Friday, March 29, 2013

[EID Feature] Smoked meats and wines on draft: Red Crown is not just another garage grill rehab

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

It's been called the Vinsetta Garage of the East by … well, by me, because that's just the sort of thing that I would say. But I do it in good fun, mostly because the comparisons between the recently-opened Red Crown in Grosse Pointe Park and the smash hit two-hour-wait-all-day-every-day Vinsetta Garage in Berkley are inevitable and started immediately upon the announcement of Red Crown opening. Vinsetta is a comfort food, burgers and craft beer joint located in a historic old garage. Red Crown is a barbecue, wine and craft cocktail joint located in a historic old gas and service station.

Well. On second thought, maybe the two don't really lend themselves to comparison as much as it might have seemed – really the only common thread between the two is their respective ties to metro Detroit's automotive history (and let's just be real here: please go out and find me a historic building, the size of which is aptly-suited for a restaurant, that is not in some way connected to Detroit's automotive history … that isn't a church). Oh, and they both have mac and cheese on the menu because, you know, that's not common to see in these parts at all.

So let's just look at what Red Crown is instead of how it might compare to Vinsetta: Red Crown (named after the Standard Oil Red Crown Service Station it was once home to) is an all-American barbecue concept with an all-American menu and all-American beverage program.

Now, that doesn't mean that the speakers blare patriotic rawk favorites from the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bruce Springsteen and Kid Rock. (Think more Stevie Ray Vaughn and ZZ Top.) There's no steer horns on the wall (there is sort of a steer head, but it is plaster and painted black and looks more like an art piece send-up of Texas roadhouse chic). The décor is tasteful and understated, with the color red as the prominent theme.

Owner Mindy Lopus, who has been busy working on expansion plans for her Silver Pig Restaurant Group, wanted to make this more of a casual, comfortable restaurant, and something that was a totally new concept for the area. When she was approached by the Cottons – the family that owns Meridian Health Plan that has been buying up property in Grosse Pointe Park the way Dan Gilbert has done downtown in an effort to totally transform it – to open a restaurant in the area, she found an eager and underserved clientele and decided to open three. "People told me Grosse Pointers only go to their few favorite restaurants and their country clubs," Lopus says, but Red Crown has been packed every day since it opened. (I suppose, in that regard, it is also like Vinsetta.)

Red Crown is the first of the bunch, an upscale American barbecue and comfort food restaurant. In May, Bona Fide Baking Company will open as both a bakery and breakfast spot/café. Then this fall a second location of Lopus's flagship concept Tallulah Wine Bar + Bistro, which breaks ground in Grosse Pointe Park this week, will round out her trio.

Lopus is a savvy businesswoman and a Certified Wine Professional. Restaurateuring is a second career for her, but a first passion. Where other upscale barbecue concepts in metro Detroit (and yes, there are a few of them) focus their beverage program on craft beer, Lopus saw a unique opportunity to promote wine as a choice beverage for barbecue pairing.

“I’m really excited about this," she says. "Comfort food is the perfect food for wine pairing.” Because, think about it: comfort food tends to be high in fat, much like the cuisines typically aligned with wine – French food, American steakhouse fare, seafood in rich cream sauces, the heavy side of Italian cooking. If there has been a backlash against snooty wine connoisseurship in recent years, and there most certainly has been, part of that backlash has not only included a hard and fast embracing of craft beer but also a refusal to accept the idea that wine is only meant to be paired with a certain class of cuisine. Red Crown falls more heavily into the latter category (though those who opt for the former will not be disappointed with Red Crown's small but respectable craft beer list, or their ambitious craft cocktail program for that matter) with an ambitious wine program that includes – ye gods! – wine on draft.

In the last two or three years, sparkling wine has started popping up on menus throughout Michigan. (The first place I was introduced to the concept was Left Foot Charley in Traverse City, where winemaker Bryan Ulbrich was working up a draft system for one of the other area wineries based on his own draft system for ciders. This was early in 2011, and the concept was still entirely foreign.) Recently Local Kitchen + Bar in Ferndale made a splash when they introduced a bubbly by M. Lawrence (aka Michigan's esteemed sparkling winemaker Lawrence Mawby, based on the Leelanau Peninsula) on draft. But still wines on tap are STILL unheard of … until now.

Red Crown is the first restaurant in Michigan serving still wines on draft. The advantage? The wine is temperature-controlled, stays fresh down to the last glass, is never corked, and enables them to sell these wines by the glass for a much (MUCH) lower price than what you would otherwise pay if they were poured from a bottle. The keg is also refillable and creates less waste. Just as wine drinkers have adapted to synthetic corks and screw-top bottles over the last decade, even the fussiest among them finally recognizing the advantages in quality and economy both offer, they will now learn to embrace wine in kegs.

The wine list is organized by price as opposed to being organized by region or varietal. For wines on draft, a glass is $8, a half carafe $15, and a full carafe $29. Glasses are available in $8, $11 and $14 price points, and bottles are $29, $49 and $69. All of it is American, and each quarter one of Michigan's best wine producers is highlighted in their "In the Mitten" program.

Oh, and they also have an M. Lawrence bubbly on draft: "Sex," to be specific.

Chef de Cuisine Jim Delao's food menu is small but mighty (and meaty). Barbecued meats made in their wood-fired "little red smokehouse" in their kitchen, which burns local fruitwoods and mesquite charcoal. Ribs, sausages, pulled pork, pork shoulder and brisket, complemented by southern comfort sides like mac and cheese and braised greens (with bacon). Appetizers include masa-crusted onion rings and peel 'n eat Georgia shrimp. For "supper" there's comfort food favorites like shrimp and grits and grilled meatloaf. Non-alcoholic drinks include milkshakes and floats. Lunch, weekend brunch and Sunday support will start in April, and the massive patio is sure to be a massive hit this summer.

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.

 Red Crown on Urbanspoon