Wednesday, September 22, 2010

DRW Preview #1: Caucus Club

What began, in a sense, as the "waiting room" for the London Chop House -- intended to hold the overflow from this world-renowned restaurant -- has now become a Detroit dining institution all its own, and has ironically even outlived its predecessor (which closed in 1991). This newest addition to Detroit Restaurant Week is a legend in its own right, and is one of the few surviving upscale dining establishments that still echo of Old Detroit, the Detroit of untold wealth, power and prestige.

But the fate of the Caucus Club was not always quite so sure. About 20 years ago the restaurant was failing, until a woman named Mary Belloni stepped in as a waitress and decided to buy it out of bankruptcy. She still owns it to this day, and runs it along with her son Robert. Part of the reason for their longevity during a time when all the old Detroit staples are shuttering is pretty simple: Mary runs a tight ship. The waste and excess that are the bane of so many other restaurants are nonexistant here, and this has helped them to weather the storm of socio-economic and demographic shifts. Oh, and also the fact that the food is exceptionally good.

Everything they make is done from scratch using high-quality, fresh ingredients. The seafood, which they are most famous for, is flown in fresh almost daily. It is the consistency, dependability, and longevity of their menu; the freshness and high quality of their products; and also their personal relationship with their customers that keeps them open and sets them apart. “[Our servers] are professionals; they do this job because they love it,” says Robert. In other words, this isn't your usual cast of bored college students serving tables to pay rent and secretly doing shots behind the bar while they stand around waiting for customers to come in. This professional waitstaff all has years' worth of industry experience (one even owned several of his own restaurants and decided to be a server because he just loves the job and loves talking to people), and have over time become friends with the crowd of 90% regulars. “We know our customers and we treat them well.” That's a little more of that Old Detroit hospitality for you.

For the Detroit Restaurant Week menu sampling, I started with the escargot. It's amazing how the more adventurous you become in your culinary romps the less-weird formerly-weird things seem, like snails. Totally not at all weird anymore. Things that make you go hmmmm. The escargot is prepared very traditionally, sauteed with mushrooms and garlic served with a lemon wedge and thick garlic toast on the side. That bread is there to sop up all that beautiful buttery garlic goodness, and mon Dieu what an explosion of wonderful, simple, aromatic flavors. I guess when someone decided to put snails on a plate they figured they better put a KILLER sauce with them, and it worked (you really do need a pungent, tart compliment here though -- those little critters tend to be a bit bitter, not really good as a stand-alone flavor). And myohmy I will eat the hell out of some snail juice, mark.

Next I tried a small version of their Caesar salad (I had a lot more eating to do, so smaller portions made sense -- don't let the above image fool you). Another classic, but don't shirk away from the fresh-ground black pepper; it gives a great kick.

For the entree course I sampled the Grilled Pickerel with brown butter and capers, served with rice pilaf and vegetable (here broccoli). The brown butter has a very subtle sweetness to it, having a rich, nutty flavor that makes it ideal in pastries but also in seafood dishes where it helps to offset the ... you know ... fishiness. The individual flavors of the rich brown butter and the sharp tanginess of the capers all create a great harmony in this dish, and the pickerel itself is sauteed for a nice outer crispness and inner juiciness.

Finally for dessert I tried their signature Gold Brick Sundae. Creamy vanilla ice cream with a thick coating of divinely decadent chocolate and a wafer cookie (that smelled exactly like freshly-baked waffle cones), it inevitably made me think of a milk chocolate Dove ice cream bar in a bowl instead of on a stick. This is the kind of guilty pleasure that would send me straight to confession if I were a practicing Catholic.

There's a reason the Caucus Club has been around for nearly 60 years. Granted not much has changed in that time -- but hell, if it ain't broke don't fix it. Decor that may have seemed outdated and antiquated a decade ago is now chicly nostalgic (I think we can also thank Mad Men for that newfound embrace of retro nostalgia), and with the help of Detroit Restaurant Week the Caucus Club just may see a renaissance of its own.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE ... are you curious about the cocktail made with beef broth, the Bullshot? Or maybe you're wondering whether the Barbra Streisand rumors are true? Perhaps you just want to hear me hail the return of the three-martini lunch, which may or may not have any foundation in reality? Check out the September 29, 2010 issue of Real Detroit Weekly for the Caucus Club Tale Part the Second: Where's the Beef?

Detroit Restaurant Week Menu


Caucus Club Caesar Salad
Classic Wedge Salad
(Served with blue cheese, tomato and bacon)
New England Clam Chowder


Grilled Pickerel
(With brown butter and capers, served with rice pilaf and vegetable)
Crab-stuffed Salmon
(Served with Champagne sauce over a bed of baby spinach)
Cabernet-braised Lamb Shank
(Served with root vegetables)
Sautéed Chicken Marsala
(Served with fettuccine)
Roasted Acorn Squash
(Stuffed with wild rice, mushrooms, apple and walnuts, served on a
Swiss chard)


Famous Gold Brick Sundae
Pumpkin Cheese Cake