Saturday, January 31, 2009

Angelina Italian Bistro: The Perfect Eye-talian Place for Detroit

As much as I'd love to take credit for that clever little pronunciation pun, I must dutifully concede credit to Supergay Detroit. When Angelina Italian Bistro opened a mere three months ago, amidst a flurry a local buzzers buzzing, I quite frankly didn't know what to expect. I feared another lackluster "Eye"-talian joint with overpriced, mediocre food in an overly trendy, overly self-important atmosphere. Then I ran into Supergay at the Park Bar one night in October, and he raved about it, calling it an "Eye-talian place for Detroit hipsters."

Though I personally would have replaced the term "hipster" (see: shaggy hair, skinny jeans, Converse shoes, always at the Magic Stick) with "scenester" (your everyday semi-affluent+ Detroit know-it-all; spends a lot of time at Park Bar and Proof), the message was the same: I needed to check out Angelina.

And so I did. Once. Twice. Again and again. I liked it so much I spent New Year's Eve there. I returned again for a 50-person supper club last week. I've become familiar with one of the owners, Tom Agosta, as well as servers Vince (whom I knew from Enoteca and Atlas Global Bistro) and Remi (who had an uncanny recollection from a time I went there for lunch back in November). I don't simply enjoy the place; it has become my new favorite Detroit restaurant, not only for the food and drink but for the ambiance and hospitality.

Occupying the space that was once the old Madison Theatre in Grand Circus Park, the restaurant is not only in a prime location in the cultural center of the city, but it is also a rather nostalgic place for many of its patrons who remember seeing films in the old theatre before it closed its doors in 1984 (I've heard stories of first dates and first cinema experiences from a number of fellow diners happily reminiscing). The space sat empty for many years but, after some by-no-means minor difficulties, the current owners were able to secure this prime property and transformed it into the casually chic, inviting dining spot in the epicenter of Detroit's social scene. All that remains of the Madison Theatre is the marquis, which now boasts the name "Angelina." And Detroit should be happy to have it.

Even in these trying economic times, there have been no shortages of restaurants opening in the city recently. Each offer their own unique vision and flair, but not all of them really nail the essence of Detroit. Some are truly great, and would be truly great perhaps in another city in another state (Spa 19 24 Grille comes to mind here), or maybe just at another time. But where many of these new places miss the mark, Angelina Italian Bistro gets it right on all counts.

After speaking a little about the business with co-owner Agosta, I learned more about the concept behind the restaurant. Partners Tom and Mike both come from families with grandparents hailing from the Old Country--Sicily, in this case. Both grew up with Grandma in the kitchen making fresh pastas and sauces on a daily basis, and both wanted to bring a little of that home-cooked, authentic Mediterranean flavor to their own restaurant after decades of studying and working in other establishments. Between them they have millions of dollars in restaurant experience, but this is a first venture for both.

They wanted to create a place that would suit Detroit--a place that offers excellent food at reasonable prices in a comfortable atmosphere, where they could share their vision and their skills in a way Detroiters could appreciate. The décor is pure Detroit, with exposed brick walls, exposed airducts in the ceiling, and one wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. It's got that trendy urban loft feel tempered by a spacious, glossy wood bar and soft, warm lighting. And when you do stop by, make sure you ask about the pièce de résistance hanging in the corner, a boldly-colored sculpture of handblown glass.

What Mike and Tom ultimately created was a restaurant that is the right place at the right time for Detroit. Since the day it opened it has attracted crowds of theatre-goers and Detroit social scenesters alike, and it is often crowded to near-capacity around game times, concerts, and other downtown events. It's also in the best location imaginable, being centrally located to all the sports arenas, theatres, concert venues, and other bars and highly visible from Woodward Avenue. The look, the location, the vibe, and the crowd is all right...and so is the food.

Specializing in southern Italian cuisine with a Mediterranean flair, Executive Chef Joel Vassallo has created a menu which highlights the various flavors of the proprietors' families' homeland. Sicilian cuisine is a bit different from the traditional understanding of "Italian" food, and exhibits traces of all of the various cultures that have established roots on the island. It is as much influenced by the mainland as it is by the nearby Greek islands and Arab countries, and thus is also heavy on use of chick peas, kalamata olives, fresh fish, pine nuts, and couscous (all ingredients that appear regularly throughout Angelina's menu). And so it is you'll begin your meal with a generous portion of warm sourdough bread with accompaniments of olive oil, sweet cream butter, and Italian white bean "hummous."

As I've already stated, I've been here a few times, and with each visit I find a new dish to fall in love with. Where do I start? Perhaps with the starters.

The Antipasti menu is a selection of house-smoked and house-cured fish and meats, as well as marinated and pickled vegetables, all served with marinated olives, arugula, whole grain mustard and Pecorino Romano. This is a solid start to any authentic Italian meal, echoing the experience of being served in a small Sicilian eatery in which they don't even allow you menus.

The "Tasting Plates" offer a more common understanding of a four-course meal, with appetizers that speak towards more American appetites. The Bruschetta Trio--with classic tomato basil as well as marinated Portabella mushrooms and toasted chick peas--is a nice sampling of different flavors which represent well the different culinary traditions that inform the menu. There are three different appetizer pizzas to choose from (enough for a meal for one or to share with a group), including the Braised Pork Shoulder Pizza with mushrooms, arugula, and Parmesan Reggiano with classic sauce that I just simply could not resist on my first visit. The pork was tender, the pizza dough itself crispy and cracker-like, which is more similar to the pizza one would find throughout all regions of Italy than the pizza one finds in America.

The Kalamata Pizza, made with kalamata olive tapenade, tomatoes, caramelized onion, and blended cheese is a perfect balance of highly salty and slightly sweet. The real standout here, though, is the Crispy Calamari--calamari steaks cut into strips and lightly breaded and fried, served with a "Carmelo" dipping sauce. The calamari is seasoned to absolute perfection, each bite filled with flavor, which the champagne butter sauce only enhances. I must say, without hesitation, that this is simply the best calamari I've ever tasted, and would recommend this as a must for anyone who dines here.

Angelina offers a variety of soups, salads, and sandwiches (lunch only), though all entrees are served with their House Salad, which consists of simple organic field greens, red onions, toasted pine nuts, gorgonzola, and herb vinaigrette dressing. The salad is light and flavorful, a nice second course to ramp up your appetite for the main event. On a casual lunch trip, I found the Italian Panini--made with salami, coppa, mortadella, pepperonata, and buffalo mozzarella--extremely heavy, and would recommend to other lunch diners they stick with the lunch portion of Angelina's house-made fresh pastas.

Pasta--Italian cuisine is nothing without it. The house-made pastas are made fresh from scratch daily in the kitchen--nothing is ever from a box or frozen. The freshness is most obvious is the shapes of the pastas themselves--perhaps a little bumpy, not quite fully even or consistent in shape, the tell-tale signs of a true homemade pasta. The pasta is always prepared to perfection, with a flawless balance of tender yet firm noodles expertly complimented with simple, flavorful homemade sauces and choice ingredients. The classic Parppardelle Bolognese, made with classic meat sauce and Parmesan Reggiano, is a deceptively simple dish that explodes with well-balanced flavor. The pasta here also has its chance to shine, decorated only with a richly flavored meat sauce and cheese accents. It might be the most "boring," but it's my hands-down favorite.

The Little Neck Clam and Linguine is also a fine choice, made with a light olive oil and garlic sauce, pancetta, mushrooms, spinach, and clams in-shell. The clams are cooked well and blessedly free of grit, but again--it is the pasta that shines here, and the strips of salty pancetta add a nice contrast to the bitterness of the clams and spinach and the otherwise mild sauce.

The Roasted Butternut Squash Ravioli is soft and pillowy, slightly sweet with a buttery sauce accented with Amaretto, toasted almonds, and rapini.

On another trip I decided to be a little more daring and sampled the Carmelized Onion and Gorgonzola Strucolo I had been eyeing. Served with potato hash, wild mushroom, and grilled fennel and cooked into a crisp, flaky phylo dough, I quickly remembered that I don't much care for onions and realized that a dish with predominant onion flavor might not be the one for me. The cubed potaotes lightly fried in olive oil with garlic in parsley were delicious, though; I wouldn't mind an order of just these for breakfast.

I rarely save room for dessert, but I have sampled several of those at Angelina. The Tiramisu--espresso-soaked ladyfingers with mascarpone and cocoa--is classic, though not breaking any new ground. The Apple Tart, with Michigan apples and calvados caramel sauce served with vanilla ice cream, is another classic and done well here, though again, not earth-shattering. A new menu item which just debuted last week is the Cheesecake (made with half ricotta and half cream cheese) in an Orange Anisette sauce, and though the cheesecake was perfectly creamy and decadent, the anisette sauce (with slight hints of black licorice) killed it for me. The Spiced Pumpkin Bread Pudding, made with pumpkin custard and crème anglais, is absolutely wonderful. It is moist and rich, full of comforting autumnal spices like cinammon and nutmeg and cardamon, and the generous dollop of crème anglais is a cold and creamy contrast to the warm and spicy bread pudding it tops.

The wine list at Angelina is modest yet full of handsome choices from all over Italy, Argentina, and even a smattering of Michigan, with most priced very affordably at $35.00 and below (the Solterra Carmenere Reserve is a value at $6.00/glass and $21.00/bottle). They also offer a wide selection of Detroit-brewed craft beers on tap, and carry my very own favorite Young's Double Chocolate Stout by the bottle. The teeny-tiny martini list is a wallop of creative cocktailing: the Guiness Espress Martini is my new favorite drink of choice, made with triple espresso vodka, sweet vanilla, and Guiness, and tastes like heaven in a glass. The GreenTeani tastes like a slightly sweet alcoholic green tea, and no more can be said about that.

Have I tempted your tastebuds yet? Angelina is a perfect destination, whether it be for a night out with friends, cocktails after work, dinner with a date, or drinks before a show. It has the best of everything you could possibly desire in a Detroit dining destination, including location, location, location. I cannot possibly recommend it enough or emphasize just how much I feel that this is the ideal spot for Detroit right here, right now. Service with a smile, friendly and inviting, stylish and contemporary, and with incredible food, Angelina Italian Bistro is The One. The rest are simply what remains.

Angelina Italian Bistro is located at 1565 Broadway, 313-962-1355. Hours: Tues.-Thurs. 11:00AM-10:00PM; Fri.-Sat. 11:00AM-midnight; Sun. 11:00AM-8:00PM; closed Mondays.

Love at First Taste: Taste Pizzabar

After a friends and family test-run last weekend and three years in the making with planning and development, Taste Pizzabar officially opened for business this past Monday, and the buzz so far is something most new business owners could only dream of.

I stopped in for a bite on Friday because (a) I love pizza, and (b) I love new places, and what I found was a gourmet pizzeria with a menu full of comfort food in a comfortable, loungey atmosphere condusive to just hanging out and meeting people.

And this is really the whole basis of the concept behind Taste Pizzabar: Executive Chef and co-owner Dale Daniels chatted with us for a bit and told us some history on the genesis of Taste. His background is in baking, and though he took what he calls a "backwards route" to get to where he is today he finally ended up back in the kitchen after a stint in the business world, and this is when he fell in love with dough. Daniels has a passion for making and perfecting dough, which by default led to a passion for pizza (as the dough--as any good pizza fan knows--is not just the base but also the single most important component of a good pizza). Daniels wanted to create a lounge-like space that is trendy but also welcoming, where people can come to socialize. The history of pizza is very much about people coming together to share a few slices and socialize, and this idea was the launch pad for Taste.

General Manager Will also came and chatted for a bit, and told us a little more about the venue and his own vision. Taking Daniels's idea for a friendly yet trendy space to socialize, Will (a techno-head and DJ himself) wanted to also make it very Detroit. He insisted on playing house music over the speakers, and they also have DJ Seoul spinning in the lounge during dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. The décor is very Detroit loft: exposed brick walls, exposed pipes and airducts in the ceiling, large windows running along one wall with a view of the nearby People Mover, airy and spacious and very chill. The lounge and restaurant areas are all decorated in warm tones, from the dark wood tables to the deep red carpets. The lounge area has high-backed chocolate leather booths accented with candlelight. Will refers to it all as a "work in progress," though you'd never think it to just walk in.

So the atmosphere was all right, now how about the food?

The taste of Taste is equally on-point. From the Starters menu, which has comfort food classics like Tater Tot--tossed in garlic butter and parsley and sprinkled with parmesan--and "Wanys," spicy pickles dipped in seasoned batter and deep-fried. You can also order shrimp and chicken wings tossed in their own housemade BBQ sauce, or Veggie Spring Rolls if you want to start a little lighter.

Taste also offers a nice selection of salads and paninis, including the standout "Taste Salad"--mixed greens, red onions, tomatoes, cucumber and smoked mozzarella with a blueberry pomegranate vinaigrette. The Bella panini also sounds like a quick favorite, a gourmet version of the classic club sandwich with smoked turkey, apple wood smoked bacon, smoked mozzarella, lettuce, tomato, and "Taste sauce." Paninis are also served with a side of Tater Tots.

But Taste isn't called "pizzabar" for nothing: they've got 17 different kinds of specialty pizzas, along with 7 meats, 6 cheeses, and 11 "accessories" for you to build your own. All pizzas are made as 10'' personal pies, enough to fill one hungry person or two snacky people. Specialty pizzas range in price from $8.99-$12.99, with the most expensive (and decadent) being the "Ocean 21," made with scallops, lobster, and shrimp with a white sauce, roasted red peppers, garlic, grilled onions, and smoked mozzarella for $21.00. It's Detroit's answer to New York's infamous "Luxury Pizza" at Nino's Bellisima Pizza which sells for $1,000/pie ($125.00/slice). I say leave the caviar, take the lobster.

After tossing around such selections as the "Royale with Cheese" (a classic pepperoni pizza made with imported Italian pepperoni and creamy mozzarella cheese), the "Mona Lisa" (a white-sauce pizza with spinach, grilled chicken breast, roasted red peppers, sweet onions, roasted garlic and smoked mozzarella), and the "Detroit Red" (housemade BBQ sauce with chicken breast, crisp red onions, yellow peppers and premium Dutch Beemster cheese and fresh cilantro), I ultimately opted for my four-cheese comfort zone, the Bianco. Described on the menu as "Cheese lovers say it's the cheesiest!", I didn't even need to read on to where it said "our perfect crust sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil then topped with mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano, smoked mozzarella, goat cheese and oven roasted garlic" to know that this was the pie for me. My fellow cheesehead server Nate confirmed my opinion, and Chef Dale told me that it took him a "long time" to perfect it and hoped that I would enjoy it.

Oh, I did. I DID. Cheese + Roasted Garlic x Perfect Crust = love at first Taste. The different cheeses melded together nicely for a consistently sharp, tangy flavor (oftentimes four-cheese pizzas will not be blended well, and pizzerias often like to present goat cheese and fontina as gobby dollops which, when bitten into, are usually gobby overkill on the tastebuds), the roasted garlic scented the whole pizza, and the crust was a perfect balance of doughy and firm, chewy and tender.

The dough is really the standout with the pizza at Taste, as well it should be. Dough-making is not just Daniels's specialty, it's his passion, and he makes the dough at Taste fresh daily, getting in at 5:00AM to produce this well-balanced basis for the perfect pizza crust made with organic flour and extra virgin olive oil. He also takes his dough quite seriously--when my lactose-intolerant dining partner asked for a pizza without cheese, Daniels had to deny this request as the crust would burn. He wasn't being a prima donna chef by doing this, either--in fact, the better chefs of the world who take their craft very seriously will not always cater to diners' requests when they feel those requests will in effect "ruin" their final product, which they see as their own art. Daniels exhibited this kind of pride in his own work, and I fully appreciate that.

Right now Taste does not offer an official "list" of wines and beers, but both Dale and Will told me that they will be working with a sommelier to create a list of fine wines at fair prices hand-picked for perfect pairings with their pizzas. There will also be a craft beer list on the way--because gourmet pizza and craft beer were simply born to be together.

Oh, and if you have a sweet tooth you need to satisfy, they've got a Caramel Apple Pie and Brownie Bartell, both a la mode, and you just can't go wrong with Cheesecake Cupcakes.

As if great food in a great atmosphere weren't enough, the hours are the best in the city. Grabbing a bite to eat on your lunch break? Head to Taste for lunch from 11:00AM-2:30PM Monday-Friday, and sample one of their hearty and reasonably-priced lunch specials. Dinner is served until 11:00PM weekly, and they are open until 4:00AM on Fridays and Saturdays so you can get your fill after a night of heavy drinking.

And perhaps you did all that drinking downstairs at Premium Resto Lounge, the nightclub/lounge occupying the space that was formerly Times Square Nightclub, owned by the same partnership that owns Taste. Premium has been open for Saturday old school nights and private parties since late November, but was just celebrating their grand opening last night with DJ Jenny LaFemme and Bruce Cobb on percussion. The space is unlike any other Detroit club, but very much fitting Detroit--a pared-down, understated feel with panels of L.E.D. lights in another exposed brick/exposed pipe loft-like atmosphere, with two DJ booths, two bars, a performance stage, lots of chairs and booths for lounging, and a VIP all-white "Miami Room." Premium is primed to become one of Detroit's best lounges, and Taste will be right behind it (or, rather, above it) with more space for lounging, dining, and socializing late into the night (or, rather, early into the morning).

If last night's crowd was any indication, Taste Pizzabar is already a hit. Filled with people doing exactly what the owners had envisioned--hanging out, dining, socializing--and with a staff in which each and every individual from the hostess to the server to the management and all the way up to the owners all seem personally committed to the success of the restaurant, Taste has everything they need in place to make it in this city. And if lounging and socializing and all the rest doesn't appeal to you, just go for the pizza.

Taste Pizzabar is located at 1431 Times Square, 313-962-8700.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Year of the Ox Celebration at Mon Jin Lau

We're in the midst of the 15-day celebration that is Chinese New Year, and Mon Jin Lau of Troy is celebrating with its own two-day fete.

On Tuesday, February 3rd, you can head to Hour Detroit's "Restaurant of the Year" Mon Jin Lau for a special prix fixe Year of the Ox dinner (see details below), or skip the dinner and head straight for the party on Wednesday, February 4th in conjunction with their weekly "Shanghai Wednesdays."

Tuesday, February 3rd 2009
Chinese New Year Dinner & Entertainment
Multi Course Dinner, Lion Dance, Firecrackers, Magicians, Fortune Tellers, Martial Arts
$89/person including tax/gratuity
Limited seating. All ticket sales are final.

Menu for Chinese New Year (Subject to Change, Call for Vegetarian Options):

First Course
(Trio Tasting)
Glazed Duck Breast - Asian Pear, Pomegranate Balsamic Glaze
Seared Kobe Beef Roll - Shrimp Tempura, Cucumber Topped w/Seared Kobe, Jalapeno, Sweet Miso
Blood Orange Tuna Tartar - Asian Pear, Jalapeno

Second Course
Cucumber Wrapped Baby Field Greens with Jumbo Lump Crab
Tomato Medley, Mango, with Yuzu-Asian Pear Dressing, topped with Crunch Filo and Goat Cheese

Third Course
(Choice Of)
Seafood Noodle Nest - Long Life Lo-Mein Noodle, Shrimp, Scallop, Mussell, Lobster, Black Bean Sauce
Wok Seared Filet - Medallions Wok Fired with King Oyster Mushrooms, Chinese Leeks
Chilean Sea Bass - Soy-Mirin Broth, Three Mushroom Wonton, Pea Shoots
Asian Braised Short Rib - Shitake Mushroom, Baby Bok Choy, Asian Eggplant
Sushi Bento Box - An Array of Sushi Rolls and Chef Special Sashimi

Wednesday, February 4th 2009
Shanghai Wednesdays Celebrates the Chinese New Year
DJ's Tom T & Matt A, featuring Bruce Cobb on Percussions
Lion Dance, Firecrackers, Laughing Buddhas

Free Admission with confirmed Tuesday Dinner Reservation
(Note, Dinner will not be available Wednesday night)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Johnny Rockets No More

The Johnny Rockets location on Woodward at Montcalm has vanished without a trace. While it is unfortunate to see a business go under, especially after a good string of years in the same location, I can't help but feel irregular business hours and an alcohol-free diner-like atmosphere in a heavily sportfan-trafficked area with so-so service to boot might be to blame for the ultimate failure of this franchised location. It is my hope that a more fitting enterprise now take its place in this otherwise prime location.

Even More Good Girls to Love

It's been a fine half a year for Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes! After barely 6 months in business, the crepe stand--located on John R east of Woodward--has expanded its original location to nearly double the size, and plans to open two new locations in the spring: one in the Park Shelton in Detroit's Midtown area, and one in Grosse Pointe Park in the former Moo-Moo's location.

Congratulations to proprietor Toreah on her monumental success!

Spa 1924 Grille Now Open, Possibly Maybe

Well, that took longer than expected and brought less buzz than even I would have anticipated. But the Spa 1924 Grille is now open for business; theoretically it should be open for both lunch and dinner when I hit the "publish post" button, but since there has been no follow-up in the online newspapers or the blogs that I can easily find after about 37 seconds of Internet searching, I conclude it inconclusive.

I wish I could get more behind this venture. I'm just...not. I'd like to be--I'm all about the increase of local fine-dining establishments. It's just that something about this place screams "gimmick," to the point that I've lost all interest in it otherwise. Perhaps I need to just check it out; I mean, "Truffled White Cheddar Mac and Cheese" and "Sweet Potato Brulee" sound incredible, and I'm sure executive chef Jason Gardner is producing amazing dishes. But...yeah, I just can't seem to get hyped about this one. Maybe this also has to do with the glut of new restaurants opening lately? Finn & Porter, Detroit Fish Market, Taste Pizzabar, Roast, Angelina Italian Bistro, Mercury Coffee's a little hard to keep up during these times of economic no-money-having.

Coming in Feburary, the various extensions of Spa 1924 Grille, including the Spa19, the Champagne Bar (featuring more than 30 Moet Hennessy products by the glass or bottle), and the private dining room called the "Plate Room" featuring a display wall of original Book Cadillac china.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Taste Pizza Bar Now Open!

Just barely six months ago South Beach Ultra Lounge, originally called South Beach Pizza Bar, opened inside the Fisher Building. Without hardly any major publicity at all and without benefit of a standard weekly promoter to pull in crowds, the ultra-chic, ultra-refined Miami-style nightclub and gourmet pizzeria is a guaranteed hotspot every weekend, catering to vastly different clientele and popular amongst them all. The pizza is also supposed to be fabulous.

Now, there is Taste Pizza Bar. They just opened for business this past Friday, and--much like South Beach before it--have succeeded in drawing in enough buzz to fill the place without benefit of a promoter, a website, or any publicity whatsoever. I did not dine there yet but I did get a peak inside: on the second floor at 1431 Times Square, Taste Pizza Bar has nailed the trendy lounge look--dimly lit with stylish accent lighting, spacious and sleek, and with one full wall entirely made of windows, the décor is definitely on-point to make this a popular hangout for late-night dining and drinking in a comfortable yet chic lounge atmosphere.

And can I just say, I'm quite fond of this new "pizza-bar-cum-ultra-lounge" trend that Detroit seems to very much be on the forefront of (a trend that, by my best estimations, began in California and has yet to really hit in New York). For a city that is considered so desolate and so "behind" by so many, our nightlife is on par with what any other city might have to offer (just possibly not in the same quantity). The gourmet pizza lounge concept is on the cutting edge of new culinary/nightlife trends--think "sushi lounge" five years ago, a bandwagon which Detroit was also very much on, and from the very start I might add (Crave, Corner Bar, Ignite). Now sushi lounges abound and we're moving on to the next hip trend in high-class-nightlife-meets-reinvented-comfort-food.

All we need now is a restaurant like Beverly Hills' CUT, with gourmet kobe beef sliders, and we're at the forefront of all the trends. But wait--Toast seems to be headed in that direction, with their Sliders made with blue cheese, basil aoili, tomato jam, feta tapenade, sharp cheddar and carmelized onions. California--eat your heart out.

I really like the idea that now we can go to a trendy, chic venue and have food that is actually substantial, aside from picking at sushi rolls and really is there anything less attractive than watching someone eat sushi? It's about time these places started serving REAL food. But the main reason I love this trend: because I. Love. Pizza. And now I love pizza bars.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Four Days of Leftovers from Lefty's Lounge

It was a little after 1:00AM yesterday this morning when I decided I needed pizza. Bad. I had heard about Lefty's Lounge, a sports bar located on Cass in the University District, and that they had some incredible deals on food--good food. Tales of a $6.00 pizza big enough for three people to eat and still have leftovers whispered through my head, and thus my mission to find this cheap, mutant pizza began.

$5.95, to be exact. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday after 5:00PM, Lefty's Lounge offers a giant single-item pizza for only $5.95. Only $0.95 more than a Hot 'N Ready from Little Caesars and about 1,000x more tasty. For $5.50 all day Friday-Sunday you can also get a burger and domestic beer, $0.50 wings, and $2.00 domestic drafts. Every day of the week they've got awesome food and drink specials, and they offer free Wi-Fi in addition to their 14 big-screen TVs (if you're into that whole "sports" thing). They've got a full menu of classic bar food including daily soups and salads, and all of it is cheap and pretty damn good.

I don't often have need for a sports bar but I do often have need for cheap, tasty pizza; Lefty's Lounge is my new favorite spot for this and other greasy-good bar food. So how was the pizza, you ask? I burned my mouth eating it because I gorged myself on it so hastily. And I have enough leftover for lunch and dinner today and lunch tomorrow. Crust--chewy. Cheese--gooey. Pepperoni--crispy. Sauce--spicy. Overall--good.

Plus, the deep-fryer and pizza oven is open 'til close--perfect for the after-bar munchies. Because some days are foie gras days, and some days aren't.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Irony at the Red Coat Tavern

I love the Red Coat Tavern. Always have. There's just something so terribly precious about it ("precious" as in "gimmicky"), but it's also a damn good place to get a beer and burger.

After nearly 40 years in business and opening sister restaurant Zinc Brasserie in West Bloomfield in 2004 (which has been voted to have the "Best Brasserie Burger" by the Free Press), Red Coat is still one of the most popular casual restaurants in Oakland County, always packed with a line at the door, and still sporting the same Olde Tyme décor as it has for...well, ever. Dark and dingy and fabulous, the red lights and plaid carpet are garish but make the place what it is. This isn't a trendy lounge atmosphere (unlike sister restaurant Zinc); it's a place to get some authentic, high-quality tavern-style grub.

The beer list is one of the best in the area (in my immediate mind, second only to the Berkley Front and Cadieux Cafe), featuring labels from the UK, Scotland, Brazil, and Belgium. This is where I first discovered Delerium Nocturnum, a strong Belgian brown ale, and I've stuck with it ever since.

And while the many other offerings on the menu are noteworthy--including traditional Euro-style dishes such as English Prime Rib with Yorkshire pudding and Scottish smoked salmon, as well as two different kinds of Clam Chowder and a hearty French Onion Soup--at the end of the day, this is a burger joint. Choose from 5 different breads (like onion rolls and pumpernickel), 8 different cheeses (like Muenster and Smoked Gouda), 20 different toppings (like burnt onions and avocado), and a variety of cuts to create your own ground beef masterpiece. Red Coat is also the only restaurant in Michigan to offer the very lean Piedmontese beef, clocking in with fewer fat grams than chicken or salmon (only 2 grams of fat per serving). The leanness gives it a little less flavor, but you can make up for that as I did by adding on a thick slice of Smoked Gouda and what must have been a 1/4 lb. of crumbled Bleu Cheese.

And that's where the irony comes in: order the lowest-fat meat on the menu, then slather it in high-cholesterol, high-fat cheeses. And it was goooooooood.

Red Coat Tavern is eclectic; you know when you first walk in and see the shaky statue of the British Red Coat and are told that it will be at least a 30-minute wait for a table, then see rich old people and trendy young people scarfing down their infamous burgers in the antiquated (that's a nice way of saying old and dingy) dining room, that this isn't going to be your average dining experience. It is creative and adventurous and just plain tasty, without all the bells and whistles of other restaurants that go for image over quality.

They also serve food until almost 2:00AM, which makes it the perfect place to hit after the bar.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Slice of Life and Cheesecake at SPICE

There was recently an article in the Detroit Free Press about Charles Walker, Jr., owner of the recently-opened SPICE Restaurant located at 18354 Fenkell at Grand River. I typically don't go for the sob-story School of Hard Knocks type of journalism, but when that "school" is actually the Culinary Institute of America my interest is much more readily piqued.

SPICE is a pretty standard Detroit diner; they pull a large carry-out business and offer such popular neighborhood fare as fried fish and chicken, house-smoked chicken and ribs, burgers, fries, salads, and a much-touted cheesecake. It's a soul food spot with a CIA designation, and an owner who truly had to overcome a number of difficult personal obstacles in order to realize his dream.

A diner with a chef who trained at the CIA? I'll stand behind two sheets of bulletproof plexiglass for that. Read the full article here; during a time when there is so much negativity in the news (well, moreso than usual, and in regards to Detroit especially), it's refreshing to hear such an uplifting story. And now I really want that cheesecake.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New Businesses Open, Opening, Re-Opening

Now open: The Fort Shelby Doubletree Suites. Another salvaged historic hotel, significantly less buzz. This guy likes it. With this new hotel comes a new restaurant, Finn & Porter, which offers contemporary surf & turf as well as a sushi bar and the trendy "Round Bar Lounge" (it's a bar that's round; Park Bar regulars are familiar).

Now open: The Next Level Martini Bar & Grill, a new martini bar on Larned across from Opus One. Will it or won't it? Well, considering the only website I've seen any talk of it so far has been, well, mine, it's not looking very hopeful for this place to beat out those 95-in-5 odds (95% of new businesses fail within 5 years). But it might be pretty cool; do try to check it out.

Re-Opening: Bookie's Tavern. They had to move out of the Book Building--'cuz, you know, it's getting repoed or condemned or abandoned or something--so know they are relocating to Cass at Columbia by the long-ago-abandoned Chin Tiki. Which means: more annoying sports people in even closer proximity to Fox Town. They will be reopening in February. Local boozehounds breathe a sigh of relief.

Almost Open But Not Quite: The new kitchen inside Cliff Bells. Personally, I can't wait to see what kind of menu they create for one of the coolest venues in Detroit. I pray it extends beyond classic bar fare and goes for more of a hip, jazzy jazz club vibe. I don't really know what that means, either, but maybe they do.

That's it for now. Toodles.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Majestic Cafe Offers Recession-Buster Sundays

I remember a conversation I had with "Papa" Joe Zainea a while back...this was summer of 2007, when the economy was certainly shaky but not nearly on the level it is today. He told me that the secret to the Majestic Theatre Complex staying in business over 60 years has been their ability to adapt to changing times.

As it is, the 5-part (6, if you count the new Alley Deck attached to the upstairs Magic Stick) business caters to a multitude of tastes--bistro-style dining in the Cafe-cum-art-gallery, bowling in the historic Garden Bowl, indie rock upstairs, arty rock in the Theatre, pizza by the slice at the Sgt. Pepperoni's counter, and 5 different bars to whet your whistle at--making it Detroit's one and only entertainment complex and one of the biggest promoters of Detroit artists, musicians, and non-profit events (their logo appears as a sponsor for just about every non-profit happening in the city).

But times are once again changing, and the Majestic Cafe is changing with them. They now offer recession-buster Sundays, when diners can buy one entree and receive a second entree of equal or lesser value for free (with coupon). Additionally, the Cafe will now be closed Mondays and Tuesdays through the winter, but on Wednesdays diners can enjoy "Americana night" which features comfort foods like chicken pot pie and meatloaf for only $9.95, and Thursdays bring a complete lobster dinner with sides for less than you'd expect.

You gotta hand it to Papa Joe--after 60 years in business, he knows how to ride out a recession and keep his business ahead of the curve. The coupon is available for download on the Majestic's website, or you can just print this one here:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Oh, Sushi: O Sushi

O Sushi opened their second location in Dearborn last week, and I--never one to miss out on a grand opening of anything--stopped by for a few to check out Dearborn's latest Japanese-inspired offerings.

O Sushi is located at 22431 Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, making in the third sushi restaurant along that half-mile strip of Michigan Ave. (the other two being restaurant-cum-nightclub Crave Lounge and family-friendly area favorite Kabuki Sushi). The original O Sushi location in Canton is popular among locals, but the competition in Dearborn is most certainly fierce.

But their location couldn't be any better: situated in a prominent corner of a building on the edge of the street, drivers immediately see the signage as they pass by. The interior is small and brightly-lit, welcoming to more of a eat-and-run lunch/dinner crowd than the stay-and-socialize crowds drawn in predominantly by Crave and, to a lesser extent, Kabuki.

Apparently their location and quick-serve vibe has done them well--on only their third night of being open, the bustling little restaurant was half-full and there was a constant stream of carry-out orders being placed. Not only do people know they're open; there is also an excitement in scoping out the new sushi joint.

As well there should be. I sampled very little of the menu, but was pleased to find a nice assortment of nigiri and specialty rolls. Sadly, such distinctly non-traditional Japanese ingredients such as cream cheese and jalapeno peppers were found in abundance on the menu (something which always makes me cringe), but O Sushi compensates for these more Americanized tastes by also employing generous use of eel sauce, masago and tobiko (varieties of roe, or fish eggs), kampyo (marinated pumpkin skin), and oshinko (Japanese pickled radish). At O Sushi, East does indeed meet West.

For my first experience at this hopping little Japanese diner (as it would best be described), I tried some hamachi (raw Yellowtail) and the Kiss of Fire roll. The Yellowtail was mild and delicate...the Kiss of Fire was not. Made with tempura shrimp, spicy tuna, avocado, jalapeno pepper, then covered with crunchy tempura flakes and hot sauce on top, this roll was a crackling sensation on the tastebuds...and a little rough on an empty stomach, truth be told. Though far from a "traditional" Japanese roll, with a very obvious American flair, this roll was still a palatable explosion of flavor, with drastically different yet complimentary textures and just enough spiciness to balance the otherwise mild fish and avocado. I enjoyed this roll very much...though my enjoyment was a little bit less an hour later.

Other roll options include all the standards (California Rolls, Tuna, Spicy Tuna, Cucumber, etc.), but also a few surprises. The Mexican Roll is a unique approach to "fusion" cuisine, and the cleverly-named 007, Saturday Night, and White Christmas Rolls are all creative combinations of culturally traditional and borrowed flavors. Michigan even has its own roll, as does Chicago and Philadelphia. And if you like spicy, well...the Devil, Kiss of Fire, Fireball, and Cobra Rolls await you. You can begin your meal with their "Fire Cracker" appetizer, O Sushi's take on cream cheese poppers which include spicy tuna. Prices are standard: $3.95-$9.95 for a regular roll, $9.95-$13.95 for specialty.

Service is still...well, working out the "kinks." My waitress (and the only Caucasian on staff) seemed unsure of herself at every step, in likely part due to her constantly being barked at by the sushi chef and head waitress, screwing up everything she could then failing to present herself to correct her mistakes. As I write this a week later I'm willing to bet even now she no longer works there. The rest of the staff exhibited the utmost professionalism and attentiveness, with an obvious shared concern over the image and success of their establishment.

The décor is simple yet inviting; delicate Japanese floral wallpaper, bamboo accents, buttery yellow walls, modernist "Oriental"-style chairs in dark wood, a granite sushi bar, bright lights. In time they will also have a liquor license and will offer a full drink menu--I'm interested to know if that drink menu will go more by way of Mai Tais and Asahi or Mango Liquer and sake, but time will tell.

Overall, I was pleased. O Sushi has no pretenses about it, which is a nice change of pace in this increasingly trendy sushi-bar-meets-ultra-lounge world. A great place for a quick lunch or to pick up dinner on your way home, the fast service is met equally with quality flavors and creative craftsmanship. Third time's the charm, eh Dearborn?

Prestigious Chaine Dinner Event

The Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, a membership-based gastronomic society which joins amateurs with professionals in the culinary world, is hosting a very prestigious dinner at Iridescence inside Motor City Casino (best restaurant in the city hands-down, and one of the only restaurants in the area befitting such a high-profile and, yes, perhaps somewhat stuffy organization) on Sunday, January 25th beginning at 5:00PM. Tickets are reasonably priced (considering) at $130.00 each, excluding tax and gratuity.

The Chaîne des Rôtisseurs have been promoting the culinary and hospitality arts and enology since 1950, with roots dating back to 1248, based on the traditions and practices of the French Royal Guild of goose roasters. We are lucky to have one local chapter here in Michigan, though our presence sadly pales in comparison to many other states. The Chaîne promotes people in the industry as well as those who simply appreciate it, elevating all to the level of conoisseurs. Consider it like the Masons for foodies.

If you're interested in learning more about the organization or simply just eager to dine with some of the most knowledgable gourmets at one of the finest restaurants in Michigan, this is one pilgrimmage you need to make. Membership in the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs is by invitation only, so if you're serious about joining the most prestigious gastronomic organization for amateurs and professionals in the world, best you start the elbow-rubbing here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Detroit Fish Market @ Paradise Valley Now Open!

The latest venture from popular and successful Detroit restauranteur Frank Taylor is Detroit Fish Market at Paradise Valley, and it is now open.

Taylor is the man behind many other visionary dining concepts in the city, such as the soul food-infused fine-dining jazz club Seldom Blues, the ultra-chic brunch spot Detroit Breakfast House, and the chic ultra-lounge and gourmet pizzeria South Beach Ultra Lounge inside the Fisher Building (the concept sounds strange, but the inside is straight out of Miami and without benefit of a website or hardly any promotion it has become one of Detroit's most popular nightlife destinations).

Yes, Taylor knows how to open a restaurant (and keep it open). Detroit Fish Market is his newest offering to the city's culinary scape, and it takes a very serious approach to freshness. Specials are made daily with the freshest catches flown in from Atlantic to Pacific, and the raw bar (I'm going to hope this does not include sushi based solely on principle but I do not know for sure) is open late on weekends. The atmosphere is all Detroit--loft-like with floor-to-ceiling windows and exposed brick, with rich mahogany tones, polished wood floors, warm oak tables and trim, and soft light from antique street lamps completing the preserved historic "Detroit" look. Both elegant and urban, this is the kind of place that will fast become a Detroit favorite.

Plus, it is the only true fishhouse within city limits, which makes it both noteworthy and bragging-rights-worthy.

Detroit Fish Market is located at 1435 Randolph Street in Paradise Valley (formerly Harmonie Park). Hours of operation are Mon.-Thurs. 11:30AM-10:00PM, Fri. & Sat. 11:30AM-11:00PM (raw bat open 'til 2:00AM), and Sun. noon-10:00PM. Call 313-963-3003 for reservations or menu information.

Supper Club at Angelina

Here's a press release for you ('re the first to know!):

Detroit Synergy’s popular epicurious experience Supper Club is back for the new year with a brand-new restaurant on deck: Angelina Italian Bistro, located at 1565 Broadway in a highly visible location right off Woodward. For the still-low recession-friendly cost of just $30.00 per person (inclusive of tax and tip), participants can enjoy a full four-course meal specially selected for this event. A very nice optional two-glass wine flight is also available for an additional $10.00. Mark your calendars for Wednesday, January 28th beginning at 6:00PM to take part in experiencing this newly-opened hotspot with 40 or so new friends!

“We are honored to be a part of Detroit Synergy’s Supper Clubs,” says Angelina proprietor Tom Agosta. “I worked with them on one of their first projects back in 1999 and am thrilled that Angelina is getting the spotlight this month.”

Tom has created a mouth-watering menu highlighting the restaurant’s specialty, South Italian cuisine with a Mediterranean flare:

~Tasting Plates (served family-style at each table): Bruschetta Trio—tomato basil, marinated mushroom, toasted chick peas; Crispy Calamari with a carmelo dipping sauce; and Kalamata Pizza, made with kalamata olive tapenade, tomatoes, caramelized onion, and blended cheeses

~Insalate: house salad made with organic field greens, herb vinaigrette, and red onions

~Large Plates (choice of): Shrimp Risotto made with baby organic vegetables and basil; Parppardelle Bolognese made with classic meat sauce and parmesan reggiano; Carmelized Onion and Gorgonzola Strucolo made with potato hash, wild mushroom, and grilled fennel; Herb Pine Nut Crusted Lake Superior White Fish made with Italian couscous, spinach, and basil oil; and Chicken Scallopini made with Amish chicken, vermicelli rice, mushrooms, rapini, and marsala sauce. (Vegan vegetable pasta also available upon request.)

~Dessert selections

Tickets can be purchased in advance on the Detroit Synergy online store or can be purchased in cash at the door. You must RSVP to attend this event; email with reservation requests or questions. ***Editor's note: Tickets are not available for purchase yet so check in a day or two!***

Angelina Italian Bistro is already a hit amongst Detroit’s most trend-conscious food lovers. A great place both for the food and the socialization, Angelina offers urban chic ambiance paired with some of the most tender yet firm pastas, rich sauces, creative martinis and Michigan-made wines and brews. It was a fast favorite amongst foodies and scenesters alike from the day it opened, and with plenty good reason. Come see it for yourself!

Monday, January 12, 2009

No Reservations, No Hesitation

Anthony Bourdain's popular Travel Channel series "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" (a concept born of Fear Factor-style gag-reflex-triggering gross-outs) hit Detroit last week to film material for this season's episodes, and while it will probably be several weeks before any of the Detroit footage airs, I simply must wonder what shock-value food item indigenous to the Detroit area was the reason for the high-profile visit.

I've got an answer: blood sausage.

Thank the Polacks in Ham-town for kiszka, or blood sausage, made with a mixture of pig's blood and buckwheat porridge stuffed inside pig's intestine.

Mmmm-mmm. Now that's good eatin'.

At least it got someone to travel to Detroit...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Opinions are Like Vegetarians

I don't believe in vegetarianism. Much like the concepts of God or global warming, I just don't believe that the arguments in favor of this lifestyle choice and value system outweigh the much more sizable arguments against it...for me, I (a) don't care about the animals (and recognize that there wouldn't be a whole lot of cows, pigs, or chickens running around if we didn't raise them for slaughter), and (b) believe that since the human body is built to digest such animal products--and in fact, needed such products for survival back in The Day of hunter-gather societies before cheap, pre-packaged, mass-produced foods--it therefore stands to reason that we are meant to be eating them.

Now. I'll give you the growth hormone toxins/excess of consumption arguments. Those I will give you. Because of the scarcity of meat back in The Day, our ancestors' bodies were not conditioned and did not evolve to be able to process large quantities of meat regularly consumed. Our American meat-and-potatoes diet is surely detrimental to our health--as is the growth hormones used in the livestock and the pesticides used in the livestock's feed, etc. No argument from me there. (Plus, organic beef really is that much better.)

What I can't stand are the self-righteous "meat is murder" types, or those who argue that the human body isn't "meant" to digest animal fats and proteins. Homosaywhat? The human species is classified as omnivorous for a reason--we eat things that are dead. And get by the interim periods with things grown in the ground. But I suppose those hunter-gatherers must have had it wrong, eh? If only they had been enlightened enough to realize they could survive on nuts and berries.

I long ago surmised that ailments such as insecurity, anxiety, and the complusion to yammer to a therapist about them are distinctly White People Problems. I'd actually like to see a breakdown of psychologists' clientele by race: I'd wager that the white-to-brown ratio reads like the Lions' losses-to-wins. By extension, these are also the afflictions of wealthy people in a welathy country with nothing else to worry about...if you spent a majority of your time worrying about how you were going to put food on the table and pay your gas bill, you probably wouldn't spend so much time concerned over how you interact in social situations and whether or not your parents didn't love you enough or loved you too much.

White People Problems.

Vegetarians have much in common with the kind of people outlined above. In fact, I'd clump "vegetarianism" (and oh by God veganism) into the "Stupid Shit White People Do" categorization. How many black vegans do you know? (Aside from the occasional Earth Mama and slam poet who claim Nation of Islam but have mostly Caucasian dread-sporting, patchouli-stinking friends.) How about strict vegetarian Latinos? Ever met a hungry African who refused a slab of beef, citing animal cruelty and the poisoning of the body's temple?

No. No, you haven't. Because those are White (American) People Issues, that the Rest of the World couldn't give a pig's entrails less about. The French eat fresh monkey brains, for chrissakes. Leave it to greedy, slovenly, self-serving Americans to give the world McDonald's and then judge everyone for eating it. This rampant spread of fad vegetarianism is also a uniquely American symptom: see, in other countries, where traditional cuisine has been stabilized over centuries, people didn't pump their cattle full of growth hormones that gave them all cancer a few decades later and excess has never been a way of life. In America all we ever seem to want is everything in the extreme: extreme sports, extreme home makeovers, triple beef patties wrapped in a quarter pound of bacon and slathered in special sauce for $3.99.

And then you have the extreme reactionaries, the people who think the only solution to the problem they see is to fling themselves in the polar opposite direction. And so we have vegetarians (or, in the most extreme, vegans). The solution can't simply be "eat less meat," no. Now the solution becomes "eat no meat at all" (or, in the most extreme, eat nothing made from an animal, including dairy and eggs).

But you know what? Whatever. I'll quietly judge you and think to myself how ignorant and misguided you are, as I do most people. I'll mostly keep it to myself unless I find myself in the vicinity of a friend who finds my hypercritical observations humorous. BUT. When you make a decision to go all polar-opposite extremist on everyone, DO NOT EXPECT EVERYONE TO CATER TO YOUR SELF-IMPOSED DIETARY RESTRICTIONS.

Case in point: prix fixe menus. Says one vegetarian to another, "Oh! This really nice restaurant is offering a fixed-price menu for pretty cheap! I've always wanted to check that place out; we should go!" Says the other in response, "Well. They aren't offering any vegetarian options, so we can't go." And the other says back, "The nerve. How dare they offer a special tasting menu at a fixed price and not include a vegetarian option. I hate it when places don't take us into consideration."


Your self-righteous diet is none of the chef's concern (in fact, I often wonder if [white] people don't make the decision to be vegetarian in order to justify increased levels of self-righteousness). When you visit a 4- to 5-star dining establishment, you do not expect the Michelin-rated Chef de Cuisine who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris to completely rearrange his specially-prepared dégustation menu designed based on what his personal specialities are, what ingredients are in season, and what dishes best represent his restaurant and the region to suit you. You pompous pain in the ass.

I am dating a person who unforutnately has a number of food allergies, and even he isn't nearly as demanding or self-entitled as these people are. For them, it is not a matter of it being a favor on the part of the chef to prepare them a special meat-free dish just for the sake of their incessant whining, is an expectation that this will be done, and further an inconvenience when they are forced to ask.

These people, much like the people who whine about prices, need to stay out of fine dining restaurants. You don't belong there, you don't appreciate it, and your loud demands sully the dining experience of all those around you. I'll make you a deal: I'll stay out of your PETA meetings and your various greening initiative grassroots organizations if you stay out of my restaurants. Go bother the people at Whole Foods, and leave me to my sweetbreads and foie gras drenched in thick, rich cream-and-butter sauces. Deal?

No, of course not, because you think the whole world needs to cater to you, you useless American.

Next time you see an announcement for one restaurant or another offering a limited prix fixe menu and you see it does not include a vegetarian option, instead of showing up anyway and demanding one, just don't go. Just don't go! See how easy that was? Or go, but order off the regular menu and do not demand the prix fixe menu be altered for your sake. If you have religious reasons for not being able to eat certain animal products at certain times, don't go during those times! See??? See how easy????

Much like my boyfriend does not have a hissyfit everytime he sees a menu heavy on nuts, dairy, and shellfish (he had a hell of a time in New Orleans, let me tell you) because he understands that the majority of the rest of the world is able to digest these items without issue and does not expect culinary artists to alter their creations for his benefit, so should you refrain from doing so.

Thank you, and happy dining.

"I'm not a vegetarian, but I eat animals who are." --Groucho Marx
"'Vegetarian'--that's an old Indian word meaning 'lousy hunter.'" --Andy Rooney

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Reveling in Reveillon: Eating My Way Through New Orleans

Laissez les bon temp roulez!

On a recent trip to New Orleans, much of my pre-trip reconaissance work was dedicated to a thorough background check of New Orleans cuisine. I had an extensive list of places and dishes I wanted to try (truth be told, a bit too extensive...I only had a grand total of 48 hours to cram it all in)--among my must-haves were anything with satsuma (check), turtle soup au sherry (check), gumbo (check), and beignets (check). On the list that didn't make it were po' boys (the Louisiana version of a sub or grinder, made with their unique baguette bread and usually filled with seafood and deep-fried), a muffaletta sandwich (akin to our Italian subs, made on a Sicilian flatbread similar to focaccia and layered with Italian meats like capicola, salami, and mortadella, as well as provolone and emmanthaler cheeses and a marinated olive spread, which orginated in New Orleans's Central Grocery), Andouille sausage, crawfish etouffee, and Louisiana-style pecan pie with rum caramel.

Hey, I did my best.

With the help of Lousiana-based food critic Robert Peyton, who has since become my favorite foodie blogger (he makes sarcastic-like, which I like), I whittled down my enormous and ungainly list to being simply ungainly (he wished me luck with that; he's a funny guy, and was also not wrong). In between forgetting our pre-printed passes to check out the Prospect.1 New Orleans art installation, ambling through the French Quarter, arriving too late at the infamous above-ground cemeteries to be able to walk through them, touring the Oak Alley plantation (where Interview with the Vampire was in part filmed), taking the St. Charles Streetcar out to the Garden District only to decide not to have brunch at the Columns Hotel's Albertines Tea Room, and generally just trying to soak in the vibe of all that which is New Orleans in an extremely limited amount of time, we were also able to enjoy both the old and the new in New Orleans cuisine.

Night 1: Bar UnCommon and the Bombay Club
At Robert Peyton's suggestion, our first (attempted) stop after landing at 9:00PM was over to the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel to check out Bar UnCommon. Peyton informed me that Chris McMillian is the best bartender in the city, and my trip would not be complete without a Sazerac from him. We beelined straight there only to find an empty bar with the bottles already removed from the shelves. It was then that we learned in the wake of Katrina, many places don't hold the same late-night hours as they once did. Which is unfortunate, as Bar UnCommon is exactly the kind of bar I would have liked to sip a martini and have a leisurely evening at.

We attempted once again the following night, only to have the same results.

After a comedy of errors in finding another bar to suit our sophisticated drinking needs, we ended up at the Bombay Club. We were presented with a menu featuring some 70+ martinis, all of which sounded absolutely decadent. We were also served by a bartender who is a part-time pirate (he goes to conventions and everything). Our tour of New Orleans dining and drinking was off to a good start.

Until we discovered Jean Lafitte's Old Absinthe House on Rue Bourbon. The place has been open and in its same location since 1807 (save for a spot during Prohibition), and is once again legally serving absinthe, a black-licorice-flavored liquer made with wormwood (amounts of wormwood are controlled nationally by the FDA so there are only trace amounts in legally imported absinthe). Collectively we decided that this experience would be a good and necessary one. We were wrong.

However, this did increase our enjoyment of Bourbon Street, which is an otherwise vulgar place.

Day 1/Night 2: Galatoire's and Iris
Once again on the suggestion of Robert Peyton, we headed out to Galatoire's in the French Quarter for a long, leisurely lunch. Galatoire's is another historic spot in the Vieux Carre, having been in its Bourbon Street location since 1905. It has also received various recognitions from Wine Spectator and Zagat's, being most recently voted by Gourmet Magazine one of the top 20 restaurants in the country. I was told that this is a "New Orleans institution," I only found out later what that means.

The first sign that something wasn't right was the fact that it took nearly 10 minutes for us to be greeted by our waiter, and when he did finally vaporize he uttered hardly a word of apology and none of explanation (to be fair, I had not seen him milling about prior to his sudden appearance, and can only assume he was unaware he had been seated and was attending to some bathroom/phone/cigarette-smoking business in the back). I then asked for the server Robert had recommended to me, and was informed he was not there that day. Suddenly our service became helpful and attentive. They even gave us complimentary garlic bread.

For my meal, I chose to start with the gumbo (one of the many items on my list of must-tries). It was mildly spicy with a thick brown broth. As good as something you would order from a local diner and say, "That was pretty good." I then moved on to the Godchaux salad, a pile of iceberg lettuce topped with large, generous lumps of boiled shrimp, lump crabmeat, and a Creole mustard vinaigrette, topped with pinenuts and anchovies. The seafood was cooked well and all was served cold; the occasional remnant shell aside, I was satisfied with it. I then opted for the Poisson Meunière Amandine (rhymes with "bland"). To say I was disappointed would be a gross understatement. Greasy deep-fried flavorless fish with a handful of sliced almonds on top in a light (as in barely there) browned butter sauce (nothing else, just liquified butter). Bland. Boring. And really just not that appetizing.

In the meantime, we were surrounded by old, wealthy (and wasted) New Orleanians. We found out later that one does not go to Galatoire's for the food. One goes there for the experience. It was confirmed that indeed their food is not that good, but that people go there for the experience of going there (a "see and be seen" scene for old New Orleans families dating back generations). And also, if you ask for a menu, you are immediately targeted as one "not from around here" and are treated as such.

Had I known that I could have saved $120.00...or at least have put it towards a better meal.

Ah, but the wine list: of all the commendations they've received, this is the only one I can agree with. Pages and pages and pages of wines, with a heavy focus on French (some very old...some very expensive). The Big Five are all here: Latour, Lafite, Mouton, Margaux, and Petruce, all with their requisite $1,000+ price tags. Second to the French presence is Napa Valley, and all the big 'uns from that way (Opus One, etc.). But there is also a nice mix of Spanish, Chilean, Australian, and Argentinian wines, as well as some Italian heavy-hitters. While most are rather pricey, a discriminating wine drinker can still find a value. Just don't bother eating there.

After a foiled attempt to visit Martinique Bistro, we ended up inside our very own hotel, Bienville House, and the recently-relocated Iris.

Iris was formerly located in a tiny house Uptown, and has since moved to this much-more-spacious location in the French Quarter. Initially they were a BYOB destination, but just in time for our arrival they now have a full bar and wine list. What began as a quick stop for coffee when it seemed every cafe in the city was closed ("This is New Orleans, no one gets coffee after noon") quickly morphed into a full meal.

And what a meal it was. In my early research I had come across some glowing reviews of this place and was excited to see it was located in our hotel; however, I assumed that I would shun this place in favor of more well-known, glitzier establishments and didn't think I would end up having my best meal of the trip on an utter whim at its polished oak bar.

We began with the Kaffir Lime Guacamole, made with mint and olive oil and served with root vegetable homemade chips. The guacamole was superb, with large chunks of tomatoes and a nice hint of garlic, but it was the root vegetable chips, perfectly salted and full of contrasting flavor, that made the dish.

Next up was the Rabbit Spring Rolls, served chilled with peanut sauce to dip. The dough used to wrap the rolls was so thin I could actually see through it (an impressive feat to be able to work with what is surely such a difficult dough). Inside was all the typical carroty crunch of a spring roll (all raw), with tender, chilled rabbit meat to balance the bitters of cabbage and sprouts.

I then sampled the quail salad, served with a boiled quail egg, house-made vinaigrette, and shaved parmesan. The tiny quail legs were difficult to manage, but worth the extra effort. The salad itself was exploding with flavor, deceptively simple yet simply delectable.

From there I moved on to the Veal Cheek Ravioli, made with wild mushrooms, veal jus, parmesan, and cream. This was amazing; the veal jus-cream sauce was rich and full of tangy condensed flavor, balanced perfectly with equally rich parmesan and slightly bitter mushrooms. The ravioli themselves were firm yet tender, with tender shreds of veal meal tucked inside. This is the kind of dish you don't so much eat as savor, and I savored every drop of that decadent sauce.

My partner had a peppercorn-encrusted seared tuna, served with organic greens and a house-made balsamic vinaigrette. The tuna was seared to perfection and the peppercorn crust added flavor and kick; his only complaint was the excess of balsamic vinaigrette on the tuna (but I thought it was fine).

The wine list is still modest, but they do carry one of my favorites: Punto Final Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina. Mixologist Alan Walter also offers a host of specialty cocktails which utilize ingredients such as the locally-grown satsuma, sasafras tea, mint, and chicory. I guarantee that you have never seen a cocktail menu quite like this, which takes "creative" and mixes it with an upscale organic grocer. (See "Cold Snap": Brandy, Green Mangoes in White Balsamic Vinegar, Spiced Rum, Lemon, Proseco.)

Chef Ian Schnoebelen has achieved a masterfully playful and unique menu which fuses a variety of different culinary traditions in a light, clean presentation and atmosphere. Iris wins in both food and ambiance, and the service is both personal and friendly. You feel like you're at the neighborhood deli but you're eating like you're at an exclusive California-style 5-star. Owners Schnoebelen and Laurie Casebonne will also happily come out and greet you, in between joking with their staff and ensuring that everything is being handled exactly how they wish it to be. Their approach is very hands-on, and it shows in all the personal touches and the welcoming environment.

On one of our server's recommendations, we then went to another New Orleans "institution," the revolving carousel bar inside the Hotel Monteleone. The Carousel Piano Bar & Lounge slowly revolves, which can confuse patrons who have had a few too many and return from the bathroom to find their friends "gone." If you like Blackstone wine and butchered renditions of "Piano Man," this is the place for you. Note the sarcasm.

Day 2/Night 3: Cafe Beignet, Reginelli's, and Martinique Bistro
Just as we're starting the get the hang of it, we're already on our last hoorah.

We started the day at Cafe Beignet, were I sampled another New Orleans "must"--the positively sinful beignet, a French-style pastry much like a doughnut served piping hot with powdered sugar, is a singular New Orleans experience. It is a soft, airy, pliable pastry with a slight crunch on the outside, light to the touch but heavy in the stomach. It's best to toss away all pre-conceived notions of "healthy dining" when in New Orleans, because the city's love of all that which is deep-fried and loaded with meat and dairy will do you in. Luckily, I am a lover of animal by-products, so I was in artery-clogging heaven.

Later we found ourselves in the Garden District on Magazine Street, and decided to stop in a place called Reginelli's Pizzeria, a Louisiana pizza and sandwich chain. As much as I love pizza, it was the Baked Brie Calzone that caught my tongue, a mini calzone stuffed with ripe brie cheese. Fab. They also have a great list of tasty pastas, salads, focaccia and pita sandwiches, and specialty pizzas. Their wine list was by the glass and presented on a printed list taped to a wine bottle on each table. Cute, and cheap. And once again, my Punto Final Malbec!

But that evening was what itI had been waiting for all along: experiencing Réveillon in New Orleans. Réveillon is a French dining tradition of a long dinner or party held on the evenings preceding Christmas and New Year's Days, which typically features foods of an exceptional or luxurious nature. A multitiude of New Orleans restaurants were participating in Réveillon and offered special prix fixe menus throughout the season. There were, once again, a number that I was salivating over, but the one I ultimately decided on was Martinique Bistro.

Chef de Cuisine Eric LaBouchere blends French and Caribbean cooking traditions with a dash of Italian heritage, making Martinique Bistro a classically uncommon cross-cultural culinary tour as befits many New Orleans dining establishments. The interior is tiny and quaint, almost cottage-like, where the outdoor courtyard is lush and tropical. The servers are knowledgable and helpful, and won't rush you out even when you've stayed long past your welcome.

So why was I so fixated on this place above all other restaurants celebrating Réveillon? One word: profiteroles.

We began with the Pork tenderloin Noisette "au Grillades" with poached hen's egg and Truffled Eggs with prosciutto in parmesan reggiano profiteroles. The pork tenderloin was tender and OMFG THE PROFITEROLES. They were ultimately the main reason I chose this restaurant and they were everything I wanted and hoped they would be and more. A rich, thick, heavy parmesan cream sauce surrounded the airy profiterole. Black truffles and julienned prosciutto rounded out the flavor explosion of opulence and excess; the only thing I could have done without were the eggs themselves.

I was also able to sample Turtle soup with Amantillado sherry; it was spicy. The turtle meat was tender. Turtle meat is notoriously difficult to extract, and you must be careful where you venture to try the New Orleans traditional soup. This being my one and only experience with it, I think I picked a winner.

I also had the Belgian Endive with saffron and Riesling poached pears, candied walnuts, maytag bleu cheese, and white balsamic vinaigrette. Endive is exceedingly bitter and needs to be tempered with a lot of sweet and/or strong flavors; a dried berry would have suited this salad better than the understated poached pears, but the bleu cheese and walnuts worked wonders.

For our entrees, we selected the Crispy seared duck breast a la satsuma with a confit debris cassoulet cake and the Sauteed medallions of cervena venison with Poire Williams braised pears and a gingerbread demi-glace. I got my satsuma, but the duck was stringy and the cassoulet cake, a common French comfort food, was bland and a bit too "squishy" for my palate.

For dessert I had the Baked Alaska with chocolate cayenne ice cream, while my partner tried the sorbet sampler with flavors like Strawberry Banana, blueberry habanero, and mango mint. The house-made ice creams and sorbets are wonderful, popping with unexpected flavor combinations.

The setting is very romantic, especially when you're the last table on the patio. While not every dish was a winner, those that were so were amazing.

The next morning saw us on a plane at 6:00AM, and so ends my culinary tour of the Bayou. I thank Robert Peyton for his suggestions, and look forward to being able to be as leisurely as the locals the next time around.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

If It Works, Don't Fix It: Motor City Brewing Works

Motor City Brewing Works in Detroit's Midtown neighborhood has long been known for its hand-crafted Detroit-centric microbrews, with names like "Motor City Muscle," "Old Gear Oil," "Corktown Stout," and everyone's favorite, "Ghettoblaster." I've half-wondered if it was merely the clever naming conventions that made their brews so popular. Ghettoblaster, "the beer you can hear," has even inspired its very own compilation albums.

Truth be told, the brews at MCBW are good, but not great. Ghettoblaster is a medium copper-colored English dark mild ale, with hints of citrus fruit and caramel on the nose and tongue. Slightly nutty. Hoppy, but not overtly so. A little thin. Inoffensive, but not earth-shattering. What makes this beer great isn't the beer itself, but the fact that the name alone has made it a Detroit institution; any bar in the city that has local brews on tap always has Ghettoblaster, and most people who would normally stick to PBR or Miller Light find themselves compelled to order it whenever they see it's available. It isn't so much a great beer as it is a great concept, and if nothing else, MCBW should be showered with accolades for producing a B- beer and being able to market it so tremendously well.

The Honey Porter (and oh how I love my porters and stouts) is everything expected and nothing out of the ordinary. It poured black like a stout with a creamy tan head, showing notes of chocolate, oats, roasted malts, and only the faintest hint of honey. It had a definite creaminess, but the body was still a little thin.

Motor City Lager is the brewery's Bud Light, and nothing more needs to be said about that.

But this isn't just about the beer; this is also about the bar. Motor City Brewing Works is a favorite spot for locals and suburbanites alike; walk in on any given night and you're sure to find the bar lined with chain-smoking, Ghettoblaster-drinking hipsters and a couple of tables of Tigers fans or other forms of Detroit tourists. And it's tiny: I would venture that the capacity inside hovers around 45, and there are only so many places to sit.

MCBW is a great place to visit in the summertime when the upstairs patio is open, but a word to the wise: the patio fills up quickly, so come early or don't come at all.

But Motor City Brewing Works is more than just a decent brewery and hipster hangout; it is also a popular art space, in the tradition of other Detroit restaurant-cum-art galleries such as Cass Cafe and the Majestic Cafe. The place looks "arty" with the tiny multi-colored broken tiles covering one wall and the wooden chairs painted bright orange...not to mention the 4-1 hipster presence (hipster = arty). But every Wednesday night, Motor City Brewing Works hosts "This Week in Art," a weekly-revolving single-artist showing currently curated for the past two years by Graem White, who will be turning it over to Christina Gibbs after January 7th. Artwork is affordable and is one of the best opportunities to view Detroit's up-and-coming unknown talent. Plus, it brings more hipsters.

Early in 2008, Motor City Brewing Works introduced their newly-built brick oven pizza kitchen, to much local acclaim. I've heard many refer to it as "the best pizza in Detroit," and possibly it is. Granted, I'm not a fan of most Detroit pizza and there really aren't that many places (as in, sit-down restaurants with bars and other people) in the city that offer pizza on their menus. So, you know, it could very well be the best in the city, which is kind of like being named the creme-de-la-crap.

What I do like about their pizza is that they offer a host of specialty pizzas as well as build-your-own options. Previously I've had the Margherita pizza (fresh mozarella, fresh basil, and sliced tomatoes with an herb-tomato sauce) and was quite pleased; I also recall a four-cheese blend no longer on the menu with Gorgonzola, Fontina, Mozarella, and goat cheese (globs of Fontina and goat cheese tend to be a bit much, FYI). This time around, I sampled the Roasted Pear pizza with olive oil, Gorgonzola, pears roasted with figs, and red onion. The flavors of roasted pear and gorgonzola pair well together, but the occasional crunch of a fig seed was off-putting, and the pizza as a whole would probably have been better with a mozzarella cheese base with just a smattering of gorgonzola for flavor, as opposed to it being the sole cheese flavor. It's a bit overwhelming on its own, and not fully tempered by the pear. The red onions were, thankfully, mostly unnoticeable.

Other specialty pizzas include a Middle Eastern-style pie called "Mary Had a Little...", made with lamb, garlic, mint, tomatoes, pine nuts, feta, cucumber, labneh, and zatar spice. There are also Meditterranean and Mexican -style pies, as well as a pizza-fied version of the Rueben sandwich. A la carte ingredients for the build-your-own include 5 kinds of sauce, 7 kinds of cheese, 8 kinds of seafood, poultry, and meat (including smoked clams), and a variety of spices. A+ for creativity, but the execution depends on the pie itself. Roasted Pear gets a nice, round B. The crust, always cooked to perfection in the brick oven (I will definitely give them that) and of an absolute perfect thickness- to doughiness- to airiness- ratio, could have more flavor. A perfectly balanced chewy and crispy cardboard is still chewy and crispy cardboard. Throw some olive oil in there. Herbs. Something.

For an appetizer, I followed my heart and went for the cheese board. Cheese offerings are noted on an overhead chalkboard (pity the people sitting beneath it), as are the current beer and wine offerings. Intially I went for the Sharp Cheddar and Stilton, only to find the Stilton gone and ending up with Swiss instead. The cheeses were served as two nice-sized wedges on a wooden slab, with sliced baguette bread and this god-awful horseradish/mustard seed spread that I would recommend be banned from the planet. Both cheeses were mild and satisfying. MCBW also offers Artichoke Dip and Crab Dip, as well as three different hearty salads to whet your appetite.

Beer is not your only drinking option, either: while the brewery does not have a license for hard liquor, they do also carry a modest, funky assortment of wines by the glass, including locally-made wines. On my most recent trip I had a sweet and tart cherry wine; in the summer I remember sampling an interesting blackberry wine. While neither were noteworthy enough to bother learning the names of the producers, both were an interesting addition to the already ecclectic if limited offerings at MCBW. And if you're not in the mood (or old enough) to imbibe, try one of their house-made all-natural sodas (choose from Natural Root Beer, Natural Ginger Beer, or Orange Cream), made with real cane sugar and caffeine-free.

As noted previously, the place fills up quickly and seating is limited. Once full, service immediately becomes abyssmal. Expect long waits for everything--to place your order, to receive your drinks, to receive your food, to receive your check. I had to hunt down our frazzled server to ask for the check, which makes this the second time in a row I've had to do this at this establishment. Granted, when capacity is only about 45 people, it should be a bit easier to manage; however, when there only appears to be two people working the floor and one is constantly pouring drinks, I can see how this would be a problem. Previous trips pre-kitchen have seen me waiting long periods for a beer at the bar (or to be so much as acknowledged)...really the only time it is good to go here and expect decent service is before 5:00PM on a weekday. Though I don't know what the peak lunch crowd looks like, so I will ammend that to say "between 3:00PM and 5:00PM on a weekday."

Also, don't think that just because there is a big, pretty parking lot out front that parking is free. The lot is owned by Traffic Jam & Snug and they are not very generous with it. All hours of the day and night that MCBW is open for business, there is a guard out front who will immediately ask for your $5.00 the moment you step out of your car. MCBW has a tiny lot of its own right in front of the doors; the five spots allotted to it are tyically taken by staff and regulars long before you'd stand a chance at acquiring one.

Overall, Motor City Brewing Works in more of a necessary Detroit experience than it is a good place to dine. The artistic hipster vibe is oh-so-Detroit, as are the cleverly-named beers and creatively-designed culturally-inclusive pizzas. The food, beer, and service really aren't that great, but the ambiance of it all is enough to keep the place crowded seven nights a week.