Monday, December 31, 2007

Wednesday Night Karaoke at the Cadieux Cafe

Originally published in D-Tales here.

You gotta love the Cadieux Cafe. One of the coolest bars in the city, tucked away way, way over on the east side, they've got one of the best beer selections in the city (their only real competition is the Berkley Front, which isn't even in Detroit, it's in Berkley), and one of the finest preservations of Flemish culture this side of the Atlantic. If memory serves me correctly, I believe this is the only place left in the states that still offers feather bowling--a favorite Belgian passtime--and their steamed mussels by the bucket are infamous in and around the city. Yes, it's beautiful to be Belgian at the Cadieux Cafe (and as a more than half Buffalo, I get to claim more than most--suck it, wannabes!), but it's okay if you're not.

The Cadieux Cafe is a great place to grab a bite to eat, grab a drink with some friends, play some feather bowling (what is feather bowling? --don't worry, they'll explain), have some coffee, smoke some ciggies, drink some brewskies, and...sing some karaoke.

Because Wednesday night is karaoke night at the Cadieux Cafe. And while there are many places in the city to find karaoke--Vivio's, the Comet Bar (which just had a Tammy Faye karaoke competition--tres interesante)--the Cadieux Cafe is probably where you'll find the most relaxed atmosphere and the best talent, not to mention the coolest crowd of twenty-somethings east of Foxtown.

Granted, it probably helped that it was over the holidays, and a bunch of the "cool" people were home visiting, and I just so happened to be with two such people who just so happen to be the coolest set of siblings ever, and they even broke out the Ross & Monica choreography during someone else's performance, and there was a lot of drama involving other people at the bar, and the night ended with me dodging a DUI bullet, but still. I am willing to bet that the Cadieux Cafe is a consistently fun place to be, even sans the super-fun siblings I was hanging out with.

So next Wednesday, get some friends together and head to the Cadieux Cafe, grab a Blue Moon, talk to Tom the karaoke guy, and have a blast. Have a chat with Tori, one of the regulars and a fantastic singer, and strike up a conversation with one of the many attractive singles at the bar.

Just be sure NOT to venture into the GP's after a night of drinking. You can't all pull the dumb pretty girl card like I can. You've been warned.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Palette Dining Studio: It's a Buffet

There is much excitement surrounding Detroit's new high-end restaurants that just opened in the new MGM Hotel & Casino--Wolfgang Puck (who has never really impressed me but still carries a certain amount of cache I am happy to see in Detroit) and Michael Mina both have brand-new ventures inside the casino, and judging from an early preview of the menus these places are going to quickly be ranked in the upper echelon of Detroit dining.

On Friday night, we decided to be adventurous and try out one of these new venues, only to be met with a chorus of "Sorry, we are fully committed for the evening."

Well, that's partially a lie. The Wolfgang Puck restaurant told us they stop serving dinner at 10:30. When we got there, it was 10:20. Sweetheart, I shouldn't need to tell you this because this is common industry practice--if your restaurant closes at 10:30, this means you must seat people until then, and serve them their full meals until they are satisfied. This is understood across the board, and BELIEVE YOU ME when I do finally have the chance to enjoy a meal there a mention of such poor customer service on opening weekend WILL be noted in the review. Walking by, there were plenty of open tables we could have been sat at. In a larger city, such behavior from a hostess on opening weekend would have torpedoed the restaurant's credibility. But this is Detroit, where folks don't know better.

But I digress.

At this point, we're just plain hungry, so we decide to check out the still-open and not "fully committed for the evening" new "dining studio," Palette. Now, Palette was described in all preemptive press as being a "tapas" buffet. Tapas makes me presume that an ecelectic selection of "small plates" will be offered, buffet-style, but not in the classic nature of a buffet.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. It's a buffet, people. A pretty standard, albeit higher quality, meat-seafood-stirfry-salad-and-dessert buffet. There was nothing "tapas" about it. Granted, the offerings far exceed what most buffets have to offer--grilled lamb chops, split crab legs soaked in butter, Oysters Rockefeller, marinated prosciutto, Manchego cheese, chicken parmesan in a stellar parmesan cream sauce, and a dessert station with a chocolate fountain, made-to-order crepes, and an assortment of fresh gelatto along with artfully presented bit-sized pastries all combine to make this buffet something that far exceeds the "Old Country" understanding of the word. Yes, this is a buffet worthy of Vegas (all those stories you hear about the grandeur of the Vegas buffets in the high-end casinos? They're all true.), though not quite so large in scale or diverse in offerings.

But make no mistake--this is a buffet, people. Don't let the promise of tapas make you think you're getting something more than you paid for. And at $26.00 per person, you'd better stay for a few hours and gorge yourself to the point of pain to really get your money's worth.

And they don't even have a bathroom inside. Tsk, tsk.

Palette Dining Studio, inside the new MGM Hotel & Casino

Thursday, September 27, 2007

October Supper Club at the Historic Majestic Cafe!

After a long-delayed absence of Detroit Synergy Group’s popular Supper Club project, DSG is happy to announce the upcoming October Supper Club at the Majestic Café on Wednesday, October 17 at 6:30PM. As is tradition, a mere $30.00 includes a full four-course meal with tax, gratuity, and non-alcoholic beverages.

“We are very excited to be hosting this event,” says Joe Zainea (“Papa Joe”), owner of the Majestic Theatre Complex. “We’ve always respected what Detroit Synergy is doing and want to have a strong relationship with them. This Supper Club is just the beginning!”

Specifically for this event, the chef has created a very special menu for Detroit Synergy members:

Firecracker Chicken Fingers
Steamed Mussels
Baked Brie with an Assortment of Crackers
All served family-style by table

First Course
Garden Salad with choice of dressing: Hazelnut Vinaigrette, Honey Vinaigrette, Feta Oregano, Basil Vinaigrette, Blue Cheese, Caesar, Ranch

Choice of
*Herb-encrusted prime rib served with port demi glace sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, and sautéed French green beans
*Hazelnut-encrusted whitefish, served with basil aioli, roasted red peppers, rice pilaf, and sautéed vegetable medley
*Chicken Carbonara—sautéed chicken with shallots, wild mushrooms, garlic, and prosciutto in a white wine peppered cream sauce served over basil fettuccini
*(Vegetarian) Gimelli Pasta—fresh oregano and garlic olive oil tossed with shallots, parsley, broccoli and mixed vegetables, served with a wedge of marinated grilled feta cheese

Selections to be made at registration, at least one day prior to event

Choice of
*Chocolate Mousse

The Majestic Theatre Complex is also happy to announce that in January 2008, the theatre will be receiving its official designation as a historic Detroit site. Detroit Synergy is thrilled to be part of the celebration, and invites you to do the same!

The Majestic Theatre Complex has been a Detroit staple for over 60 years now. The Zainea family has worked hard to preserve the beautiful theatre as well as the Garden Bowl bowling alley—the oldest in the country—and have also succeeded in creating a space that has become both a hub of indie rock and haven for local artists.

The Majestic Café is an eclectic bistro featuring Mediterranean and American cuisines in a relaxed, loft-like environment—exposed brickwork covered in an ever-changing palette of vibrant artwork from local artists, floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows looking out on Woodward, and vaulted ceilings with a very open feel gives this place a flair of big-city style right here in the D. And the Majestic Café’s menu makes it a hidden gem.

Typically not considered to be among the “fine-dining hotspots” in Detroit, the Majestic Café can hold its own with many of the more “hoighty-toighty” places around town, and does so with a laissez-fare attitude and artistic aplomb. The Majestic Café invites you to experience fine dining Detroit-style, in an atmosphere that is all Detroit—and feel free to wear jeans!

Detroit Synergy is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization. Its mission is to generate positive perceptions and opinions about Detroit by bringing together a diverse community and building upon the City's strengths and resources to realize a common vision for a greater Detroit. Please visit for more information about the group.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Iridescence: Just Make a Left at the Buffet Line

Iridescence, inside the Motor City Casino, is one of the more-highly-ranked fine dining establishments in the city of Detroit. A “AAA-Four Diamond Award” restaurant and recipient of the 2007 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, Iridescence has largely flown under the radar with the locals. While local foodies love to drop names like Opus One, The Whitney, and (God help me for saying it) Mario’s, Iridescence has succeeded in remaining something of a secret.

Perhaps it’s because of its location. This isn’t Vegas, it’s the D, and here we don’t necessarily equate top-tier dining with a casino-based location (currently The Alley Grille in the Greektown Casino is the only other example of our casinos attempting to break into the fine dining market; MGM currently has plans in the works to introduce its own high-end establishments). So perhaps diners are initially biased against it because of its affiliation with the casino. (I would love to see how that kind of mentality would do in Las Vegas, where world-renowned chefs such as Alain Ducasse; Thomas Keller—whose Bouchon is considered one of the top restaurants in the country; and Takashi Yagihashi, formerly of Michigan’s own Tribute in Farmington Hills, are opening up highly acclaimed restaurants all located within casino walls that are successfully putting Las Vegas on the map as one of the epicenters of fine dining in the country, second only to New York and L.A.)

It might also have to do with the restaurant’s location within the casino itself. This is a 4-star restaurant that patrons arrive at only by walking past a series of buffets and a food court. Perhaps not the best impression for a person to have when entering the restaurant to enjoy a fine meal, though immediately forgettable upon entrance. (Word has it that once the hotel tower is complete, the restaurant will be relocated to the top floor—a very smart move on their part, I think. Plus the view will be amazing, provided the restaurant will be facing downtown.)

Iridescence is a quiet oasis amidst the raucousness of the casino floor. A large, open dining space filled with plush half-moon booths and mahogany tables with modern wingback chairs, Iridescence offers diners a very comfortable environment with a soothing ambiance to dine in. Other decorative accents include single peach roses on each table, and glass sculptures lit from underneath with color-changing L.E.D. lights. What they lack in location they certainly make up for in atmosphere.

And then there is the food. Iridescence has a nice mix of offerings on their menu, but they are at heart a steakhouse. Serving only the highest grade of beef, U.S.D.A. prime corn-fed, and serving every cut of beef with a rich cognac sauce, Iridescence has certainly “steaked” its claim to a high-end chophouse (despite offering only 4 different cuts). But unlike many other chophouses where the focus is all beef all the time, Iridescence offers diners a number of different well-thought-out alternatives to King Cow.

You’ll begin your meal with the standard bread course, though there is nothing standard about these breads. Jalapeño cornbread, sourdough raisin bread, crispy fried breadsticks, and large wafery-crackers that tasted like fried wonton, all served with a partitioned plate of dipping choices—olive oil with balsamic vinegar, a roasted olive tapenade, unsalted sweet cream butter and butter infused with parmesan (cheese! I love cheese!). Next you’ll receive your amuse-bouche (“happy mouth”), a small bite prepared by the chef to stimulate your palette before you begin your meal. Our amuse-bouche was a smoked salmon tartare with a spinach chip, a combination of flavors that worked well though the salmon was perhaps a bit too rich to simply warm your palette.

For the first course, there is a wide variety of options to choose, from Asian-inspired protein dishes to straightforward seafood. We sampled the Spicy Beef-Filled Asian Straws, served with ponzu dipping sauce and a drizzle sesame sauce. These “Asian Straws,” which are basically longer, thinner versions of a beef spring roll, were very flavorful without being overly spicy, and the accompanying sauces went far to enhance the flavor without drowning it (though I will note, the “ponzu” sauce both tasted like and had the consistency of peanut sauce, with perhaps only a hint of the citrusy flavor real ponzu is used for). The second course is strictly salads, which for the most part exhibit fairly common combinations, though the Spring Vegetable Salad with shaved carrot, parsnip, fennel, and celery root with a blood orange vinaigrette and golden beet chips offers a road-less-traveled combination of ingredients, perfect for those who like to go a little more adventurous with their greens.

At this point diners will take another small break in their meal to enjoy a palate cleanser, which is not something that you will typically find in most fine-dining establishments, and is likely extremely rare to see in a steakhouse. We were presented with a Chardonnay gelée in a short champagne flute, with a single large, plump raspberry suspended within. The gelée was phenomenal, capturing the effervescent tartness of what was surely a crisp, clean Chardonnay, likely not aged in oak and absent the buttery heaviness that characterizes so many Chardonnays. The ripe raspberry was a perfect compliment to the gelée, providing an extra measure of tart sweetness to the cleansing quality of this interlude.

For those of you who choose to opt out of steak for your entrée, Iridescence certainly has a selection that will suit your tastebuds in lieu of tenderloin. They do offer a 10-oz. Jumbo Western Australian Lobster Tail, which looks impressive but due to its size and the difficulty in cooking a lobster tail that large, it is more than likely to be a bit tough and rubbery, despite how much vanilla butter you might slather on it—therefore, I recommend you stray from ordering this. The simple Beef Short Ribs “Rossini” offers a classic combination of flavors with a slightly more refined twist: braised beef rib au jus atop a pile of garlic mashed potatoes with a delicate piece of foie gras and a brioche crouton on top. Pity the people of Chicago who can no longer experience foie gras (something about animal cruelty, blah blah), because this small slice of goose liver is explosive with flavor, and adds a prominent kick to the already flavorful and juicy short ribs. The Halibut is also a nice substitute for steak, served atop a bed of prosciutto with chick peas, fried lemon, and chilled virgin olive oil cream. The halibut itself was nicely seasoned with a flavorful crust of spices, and was firm yet moist on the inside, having been perfectly prepared. The halibut paired extremely well with the salty, rich prosciutto, and the occasional hint of lemon was welcomed. Be sure to cast the actual fried lemon itself off to the side, lest you enjoy what tastes like a mouthful of Pledge. The chilled virgin olive oil cream, though interesting, was completely unnecessary to the dish. Served as almost a scoop of ice cream on top of the halibut, the cream, which was mostly solid, melted off the fish and plopped to the side of the plate, where it stayed for the duration of my meal. I tried incorporating it into the dish, but found that the flavor of the cream itself was, well, just cream, and in no way added to or complimented the other flavors on the plate. So there was a big goopy melty mess on my plate for really no good reason. Dear Chef: In the future, this is a great dish, but leave the ice cream scoop to the desserts.

And ah, the desserts. Iridescence has long been touted as having the best desserts in the Metro Detroit area. And though I personally might not make a claim for “best,” I would certainly argue that they offer a fantastic selection of unique and classic cakes and confections.. Crème brûlée is prepared in the traditional way and served with fresh fruit and a sable cookie; raspberry crêpes are prepared tableside and served with vanilla-scented ice cream. Their signature dessert is a Bolivian chocolate mousse, and they offer a trio of house-made sorbets on a brandy snap tuille with fresh fruit. In the face of all of these tempting creations, we opted for the MotorCity Casino “Meltdown” (a classic chocolate lava cake with raspberry sauce and house-made praline ice cream) and the soufflé of the evening—strawberry. The “Meltdown” was terrific, as lava cake usually is, this one being no exception. The raspberry sauce was strong and needed to be sampled in small amounts to compliment the rich dark chocolate liquid center. The soufflé was divine; light, fluffy, with just the right amount of crispiness to the outer edges and a rich liquid filling of smooth strawberry sauce. I had my hesitation about ordering any soufflé that didn’t have chocolate or coffee flavors featured, but this light and airy strawberry creation was a perfect summertime end note.

And then there is the award-winning wine list, full of remarkably priced finds (notably a 1998 Penfolds Grange Shiraz for $280, which could just as easily be listed at $400). The usual concentration of California is here, though several hidden gems from South America, Italy, and Spain are notable picks (Scala Dei Priorat comes to mind). As mentioned, ’98 Grange is less than $300, ’98 Ornellaia is $170, and recent vintages of Tignanello are priced below $100. This is sticker shock in its best form; an opportunity to indulge in break-the-bank wines by merely bruising the bank instead (an added benefit after having to shed the stink of curly fries and Philly Steaks upon entering).

One thing I have not yet addressed is service, which for me in terms of overall dining experience is just as significant as the food. I have refrained from discussing the service up to this point because I would like to believe that the service we received is not in any way indicative of the service in general at Iridescence, but is really just the fault of one server. Due to an extremely overcrowded parking structure, we did not arrive to the restaurant until about 10:30—still ample time before they closed, however, with plenty of other patrons in the dining area. Our server was very polite throughout, though he clearly was not at all interested in establishing any kind of rapport, arriving simply to take our orders and deliver our plates. We could not help but feel as though we were being rushed, with each course being brought out on the heels of the one before it, with hardly any regard for timing or pacing. Another part of the reason why I hesitated in ordering the soufflé was because I knew full well how long that takes to prepare (at least 20 minutes), and at that point the server had made it pretty clear that he wanted to get us the hell out. I decided “Screw it, it’s my night too,” and ordered the soufflé. The server concealed his chagrin rather well, never losing the smile on his face as he noted, “You know that will take a little while to prepare?” Wouldn’t you know, we did not see this server for the rest of the evening, and were left in the care of the remaining bussers and food runners who twice tried to take away my soufflé before I was done eating. Again, I am willing to give the establishment the benefit of the doubt on this one, being aware as I am of the time and of our particular server’s anxiousness to leave. I do not count this as a strike against the restaurant, but I will say to those of you reading this: try to get there before 9:00.

Overall, the experience at Iridescence is a good one, with a nice selection of uniquely constructed dishes and a variety of tastes for patrons to enjoy. The wine list is superb and the atmosphere soothing. I personally think their relocation will do wonders for them, but as it stands right now, I would certainly continue to rank Iridescence on the short list of top restaurants in Detroit.

Iridescence, inside The MotorCity Casino. 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit. 313.237.6732
Prices: Appetizers/salads: $6.00-$17.00, Entrees: $29.00-$64.00, Desserts: $8.00-$12.00
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 5:00PM-midnight

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Lark: The Menu, The Myth

Okay. So you’ve heard of The Lark in West Bloomfield, right? (Well, if not, you have absolutely no business reading this review because you clearly have no concept of Detroit-area fine dining, and probably not even fine dining in general.)

That being established, we’ve all heard of The Lark in West Bloomfield. We’re familiar with the endless bevy of awards, honors, and recognitions it has received, both locally and nationally. We are aware that by and large it is considered by most critics and connoisseurs to be one of the top ten restaurants in the country. We all know this.

Hour Detroit’s 2007 Restaurant of the Year winner The Lark is an experience to be had, no doubt. The problem is, it is preceded by its reputation—and, as is so often the case in these kinds of situations, it has a difficult time standing up to its own myth.

Not ALL of this attention is overhyped or undeserved. The Lark does have a wine list that is outright jaw-dropping by any standards. Bound in leather and at least 4 inches thick, the wine list is indeed impressive. Heavily detailed and often daunting, this is the kind of wine list that one can sample both horizontal and vertical flights from dozens of different producers and dozens of different vintages, with pricing that is at some points expectantly overpriced, and others surprisingly underpriced. Was Jim Lark, owner (along with his wife Mary), the Maitre Sommelier Vins de France and the mastermind behind the masterpiece, getting careless, or is it simply a matter of him having purchased a number of cases at a discounted price which are now collecting dust in the extensive cellar? Unfortunately, they’re not sharing that information, but I will recommend you skip over the hundreds of French selections and head straight for our Spanish friends, which seem to have the most conservative pricing (and which would presumably not be a big seller in a French country inn-style restaurant where the clientele mostly believes that the bigger the price tag, the better the wine, and if it isn’t French it isn’t expensive enough).

Okay, so I will offer absolutely no argument whatsoever as to the superiority of The Lark’s wine list. But as for everything else? One would be tempted to believe that in a restaurant that has received such critical adornment, that everything would be nothing short of outstanding. Correct? Well, such is not the case at The Lark. While everything is certainly quite good, none of it is truly great.

First of all, they offer no valet service at the door. Which I’m okay with, as I would have refused the service anyway in lieu of having to tip a valet attendant with the absolutely no cash that I had, but still…what kind of high-end dining establishment doesn’t offer valet? That just seems so…uncouth.

The restaurant is in a converted old home, which makes the dining area rather small and lends to the air of exclusivity that surrounds the place (due to limited spacing and the absence of the “turn and burn” mentality that lower-end restaurants exercise, wannabe-diners often have to make reservations upwards of weeks in advance). The size and the limited capacity is, on the one hand, refreshing—patrons are always very well attended by the staff, and do not have to deal with an overcrowded atmosphere with a constant background din as they try to enjoy their dining experience. This is nice, absolutely. However, if the dining area were twice the size it would still be manageably small, but The Lark would almost entirely lose its air of exclusivity as a table would no longer be quite so difficult to procure—which is yet another myth of The Lark I’ve regrettably debunked.

The menu is prix fixe , with a handful of a la carte additional appetizer options (namely oysters and caviar). You will begin with a carte blanche selection of cold appetizers from the hors d’oeuvres trolley. This trolley service is something you certainly don’t see frequently in other restaurants (or the standard prix fixe menu, for that matter). And while it is certainly a nice touch, adding to the French country inn charm, it is a bit off-putting when your selections are slopped together on a small appetizer plate. As for the hors d’oeuvres themselves…well, suffice it to say I was not bowled over. Some standard pasta salads, a cold curried duck (which was good, but not great), and jumbo shrimp cocktail comprised the selections. And all I could picture is the meat counter at most delis where they have the various pre-made salads and dips. That’s probably not what a highly acclaimed French country inn wants their patrons to be comparing their food to. That’s just my guess, anyway.

The second course is your choice of soup, salad, or hot appetizer. I chose Le Salade a la Provençcale, which featured heirloom tomatoes, summer greens, grilled asparagus and Fourme d’Ambret cheese with a fig vinaigrette. Honestly, this salad was probably my favorite part of the meal, with the different elements being perfectly proportioned and the flavors perfectly balanced. The scallops with the acidic yellow tomato reduction were the hot appetizer selection for the day, and these were also good. But not great. And frankly, scallops are almost always consistently good, wherever one might have them—the little buggers are pretty difficult to do wrong by. And while I’ve had endless experiences with good scallops, I’ve had few truly phenomenal experiences—black-trumpeter-encrusted day boat sea scallops from Northern Lakes; sea scallops bathed in truffle oil at Bacco—and at this particular establishment, I would have thought this would have been another memorable experience to add to the short list. It was not.

Following the second course, once again in very traditional French service style, a palate cleanser, a granita (Italian ice) flavored with cassis, was served. And again, the palate cleanser course is one that is not often found in most dining establishments (even the finer ones), so the nod towards French tradition is certainly appreciated here.

For the main entrée, I sampled the Veal Medallions with King Crab and Roasted Herb Gnocchi with Red Currant & Cassis Sauces. This was good. Very good. But not great. The tart yet sweet red currant and cassis sauces worked very well with the veal, though the gnocchi seemed a bit out of place here. But it was still very good. Just not great. However, the Rack of Lamb Genghis Khan, served with Dauphinois Potatoes and Glazed Carrots, was admittedly phenomenal. The Lark’s Rack of Lamb Genghis Khan is legendary, and they have been serving them numbered for about 20 years now. Ours was #63604, according to the kitschy recipe card given as a gift after ordering it. If this dish is The Lark’s claim to fame, then it is worthy of that title, and is almost worthy of justifying their great epicurean myth. Almost.

Up to this point, I found myself not quite yet disappointed but very much unimpressed by the offerings. Certainly by comparison The Lark is still one of the better restaurants in the Metro Detroit area, and the food they serve is certainly quite good. Newly appointed Chef de Cuisine John Somerville has certainly concocted a creative menu which utilizes a number of different, fresh area ingredients and introduces influences from various different cultural cuisines, all prepared with traditional French cooking techniques. But given all the accolades and general build-up, I found that The Lark failed to meet such high expectations.

The savior could have been the dessert cart. It was not.

The dessert tray offers a carte blanche selection of fresh fruits (including the somewhat rare red currant), tortes and cakes and pies and truffles. Sweets for the sweet, to be sure, but not exactly my cup of tea. Or, to be more specific, my plate of cheese, as I would have it. There was nothing particularly outstanding about the tortes and cakes and pies. The house-made dark chocolate truffles were quite good, but nothing one would not be able to find at a fine chocolatier. Shocked at the absence of any assiette de fromage at a European country inn, I felt compelled to ask the maitre’d about it. Apparently they previously offered a selection of fine artisanal cheeses, but were forced to dispose of such great quantities of expensive fromage due to infrequent orders that they decided to part with the concept of the cheese plate. This is criminal. Criminal, I tell you. I find this incredibly unfortunate (probably moreso than most people would), and a poor decision on their part (it would seem a number of other area restaurants have worked out this problem just fine). Some candies were our parting gifts, and despite all the sweets, I was soured on the experience.

The service was certainly top-notch, and worthy of the southern European country traditions Jim and Mary Lark have modeled their establishment after. Extremely attentive (though, by European 5-star service standards, perhaps a bit too casual and conversational), with a number of different staff members constantly in attendance around the table to cater to every special request and sullied plate, we certainly were never in want of an unattended need or unanswered question. And with the prix fixe menu, diners may request additional portions of any entrée (except the Rack of Lamb and Soft Shell Crab) provided it is timely and practical—an added element in client-focused service that certainly makes The Lark unique. The décor screams old-world European country, with a great deal of oak furniture and floral-patterned wallpaper and upholstery. A wall of windows open up to the extensive gardens, which are maintained by Mary Lark with daughter Adrian and are really quite beautiful to gaze out at. Overall, the dining experience is a good one, but not a great one. And with this kind of notoriety, it should be great. And so the myth of The Lark is debunked.

The Lark. 6430 Farmington Rd., West Bloomfield. 248.661.4466.
Prices: Prix Fixe Menu $65.00-$79.00. Dessert tray $9.50 per person.
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, dinner only.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sweet Lorraine's: More Than a Mom and Pop Op

I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical about Sweet Lorraine’s before going in. I cheated a little by perusing the menu online first, and found the selections there to be, well…let’s just say I wrote a little blurb about it before I even went: “One glance at the menu will make your eyes water with uninspired, regionally random and ambiguous dishes. A dab of Creole, a splash of Michigander, and all-around generic.” And while I will still insist on my initial diagnosis of a lack of focus in the culinary theme, I was pleasantly surprised that a glorified “mom and pop” establishment such as this would have dishes that were just simply good.

Sweet Lorraine’s in Southfield has been around for 22 years now, with additional locations in Livonia and, most recently, downtown Detroit in the Millender Center (a fourth location in Ann Arbor closed in 2000). Proprietor and Chef Lorraine Platman has done well with her unapologetic appropriations of cuisines from around the world, calling her food “World Beat” and insisting that she likes to pay “just the right amount of attention to the food.” For me, the decidedly undecided culinary theme of the menu was a bit off-putting at first, but it came to grow on me—much like the colorfully outlandish mural covering one whole wall, the loud airport-inspired carpet, or the even more random knick-knacks found upstairs in the loft area (mannequins from the ‘50s adorned in a classic country motif and posed sitting in lawn chairs, an Old West-inspired antique piano with a globe and two blue glass vases on it). Everything about Sweet Lorraine’s screams eclecticism—this is the kind of place a diner either appreciates or adamantly does not.

And the food matches the décor—you’re not really sure what they were shooting for, if indeed they were even shooting for anything in particular, and it might take a little acclimating on your part but eventually, for all its seeming randomness, the randomness becomes a theme all its own and it just seems to work somehow. You’re not sure how, just somehow.

You’ll start off with bread, which is pretty standard for most top- and middle-tier restaurants and is typically not noteworthy. But at Sweet Lorraine’s, instead of getting the usual bread-and-butter or bread-and-oil, you receive a large wedge of salty, peppery house-made focaccia with a dish of spicy marinara sauce for dipping, as well as a bite-sized slightly sweet corn muffin (made with whole corn kernels). Again here I will emphasize the nonexistent regard for regional cuisines (pseudo-Italian meets Southern soul food?), but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t one of the best damned corn muffins and tastiest marinara sauces I’ve ever had.

Now, I personally always appreciate a restaurant that appreciates cheese, so when I saw Gorgonzola Fondue, Gorgonzola Potato Chips, Traverse City Chicken and Gorgonzola Pasta, and not one but two different kinds of baked Brie (one was featured on the “Off the Menu” menu—a list of specials not on the regular menu which is updated and printed daily), I was sold on the place.

The Gorgonzola Fondue is everything it should be: thick and rich. And I mean rich. Gorgonzola is a cheese not to be handled lightly, and can usually be used most effectively as a compliment to a dish as opposed to a focal point. A fondue made entirely of Gorgonzola cheese could be a gamble; it could be so incredibly pungent that, after a few bites, it would become inedible. But this fondue exhibited a nice balance: the strong flavor of the cheese is diluted slightly, making it a smooth, creamy, mild yet flavorful dipping sauce for the soft, salty strips of focaccia served with it.

We also sampled the Five Spice Calamari and the Coconut Shrimp. The shrimp were tasty in their coconut “tempura” (yeah, it was just batter) and tropical marmalade—this is a pretty standard dish, and it was done well at Lorraine’s but is altogether not noteworthy. The Five Spice Calamari, however, was different. Served with three kinds of Asian dipping sauces (peanut, soy, and something else with soy in it), the calamari itself was tasty, but the batter was exceptionally noticeable. To me it seemed heavy and greasy, but my companion insisted on just the opposite—everyone has an opinion. The batter used was something very similar to tempura, though it wasn’t quite that, having a presence and flavor all its own, unlike the more “backseat” (and less noticeable) batter preparations typically used with fried calamari. The dipping sauces actually complimented this style of fried calamari rather well, making this a fresh take on another fairly standard dish.

Upon the enthusiastic recommendation of our server—who was, props to her, incredibly patient as we poured over the “Wines by the Glass” list debating which three to choose for our mix-and-match wine flight—I chose the Diver Maine Scallops “Coco Loco” off the “Off the Menu” selections (the pressure was on: they only had five orders left for the evening and I HAD TO CHOOSE!). The “Coco Loco” preparation is made with coconut milk, lemongrass, and ginger. At first I thought, “Mmmmm…” until it was pointed out to me that this was indeed a heavily Thai-influenced preparation (that’s when the light went on in my head: ginger? lemongrass?), at which point I thought, “Arrgghhh.” I have a, shall we say, “thing” about Asian influences in my seafood dishes. I…hate it. This culinary trend that is spreading like wild Asian-fire through most top- and middle-tier dining establishments is, to me, an assault on the poor dead aquatic creatures whose natural flavors are no longer permitted to stand out on their own in restaurants that feature predominantly American or French cuisine, instead now forced to be drowned in a pool of soy sauce and wasabi with some hoison on the side for dipping. Please, I beg you, restaurateurs across the nation: STOP! Leave the sushi to the Japanese AND LEAVE MY TILAPIA ALONE!

The dish came out: 6 plump, “dry” (as in: not injected with water before cooking so as to look larger than they actually are) sea scallops, pan-seared until carmelized, on a bed of saffron angel hair pasta with lemon wedges, lime wedges, and Alice-in-Wonderland-sized stalks of Michigan asparagus on top. Oh, and an edible purple flower. The scallops were fantastic, as scallops usually are (seriously, it’s hard to make these plump, tasty buttons taste anything but tasty). But, as I suspected, the coconut-milk broth was a bit much for me to take, and the angel hair pasta was so heavily doused in saffron it was completely yellow…not good. The pasta was inedible, but luckily the scallops were enough to satisfy.

On a separate venture I decided to stick with something a little more suited to my tastes, sampling the Traverse City Chicken and Gorgonzola Pasta which had caught my eye previously. Sautéed julienned chicken, dried Michigan cherries, wilted spinach (wilted as a result of warming, not as a result of poor quality), and Lorraine’s own spiced walnuts over Italian bow-tie pasta drenched in a rich gorgonzola cream sauce and then doused with fresh shredded Parmesan (and at Lorraine’s, they actually use a block of Parmesan Reggiano and a hand-grater, which lends much more of a personal touch than the rotary cheese graters used in every other restaurant). Here, the sauce somewhat overwhelms the dish, which was no problem for me having the passion for fromage as I do, but might not suit all diners. The presence of the chicken, cherries, and spiced walnuts (think: that spiced almond cart that’s in every mall and at every fair…YUM) was minimal, and it would probably serve the dish well to simply have MORE of those accents present in it. But the flavors of the dish were very complimentary when all were tasted together, with the exception of the wilted spinach which seemed largely out of place. Overall I was more pleased with this selection than the previous one, but make no mistake, this is a heavy order. You may leave feeling like you just might have torn the lining in your stomach. Especially when you still insist on having dessert. I did this both times I was there, and spent hours thereafter just trying to digest.

The dessert tray is hard to pass up, with mostly traditional dessert offerings that just sound so comfort-food yummy. I (being the boozer that I am) tried the Old-Fashioned Run Cake, another “Off the Menu” item, which is a Bacardi rum-soaked mini bundt cake served with monstrously oversized fresh strawberries (seriously, these things couldn’t be consumed in fewer than three bites), fresh house-made whipped cream, and dulce de leche. The rum cake was moist (especially where the rum pooled on the bottom—YUM!), the caramel sauce was thick and buttery and decadent—everything caramel should be—and the whipped cream was rich and absolutely unsweetened, which is exactly how whipped cream is supposed to be prepared. The caramel and whipped cream were an excellent compliment to the cake, and the monster strawberries were fantastic dipped right in the whipped cream. Another dessert item that Sweet Lorraine’s is known for is the Scottish Bread Pudding Cake, which they refer to as “The Ugly Duckling” and which came to me highly recommended on both visits…so I figured what the hell. And yes, this thing ain’t pretty, but gwaaaghh is it good! Served warm, made with macadamia nuts, raisins, nutmeg, cinnamon, and other spices, slathered in the dulce de leche sauce, and served with a side of that same delicious whipped cream with a drizzle of strawberry sauce, this Ugly Duckling tastes like a swan (and I bet swans taste pretty damned good). This is another heavy item that will hang out in your stomach for hours afterwards, but is totally worth it.

If you visit the website, you’ll find that Sweet Lorraine’s like to tout its Wine Spectator "Award of Excellence" (1994-2003) - winning wine list, with over 100 selections and over 25 wines by the glass—which Lorraine’s also offers in a self-selected mix-and-match wine flight, allowing patrons an autonomy of choice not typically found on most wine lists. And their list is fairly impressive, not large by most standards but certainly reflective of the eclecticism present in all other areas of the restaurant. There are some decent selections of west coast wines, including Washington’s Columbia Valley and Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which are mutually kicking out some killers Pinot Noirs and Merlots that are smartly represented on Lorraine’s list. There are selections from around the world—California, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and even some of our very own Michigan wineries—and Lorraine’s offers a fair amount of variety in vintages (mostly in the American reds) with several bottles represented with more than one vintage. The price points are fair and even moderate in comparison to other trendier wine-focused establishments. But for all the notoriety of the wine list, this is clearly not the kind of place being frequented by the connoisseur. On both trips the servers came by multiple times as we pondered over the wine list making our selections, each time being very friendly about it and not necessarily trying to rush us, but clearly these are servers unaccustomed to clientele that spends a great deal of time deciding on a selection.

Sweet Lorraine’s is certainly the casual, fun environment it announces itself as, though I’m still not sold on the “sophisticated.” This is basically a three-and-a-half-star restaurant with the mentality of a mom-and-pop diner…and that’s not a bad thing. Lorraine’s has definitely found its niche as an eclectic, fun dining experience with consistently good food that appeals to a wide variety of tastes and preferences, and thus a wide variety of clientele. The servers are attentive and friendly, and are certainly not of the stuffy five-star mentality—more like the servers in a local diner always full of regulars who treat you like family. Sweet Lorraine’s definitely has a good thing going for it, and with this kind of wide-range appeal and established long-term success, why change anything?

Sweet Lorraine’s
Locations: Southfield, 248.559.5985; Detroit, 313.223.3933; Livonia, 734.953.7480
Hours: Mon-Thurs: 11:00AM to 10:00PM.; Fri & Sat: 11:00AM to 11:00PM; . Sun 11:00AM-9:30PM. Prices: Soups, salads, and appetizers $4-10; Entrees $14-22

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Zinc: A Jew, a Chaldean, and a Debutante Walk Into a Bar

Zinc is a fabulous place with a fabulous atmosphere that serves fabulous food to fabulous people.

Or at least that's what they want you to think, and for the most part they pull it off.

One thing that cannot be ignored when in Zinc is the clientele--pulling into the parking lot, you find yourself surrounded by brand-new shiny Escalades, H3's, Benzes, Corvettes, and usually one or two exotics (there is a Ferrari dealership right down the road, after all).

Welcome to West Bloomfield, where people have a WHOLE lot of money and they want EVERYONE to know it. The problem is, prior to the introduction of Zinc a little over 3 years ago, they didn't have any taste.

(A very prevalent after-effect of "new money" mentality--and if there is any doubt in your puerile perception that there is indeed a difference between old and new money, all you have to do is spend a day in the Pointes followed by an hour in West Bloomfield. The West Bloomfield folk are all about the bling, concerned only with having the appearance of taste, which in their juvenile understanding of wealth they believe translates into designer labels, expensive cars, gaudy houses and gaudier jewelry.)

Once inside, it is still all about the image, and Zinc caters well to its conceit-conscious crowd. The interior is very trendy, featuring an all-oak bar with a stainless steel top, a well-lit selection of liquors, and cozy round booths (the only problem is the entryway, which is about 2'x2', and isn't very conducive to long wait times). The dining area is open, airy, and bustling, and there are mirrors overhead that really don't seem to serve any purpose but to make the place look larger (although I suppose if the angle is right a guy with a wandering eye could get a nice shot of an unsuspecting woman's mountain tops). The wait staff is always impeccably groomed with the women dressed in that ultra-trendy/borderline-slutty style straight from the cover of Cosmo. Thankfully, I was looking super-cute in my white terrycloth tube-top jumpsuit with white patent leather cork-wedge heels and my Banana Boat bottle tan recently touched up, so I fit right in.

A place like this could easily fall victim to its own aesthetic and focus more on appearance than on substance. But, fortunately for the quality-deprived West Bloomfielders, Zinc raises its own bar by not only offering a chic atmosphere for singles to mingle, but also offering a stellar wine list and phenomenal food.

Zinc opened in early 2004 by Mark and Matthew Brown, the family that also owns the Red Coat Tavern in Royal Oak, a place widely agreed upon by native Detroiters to have the best burger around. They even offer the "Red Coat Burger" on their menu—which is a nice touch of non-pretentiousness, considering this is one of those places that also features Oysters Mignonette, Octopus Provence, and a Chilled Half Lobster on its “Seafood Bar” menu.

There is a killer drink on the menu called the Boysenberry Mojito, and this thing is probably the embodiment of the perfect summer cocktail (despite the fact that the last time I had it was the dead of winter, though I still had no trouble sucking down three). But don't you know, they were OUT of mint on this particular night. Now, I'm not counting it against them this time, it being early spring and them not having any inclination that the drink would be so popular in the warmer weather, but if it happens again I am totally posting a strongly-worded blog about it on my Myspace.

In keeping with the trendy French-brasserie theme of the restaurant, the wine list is predominantly French and French-varietals from New-World regions. There are a few glimmers of Old-World Spain and Italy, and our friends from South America also take a slight bow. The bottle list is priced accordingly, and the markup isn’t terrible. Most bottles run about $50-60, which is pretty standard restaurant pricing for mid-grade French producers. The bottle list is eclectic, and the by-the-glass list offers an impressive range (better than most)—most befitting for a wine bar. There is also a selection of fine European beers available by producers you would be lucky to find in even the savviest of bars—most befitting for a brasserie.

But what really makes Zinc the "brasserie" it claims to be is the menu. Heavy on all things Provençal (and by that I mean. a lot of niçoise olives), the selection is indubitably French—even the menu, printed on what looks like paper bag stock, has a "Parisian" look about, using what I like to refer to as the "Moulin Rouge" font to give it even more of that cafe-in-Paris appeal. I suppose the chintziness of the menu stock would somehow, someway be considered Euro-shabby-chic...because there is nothing that those classy Europeans do that we Americans don't find chic enough to co-opt.

But despite whether you find the menu clever or cheap, the offerings on it are impressive. The menu offers everything from the classic niçoise and Caesar salads to very decadent lobster bisque, from grilled lamb chops with a broken olive tapenade to grilled chicken frites with garlic-saffron aioli and braised Swiss chard, from Apple Tarte Tatin to Crepes Suzette. Pommes Frites (Belgian-style fries) are featured heavily here, being a side dish all its own as well as having its own entrée section (“Plates with Fries”)—these tasty, thin strips of twice-fried potatoes are, as was described by my companion, nothing short of “droolikins.” But what really put me in Zinc’s corner was the Assiette de Fromages—the cheese plate. Anywhere that has a cheese plate is top-notch to me. Here, expect the French basics: brie, camembert, something from Alsace-Lorraine. But it’s still a cheese plate, and it ain’t standard American cheddar block.

At Zinc, a full four-to-five course meal is in order. You will start with salty Italian foccacia (eat it while it’s warm). Then on to the appetizers. The cutely-named Salmon Ménage-`a-Trois was presented as a layered concoction, the first two of which were simple and tasty (the salmon tartare and caviar), the bottom of which was...meh. The problem with the layered presentation is that, when tasted in the layers as intended, the strong flavor of the bottom layer—pastis-smoked salmon with watercress in a lemon-basil oil (it sounds good, but the consistency came off like coleslaw, and I swear I tasted mayo)—overwhelmed the tartare and caviar, so that the simple, pleasurable flavors of these two preparations couldn't be fully enjoyed. And it tasted like salmon coleslaw.

The Escargots de Bourgogne, however, is probably some of the best escargot offered in the Detroit Metro area. Firm without any hint of rubberiness or grittiness, and soaked in the classic preparation of liquid butter with parsley and huge chunks of garlic, this dish is a definite must—and be sure to sop up all that extra garlic butter with the hunk of crusty French bread served on the side.

Though the menu is predominantly French, there are a handful of fusion elements present here, most noticeable in the seafood and foul dishes, which offer the now pervasively-trendy infusion of Asian influences (a trend which I find tiresome, and more than a little irritating—keep the soy sauce out of my brasserie, thankyouverymuch). For your entrée, try the Lamb Osso Buco ("on the bone"). This is a dish typically made with veal, making the lamb a unique Mediterranean spin on a classic Italian-style dish. The lamb was tender and flavorful, with a simple gremolata (a salsa verde made of garlic, parsley, and lemon peel) as its accompaniment, as is the traditional Italian preparation. The saffron "risotto"—and I use quotation marks here because it was really just standard long-grain rice—was superb, creamy with a hint of garlic and without being overly "saffron-y." The side of Swiss chard, a very bitter leafy green, was marinated in lemon, garlic, and parmesan and was a bold complement to the rich lamb (and delicious in forkfuls all on its own). One down side: most establishments offer a marrow scoop—yes, this is an actual item used specifically for the purpose of scooping marrow—with their presentation of Osso Buco. (This is a delicacy—the marrow soaks up all the juices from the meat and amplifies it, condensing the flavor into something even more impacting, and widely agreed upon as being the best part of and perfect finish to Osso Buco.) Zinc did not do this, and we had to ask for (*gasp*) a cocktail fork. This is an epicurean no-no…but most diners would be none the wiser. (Especially in West Bloomfield…oh, snap!)

The dessert offerings are limited and lack any significant creative luster, but they are classic Parisian-style indulgences and Zinc does them well. Try the Chocolate Pot du Créme, which has a consistency somewhere between mousse and custard, and is rich with the slightly bitter flavor of bittersweet chocolate with chunks of bittersweet chocolate smattered on top.

As much as the clientele an establishment such as this draws in come across as being pretentious trend-seekers, Zinc still maintains a slightly more down-to-earth feel (especially on a slower night). The food is fantastic, the offerings carefully selected for their style and the way they enhance the overall impression of the menu, the wine is impressive, the décor appealing…overall, this really is a quality brasserie made popular by its crowd and reputable for its quality. This is the best West Bloomfield has to offer (BESIDES the Lark, DUH), and I mean that in the best possible way. No, really, I do.

zinc brasserie & wine bar. 6745 orchard lake rd. west bloomfield. 248.865.0500
prices. apps, salads, soups, burgers: $7-$13. entrees $16-27.
hours. mon-sat 11am-1.30am (kitchen), 11am-2am (bar). closed sun.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Crush--When You Want to Feel Sophisticated While Hanging Out in Southfield

When I first heard about Crush in Southfield, my knee-jerk reaction was: Southfield? Ew. 13 Mile and Southfield Rd. is not exactly what I would consider the ideal location for a new boutique wine bar that is clearly aiming for ultra-chic. But regardless of my initial prejudice, I had read enough about the place to form a strong desire to at least check it out…after all, we don’t get to see many bonafide wine bars, well, anywhere, so this adventurous new dare-to-be hotspot was at least worth the investigation.

Crush is inside of a big square building, and unless you choose to utilize the complimentary valet service (which, complimentary or not, you’re still expected to tip the guy and I’m cheap…you wouldn’t know if from the monster tab I wracked up there, but I am), you basically have to walk around the entire damned building to get to the entrance.

That’s fine. I won’t allow this to sour me on the experience. It will be mildly irritating when I’m on my way back out with half a bottle of Malbec in me, but it’s fine.

I must admit, the décor of this very square building is aesthetically pleasing—even if it does scream “IKEA.” The theme of the restaurant is red, red, red—plush red high-backed booths, plush red seats, red lighting embedded in the bar in the downstairs lounge. It’s all very…red. Kind of like a va-jay-jay. But I digress. All this plush textured red is offset by the obligatory white tablecloths and dark wood accents. The entire back of the restaurant features a wall-to-wall rectangular mirror in a wide dark wood frame. To the right, there is a giant wall waterfall, like the kind you see in the Sharper Image catalogue only huge. To the left, the dark wood bar (is it oak? It doesn’t look to be quite oaken in quality, more like a cheaper wood that has been stained to look more expensive) with a wall of empty wine bottles stacked and backlit—the green contrast here is the only variation in color, and it looks cool despite the fact that it reminded me of Christmas.

There really wasn’t a whole lot done in the way of renovating the interior of this very square building; the dining area is broken up only by what is probably the most unique touch Crush has to offer: a temperature-controlled wine cellar encased in glass and all brilliant white. If you make nice with the sommelier, she might actually let you pop in there and sample some of the many wines not on the list (it helps to namedrop people you know in the industry). The other unique attribute of Crush is that they allow private wine storage for a minimal monthly fee, and in turn deeply discount their own holdings to the “tenants.”

Yes, Crush is definitely going for that trendy-Manhattan-wine-bar-that-took-a-wrong-turn-and-ended-up-in-the-backwaters-of-Detroit vibe, and they pull it off pretty well. On a Wednesday night, the place was pretty well populated (lots of old people—this is Southfield, after all). Our server was attentive and very much concerned with our satisfaction—like, overly so, to the point that his skittishness started making me nervous for him, so I found myself going out of my way to reassure him that everything was fantastic and we were having a good time.

Nice guy, though. The service industry needs more people like him. Truly.

My overall impression of the interior is that this is a simple place that does simple well. The menu reflects this as well. There aren’t many choices, but there is a nice smattering of different selections for different palettes. We started with the Greece Island Lamb Meatballs, Smoke Salmon & Gorgonzola, and Champagne Garlic Bread.

The meatballs in a minted pesto sauce were tasty but not earth-shattering. The garlic bread, made with a champagne-based garlic butter and baked with a nice crust of parmesan, was some pretty top-notch garlic bread. I mean, garlic bread is kind of hard to screw up, but this was good (hel-lo, Carb City, meet my thighs). Luckily the portions are not unreasonable and I was forced to stop after one slice. And a half. But that was it. I swear.

What DID impress me was the salmon carpaccio, paired with a hunk of gorgonzola cheese, a dollop of sauvignon blanc mustard, and roma basil picchio. I must sheepishly admit as your trusted reviewer, I steered clear of the mustard. I have some mighty adventurous taste buds but just the smell of mustard makes my gaggy reflex jiggle. I did take a little nubbin of a taste, so as to maintain my reviewer credibility, and I will say that if I liked mustard this probably would have been good. Then I almost gagged.

But I once again digress.

The salmon was spread diagonally, covering one-half of the square-shaped plate, with the accompaniments artfully arranged in the other triangle. This was the first show of detailed presentation, and I was impressed. The pairings of the salmon with the gorgonzola and the roma tomatoes with chopped garlic and basil (but NOT the mustard) was a nice fit—the mild salmon and the strong gorgonzola struck a nice balance, complimented by the tomatoes (but NOT the mustard). This was a nice little dish.

Okay, so far, the place is good but not great. Pretty but not astounding. Tasty but not orgasmic (and good food really should be orgasmic). For the entrees, we sampled the Grilled Ocean Prawns and the Chateau Duck Breast. The prawns were good—they were prawns. A bit crunchy on the outside due to the preparation, but good. The veal pot roast ravioli in the Madeira cream sauce served with the prawns was fabulous, very rich without being overpowering. The duck breast was well-prepared in a peppercorn and apple cider demi (warning: it is a tad fatty, because it’s duck, and duck is a tad fatty. Stay away from this dish if you’re skittish about fat), but even better than the duck itself was the duck-fat-soaked risotto with apple chunks. That shit was good.

By now, our waiter has done his fair share of running around for us, checking repeatedly to ensure our contentedness (seriously—I thought that if we for some reason hadn’t been satisfied, he might have had a breakdown in the kitchen). We decide it is high time we go smoke, so we head downstairs into the lounge area, the only place you can smoke in the restaurant (yeah, total bummer, I know). The lounge can be rented out for private parties, which we were ever-so-fortunate enough to witness in the form of 25 cackling middle-aged women celebrating the half-century landmark birthday of one of their own, dancing HOR.RIB.LY. bad to the musical stylings of a signer/DJ who dared perform Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back.” No, you didn’t, honey. No, you didn’t.

This was a quickly smoked cigarette.

So we head back towards our table, our minds still trying to absorb the overall unpleasantness of the scene we just witnessed, and we are told the dessert selections by the waiter who was just ever-so-eager to be able to provide us with this service. After brief deliberation, we opt for the Madagascar Vanilla and Chocolate Crème Brulée and the Chocolate Bodini (soufflé). We then also ask for some espresso to accompany our desserts, which sends the waiter into another flurry of explanation as to why they don’t have espresso but they do offer a nice dark-roast coffee which is very similar. We concede to this.

From what I had read about this place prior to my actual venture out was that THIS is the place to go for wine and desserts. Crush certainly holds the appeal of the boutique wine bar that every wine snob will love—the selections are a bit eclectic, definitely listed with the connoisseur in mind, though still heavy in the Napa presentation which any real wine snob will tell you is not the earmark of a truly impressive and well-thought out list (though, thankfully, it is absent any Kendall Jackson)—take THAT, California! And the wines are reasonably-priced, so for those who want to feel like wine snobs but don’t want to pay for it can still have a pleasurable experience.

And now, for the desserts. With the exception of the salmon carpaccio, very little emphasis had been placed on presentation during the course of the meal (something which some chefs consider to be part of the art). It is with the patisserie that the presentation shines: the crème brulée is served on a granite slab in two separate, staggered deep square cups, surrounded by crème fraîche, one lone pirouette, and a decoratively placed sliced strawberry. The chocolate bodini was served in a shallow soufflé dish, situated on a large square plate with diagonal cuts of chocolate and caramel sauce and small mounds of crème fraîche. After admiring how pretty they both looked, we dug in. The crème brulée was good, though unexceptional (the crème fraîche, however, was fantastic—no sugar added to it, done just the way it would be if you were in Paris). The chocolate bodini started out being fantastic, but as we dug to the bottom we discovered cherries—lots of them, all sunk down to the bottom. The first cherry-infused bite was interesting; the proceeding cherry-ful bites became increasingly less pleasing. This was an otherwise fantastic dessert ruined by a flavor and texture that was too distracting—a chocolate soufflé stands on its own, and rightfully so. There’s a reason this bitch makes you wait.

Overall—well, it’s kind of like dating a model. Sure, it’s pretty, and maybe there are even a few interesting or unique qualities to it. But ultimately there is no real substance, and it is really no different than the others of its kind. Crush is off to a good start, but now it needs to find its niche to keep it enticing. Simple is great, so long as it’s not boring.

30855 Southfield Rd. Southfield. 248-220-1140
Appetizers $7-13 . Entrees $16-26

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Twingo's Euro Cafe

Twingo’s Euro Café on Cass Ave. is an unexpected culinary gem. Eclectic understatement is the raison d’être here, and they do it well. There are great pains taken to ensure that every detail echoes the funky pulse of Detroit.

The exterior of the building is bold and bright, and the crazy logo and nonsense name (seriously? Like the French car?) would make any potential patron wonder if they’re walking into a chic hipster bar, an adventurous fusion restaurant for true foodies, or an offbeat art gallery.

Ay, there’s the rub! Twingo’s is a hodge-podge combination of all three—and, blessed be, it works. The city, and more particularly the outlying Metro area, is not without its share of fine dining establishments (Farmington Hills and West Bloomfield host two of the top-rated restaurants in the country), but Twingo’s succeeds where all others fail: this artful abstraction of “fine dining” is able to capture the spirit of the city. Detroit is a city where high art meets punk aesthetic, with it all flying under the radar—and apparently nestling in this brave hideaway.

The décor upon entering is initially unimpressive (my companion remarked that it looked like a “cafeteria”)—fixtures and floors that have clearly seen better days, even despite the recent renovation. But one sees past this immediately after noticing the extensive art collection on display throughout the restaurant—all of which an interested patron can purchase, and Twingo’s even offers a “Featured Artists” brochure for the curious. The interior is bright, full of color, and spacious—and the upper loft is an ideal spot for hosting a medium-sized gathering. The ambience is always fun and a bit eccentric; the music selection (in one evening) can range from reggae to funk to disco, with the night closing out with Prince’s Hits. The waitstaff, too, is always highly professional and attentive but all share that common urban hipster “look,” giving them a slightly different appeal than the unflappably formal suit-and-tie servers of other five-star establishments.

And then there’s the food—ah, the food. In keeping with the already-established visual eclecticism of the restaurant, the menu is also a pastiche of a number of different culinary styles, influences and preparations. There is definitely a heavy French influence here, with some flairs of Spain and Italy, and some that are pure unadulterated Detroit. The menu is deceptively small and simple, but the selections are full of complex flavors and textures, pairings that seem odd or unlikely but that mesh better than good old peanut butter and jelly.

For starters, try the Belgium Ale Steamed Mussels, made with chorizo sausage, shallots, garlic, orange zest and rye croutons. The spiciness of the sausage provides a nice compliment to the natural flavor of the mussels, while the rye croutons provide a balancing crunchy texture to the tender mussels. And the mussels are clearly very fresh, or at least prepared very carefully, because there is no evidence of sand or grit in these (an accomplishment in itself). Also sample the Wild Mushroom Crepes. Again, the key here is in the compliments of flavors and textures—the wild mushrooms, very strong in flavor and with the typical soft texture of cooked mushrooms, are nicely balanced by crunchy asparagus, which also provides a nice bitter contrast in flavor to the mushrooms. Chevre cheese is yet another strong flavor present in this dish, but the three flavors don’t so much conflict or compete as compliment. This dish is artfully pulled together by the sole sweet flavor of strawberry-rhubarb vinaigrette, which balances out the strong, bitter flavors of the crepes themselves.

There is an impressive selection of salads available, and they all go far beyond your basic iceberg. For something a little adventurous (and hey, when in Rome…), try the Arugula Salad. A bed of arugula leaves is topped with sliced almonds, pears, a healthy share of manchego cheese (a sheep’s milk cheese from the La Mancha region of Spain, that is criminally underused in American cuisine), balsamic vinaigrette, with an overlay of crisped prosciutto ham that literally breaks like the carmelized sugar crust of crème brûlée. This is, quite possibly, the best salad I have ever had in my entire life.

For your entrée, order the Grilled Flat Iron Steak au Poivre. This is pure French fare—“au Poivre” is a very common French preparation for strip steak, in which the steak is coated in cracked peppercorn and seared, and is usually served with a reduction sauce or demi-glace. At Twingo’s, there is an accompanying wine-reduction sauce and gorgonzola butter. Butter. Flavored with gorgonzola. Just when you thought butter couldn’t get any better (by the way, garlic, thanks for that), someone put gorgonzola cheese in it! The gorgonzola butter pairs so well with the peppercorn steak and sauce that I was forced to ask for an additional side of it…okay, maybe it was overkill, but this dish captures the essence of this restaurant—deceptively simple, yet full of underlying complexities and a character unique unto itself. And, much like the French would do, the steak is served with pommes frites (but, refreshingly, on the menu they are simply referred to as “French fries”). Also be sure to listen to the specials for the evening—the chicken and sun-dried tomato ravioli with spinach and pine nuts in a parmesan cream sauce was also spectacular. Clearly the masterminds behind the dishes here have a passion for cheese—and this is something I can appreciate.

But don’t forget to save some room for dessert! The offerings here are also highly impressive. Try the bittersweet chocolate panna-cotta, made with cola-soaked cherries, chantilly cream, and…pop rocks. Yes, the candy. The panna-cotta is smooth and the tart cola-cherries are a bold contrast to the chocolate and cream. The odd choice of pop rocks provides an effervescence to the smoothness of the panna-cotta, making an otherwise simple dish crackle. Also try the semifreddo—“semifreddo” is an Italian term meaning “half-cold,” and is used to refer to any partially frozen dessert. Here it is silky smooth ice cream paired with crunchy chocolate doughnuts with sugary crusts and bold, tart raspberry coulis. Again, the pairings of bold flavors and complimentary textures are remarkably well-orchestrated, and even the smallest detail is critical to the dish as a complete work of palatable art.

For those of you who care to imbibe in some wine or champagne as you enjoy your meal, the wine list offered by Twingo’s, with suggestions from Simply Wine, is just as deceptively simple as the menu, but with some truly unique offerings. It is not a large list, but the selections offer a nice range of Spanish and French producers alongside the more typical California fare. Bordeaux, South America, Italy, and the Rioja region of Spain all share space on this list, along with the cutely-named “Mawby Sex” and “Baby Pop” champagnes. The attention to detail is evident here, as there is an obvious variation in the list to have many options for food pairings, with options from around the world not found on a common wine list. The focus is more on quality than quantity. And the price is incredibly reasonable, with about 90% of the list priced below $30.00.

And at the end of your meal, be sure to enjoy an authentic Italian espresso (a great compliment to the dessert selection)—this isn’t your standard Starbucks doppio machiatto; this is pure Euro, and a terrific end note for this fun, off-beat, and wholly impressive Euro Café.

Twingo’s Euro Café . 4710 Cass Ave . Detroit, MI 48201 . p 313-832-2959 .
hours . restaurant . Sun-Th 11a-10p, Fri 11a-midnight, Sat 5p-midnight . bar . Sun-Th 11a-midnight, Fri 11a-2a, Sat 5p-2a
prices . apps, salads, sandwiches $4-10 . entrees $17-22 .