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.