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 .