Friday, September 11, 2009

DRW Preview #4: The Whitney

My, how things have changed since my first visit to the Whitney. It was probably about 10 years ago, when I was just 18 years old. A boyfriend and I were celebrating our anniversary and, although we were novices, we were interested in experiencing the Whitney, having heard so much about it (and come to think of it, this would have been when Chef Paul was still there). When a stack of artfully arranged mushrooms and tomatoes piled high like a sculpture arrived as my appetizer, I knew how very much out of my element I was. Lucky for me AND you, I soldiered through, and 10 years later found myself back at the Whitney enjoying a special 6-course Detroit Restaurant Week preview/tasting menu prepared and served personally by the Chef himself, Dan Maurer. What a long, strange trip it has been!

I'm not the only one who has gone through some changes over the last decade. The Whitney has seen a number of chefs turn over since then (including Paul Grosz, who then went on to open Cuisine). The result has been as varied as the chefs themselves--some were hits ("The Whitney is back!") and some were misses ("The Whitney as we knew it is gone forever"). Over the last year, the Whitney has made a number of changes to reinvent itself and appeal to a wider audience. Lower prices, lunch and Sunday brunch hours, a bistro menu, a trendy new bar/lounge area on the third floor called the Ghost Bar, and a hip new chef have all helped to redefine this Detroit dining institution.

Chef Dan Maurer has a full sleeve of tattoos and long hair (worn in dreds) which he keeps tied up for work. You want a rock star chef? This is your guy. You want an ego? You're going to have to keep searching. His look might scream "SLAYER!!!" but he's sweet as honey and exceptionally talented. Every dish that was served to me and my dining partner was brought out by Chef Dan personally, with a thorough explanation of each item and plenty of conversation in between. He only started here 6 months ago, but already the difference is obvious. There are no foams or gelées, but there are hearty dishes that are both familiar and surprising that place emphasis on fresh, seasonal flavors, utilizing produce and herbs grown out back in the garden.

For Detroit Restaurant Week, patrons can begin with a soup of the day, which will most likely be some sort of squash. (We chatted about how, despite the fact that summer has ended, fall is the most exciting time for foodies because that is when all the great squash, pumpkin, apples, cider and such come into season. Chef Dan told us that he has a parchment paper posted in the back where everyone is scribbling down their ideas for fall menu items, and they're all very excited about it.) For us, Dan presented an asparagus soup with asparagus tips, shaved parmesan, and truffled white vinaigrette. In the center was a terrine of pork, pistachio and shittake mushrooms wrapped in prosciutto and lying atop a crouton. The asparagus tips still maintained a slight crunch (just enough), and the vinaigrette added an unexpected zest to the slightly bitter asparagus flavor. Mrs. Julia Child--so popular now in everyday conversation thanks to the film Julie & Julia--once referred to terrine as "a luxurious cold meatloaf," and I think that pretty much nails this one. Except for the part about "wrapped in prosciutto"--which made it even better.

See also: a glass of champagne from northern Michigan's L. Mawby label--Lawrence Mawby is an unrivaled genius and the envy of his fellow oenophile peers.

Our next course was also from the list of first course DRW menu options: the flash-fried calamari. It is served with a sautee of heirloom tomatoes (grown in the garden), house-pickled Hungarian hot peppers (also grown in the garden), bell peppers, garlic, and herbs (you guessed it: grown in the garden). The natural juices of the vegetables and pickling brine make for a proper accompaniment for the calamari in lieu of the standard marinara sauce (but never fear, they do keep some on hand just in case). This particular dish is the one Chef Dan is the most excited about. He knew that if they were going to serve calamari without sauce that they had to get it right, and feels confident that they did. The tangy brine and spicy pepper acts in place of a lemon wedge or cocktail sauce, and makes for a daring spin to an otherwise common dish. Indeed, they got it right.

Course 3 came also from the first course DRW options: the Brie salad. Now, I may have mentioned once or twice here how much I love cheese. Sound familiar? Chef Dan pretty much had me at "phylo dough," but I stayed tuned in to hear about the organic mixed greens tossed with toasted almonds, red onions, blueberries, and blueberry-Thyme vinaigrette. The Brie is served on the side and is baked wrapped in the most delicate phylo dough I've ever seen Brie baked in any restaurant. The result was a dough that was thin, unobtrusive, and ever so slightly flaky--not the big dry wad of over-baked phylo dough even the best of restaurants tend to serve. This was soft and chewy, a delicate pastry membrane to hold all that warm, near-melted cheese. Ah, cheese...cheese is good...what? Where was I?

Next up we sampled one of the DRW entree selections, chicken. Yes, chicken. Plain old "pedestrian" chicken. But unlike any chicken you've ever tasted in your life. This chicken is stuffed with a chicken mousse made with carrots, peas, and sundried tomatoes, served with braised carrots (they tasted almost like sweet potatoes), carrot chips, and a savory bread pudding with natural jus. The chicken itself retains its skin, which is slightly crunchy and full of flavor. The chicken is tender and juicy, the mousse a creamy contrast, and the savory bread pudding??? The best way I can describe it is to liken it to stuffing, though after having this the very thought of Stove Top will make you cringe. I've never had a savory bread pudding before (in fact, it's kind of like crepes: you don't even realize the savory kind are even possible until someone presents you with it), but it was superb. Slightly crunchy on the outside, warm and soft on the inside, made with shredded chicken, carrots, and peas--like a chicken pot pie cake! This dish was Dan's first dish he made at the Whitney. After the last chef deemed chicken too "pedestrian" (it wasn't just my pithy turn of phrase), the owner really wanted to see it on the menu, and this is what Dan came up with. The complimentary textures alone make this dish a stand-out (Chef Dan is a self-admitted texture king).

Next we had a much "darker" dish, the filet with a celeriac potato pancake, Swiss chard, baby turnip, and a port demi. When Dan presented it to us, he kind of excused the appearance of the dish, noting that he usually likes to balance the colors (visual presentation is just one of the many elements a superior chef must balance in order to make a truly outstanding dish) but the addition (or subtraction) of anything would throw off the dish's flavors and textures. So, the dark lady it is, which suits it just fine. The Swiss chard is braised with pork (me: "Bacon! I taste bacon!") and the potato pancake is crisp, a nice way to offset the tender (and practically still "moo"-ing but that's JUST the way it should be) beef and the wilted greens. For you naysayers of Swiss chard, my dining partner insisted it was not Swiss chard because, quote, "It can't be Swiss chard because I don't like Swiss chard but I like this." So there you have it.

Last but certainly not least, dessert. The Opera Cake is the selected dessert for the Detroit Restaurant Week menu, which was fitting since my friend and I were on our way to the Opera House to see The Phantom of the Opera (a wonderful production, btw). Opera Cake is a classic French pastry and pretty standard in most upscale pastry shops. It is layered almond cake with coffee butter cream and chocolate ganache, drizzled with more chocolate and caramel. One bite and my dentist was likely twitching inexplicably somewhere. Too rich for my blood, but you sugar freaks will love it.

The Whitney is an old Detroit dining mainstay and I'm thrilled to see it back in form, once again on top of its game. The charm of this historic old mansion, still adorned with a number of original furnishings, is something that can't easily be replicated. The lovely gardens are an oasis during the summer months (and the location of some of the summer's most popular weekly parties) and offer an relaxing retreat from the city. There is a reason why the Whitney is widely considered to be one of the most romantic spots in metro Detroit, and still it is one of the finest places to dine.

While indulging in yet another fabulous meal, it occurred to me that we here in Detroit are very lucky to have so many outstanding (not just merely "good") restaurants nearby, and also how difficult it will be to choose between them! Luckily Restaurant Week is a generous 10 days, and prices are a generous $27.00, so even if you can't decide you don't really have to--try them all! (A few, at least.)

Detroit Restaurant Week Menu for the Whitney

First Course (Choice of):

~Soup of the Day
~Calamari: Flash fried, house pickled peppers, home grown tomatoes, garlic and herbs
~Brie Salad: Baked "en croute" with organic mixed greens, toasted almonds, and blueberry-Thyme vinaigrette
~Mussels: Saffron broth, house made sourdough tomato

Second Course (Choice of):
~Halibut: Fresh linguine, Chorizo sausage, fennel, corn, lemon dill buerre blanc
~Chicken: Peas, sun dried tomatoes, savory bread pudding, carrot chips, natural jus
~Filet: Celeriac potato pancake, Swiss chard, baby turnip, port demi
~Sweet Potato Gnocchi: Fennel, apples, Pecans, Brown Butter, Sage

Third Course

Opera Cake: Layered almond cake with coffee butter ice cream and chocolate ganache