Tuesday, September 1, 2009

DRW Preview #3: Iridescence is the Best Place in the Whole World

I love it when I'm right.

For two years now I've been telling people that Iridescence inside Motor City Casino is simply hands-down the BEST five-star (or Four Diamond, as it were) dining experience in all of metro Detroit. (Sorry Lark fans, but cold appetizer trolleys just don't appeal to me.)

I recently had the opportunity to interview Chef Don Yamauchi for Model D (you can read the full article here), during which time I had to restrain myself from kneeling down on the ground in full-blown Wayne and Garth "I'm not worthy!" idol worship. I also had the opportunity to sample the 5-course tasting menu--a menu designed strictly with gourmet foodies in mind--as well as chat with the Fine Dining Manager at Iridescence, Georges Mokbel (who, should this whole restaurant manager/author/chef thing not work out for him, could always fall back on modeling for Armani).

I admit I don't do well with word limits, which is why it's GREAT I have this blog! (And God bless you, Clare Pfieffer Ramsey, for trying to edit my unapologetically verbose self.) Here you can find all the gushing over Don and over Georges and over Iridescence and over the food (OMG the food!) I couldn't quite cram into the Model D piece (they didn't go for my suggestion to just use 6-point font).

This might take awhile. Go ahead and get yourself a glass of wine. I'll wait.

Ready now? Splendid.

Iridescence is another one of the 17 restaurants participating in the innaugural Detroit Restaurant Week, September 18-27, during which time all participating restaurants will offer a minimum 3-course meal for the fixed price of $27.00 (excluding tax, gratuity, and beverages).

In the Model D interview with Chef Don, I speak about how Don has succeeded in reinventing the menu at Iridescence to make it more accessible to more people, with more focus on familiar regional dishes (dishes people know and love), all while drastically reducing prices. I also speak a little about Chef Don's background too (from Chicago, came to Tribute, then MGM, then Forte, now Motor City), but there are a few details I left out.

That second venture that "did well...until it didn't"? That was the world-renowned Le Francais in Wheeling, IL (called the "finest French restaurant west of Paris"), which Chef Don took over as co-owner and Executive Chef after the legendary Jean Banchet decided to hang up his chef's hat. (Incidentally, this is also the restaurant where Cuisine's Chef Paul Grosz got his start, under the tutelage of Banchet.) This was a restaurant that the wealthy would actually fly to (one customer, Don told me, would actually limo in from clear across the country because he was afraid of flying but loved the food); but after 9/11, all that traveler business (which comprised the majority of the clientele, being out in a somewhat remote Chicago suburb) abruptly ended, forcing them to shut down. (The restaurant later re-opened with another acclaimed chef back in place, only to shutter again permanently.)

Don Yamauchi was a recipient of the James Beard Foundation's Rising Chef award (and please correct me if I'm wrong, but this makes metro Detroit's total roster of James Beard recipients three, alongside Jimmy Schmidt and Michael Symon). He has also been named among Food & Wine magazine’s Top 10 New Chefs in America. If I failed to convey his true culinary prowess in the published interview, I blame only myself and my complete inability to self-edit (my apologies to Model D, their readers, and Mr. Yamauchi himself for not doing him more justice). And also the fact that he totally doesn't present himself that way.

As part of my research for both DRW and Model D, I was invited to Iridescence to sample some of Chef Don's newest innovations. I admit, yes, what I should have done was sample something off the special Restaurant Week menu. Yes, this is what I should have done. I mean, technically I did try one of the items off the DRW menu, however inadvertently. But the 5-course tasting menu was right there! Just staring at me, waiting for me to order from it, tantalizing me with its foie gras and its sweetbreads and its roquefort cheese. What was I supposed to do with an opportunity like that? Really, what else could you have expected from me???

Fine Dining Manager Georges Mokbel complimented my choice of the tasting menu, noting that it is designed specifically for foodies and gourmets (foie gras and sweetbreads aren't quite for everyone, nor would the presence of these particular dishes on the regular menu really jibe with the new, more accessible attitude at Iridescence).

Georges Mokbel is a story in himself: a consummate professional in the world of consumption. He is currently writing a book called Everyday to Gourmet, which offers alternative "everyday" and "gourmet" preparations side-by-side (think: gazpacho, salmon, eggplant, trout). He studied for several years in France under the "Master" Paul Bocuse (again I can reference a tie to Paul Grosz, who also studied under Bocuse for a time). He worked in Cannes, Monte Carlo, and in St. Tropez (under Alain Ducasse), and somehow, inexplicably, found his way to Detroit (he jokes he tries to live as if he were still in Monte Carlo; I'd like to see how). He checked on my table repeatedly, offering his comments and suggestions, and was an absolute pillar of professionalism. There were several moments when I would catch him standing quietly at the back of the restaurant, observing the staff and patrons with hands clasped. I couldn't shake the phrase "lording over his domain" from my mind.

Our server Theresa was friendly, welcoming, and helpful. If you were a newcomer to Iridescence, she would put you totally at ease. She speaks very highly of Chef Don and his new "inviting" menu, as well as jokes about the brother/sister relationship she has with Georges. She is capable of making even the most awkward diners comfortable, and fully embodies this new, more relaxed attitude of the restaurant. She also made some killer wine suggestions, including California's Conundrum, a blend of five white varietals that is crisp, tart, and full-bodied. Make no mistake: the identity may be a litte more casual, but the service is still top-notch.

Our meal began with an amuse bouche of sweet chili crab salad with microgreens. It was a simple way to rev up the palate, and it served its purpose.

Don has certainly succeeded in drastically reducing prices while still maintaining the venue’s artful gourmet cuisine. Each of the 5 courses served as part of the tasting menu were individual works of art. It began with the Seared Yellowfin Tuna, thick squares of Grade A yellowfin tuna dressed with garnishes of Osetra caviar, sushi rice, microbiotic organic mushrooms, seaweed with microgreens, and crab salad with red onions, with a drizzle of 24-year aged balsamic vinegar on the plate. The tuna was thick as steak and just as hearty; the overall presentation was sushi deconstructed.

Next came the Monkfish and Veal sweetbreads in a vanilla buerre blanc with a "fondue" of leeks. Georges presented this as his favorite dish: the texture of the lightly sauteed monkfish and the sweetbreads compliment each other well, and the buerre blanc is just the right amount of slightly sweet creaminess to accent these proteins that melt like butter in your mouth. This isn't something that will be found on the regular menu, either: as evidenced by my dining partner's shock when I told him what sweetbreads were (after he ate some, naturally), it isn't the kind of thing your average diner would find palatable.

Next was the Tournedos of Beef Rossini with foie gras and summer black truffles, served with a braised potato and a mold of mixed vegetables with a red wine reduction and aged balsamic vinegar. Once again, our server Theresa was incredibly helpful, offering suggestions to my partner in tasting the foie gras, it being his first exposure to it. Now I ask you: have you ever seen a plate of meat and potatoes that looked so artistic?

The fourth course was kind of a pre-dessert: Roquefort cheese with a milk chocolate and olive oil blend and cherries. Now...you know I love cheese. This Roquefort was perfection--stinky and veiny and blue. The chocolate-olive oil accent was unexpected, but the rich, creamy smoothness offset the overpowering cheese, and the result? I plowed through two orders. (I will always bring someone lactose intolerant with me henceforth.) This course is part of the Restaurant Week Menu as well, so consider yourself officially informed.

For the fifth and final course, true dessert was served, but Theresa thought I might enjoy the dessert off the other tasting menu as opposed to the Roasted Peaches that were part of the 5-course (she was correct, and I do appreciate the thoughfulness). She came out with a beautifully constructed plate of chocolate peanut butter mousse with chocolate peanut butter cup ice cream and caramelized bananas from award-winning pastry chef Patricia Nash. Fans of chocolate and peanut butter pairings have found their Holy Grail; the very definition of decadence, this dessert was bananas like the Gwen Stefani song.

After four hours of feasting in one of the most gorgeous restaurants in the area with an absolutely stunning view of the city, our langurous meal had come to an end. A tasting menu like this might cost $90.00 or more previously, but here, in the "new" Iridescence, it was only $50.00--a fully haute cuisine experience at the price of a steak with accompaniments at a run-of-the-mill steakhouse. Each dish was pure art, from presentation on the plate to the palate. There’s a reason I call this place my favorite, but don't just take my (lengthy) word for it: experience the Four Diamond dining experience for yourself at Iridescence during Detroit Restaurant Week. This is truly world-class dining, on par with some of the finest restaurants in the world, at a price that is comparable to, what...Friday's? Applebees? And may I be struck down with lightning should I ever make that comparison again.

Detroit Restaurant Week Menu September 18-27, $27

First Course
Roasted shrimp with corn ravioli and vanilla beurre blanc
Kobe sliders with frissee and honey-garlic vinaigrette

Second Course
Soy marinated salmon with rice cake and miso butter
Chicken 2 ways

Third Course
Roasted pineapples & cinnamon crumbcake ice cream
Roquefort cheese with milk chocolate and cherries

All photographs compliments of Sean Gabriel Photography.