Monday, August 31, 2009

Tweets for the Sweet

Follow me on Twitter! @DininginDetroit

I'll "tweet" the latest news on Restaurant Week, updates on restaurant specials and events, foodie tidbits, and anything else of interest that don't quite necessitate a blog post but 140 characters suit just fine!

So far today, I have:

DininginDetroitToday is the last day for 50% off food bills at MGM's Ignite, Palette, and Breeze! Also last day for BOGO free entrees at all Andiamos!

DininginDetroitIn Naperville IL. Headed to work and then lunch at Sugar Toad, the dining experience 9 months in the making for me! Home again tonight.

Now if I can just figure out how to tweet via cell phone...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

DRW Preview #2: Cuisine

Cuisine is an old favorite of mine. The first time I discovered Cuisine a friend of mine and I had been out touring museums, and we wanted to dine somewhere that would compliment our cultural mood. It was pure coincidence that we chose Cuisine, which fit our criteria of (a) being somewhere a little more upscale where we could have "a nice meal" (code for fancy and pricey) and (b) being a place neither of us had never visited before. That evening we shared the kind of meal that we still talk about to this day, where I had my first experience with veal sweetbreads (they're not for everyone, but I like them) and where we had a red wine and blue cheese ice cream with walnuts.

I tell everyone about that red wine and blue cheese ice cream. It was blue cheese. In ice cream. Even after having some of the most decadent and artistic desserts in the area, this one is still my all-time favorite (you know how I love cheese).

From that moment on Cuisine was instantly catapulted into my Top 5 list of favorite area restaurants, and still maintains that rank even with all the new players in the game. It might not have the same glossy ultra-chic finish as some of the newer, sleeker, trendier places, but the food here puts most of these aesthetics-centric establishments to shame. Plus, Chef Paul Grosz is one hell of a nice guy.

For this installment of my Detroit Restaurant Week preview sessions, Chef Paul whipped up some of his trademark seasonal creations (the menu at Cuisine changes constantly as Chef Paul regularly conjures up exciting new combinations based on what's available season to season), and this is where his true talent and genius as a chef takes center stage. He may have a quiet, unassuming manner, but don't assume that means he can't cook circles around those who exhibit more bravado. This is a man who truly loves what he does, who feels he is living his dream in ways most people never get the chance to, and that passion is evident on every plate.

First I try the Baby Arugula Salad with Prosciutto and Parmesan, decorated with garden-fresh grape tomatoes and dollops of rich, raw honey from Michigan's Yale Farms. The greens are bitter with the slight crunch of salt and ground pepper for seasoning, and are balanced well by the prosciutto and parmesan. The honey--a thick, flavorful honey that seemed almost scented with lavender--was a bold contrast to the salad, giving it more of a summer feel (along with the bright reds and yellows of the tomatoes).

Next Chef Paul brings out his Seafood Sampler, which included a foamed lobster bisque served in a cup, a small pile of butter-poached lobster, a seared scallop, and a lobster ravioli. All were outstanding, but the seared scallop (which also happens to be on the DRW menu) was my favorite. This is most likely because I have a weakness for scallops (tasty little mollusks that they are), but regardless, those at Cuisine do not disappoint.

For my next preview course I am treated with Beef Short Rib braised in soy and honey with a puree of carrot and pear and a sautee of wax beans. I can see you raising your eyebrow--carrot and pear? Yes, carrot and pear, made with rice wine vinegar and white wine. Slightly tart and sweet, this puree offered a light, summery spin to the old meat-and-vegetable concept. Who would have thought carrots could be so interesting? And the wax beans--those are strange little beasts. Pale yellow, they look almost like macaroni noodles, and have an inexplicable spiciness to them. I'm not much of a bean fan but together with the sweet-tart puree and the hearty, tender beef, it worked. I don't know how it did, but it did.

And this is precisely what makes Chef Paul such a brilliant chef--his bold approach to taste combinations, his daring usage of common items. There is a certain artistry that goes with being a truly great chef--one must know and understand how different flavors, textures, colors, and smells work together to make something palatable (or not). There is much to balance, and not every guy with a set of knives has mastered this art to the point of being able to toy with it. Chef Paul has, and every meal you will ever eat at Cuisine is the end result of him, essentially, playing with his food.

I had the chance to speak with Chef Paul as I tried one of the DRW desserts, a chocolate walnut cake with a chocolate ganache and a scoop of sour cream ice cream. Yes, sour cream ice cream (the flavor was incredibly rich, but certainly not something you would want to put on a baked potato). As I ask him how he comes up with some of his ideas (whether or not his mind is always full of food), he confides that even as we speak he was thinking of a recipe for rack of lamb, which was being delivered in time for the weekend. Red lentils, figs (or plums, depending on availability, he explains, kind of more to himself than to me), caramelized onions, and some sort of orange/citrus infusion. He talks about it excitedly, and I feel as if, for that moment, I was peering directly inside his brilliant brain at the very moment another culinary masterpiece was being conceived.

The cuisine at Cuisine emphasizes simplicity. Chef Paul espouses the ideal that flavors should come first and that doing it simple is best (a sentiment I hear a lot of chefs echoing lately). He admits this approach can be labor-intensive, but the end result is wothwhile. Nothing is overdone or overworked; nothing is "stacked up two feet" high. He focuses on clean, fresh flavors that are designed around the availability of certain products at certain times. What you end up with can be deceptively simple--carrot and pear???--but rest assured, the flavor is like nothing you ever tasted before, or likely will ever again.

There are many fine, worthy restaurants participating in Detroit Restaurant Week; Cuisine is one not to miss.

And as an added bonus: every Wednesday during the summer they offer $25.00 Lobster dinners, as well as weekly wine tastings on their patio every Friday night from 5:00PM-7:00PM (only $15.00 per person with complimentary hors d'ouevres), which will carry through the end of September. Cuisine is also available for private parties and catering.

If you want to see the mind and hands of Chef Paul Grosz in action, he will be demonstrating at Taste of Eastern Market on Saturday, September 26th at 10:00AM in Shed 2. He is excited about this and will not be planning in advance what he will be demonstrating, instead waiting until the day of the event itself to see what is available in the market. For you, it's a live cooking demonstration which you can then try to repeat at home (to whatever level of success); for him, it's a challenge, a way for him to further test his skills. Chef Paul is always thinking, always trying to improve and challenge himself, and THAT is what makes Cuisine so great.

Detroit Restaurant Week Menu for Cuisine
September 18-27, 2009

First Course
(Please choose one)

Baby Arugula salad with prosciutto and parmeasan
Soup Dujour
Lobster ravioli with citrus butter

(Please choose one)

Seafood plate of garlic shrimp, seared sea scallop,
smoked salmon and mini crabcake
Beef short rib braised in soy and honey with puree of carrot and pear
Chicken breast stuffed with parmesan and herbs over carrot risotto
Mélange of vegetables – 6 different preparations


Strawberry tart
Chocolate Walnut Cake

$27.00 per person exclusive of all beverages, tax and gratuity

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Taste of Eastern Market

Hey! So there's this thing called Detroit Restaurant Week; perhaps you've heard. September 18-27, 2009, 17 participating restaurants, $27.00 prix fixe minimum 3-course menus at each restaurant.

But there's another component to this week as well: "Taste of Eastern Market."

At 10:00AM every Saturday between now and September 26, there will be chefs from different restaurants participating in Restaurant Week who will be offering cooking demonstrations inside Eastern Market's Shed 2. This is a great way for you to experience you own preview of DRW, instead of leaving all the work for me! (Not that I mind.)

Last week, Kirk Hansen from Atlas Global Bistro prepared Michigan Garden Ratatouille and Garlic Parmesan Panna Cotta. (I am truly regretting missing this--what else should sick days at work be used for?) Coming up next,

~24 Grille on August 29,
~Roast on September 5,
~Wolfgang Puck Grille and Saltwater on September 12,
~Seldom Blues/Detroit Fish Market on September 19, and
~Cuisine on September 26.

Besides, it will do you some good to get outside and get some fresh air. Summer is almost over...sad face.

23 more days until Restaurant Week! Plenty of time to buy some pants with an elastic waist!

Later this week, keep an eye out for my preview of Cuisine. You may have forgotten about this place, but you really shouldn't have.

Dining in Detroit Windsor

We all know how much better food in foreign countries is...somehow it just is. So why is it that, being native Detroiters, we don't take more advantage of the foreign country that's only 15 minutes away?

Yes, I'm talking about Canada, and specifically Windsor. Back when I was but a lass of 19 years, I was there every weekend. I knew every bar, every restaurant, and despite what you may think there were plenty of occasions where I would go just for dinner. Then I turned 21, and Windsor was instantly forgotten as a whole world of restaurants and wine lists were suddenly within my reach (without having to claim my citizenship).

I've only been back one time, and it was a bit of a FAIL. But over this past weekend, a friend of mine told me he wanted to go investigate Windsor and it sounded like a fun adventure, so off we went exploring.

Much has changed since last I knew Windsor well. Most of my favorite places are gone: The Big Tomato (wonderful Italian place) is now a piano bar called The Whiskey. The Aardvark--a basement blues bar with lots of gritty personality--is soon to be "Lefty's Blues Bar" (a second location for Lefty's Lounge on Chatham Street; I suspect it will lose most of its former grungey charm). But the news wasn't entirely bad: I was anxious to see if my former favorite Chatham Street Grill was still open, and it is...sort of.

Chatham Street Grill is probably the first fine-dining establishment I discovered on my own that I would consider a favorite. I loved the look and vibe of the place, which at the time was almost entirely new to me. Now white tablecloth dining and solid oak bars are old hat, but then...then it was something fresh, new, and exciting. Exhilirating, even. Yes, I loved it, so seeing it still there (directly across the street from Cheetah's, no less) made me happy. Seeing the new vinyl banner proclaiming it to be "C H Streets Gastropub" didn't make me as happy as I could have been, but a peek at the menu (which now includes traditional pub items like buffalo wings and a wide variety of sandwiches and salads) revealed "Camembert Fritters," maintaining something of the gourmet sensibilities of the former incarnation. The look inside is familiar, sans white tablecloths. The decision to renovate/redefine was made earlier this year to offer more casual, high-end pub dining to the 25-50 crowd (i.e., another victim of the recession's low point). While I was sad to see my old favorite gone, it was relieving to see it still alive in spirit.

The Pour House Pub is new since my time there, and seems to be a direct competitor (and also across the street) of my beloved Gastropub. Canada's Pelee Island Pinot Grigio and Merlot was listed and only $5.00 per glass, but the rest of the menu seemed wholly less remarkable (Spinach Dip, Burgers, Wings), and so my friend and I continued our journey.

We passed by La Cuisine, a second-floor shamelessly French establishment with a menu loaded to the gills with terrines, dijon, and mayonnaise. A quick search online tells me that the restaurant is closed (it was closed when we walked by, but so was everywhere else--it was Sunday), though the menu is still posted on the wall outside so I don't know how reliable that information is.

We also passed by Chanoso's, whose outdoor menu board revealed items like stir-fry, hummous, samosas, and sushi. The full menu is an eclectic mix of Thai, Indian, Lebanese, contemporary American, and generic pan-Asian. It is certainly the most versatile menu I've ever seen; part of me hopes to never see it again. The reviews are all favorable, so I am intrigued, but the cultural stickler in me demands that a restaurant decide what exactly it wants to do and try to do it well, instead of trying to do it all.

Junk Pan-Asian Grill tries to do much the same. The overall look is distinctly more "Pan-Asian," but the menu boasts the same little of this/little of that mentality.

The Keg Steakhouse on the river caught my eye; this north American steakhouse franchise has locations all over Canada, including two in Windsor (the other in the nearby Devonshire Mall), and more in the US, but none over in metro Detroit (which is surprising, considering the prominence of steakhouses out in the Birmingham/Troy area). It has the look of a contemporary, upscale, corporate steakhouse (big, flashy) and a menu with Prime Rib in every size, shape, and color. Nothing new to the steakhouse scene, but the view sure is pretty.

After all this touring, we inexplicably ended up at a place called Papa Cheney's Whiskey Well where the Canadian Club is $2.50 all day every day. But they had pizza, and we like pizza, and it came recommended from his friend (I am always hesitant to take recommendations from people I don't know, and with good reason). The menu is deep-fried bar food, pierogies, and pizza. They've got Canadian brew Rickards on tap (the Belgian-style wheat ale called simple "White" isn't bad; better than the Coors on special, at least). There must be some kind of rock T-shirt uniform/theme thing with the staff, because each person there was wearing a T-shirt with some random band name on it (Green Day, Suicidal Tendencies, Nine Inch Nails, the Doors). But the place was comfortable, and OPEN, so we opted for the Pizza Pierogies and Four Cheese Pizza.

Portions were huge and well-priced (once you factor in the exchange rate). The food was merely so-so, but the view was great.

Coming soon to Windsor: the Shores of Erie Wine Festival September 10-13 in Amherstberg, featuring live music (from the Stills!), food from 23 area restaurants, culinary demonstrations, and a wine pavillion featuring wines from 12 Southwestern Ontario wineries. One-day passes are $15.00 in advance, $20.00 at the gate.

As it turns out, there is much to be discovered of our neighbors to the north! (Well, south, technically.) A trip to Windsor is not without its minor inconveniences--one needs a passport, must be subjected to a barrage of questions in customs, and pay $4.00 each way to cross the border--but the once-in-a-while roadtrip is worthwhile, if for no better reason than the stupendous view of Detroit from across the river (markedly better than the factories and casino we get to stare at).

Friday, August 21, 2009

DRW Preview #1: Andiamo on the Riverfront

My first restaurant outing courtesy of Detroit Restaurant Week brought me to Andiamo on the Riverfront, one of 11 metro-area outposts of the Andiamo Restaurant Group. The always-bustling Riverwalk was particularly busy on this day, as they were preparing for the evening's Rockin' on the Riverfront performance, a free summertime concert series presented in part by Andiamo. Despite how busy they were, Chef Edward Bailey still took time to chat with me about their participation in the upcoming innagural Detroit Restaurant Week.

Chef Edward has been with Andiamo for 12 years, serving as the executive chef of this downtown location for the past five. He trained at the Golightly Career and Tech Center (a career-training program offered to high school students in the Detroit Public School System), where he now serves as the Chairman of the Advisory Board for their Culinary Program.

When I asked him what is happening at Andiamo right now that he's most excited about (besides Detroit Restaurant Week, obviously!), his face lit up as he talked excitedly about Andiamo's new "Lean" menu. Andiamo Corporate Chef Jim Oppat teamed with Board-Certified Physican and Nutrition Specialist Dr. Tom Rifai to create this special prix fixe menu which includes an appetizer, entree, and fresh fruit panna cotta for dessert, priced at $17.95-$31.95 for all three courses. All "Andiamo Lean" selections contain minimal saturated and no trans fat, no gluten, no soy or nut products and are low in sodium. As an added bonus, each meal (regardless of the combination you choose) is fewer than 600 calories. Enjoy full-sized portions of robust Italian dishes that just so happen to be good for you at a price that's also good for your wallet!

MY visit, however, cost me a few more than 600 calories. Chef Edward presented me with plate after plate (after plate) of selections from Andiamo's just-finalized DRW menu. Portabella mushrooms in Zip sauce (a highly condensed salty butter sauce made with beef stock, garlic, and a variety of spices, which was created right here in the Motor City), Suppli alla Romana (deep-fried risotto balls stuffed with melted mozzarella), Fettucine Alfredo, Chicken alla Valdostana (breaded chicken with prosciutto and fontina cheese in a roasted garlic white wine sauce), and Trancia di Salmone (broiled Atlantic Salmon topped with tomato, garlic, olive oil, and fresh herbs). After all this, he still offered me a dessert, but at this rate I might not be able to eat again until Detroit Restaurant Week. I suppose this is what authentic Italian hospitality looks like! (Though Italians get offended if you don't eat everything on your plate...I sure hope Chef Ed was understanding in this matter.)

The real standouts here were the Portabella mushrooms--marinated, grilled, sliced Portabella mushrooms that were meaty and seemed almost au Poivre (coated in cracked peppercorn) and were further complimented by the rich, salty zip sauce--and the Chicken alla Valdostana, a hearty dish tempered by a light white wine sauce.

After all this FOOD, I was thankful I had the foresight to walk to the restaurant from my home so I could at least burn off a few of the many calories I had just ingested. But--anything for my adoring public!

The official Andiamo DRW menu--3 courses at a fixed $27.00 exclusive of tax and tip--follows below. Remember, Restaurant Week runs September 18-27, and each week leading up to the main course I'll be providing you with little appetizers of different participating restaurants. And thanks again to Chef Ed for ALL that FOOD! (Seriously, I really don't think I'm going to be able to eat again for the next month.)

Andiamo on the Riverfront Detroit Restaurant Week Menu

Choice of One Appetizer
~Bruschetta all Pomodoro
~Suppli alla Romano
~Portabella Mushroom with Zip Sauce

Entree (Choice)
~Caesar Salad with Chicken
~Fettucine Alfredo with Chicken Tenderloins
~Spaghetti alla Bolognese/Pomodoro
~Ravioli alla Aldo
~Manicotti alla Pomodoro
~Chicken alla Marsala
~Chicken alla Valdostana
~Whitefish alla Siciliano
~Trancia di Salmone

Choice of One Dessert
~Homemade Tiramisu
~Homemade Cannoli
~Gelato or Sorbetto

Monday, August 17, 2009

Detroit Restaurant Week Official Launch

It's coming: the single greatest thing to happen to Detroit dining since, well, me! Detroit Restaurant Week, September 18-27, 17 restaraunts, $27.00.

Dining in Detroit was named "Official Blog" of Detroit Restaurant Week, which means that, for the next seven-ish weeks, I will be keeping you, my dear readers, informed of all the latest and greatest news concerning all things DRW, as well as offering weekly previews of some of the participating restaurants--get an "insider's scoop" on what's being dished with added info on the chefs, the restaurant, and anything else of interest to my Detroit foodies.

For my first morsel, below you will find the complete list of participating restaurants who have agreed to offer a minimum 3-course meal for the fixed price of $27.00 (excluding tax, gratuity, and beverages).

Bon Appetit!

Andiamo Detroit Riverfront
Atlas Global Bistro
Coach Insignia

Da Edoardo Foxtown Grille
Detroit Fish Market
Forty-Two Degrees North

Mosaic Restaurant
Opus One
Rattlesnake Club

Seldom Blues
The Whitney
Wolfgang Puck Grille

Detroit Restaurant Week is presented by Paxahau Event Productions (you'll remember them from that big tecnho festival every Memorial Day), and is sponsored by the Greater Downtown Districts (Downtown, Midtown, Corktown, New Center, and Eastern Market) to support and promote area restaurants.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Much Ado About Crepes: What Crepe?

Photo courtesy of Michelle Matiyow and Lians for

One of the advantages of being a food writer is a little somnething called a "media tasting." I was invited to one such of these "media tastings" last week for What Crepe?, the new creperie in Royal Oak.

And thank God for it...left to my own devices, it would have taken me who knows how long to make the trip out to Royal Oak ALLLLLLL the way from my usual Detroit-Dearborn circuit. But now, just four days after the tasting, I was back again having the exact same crepe I had the first time because it was, quite simply, THAT good.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Matiyow and Lians for

Inhabiting the former Cafe Muse location, a tiny little hallway of a building on Washington Ave., the spot is by its very nature terribly cute and cozy. As Cafe Muse, it was cheery and eclectic and quaint. What Crepe? is just as quaint, but with a little more drama. The walls are a deep berry-stained red, with dramatic dark wood accents and a distinctly Parisian flair. The furniture, glassware, and plates are all amusingly mismatched, like the lone leftovers of an antique sale that desperately needed a home. You might sit in a plush velvet wingback chair, or on a backless leather bar stool. One plate might be flowery like something found in Grandma's pantry, and another might have a wild zebra pattern. The menus are made with old French record sleeves, completing the apparent effect of what almost feels like a trendy Euro-style antique salvage space. The (mismatched) wrought iron cafe tables out front complete the vibe of a thoroughly modern Parisian cafe reborn out of the old.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Matiyow and Lians for

I noted before that creperies seem to be all the rage right now, so I will admit that my expectations for What Crepe? were a little high simply because I expected that they would (nay: MUST) have something new to offer to the scene already getting a little creped-out. The various crepe offerings around the city range in quality, with some more impressive than others. Prior to my discovery of What Crepe?, Le Petit Zinc was my favorite. And while I do still love the child-like sunniness of Le Petit Zinc, the menu at What Crepe? takes the, well, crepe.

On Tuesday What Crepe? will debut their new menu designed by Chef Justin Kopsch, who was hired on specifically to expand the menu and increase portion sizes. This new menu features some 50 specialty crepes, each plentiful enough as a meal on its own. The old favorites--such as MY favorite, the Mushroom Madness--will remain on the menu, which will also now include such items as an asparagus, prosciutto, and gruyere savory crepe and the brings-out-the-kid-in-me peanut butter, chocolate sauce and marshmallow sweet crepe.

On my first visit I had the chance to chat with owner Paul Jenkins Jr. (PJ), who is equally adorable as he is most assuredly insane for opening a new restaurant in this current economic climate, having no previous restaurant experience. "No time like the present," he tells me with a winning grin. "I always dreamed of opening my own restaurant, and now I'm finally living my dream."

The advantage What Crepe? has over some other restaurants is that, for $30.00, a couple can come out and have a lovely evening with amazing food, without breaking the bank. "I love seeing people come here on dates," PJ tells me, and he seems genuinely happy that people are choosing his place for their special nights out. They currently have no liquor license, but are third in line to receive the new "Bistro Liquor License," introduced by the Royal Oak Liquor Control Commission to allow restaurants with limited seating the ability to serve wine and beer (particularly in a city like Royal Oak which is already 2 or 3 Class C liquor licenses over its quota).

PJ might not have any restaurant experience, but before you start getting a fanciful picture of a boy with a simple love of crepes taking a chance and opening a restaurant with nothing but his dreams, this boy happens to have YEARS of experience operating his own promotions and publicity business, throwing parties all over the world for people like P-Diddy. In fact, that love of crepes which inspired this new restaurant venture came from his international travels when he and his girlfriend would search for the best crepes. And through a familial connection he was also able to sit in on meetings at Motor City Casino regarding all aspects of restaurant operations, so he was not without prior exposure. Oh, I should probably note he also has a degree in business management and marketing. So yes--a boy and his dreams, sure, but not quite wide-eyed and inexperienced, and also a bit of a wunderkind. In other words, don't get your hopes up that opening a restaurant could be so easy. Try also not to be spurned on by the fact that he achieved this all within three months of having the idea for What Crepe?

Photo courtesy of Michelle Matiyow and Lians for

As the owner, PJ is constantly striving to offer the best ingredients to make the finest crepes. He will not TRY to be the best; he WILL be. This sort of full-throttle attitude is evident all over the menu: where else can you find such items as Truffle Zip Sauce, Agave Nectar, Creme Fraiche, as well as an assortment of vegan options and substitutes so that everyone can enjoy the items on the menu?

The Chicken Truffle is made with marinated all-natural chicken, arugula, and truffle zip sauce. The chicken is tender and juicy and the truffle zip light and tangy, perfect for a light lunch. The mixed fresh berry is a simple combination of smashed fresh raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries, topped with powered sugar and whipped cream. At first this sounded a little boring to me, but at the enthusiastic recommendation of our server, the endearingly sweet Sophie, I went for it. With crepes, simplicity is often key; here the tart berry compote with the cream and the delicate, slightly sweet crepe shell made for a tastefully simple combination.

Though there is also something to be said for indulgence: the What Chocolate Eclair Crepe is full of vanilla custard and coated with nutella, topped with shaved white chocolate, whip cream, powdered sugar and cocoa powder. You really just can't go wrong with custard, but custard with nutella makes for the juggernaut of desserts. Doughtnut, your days are numbered.

But I have yet to tell you about the crepe de resistance: Mushroom Madness. Cremini, shitake, and whole button mushrooms, soaked in butter and wrapped in a crepe shell that looks like it's about to burst. It is drizzled with truffle zip sauce and loaded with melted gruyere swiss cheese. Gruyere makes me happy, and tangy, melted gruyere covering butter-soaked exotic mushrooms makes me even happier. Having sampled it once already, I couldn't help but sample it a second time--the huge chunks of mushrooms burst with their uniquely exotic flavors and taste richer, more robust than some of the finest cuts of beef. The high-quality gruyere is sharp and tangy, offsetting the basic (as in, opposite of acidic), slightly bitter mushrooms. The crepe is hearty and filling and absolutely decadent.

From top, Chicken Truffle, Mushroom Madness, and Wild Berry

There is a small garden plot behind the restaurant where they grow their tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, and strawberries, staying true to the garden-to-table ethic Slow Foodies and locovores all over are taking up.

The service is consistently wonderful. Sophie was my server on both trips and her genuine smile and upbeat attitude was a delight. On my second trip they had run out of some items after a particularly busy Sunday morning, and she was incredibly apologetic for it. Lita, whom a sixth-sense tingling makes me believe is PJ's crepe-loving globe-trotting partner, also personally came over and apologized for the inconvenience, offering to help us make different selections. This was in stark contrast to an experience I had almost two years ago at the Frank Taylor restaurant Detroit Breakfast House, where a terse and unapologetic "We're out of that" (orange juice, bananas, bacon) was met with impatience at our dawdling over the menu (suffice it to say I haven't been back since). Then Sophie later thanked us for being so nice to her, which caught me off guard because I certainly hadn't thought we had done anything special. Another server (Molly? Megan?) introduced herself to the table of middle-aged women next to us having a riveting conversation about medical ailments because she recognized them as regulars.

One thing I should note is that the space is very SMALL. The other patrons become your inadvertent dining partners--every conversation is easily overheard, and no matter where you sit you're likely to be sitting very close to someone at another table. The patio offers a little more privacy, if you don't mind baking in the sun. But despite this, the experience is still enjoyable--just know what to expect.

At What Crepe?, you're made to feel genuinely welcome, like each and every person there is sincerely happy and grateful that you came. This level of graciousness is hard to find, and it, much like this restaurant and its wonderful crepes, is a welcome treat.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

'80s Flashbacks and Game Day Specials at Opus One

Lately I've been reaping the benefits of reduced-price meals; recession specials are the best! (Detroit News just did a story on this; I would just like to take this opportunity to say that I wrote on it first, and repeatedly.) Most recently I had a 50% off the entire food bill coupon to Opus One, to celebrate their 22nd anniversary. I had plans with a girlfriend of mine to get together and when I realized this coupon expired on that day, my love of good deals got the better of me and I suggested we go there. Thankfully, she agreed, and we each enjoyed a lavish meal for a decidedly un-lavish price.

Opus One is both a staple and a relic of Detroit dining. Open since 1987, Opus One has received numerous awards of recognition (though mostly from a decade ago or more) and has staunchly stood by its slightly antiquated formula of fine dining service and décor since then.
Not that there's anything wrong with that...I personally enjoy the fuss of multiple servers and busers tending to my table, scraping off crumbs, refolding napkins, rolling out the banquet cart of desserts and giving a professional presentation of each item. I think it's a bit of a shame that so many high-end establishments have shied away from this level of service, deeming it too fussy or intimidating. My thoughts are if someone wants a casual meal then he or she should go to a casual restaurant, but that's just me. And so I am impressed by and satisfied with Opus One's attention to detail and service, even if it is not in keeping with the current trend.

Not that Opus One is in any way keeping with the current trend: one look around the dining room and you are immediately transported back to the glory days of Detroit, circa 1987. I couldn't help but to think about the old '80s sitcom It's a Living. Don't get me wrong; the inside of Opus One is beautiful, despite the fact that it is incredibly dated. Once again, the attention to detail is superb, and the dining room is quite posh--but posh in that over-indulgent '80s way, with swirling patterned upholstery, lots of recessed lighting, and mirrors on the back of every booth (perfect to pick your teeth!). Coupled with the smooth jazz Muzak playing over the stereo system, and the place feels like an unashamed '80s throwback, minus the irony.

After my friend and I were seated (the table pulled out for us to slide into the booth, because that's what they do in upscale restaurants still observing traditional upscale restaurant decorum), we were presented with our menus. I am not a near-sighted person, but I had to hold the menu as far away from my face as my arms could reach while squinting in order to read it. The best conjecture I can make is that just as the décor of the place is antiquated, perhaps so too is the clientele, making such large typeface necessary for eyes that just simply aren't what they used to be. We got a giggle out of this, anyway.

I wanted to start with the Shrimp Helene, as this is one of their specialties (jumbo shrimp wrapped in filo dough with Béarnaise sauce); however, as luck would have it, they were out of Shrimp Helene that evening. In a panic I quickly opted for the "Philly" Beef Tenderloin Ragoon, made with tenderloin tips, provolone cheese, peppers, and onions wrapped in a wonton then deep fried and served with provolone dipping sauce. Have you ever had one of those Philly Cheese Steak pizza rolls? The kind you would buy in the frozen food section of the grocery store? That's what they reminded me of. The tenderloin was tough and even though the provolone dipping sauce was tasting, I still felt like I was eating college dorm cuisine. Suffice it to say, I wasn't off to a good start.
Until our entrees were served. My friend ordered the Rack of New Zealand Lamb à la Greque--Broiled eight piece rack rubbed with herbs and garlic, with a potato-fennel gratin, garlic wilted spinach, and finished with a natural sauce. I've been eating a rather disproportionate amount of lamb lately and felt a little lambed-out, but when I tasted hers it was simply little lamby heaven. There was almost no fat on these chops (and lamb is fatty, lemme tell 'ya), and they were tender, juicy, cooked a perfectly even pink, and were just simply wonderful. I always enjoy lamb but it can be a little hit-and-miss; this was a homerun.
But it was nothing compared to my Pork Osso Buco! Slow-roasted pork shank served with firecracker apple sauce, garnished with chili oil and finished with sweet pommes frites; the meat was so tender that it quite literally fell off the bone, but ohmygod so tender, so very tender. It was covered in a thick, sweet BBQ sauce (it tasted of maple and apples) and was surrounded by spicy apple sauce and a mound of shoestring sweet potato fries. The contrast of spicy and sweet, the pork with the apples, and the meat so tender, so very was comfort food the way Grandma might have made, if Grandma was into haute cuisine. That pork didn't have a shred of fat on it, and it picked apart so easily it could have been roasting for days. So very, very tender. Like pork butter.
The Ragoon may not have been the best way to start, but the Osso Buco more than made up for it. We followed this with the Apple Bavarian Cheesecake: vanilla cheesecake topped with sliced apples, chopped pecans and cinnamon sugar, served on a bed of crème anglaise and caramel sauce, garnished with almond brittle and a shortbread cookie. It was light, as much as a dessert this heavy can be light, creamy, and just decadent enough to be shared. Pastry Chef Paul Collis offers a variety of classic desserts with creative new twists, including a dessert drink (an ice cream-based Hummer) served in an edible chocolate cup. One of these days I'm going to try one of those famous Opus One chocolate cookies, too.
The wine list is extensive, with one of the largest selections of--yep--Opus One Meritage that you'll see probably anywhere in the world. This wine, a label born out of the partnership between Robert Mondavi (most of you are probably familiar with his eponymous wines) and Baroness Phillipine de Rothschild, of the big-name Chateau Mouton Rothschild in France (one of the top Bordeaux producers in the world, and extremely expensive). With this kind of pedigree, Opus One was bound to be well-received, successful, and above all else pricey. Should you find yourself in the mood for a $500 Napa Valley Meritage, look no further than Opus One, available in a number of different vintages (including my birth year!) at Opus One.

I will also give you a little tip: many wines on this list are quite affordable (the namesake notwithstanding), and the wines by the glass list leaves something to be desired. Splurge a little and get a bottle; whatever you don't drink you can re-cork and take home.

I noted earlier that Opus One isn't always in keeping with the current trend, but recently they seem to be trying to appeal to a wider demographic with recession-friendly reduced prices, a tactic many of the finer dining establishments (the Rattlesnake Club, Iridescence) have been utilizing to get more people through their doors and offer value at a time when people are seeking it the most. The menu is priced quite reasonably (that Osso Buco was only $25.00, the Rack of Lamb only $29.00), with lunch pricing cut almost in half for lighter lunchtime fare. The Bistro Bar also offers pizzas for only $8.00 (available only at the bar), while their Sunday Brunch is one of the best values in town ($30.00 for 3 courses and two drinks included). And now, Opus One is offering special Game Day pricing for Tigers fans.

Enjoy a 3-course menu for only $20.00, as well as 1/2 off cocktails after the game by presenting your Tigers ticket stub.
Prix Fixe Menu

Opus Romaine Salad or Specialty Soup of the Day

Choice of :
Petite Certified Angus Beef Rib- Eye
Maderia Demi Glace, Country Potatoes, Steamed Broccoli

Maple Glazed Pan Sear Chicken Breast
Sweet Potato Waffle, Cowboy Beans, Chevre Cheese

Blackened Fillet of Atlantic Salmon
Mango Relish and Sweet Potatoes

Opus One Chocolate Chunk Cookie

You can also add a bottle of "Chip's Pick" Wine Special for $20.00 per bottle.

This special prix fixe menu is available in the dining room and bar prior to home games and is not available with any other promotions, gift cards, discounts or vouchers. 1/2 price Cocktails limited to $10.00 and under items.

At $20.00, this menu is a steal, and I'm not talking about bases here. Opus One may be a bit dated, but it is still one of Detroit's finest dining institutions, and an opportunity to experience some of their food for such a greatly reduced price is not one to pass up (our $118.00 bill was brought down to $78.00 after my coupon discount; I really do love recession "anniversary" deals!).

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Metromode: From Soul Food to Slow Food--Michigan Slows Down

Featured this week on Metromode (by yours truly):

"As the auto industry crumbles around us, Michigan is slowing down…for the better.

'What many don't realize is that the state is at the forefront of an international phenomenon: the Slow Food Movement, which owes its existence in no small part to Michigan's status as one of the largest agricultural regions in the country.

'Agriculture is our second-largest industry, with an annual economic impact of $63.7 billion (and growing). The Michigan Department of Agriculture estimates that if every household spent just $10 per week on locally grown foods, we would keep more than $37 million each week circulating within Michigan's economy..."

(Read the rest here. Thanks to Jeff Meyers for being patient with my panicky phone calls as I realized that I perhaps bit off more than I could chew!)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

El Barzón: Saucy

Photo courtesy of Sean Gabriel Photography

True foodies know that you can’t judge a restaurant by its awning. Such is the case with El Barzón, a rather humble-looking establishment where you’ll find some of the best sauces under the Detroit sun.

El Barzón is what happens when a chef from Puebla, Mexico works for eight years at a AAA Four Diamond –rated Italian restaurant (in this case, Southfield’s still-shuttered Il Posto) and infuses his knowledge of both culinary traditions into one menu. This is a kind of fusion cuisine you won’t see anywhere else: a menu that is one-half traditional authentic Mexican, and one-half traditional authentic Italian.

Photo courtesy of Sean Gabriel Photography

Chef Norberto Garita, co-owner of El Barzón, uses his hometown of Puebla as a launching pad to present his restaurant’s most-sought-after specialty, Mole Poblano, a chicken dish named after its distinctive regional sauce that is not only difficult to find even in the corner of Southwest Detroit aptly-named Mexican Town but even more difficult to find done correctly. Garita’s is impeccable: a rich, deep mahogany-colored sauce made with chile seco, cumin, sesame seeds, tomatillo, garlic, anix, almonds, toasted bread, platanos, chocolate, and more. Commonly thought of as simply a “spicy chocolate sauce,” true mole is much more complex, and Garita’s shows all the subtle notes of sweetness, fruitiness and spice that are brought on by all the many different ingredients. Time and patience is key here, as this is a sauce that cannot be rushed, and only a truly talented saucier could master. Whether it was his childhood in Puebla, the city from which this mole originates, or his years training in Il Posto’s kitchen that lent Garita his superior sauce-making skills is irrelevant: everything this man pours onto a plate is absolute perfection.

Photo courtesy of my crappy camera

For appetizers, the Chiles Rellenos are stuffed with tasty ground beef and cheese and slathered in a rich yet light expertly-seasoned tomato sauce. The Bis di Pasta, which features Strozzapreti Norcina and Cavatelli alla Boscaiola (both also available individually as entrees), is simply stunning. The juxtaposition of these two sauces—one a truffle-scented sausage and tomato sauce (the Norcina), the other a garlic and mushroom cream sauce (the Boscaiola)—is a palate-pleasing shock. Both are rich and wonderful and to choose a favorite would be impossible (which is why I recommend the appetizer in which you get a sample portion of both!). The noodles themselves are equally exquisite—dense and perfectly al dente, Garita’s years at Il Posto have trained him well on the intricacies of pasta-making (if it were as easy as throwing noodles into a pot of boiling water, I would do it…who am I kidding, no I wouldn’t).

Is the camera or the person holding it to blame?

For an entrée, you have over 50 selections to choose from, and that’s not including the tacos or tortas. Chicken, Veal, Pasta, and the occasional pork dish and Barbacoa (steamed goat), all with portions available in lunch or dinner sizes (and almost all priced $18.00 and under). If it’s got sauce on it, you can’t go wrong, and you’d best believe that everything on this menu comes with some kind of elaborate sauce.

Whether your hankering is for Mexican or Italian, there is a wide (and I do mean wide) variety to choose from, and it is all prepared with the most painstaking attention to detail. HOWEVER (because there is almost always a “however”), the meat is not the highest quality. And that’s my nice way of saying (because I like this place, I really do), that the meat is, well, not good. BAD. The meat is bad. The chicken is tough and more likely than not to have gristle, the veal is even worse, the seafood is by and large rubbery, but the pasta is really really good and I swear to you, I swear, the sauces are simply amazing. And I’ve had luck with the ground meats! Those are good; stick with those. Due to the low-grade quality of most ground meat we’re accustomed to ingesting, even if the ground meat used here is just as bad as the poultry and veal you’ll most likely never even notice. So skip the veal. And the chicken. And even if you must get the Mole Poblano (and most people who visit here really must), just know that the star of the dish is not the chicken, but rather the sauce that accompanies it.

I’m sorry I had to say that. No other reviewer has said that. But it had to be said. I am sorry.

Devotees of traditional Mexican cuisine will not be disappointed. El Barzón offers traditionally-prepared tacos, corn or flour (corn!), with choices of meat including goat, spicy pork, and chorizo (Mexican spicy sausage) and adorned simply with cilantro and lime-splashed onions (the lime takes the bite out of the onions, and is common in authentic Mexican cooking); they also offer tortas, Mexican “sandwiches” served with choice of meat, beans, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, onions, and jalapeño peppers. Italian food aficionados will be pleased with hearty Gnocchi and wonderful traditional sauces such as Bolognese, Palomino, and Arrabbiata—generic Eye-talian cuisine this is not, and Garita has clearly not forgotten his time at Il Posto. The sauces are all incredibly rich and no amount of cheese, butter, oil or cream was spared in making them.

But despite Garita’s finely-honed skills in Italian cuisine, his heart still seems to lie in Mexico. Diners start with a basket of piping-hot tortilla chips served with green and red salsas. Before you read further, wipe that image of Old El Paso Chunky Salsa right out of your head: these are traditional salsas (mole verde and mole rojo, more sauce than salsa which, as we already know, is Garita’s strong suit), more the consistency of watery soup and absolutely chunk-free. The flavors are also unlike any that you’re accustomed to in a salsa; there is very little tomato in either, but lots of, oh, nuts…peppers…chiles…maybe a hint of citrus fruit? Tasting these salsas is almost like tasting wine, trying to discern the different notes of vegetables and fruits and identify them. They become more complex the more you taste them, and change the longer they’re in your mouth. Another item that El Barzón has become known for is the guacamole: fresh, handmade and, unlike the salsa, very chunky. I, however, don’t care for overly-oniony guacamole, preferring to have it overly-garlicky instead, so this was not my cup of avocado. Others enjoy it very much. I stand by Woodbridge Pub on this.

Definitely the person holding it

Desserts—again, both Mexican and Italian—are merely average. Not bad, but not great. Cheesecake, chocolate cake, tiramisu, sorbet, profiteroles, flan…all the usual suspects from both cuisines. Stick to something slightly left of center (like the tartuffo), or skip it altogether. The wine list is also lackluster (something Garita apparently did not inherit from his time at Il Posto), but the hand-written tequila list is most impressive (and at $12.00 per shot, almost as expensive as most of the food!). To give you a point of reference, the names “Cuervo” and “Patron” make an appearance but are just two out of some 25 or so.

Garita (left) and team, courtesy of Sean Gabriel Photography

When Garita opened El Barzón in 2006, many of his diehard clientele from Il Posto followed him to this otherwise desolate corner of Michigan and Junction Ave. (don’t worry, it’s safe; there’s no one even there to rob you). On any given night you might find the surrounding streets full of Beamers, Lexi (plural for Lexus), and Escalades…what you won’t find is a valet. Here you get all the quality of four-diamond dining (except the meat, I’m not talking about the meat) but all the down-home friendliness and casual appeal of a Detroit corner diner. The staff is exceedingly friendly and accommodating, though many only speak a smattering of English (not unlike Il Posto in that regard). And with all entrees priced at about half or less of what Il Posto used to charge, it’s no wonder all the old clientele is willing to make the drive.

To sum it all up, I made a rhyme for you: the prices can’t be beat…STAY AWAY FROM THE MEAT.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Palette Dining Studio: It's Still a Buffet

I just love it when a restaurant has an anniversary (or, in this case, an entire casino complex)! 50% off is my middle name this week as I celebrate landmark anniversaries for both Opus One and MGM Grand Detroit! More on Opus One later (I look forward to cashing in on some $25 caviar tonight), but for now: Palette Dining Studio, take two.

They call themselves a "tapas-style" restaurant, but there really comes a time when you just need to call a buffet a buffet. If a heat source is needed to keep food items warm when they are prepared in the kitchen and brought out in large catering pans that are displayed on long counters with placards containing the names of said food items, it's a buffet.

As far as boo-fays go, Palette is be-yoo-tiful. With a thoroughly modern motif which echoes the look of the casino's other fine(r) dining establishments, Palette is certainly no Old Country. And at a regular price of $28.00 per diner, you can certainly expect main dishes a little more upscale than meatloaf.

Well, they did have meatloaf, but what I'm saying is that it's more than just meatloaf and mac & cheese. I mean, they have mac & cheese, but...oh, forget it.

Now through August 31st, diners can enjoy HALF OFF all buffet purchases (except for Wednesday nights, which is Alaskan crab leg night), excluding gratuity and alcohol purchases. This half-off special also applies to MGM's Breeze Dining Court and IGNITE Sushi Bar--which might not have the best sushi but the atmosphere is incomparable. All of this is in honor of MGM's 10th anniversary, so take advantage of the low prices while you can!

Truth be told, I wouldn't have bothered with a second trip to Palette if it weren't for the half off value. Is the upscale buffet dining experience worth $28.00? Hells no, but I'll pay $14.00 for it, sure.

The choices are varied enough: at the Asian "Far East" station, you have stir-fry, fried rice, gyoza, spring rolls, and select dishes like Kung Pao shrimp. "Fresh" gives you a selection of soups, salads, and breads--I tried the buffalo mozarella and the raspberry vinaigrette salads and was disappointed with both. The raisin sourdough bread--which you can get grilled over at the "Char" station--is great, though. Unfortunately for me, this is the station that once offered cheese tastes, but no more...sad face. "Char" is where all the meats are (as well as side fixin's like mac & cheese, mashed potatoes, and creamed spinach); expect bratwurst, BBQ ribs, BBQ chicken thighs, a prime rib carving station, beef brisket, pork chops, lamb chops, and more. "Sea" is the best of the bunch, with a spicy lobster pasta, a hearty seafood pot pie, tasty fried calamari, sushi, peel-and-eat shrimp, deep-fried shrimp, and those once-weekly crab legs with drawn butter (almost worth the extra $14.00).

And finally, "Indulge"--greedy gluttons will grab platefuls of each eye-catching confection...and feel shame as the Hindi server clears their mostly-uneaten plates with a look that says simply, "Wasteful Americans." Perhaps next time one shared plate would suffice.

While the desserts are the most visually tantalizing part of the Palette experience, don't be surprised when appearances prove to be deceiving. The gelato is okay, the pastries an imitation of Goldilocks with "This one's too rich" and "This one's too bland" (though I never did find the one that was "Just right"). You can also get made-to-order crepes, and I believe there is also the occasional chocolate fountain. The desserts look amazing, as do the intricate chocolate sculptures on display above them, but after a thorough taste test I found them mostly meh.

For real, that's chocolate

Like any buffet, the key is in the timing. If you're paying full price, make sure you have the time to wait as fresh dishes are brought out (instead of eating what's left in the bottom of the pan that has been sitting out for 30 minutes). Also, consistency isn't always the case: my friend grabbed some of the remaining beef brisket which looked lean and juicy, but when the next batch was brought out it was considerably more fatty. Expect other ticks natural to this style of large-batch buffet-cooking: the lamb was overcharred, the prime rib tough. But for now through August 31st, for $14.00, it's worth the price and the patience. The only thing this buffet is missing is pizza...because pizza makes things better.