Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Toasted Oak Grill (Extended Cut from Real Detroit)

I'm going to be honest: I LOVED this place so much I had to write more about it than space allows for in the Clean Plate Club column. So here it is, the full cut of me gushing about how great this place is (and it IS). It makes the drive out to Novi worthwhile, and I have NEVER said that before!

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a gourmet market AND a sustainable restaurant adjoining a swank Novi hotel!

Toasted Oak Grill & Market just opened in April and already it has received rave reviews. But perhaps more importantly, it has received the attention of foodies from Ann Arbor to Detroit, many of which are already proud repeat customers. (It’s true: I took a Facebook poll.)

After seeing the space and sampling the cuisine, it’s no small wonder: the sprawling space which is separated into three distinct sections is refreshingly hip. Designer David Ashen, who has designed all of Sage Restaurant Group’s ventures, has created a space that feels “Up North” rustic gone ultra-chic: a suspended fireplace encased in slate-gray stone, wood floors and paneling, accented with bright, bold colors like yellow and royal blue, and modern, plush furniture. Decorative touches such as a crate, glass goblet, and candle wax sculpture in the middle of the second dining room add whimsy. The chalkboards announcing the cheeseboard and charcuterie selections create a fun, casual vibe—while also smacking strongly of Zingerman’s, which was a strong inspiration for this restaurant concept.

But wait, did someone say “charcuterie”? Yep: Chef Brian Polcyn of Five Lakes and Forest Grill, who is also considered one of the worldwide leading experts on the art of smoking and curing meats (“charcuterie”), is churning out a whole new generation of chefs dedicated to meat and sustainable cuisine over there in his classrooms at Schoolcraft Culinary School. Toasted Oak’s Executive Chef Steven Grostick studied under Polcyn in school, then trained under him for 11 years at the now-reconceptualized Five Lakes Grill. Grostick espouses the same ideals Polcyn drilled into him all those years: meat is an art; support local farmers.

When Grostick was brought into Toasted Oak, he was given complete autonomy to design a menu that is seasonal and sustainable, focusing on all things local from working with local farmers to all Michigan-made products. There is also an herb and flower garden outside in one of the three outdoor patios. “How awesome would that be,” exclaims Grostick, “the cook runs out of basil and someone runs outside with a pair of scissors! You can’t get any more fresh than that!”

The Pickled Spring Beets is a great showcase of Michigan in the spring, with butter lettuce, goat cheese croquettes, pistachios, and orange vinaigrette. The mussels used in their three different preparations are the superior Blue Hill Bay. The Mussels Dijonaise are served in a heavy Dijon, tarragon, and cream sauce, perfect for dipping the grilled bread and hand-cut frites that come with them. The Lake Huron Trout is served over a spring salad of frisée, spinach, and spring peas, with a mustard seed vinaigrette. And for bread, each table is served exceptionally moist cornbread out of a tin can with whipped butter and a dash of sea salt. (When asked about it, Grostick grinned and said, “That one I’m keeping a secret!”) I ended with the Butterscotch Blondie Brownie Sundae—ooey gooey decadence, served in a glass canning jar. Everything is also very reasonably priced here: the most expensive item on the menu is the Creekstone Farms Filet at $28, and this is beef that has been massaged daily and air-lifted to the slaughterhouse. The market plates include a variety of pates and terrines as well as cheese boards and Grostick’s own charcuterie platters. Much of what they make and use in-house is also available for purchase in the market, from maple syrup to dressings to a bacon caramel sauce that they cannot keep in stock. (And yes, it is THAT good—try it with cheese or ice cream.)

But what separates Toasted Oak the most from other restaurants is its retail wine pricing. Everything you see on the wine list is also available for purchase in the market, and all of it is priced the same—no 200+% restaurant mark-up. This is a concept almost unheard of; for only a small corking fee, you can enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner for the same cost as you would have if you’d bought from the market and taken it home. Also, in keeping with their local commitment, they’ve got the largest selection of Michigan wines I’ve ever seen in the metro area: labels like Black Star Farms and the tiny Peninsula Cellars that you just simply cannot find anywhere else.

Another shining star to add next to their name: exceptional service. The servers (many of them Detroit Fish Market refugees) are knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and passionate, and this shows in how excitedly they talk about the food, the wine, and the ethos. While the Grill and Market are located inside the Baronette Renaissance, they are separate entities unto themselves. They do provide catering and room service for the hotel, but outside of that they’re simply a really great restaurant and market that happens to adjoin a chic hotel. From the initial concept to the product and the talent, Toasted Oak is scorching hot.

To read the article as is printed, click here.