, lacking in the creativity and imagination that perhaps lent that chef his celebritydom in the first place but has since fallen by the wayside, favoring consumerism over the art of consuming.

Michael Symon's Roast inside the Westin Book-Cadillac is dangerously close to crossing that line, though thankfully it hasn't quite done so yet.

Roast is heavily fashioned after Symon's self-professed "meat-centric" cooking methods. The menu reads "meat, meat, and more meat;" a vegetarian would have a difficult time finding a satisfactory meal here, though one should know to expect that when entering an establishment called simply "Roast."

The starter menu offers a variety of different meat meat and more meat options, including some uncommon ones such as Crispy Chicken Livers and a Charcuterie for two (a selection of preserved meats which can include sausages, salt-cured meats, confit and pâté). The Roasted Marrow with sea salt, oregano, capers and chilies is another stand-out on this starter menu, and may be worth a trip back simply for that. One of my dining companions ordered the Crispy Fresh Bacon, served with pickled tomato, almond, and haloumi. This is real bacon, not the store-bought sizzle strips Americans are accustomed to. The large round medallions of bacon we were served were most likely cut from the back (what Americans would refer to as "Irish bacon") instead of the underbelly, which is where the more common "streaky bacon" is cut from. Two of the medallions were meaty and tasted more like pork meat than salt-cured bacon; the last medallion was really just a small slab of pork fat and made the stomach of my die-hard bacon-loving friend turn a bit. I understand that the fat gives it the flavor, but it still isn't pretty to look at (or pop a whole wad of into your mouth, for that matter).

Roast has a small selection of soups and salads (most with meat) to choose from, and I opted for the day's soup special, a Spicy Tomato Soup with crisped bacon and blue cheese crostini. Points for presentation on this one: much as a fine dining establishment will present you with your lobster bisque by setting down a large bowl with nothing but lump lobster meat and perhaps a garnish in it, then having a waiter with a small soup pot pour your bisque artfully over the meat and into the bowl, so was my soup presented as a bowl with only crostini and crisp bits of bacon and poured from a small pot in one sweeping motion of the arm. The soup was really quite delicious--with almost the consistency of a puree and a brilliant tobascco-orange color, the flavor itself was hearty with a pleasant spiciness, and the salty, crunchy bits of bacon and powerfully tangy blue cheese crostini were perfect contrasts.

Choosing an entree was no small task with items like Braised Lamb Shank, Wild Boar Rack, and Duck Cassoulet. Ultimately, I opted for the Roasted Beast of the Day--in other words, a chunk off of whatever animal should happen to be turning in the prominently-placed spit visibly displayed for the whole dining room (again, this really isn't a place for vegetarians). Mine was Suckling Pig served with their house-made green salsa verde, and it was as soft as butter. Tender, juicy, flavorful, and quite literally melt-in-your-mouth, this little piggy went "Eeee! Eeee! Eeee!" all the way into my belly. There's just nothing quite like meat from a spit. (The crispy skin served atop the pile of pulled pork was a bit much for me--very greasy. Luckily it was really nothing more than a meat garnish.)

My companions weren't quite so fortunate. One decided that the Roast Burger sounded good, made with bacon, cheddar, and fried egg on an English muffin. I've had fried egg on a burger before. I was in a very traditional Dublin pub and was completely not expecting it though was too hungry to turn away from it. It was one of the most disgusting dining experiences I've ever had--the yolk running all over the burger, etc. One look at his burger brought back that unpleasant memory, and my sympathies went to my friend who braved it anyway. His large metal cone of Rosemary Fries, extremely thin shoe-string cut (my favorite, and the only way fries should ever be) and aromatic with rosemary, were very tasty, though the house-made ketchup tasted strangely like Taco Bell sauce. The presentation was also clever, modeled after the paper cones pommes frites are served in all over Europe.

The other friend opted for the Prime Rib special with a side of asparagus. The asparagus was steamed, nothing shaved almonds or parmesan, no butter or garlic or olive oil, nothing...just steamed. I wonder, is this a trend now? It used to be a side of asparagus always had some kind of additional flavor to it, even it if was just sea salt and ground pepper. If this is the new steakhouse trend, consider me disappointed. Especially when the asparagus is overcooked and limp to boot. As for the Prime Rib, for a restaurant that touts the fact that all of its meat is "hand-chosen and naturally raised...dry aged for a minimum of 21 days and finished with sea salt and oregano," this cut was particularly bland. Though cooked to the appropriate temperature as ordered, the beef itself had no real flavor, was neither tough nor tender, and was just kind of...a big slab of beef. All the flavor was in the charred crust, and that's only good if you like char flavor.

The dessert offerings were small but tempting. The crème brûlée of the day was Tahitian Vanilla (good, but common) and the special sorbet flavor was Mango (YUM). Other desserts included a "Mocha Parfait" made with flourless chocolate cake and citrus caramel sauce, as well as Warm Cinnamon Donuts served with a cider reduction, apple compote, and sour cream. The Michigan Tart Cherry Almond Crisp with sherry ice cream sounded equally as decadent, but it was the "Beer & Pretzels" I ultimately opted for, made with Guinness ice cream, chocolate-covered pretzels, and caramel. Again, Roast wins with presentation but not necessarily with flavor. Served in a pint glass and looking like a parfait, the ice cream itself was very mild with only the faintest hint of Guiness flavor, and the clearly store-bought chocoalte-covered pretzels were too severe a contrast to the mild, creamy ice cream. The pretzels themselves were approaching staleness and the chocolate coating already too old to serve, beginning to turn white and losing its flavor (called "blooming," when the cocoa butter fat rises to the surface and turns the chocolate white, which happens when chocolate is stored in warm temperatures and also when the chocolate is just simply old). Every bite of slighty stale, overly-salty pretzel overwhelmed the ice cream's flavor...and honestly, I've had better Guinness ice cream in Ben & Jerry's short-lived "Black & Tan" flavor. A great concept that unfortunately fell (far) short.

However...Roast does also offer an Artisanal Cheese Plate (choose 3 or 5 cheeses) on the dessert menu, which is more than enough reason for me to come back and try again.

Overall, the food was quite good with a few easily corrected missteps. The décor is absolute understated luxury--the whole dining room and bar is adorned in warm chocolate browns and tapues, with plush leather accents, a very simple ceramic tile around the bar, and very modern recessed lighting which creates golden pools of illuminating light overhead. It is at once modern and classic, posh and inviting. Service was attentive, though server skills were spotty--some seemed very comfortable in a fine dining atmosphere, while others were perhaps a bit too casual for the setting, lacking the decorum for a place which presents itself with this much panache.

I've held off on discussing the wine list, and with reason. While the restaurant itself succeeded in at the very least challenging my pre-conceived bias against such a "celebrity chef" establishment, the wine list in all ways confirmed it. This is exactly the kind of wine list I would expect to find in some over-inflated "celebrity" chef's restaurant which is all pomp and no substance, catering strictly to expense rather than taste. It's got 3 of the Big French 5 (Lafite, Mouton and Margaux), as well as high-priced California reds such as Axios, Caymus, and Quintessa. These wines, much like my pre-conceived bia against celebrity chef ventures, are all name and little more. (Which isn't to say they aren't great wines; some are. There are equally great wines from Spain and South America for 1/10 of the price.) While you'll be hard-pressed to find a quality selection under $80.00, there are plenty in the $200.00+ range. A wine list like this tends to point towards amateurish notions of "fine wine;" a wine doesn't have to be expensive in order to be phenomenal, and even clientele who can afford a $420.00 French Bordeaux can still appreciate a $40.00 Spanish Tempranillo--and a good sommelier would well-represent all those tastes, instead of discouraging people with more "economic" tastes from the over-priced, over-hyped wine list. Also, this list features a lot of lesser-known labels...which can really go either way, and is sometimes a great mark of experimentation and innovation. The verdict is still out here.

The wines by the glass list is pretty sparse, though I definitely recommend the Four Vines Old Vine Zinfandel--spicey, peppery and jammy. Great with the many, many meats found on the menu. And again, presentation is top-notch--my glass of wine was brought out in a small decanter and poured into my wine glass (which also happened to be the proper shape for a Zin), allowing the young wine to aerate before ever hitting my tongue. Again, bravo here.

I will say that Roast offers a fairly sizable list of Michigan-made beers on tap and by the bottle, which is always refreshing to see (and not the usual Ghetto Blaster from Motor City Brewing Works, either). Their specialty cocktails and martinis are also impressive; the Espresso Martini (made with Stoli Vanil, Patron Cafe XO, Tia Maria, and espresso) tastes just like your favorite morning pick-me-up. The ultra-chic (yet comfortable) bar also provides a casual-yet-classy atmosphere for patrons to imbibe, and offers a welcome respite from the overly trendy and the shabby chic which dominates the area.

Roast is full of hits and misses. Hits: a thoughtful if meat-centric menu which showcases the chef's specialities that is moderately priced and overall savory. Flawless atmosphere. Attentive service. Consistent excellence in presentation. Misses: too often it buys into its own snobbish appeal when it doesn't really need to (and really, the place isn't even all that snobby--haute cuisine this is not), particularly with the wine list. Also, some dishes need work. But overall I was pleased with this experience and with the restaurant in general; despite some missteps I think the concept is great and is executed fairly well, and while I recognize that not all dishes can be winners, I would expect that the wine list could be more accommodating to a wider range of tastes. I do think Symon has succeeded in creating a dining establishment that is innovative without being elitist, and after some fine-tuning I think it could be one of the best restaurants in metro Detroit. Time will tell there, but in the meantime, I am thankful this particular celebrity chef decided to take a chance in Detroit.