Sunday, April 11, 2010

DRW Preview #4: Opus One

In times of such economic uncertainty, when businesses open and close as quickly and quietly as flames flickering in the wind, it can be a relief to see a place that is stable, reliable, unchanging. Such is the case with Opus One, which has been in business since 1987 and has maintained its level of success and notoriety by sticking with the the winning formula it established early on. And, also, the décor.

1987. Reaganomics. Iran-Contra. The Simpsons. The Stock Market skyrocketed (before it abruptly collapsed). Wall Street. Yuppie culture. Ah, those were the days. This was the time Opus One was born: suited to the opulent, affluent, discriminating business types who believed an item's level of quality was in direct proportion to its cost.

Well, times have changed, and Opus One is not the same inaccessibly uppity place it *may* once have been (I say "may" because I was only 6 and therefore can't really make a fair assessment of what it was actually like at the time, relying solely on the stories of others to set the stage for me).

The food is still fabulous--and perhaps it is here that I should note that one of the key components that have not changed over all these years is Executive Chef Tim Giznsky, who has been there since they opened their doors, serving as Executive Sous Chef for eight years and then as Executive Chef for the past 14. If it ain't broke, don't fix it: what Giznsky has created here is a formula for success which has kept Opus One alive and well even during such tumultuous times when so many long-time Detroit institutions have shuttered their doors. It's simple, really: make good food and create a great dining experience, and be willing to change with the times. Opus One offers a variety of game specials, discounted bar and happy hour menus, theatre packages, and prix fixe menus to appeal to a wider audience.

And it is with a tremendous amount of throwback nostalgic glee that I fully embrace the lavish, opulent décor as being firmly, fabulously planted in the year 1987.

For my fourth Detroit Restaurant Week preview dinner, I had the full experience of Opus One's contemporary French and American regional flavors. Last summer I became a hard-line fan of their Pork Osso Buco (seriously, it's like butter) and greatly anticipated what would be in store for the Spring Edition of Restaurant Week. Giznsky decided to create a DRW menu that would reach out to new customers as well as expose them to their regular menu in a way that is accessible without being intimidating.

We began with the Chilled Shiitake Mushroom and Vegetable Spring Roll, served with Ponzu and sweet & hot dipping sauces. The roll itself was delicate and full of bright, fresh spring colors and flavors. From there it got a little heavier: the extra-decadent Lobster Bisque garnished with lobster saffron ravioli and fresh chives. This is a classic menu item here (though not quite as much so as the signature Shrimp Helene), and it is exceptionally thick, creamy, and sweet. The flavor of the lobster is understated (i.e., not overwhelming), nicely balanced throughout with what can only be lots and lots and lots of butter and heavy cream. Diet, schmiet.

Next up was the Chilled Sesame Crusted Ahi Tuna served rare with wasabi aioli and pickled ginger. A beautiful presentation (expect nothing less from this place, right down to the gilded plates), with an exquisite high-grade tuna with matching complimentary flavors of sesame and wasabi. The wasabi aioli was the real winner here: creamy and not overly-spicy, it carried the natural flavor of wasabi with the strong heat.

We were served several of the entree selections from the DRW menu. The Pan-Seared Fillet of Arctic Char presented on a grilled vegetable couscous with a spring pea coulis and micro greens salad had a fantastic color thanks to the pea coulis. This dish, along with the mushroom spring roll, really nails the "Spring" concept behind this installment of Restaurant Week, with flavors and colors perfectly representing the season. I am not the biggest fan of peas (think "The Princess and the Pea"), but I do think this dish was a fantastic representation of the spring theme.

For those looking for something a little "meatier" to bite into, you will probably enjoy the Spice Rubbed New York Strip Steak served with a potato mushroom hash, baby green beans and a red wine demi-glace garnished with angel hair onion rings. It's meat and potatoes gone all fancy, and whether the more refined palates among us want to admit or not, this is ultimately very much a meat and potatoes town. Steak lovers will find this perfectly suited to their tastes.

As for me, being one of those "more refined palates" I was talking about, I felt hard and fast for the Grilled Peppered Loin of Australian Lamb served with spinach risotto and a Dijon mustard sauce. Now mind you, I eat A LOT of lamb. I love lamb. I understand and accept the fact that it is often fatty (such is the beast). I love the strong, pungent flavor and the tender, juicy meat, especially when complimented with the right combination of spices (rosemary is always a win). Lamb chops grilled, seared, and even gnawed right off the bone...I'm a happy girl. But this? This was like no other lamb I've ever tasted. Made with a peppercorn rub (which you would usually find on a flank steak) and absolutely free of fat, this lamb loin was like butter in every bite, exceptionally tender, with a mild flavor (so those who tend to veer away from lamb because of its gamey character would actually still enjoy this, like my dining partner on this evening) that was accented well by the Dijon mustard sauce which captured the flavor of mustard seed without being too "mustardy" (I tend to also not be a huge fan of mustard, though with this dish I actually enjoyed it). This is one of the most stellar dishes I've had yet during my Spring DRW previews, and I will recommend it whole-heartedly to everyone. As a lamb lover, I was both surprised and exceedingly pleased. I call this dish a must for all foodies.

Once again, by the time dessert came around I was almost too full...once again, I soldiered through. The Crème Brûlée is the classic baked vanilla custard topped with caramelized sugar and fresh berries, pleasing for any palate.

The Trio Chocolate Mousse three layers of dark, milk and white chocolate with fresh berries and raspberry sauce is made for sweet teeth--I actually loved the thick, tart raspberry sauce best of all. Pour that over simple vanilla bean ice cream and that's a great summer treat!

And finally, one of their signature desserts: Banana Split Flan made with pastry cream, strawberries, bananas and chocolate in a tart shell topped with whipped cream and toasted nuts then garnished strawberry paint. It tasted like a banana split made with creamy custard instead of ice cream. Another spring/summer win!

They've received Wine Specator's "Award of Excellence" for their outstanding wine list (which includes vertical flights of the very pricey Napa namesake) every year since they opened in 1987, and have been a pillar of Detroit's fine dining ever since. But this isn't gelees served on micro-spoons that cost $1,000 per person for the experience (ahem, Alinea); these are big portions full of familiar flavors well-suited to regional Midwestern palates, and just simply damn good food. Giznsky knows what he's doing--and hell, he's been doing it for awhile. If you haven't been to Opus One for fear of high prices or it being too high-scale, this is your chance to reconceive your misconceptions and discover what truly fine dining (and exceptional service) is all about.

PS, get the lamb.