Friday, April 16, 2010

DRW Preview #5: Wolfgang Puck Grille

Wolfgang Puck Grille inside the MGM Grand Detroit consistently exceeds my expectations. On my first visit, when I had the chance to sit down with Executive Chef Marc Djozlija and chat about restaurants and Detroit and Detroit restaurants and Detroit people (thanks to the 2 degrees of Detroit we were fast friends), I went in with the poopy-poor attitude of it being a celebrity chef venture and so it will likely be lackluster at best. Like so many other self-important food snobs I sneered at the concept of the "celebrity chef" in general, and bristled at the mention of names like Emeril Lagasse and Rachel Ray. This was my perception walking in, before I met Marc, before I tasted the food.

Their Spicy Sashimi Grade Tuna Tartare was outstanding, better even than those I've had at high-profile fish markets and trendy seafood restaurants (though I won't name names...awkward pause). In fact, everything was outstanding, from the salad to the pork belly. The ambiance is warm and contemporary-rustic (if there can truly be such a thing), fine dining without a doubt but still friendly enough to appeal to casino-goers and pre- or post-game sports fans. And for those who (much like myself previously) have the stubborn perception that an eponymously-named celebrity chef family of restaurants would take the easy way out and order everything from Sysco, think again: everything at Wolfgang Puck Grille is made in-house, including the sauces, dressings, pastas, breads, and pastries. They also cure and smoke their own meats and sausage. And I can vouch for this--I've seen the kitchen(s) where everything is made and stored (one could easily get lost without a guide or map).

After speaking with Marc, seeing the facilities, and tasting the food, I now sing the praises of Wolfgang Puck Grille. You know what they say about making assumptions! (You do know, right?) And while I still get the occasional resistance from those who perceive the place to be too expensive to visit on a whim, I must also argue that point (they offer $29 prix fixe menus that are updated regularly throughout the year on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays), and then counter with this: Detroit Restaurant Week ($27 all 10 days including the weekend; even better!). My fifth Restaurant Week preview dinner took me to here, where I got to see my new friend Marc, eat some fantastic food, and experience some of the most elaborate, attentive service I've seen in a LONG time.

As the courses were brought out to my dining partner and I, I swear I could hear the "Blue Danube" waltz playing. As two servers (one being General Manager Hicham Farabi) would walk up together and present us with a carefully orchestrated show of simultaneously placing our dishes on the table with expert timing, each dish was then carefully described in detail down to every last spice and peppercorn. Our waters were never empty more than a sip and I think I counted at least 8 different people attending to us. Make no mistake: if it is a fine dining experience you want, you can get it here. You can also just as easily order a burger and beer at the bar.

Our 8-course meal began with the Spring Asparagus Soup with toasted curry oil, crisp parsley, and creme fraiche. The soup was a thick, flavorful puree served hot in a warmed bowl. The flavor of the asparagus wasn't overpowering, and the toasted curry oil gave it a hint of spice and toasted nut flavor while the creme fraiche had a creamy cooling effect. Superb (and in a conversation with another foodie-chef the next day, this sentiment was seconded).

Next we had the Chopped Vegetable Salad with pine nuts, shaved feta cheese, and yogurt sauce. As Hicham explained, a chopped salad like this will typically have about 12-13 vegetables in it. I think I lost count but I do remember tomatoes, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives, beets...with the cheese and dressing it was actually very reminiscent of a Greek salad, but in a league all its own.

I have to be honest when I say that I had some trepidation trying the English Pea Ravioli. I greatly dislike anything pea-related so I thought this one wouldn't go over well for me. But the pea puree is mixed with mascarpone and goat cheeses inside the ravioli, then topped with braised pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano. The verdict? Win! I could barely taste any of that horrid pea-flavor I so despise; for me, it was simply a plump, firm ravioli with lots of cheese. I'm so easy to please sometimes.

The entrees were served to us in platters all at once for us to split and share. After the three appetizers I was already getting full, but I certainly couldn't let any of this beautiful food go to waste and besides, it's my job. The Roasted Chicken Breast was served with honey-glazed carrots and garlic potato purée. Tender, juicy, and gorgeous.

The Sautéed Salmon was served with fingerling potatoes, confit bacon and a whole grain mustard sauce. Of the fish I most often encounter (and mind you I don't exactly eat carp), salmon tends to be the "fishiest" of all. Unlike tilapia which can be served with a light white wine citrus sauce, salmon needs a strong flavor to cut its own natural fishiness. As it turns out, whole grain mustard is just the man for the job. The mustard grain has its own sharp flavor, "hot" (though not like a chili pepper) and slightly astringent. This offsets the heavy flavor of the salmon, making it not quite so overpowering. Plus the crispy spice-rubbed skin was fantastic, lending a different dimension to boring old salmon.

The Grilled Rib Eye Steak with wild mushrooms, slightly sweet Cipollini onions and a full-bodied Armagnac sauce was perfectly pink and tender. The Armagnac sauce really highlighted the meat's natural flavors while adding more complexity to it.

Ah, but the Angel Hair Pasta with wild field mushrooms and white truffle oil was what got us most excited when perusing the menu before our visit, and with good reason: the mushrooms are soaked, saturated in butter until their own natural juices explode out, and what you're left with are big, meaty, juicy mushrooms and aromatic, rich truffle butter over a tender pasta. Not the prettiest dish but the best-tasting ones often aren't. This is heavy and is meal enough in itself. But still have dessert.

Well, first you have fries. I did anyway. And they were crispety, crunchety, peanut-oily (NOTE: I don't actually know if they use peanut oil in their fryer but I wouldn't be shocked to hear if it was, as these fries had the kind of flavor and crispness I've come to associate with said oil. Allergic-types may want to inquire.). Too bad I only had room for about 3 of them.

At this point I'm beyond full. I'm actually in pain. My stomach feels like it's been stretched out like the guy's in Se7en who represented "Gluttony" (ooooh...inappropriate?). I hurt. I anticipate an evening at the Opera afterwards during which time I will neither be able to pass gas nor scratch myself, and this concerns me. I've had 7 courses (unless you count the fries? Then it would be 8) and they were sooooo good and I can't possibly ingest another bite or I might actually run the risk of eating myself to the point of digestive arrest.

Then dessert came. New York Style Cheesecake with sable cookies and fresh berry compote. I have to at least try it. The cheesecake is creamy. Rich, and creamy. Not crumbly. Not cakey. But creamy. I can taste the cream cheese and sour cream. The silky smoothness. Cold. Did I say creamy? This is cheesecake like my mom made--now, my mom didn't make much but she sure did make one hell of a cheesecake; it's infamous in my family. Just one bite became just another. And another. Until I was scraping the last plump blueberry around the plate to make sure I didn't miss any creamy crumbs.

Still not sold on the celebrity chef concept? Wolfgang is the name but Marc is the game--he runs the kitchen, creates the menu, and has been doing so with the Wolfgang Puck brand for 17 years now, having opened each of the Grilles across the nation. While he's travelled extensively under the Puck-Man, working in Vegas, Atlantic City, and LA, he originally hails from Madison Heights and has finally, after nearly two decades, come home. Our Prodigal Son returned, and after being so desperate to leave so many years ago, he is happy he has come back and is truly excited about what he sees going on in the city--the great ideas and the great passion he sees in other chefs and restauranteurs.

Marc designed this DRW menu (as well as the year-round prix fixe menu) to wholly represent the restaurant while making the experience affordable. Portions are smaller which allow for a more concise package without skimping on the quality. It’s the same food that is offered on the regular menu, and still represents the Wolfgang Puck brand. “We want this to be a dining experience for people, more than just eating,” he told me. “If you live in Troy you could go to Ocean Prime, so why come here? We’re trying to do something great so this will be the obvious choice.”

Works for me. And eventually my digestive tract recovered. Totally worth it.

Spring Asparagus Soup
(Toasted curry oil and crisp parsley)
Chopped Vegetable Salad
(Pine nuts and shaved feta cheese)
English Pea Ravioli
(Braised pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano)

Roasted Chicken Breast
(Honey glazed carrots and garlic potato purée)
Sautéed Salmon
(Fingerling potatoes, confit bacon
and whole grain mustard sauce)
Grilled Rib Eye Steak
(Wild mushrooms, Cipollini onions and Armagnac sauce)
Angel Hair Pasta
(Wild field mushrooms and white truffle oil)

New York Style Cheesecake
(Sable cookies and fresh berry compote)