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 .