Thursday, September 30, 2010

Real Detroit Weekly: Caucus Club

"Let's just get something out of the way: Barbra Streisand sang here for, like, a week. It was very early in her career and she left the Caucus Club gig to perform on the Tonight Show with Jack Parr, and that is how a star was born.

'But the Caucus Club is famous for more than just this Funny Girl. Originally opened to accommodate the overflow from the infamous London Chop House, the Caucus Club forged its own identity and remains one of the last bastions of old Detroit dining — a throwback to a former era at a time when throwbacks (especially to that particular era) are coming back in vogue. Thank you, Mad Men, for reacquainting us all with the pleasures of the three-martini lunch. For this, the Caucus Club is one of the best places in the city..."

Read the rest of the article here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

DRW Preview #3: Roma Cafe

One of the things I love the most about my work is learning the stories behind every place I visit. Don't get me wrong; I always love trying the food. But it is the story I am most interested in. Every place has its own tale to tell, one that is unique to it alone. Whether that be in a colorful history, quirky clientele, or particularly dynamic chef, uncovering each of these stories is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle without knowing what the picture will look like once you've finished. My job is to describe that picture.

Roma Cafe in Eastern Market is the oldest restaurant in Detroit. Manager Janet Sossi Belcoure is also fairly confident that it is the oldest still-operating restaurant in the country (there are taverns that are older, but no restaurants). It originally was a boarding house for farmers coming to the market, where they could lodge for the night and receive a hot meal. Those hot meals, cooked by Mrs. Marazza, were so good that eventually some of the boarders convinced her to open up a restaurant, which she did in 1890. The Sossi family has owned the restaurant since 1918 and continues its traditions through the generations.

After over 120 years of operation, you can imagine this place has a lot of stories. Many lives have passed through those doors, and they even have their own resident ghost (don't worry, he's mostly harmless so long as you don't mind the occasional swinging door or chilly draft). There is a picture on the wall taken the day after Prohibition was repealed, snapped in the very same bar the picture is currently displayed. This used to be one of the Purple Gang's haunts, the most ruthless crime syndicate in the country during Prohibition who controlled the largest thoroughfare for bootlegged liquor coming into the country from Canada. Al Capone himself was at the mercy of the Purples for his own whiskey trade.

Consider your own fascination with iconic cultural artifacts like the Godfather, Goodfellas or The Sopranos. There is a certain kind of fascination we have with those old-time gangsters, a romanticization of that glamorous life of powerful crime families with endless wealth and reach, who live by their own laws, almost untouchable. It's the power, the violence, the money, the fame that fascinate us. It is the lawlessness, the forbidden nature -- the kind of things we can only fantasize about as law-abiding citizens. Now consider the places these men -- men whose power reached into the very highest branches of law and government -- spent most of their time. We have this image in our heads of old-school gangsters sitting around a red-and-white checkered tablecloth-draped table puffing away on expensive Cuban cigars, drinking bourbon or wine and eating pasta, Tommy guns resting quietly at their sides. Roma Cafe is the kind of place where this actually happened. Walking through the front doors you are walking the same steps that Abe Bernstein himself once took. Who needs ghosts?

This place is rich with history, with stories of Detroit and its people spanning more than a century. The Sossi family decided to stay in this location to retain its history, even when so many other places decided to leave the city. "Part of what is most unique about us is that we're a throwback to a time gone by," Jan says. "We're one of the last holdouts of Detroit history; inside it's like walking in to the same place it was 80 years ago -- not much has changed since then." The hand-carved cherry oak bar is older even than the restaurant itself, and the decor is past the point of being dated to the point of being nostalgic. They also retain much of the old world European charm that was the trademark of many of these restaurants owned and operated by first generation immigrant families: the aged waiters all wear full tuxedos and are career servers, who have made a life and supported their families in this business rather than seeing it as a vehicle to get somewhere else. Jan has one server who has been here 28 years, and another who just retired after 36. Her chef, Mike Saaed, has been with them for over 30 years. Harry the bartender/songbird is 74 years old and always sings "Happy Birthday" to anyone celebrating; Jan says he one of the hardest working people on staff. They are also one of the only Union restaurants in the area (Sinbad's being the other), so the employees all have health care and insurance.

And most of her customers are returning regulars from several generations of returning regulars. While many restaurants have that homey charm of knowing the clientele by name and knowing about their jobs and families, at Roma Cafe these people are actually friends. As in, they go to each other's houses, celebrate holidays and birthdays together (even if it's at the restaurant, which is the social epicenter)...not merely familiarity but real friendship. Jan remembers when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and a group of her friends -- customers from the restaurant -- took her out before BOTH of her surgeries. "I'm very blessed to be in this industry and have so many close friends," Jan says, and I notice that her eyes are just the tiniest bit wet. "We are a family here," she continues. "Everybody looks out for each other, and I approach my customers the same way. Nowadays people are moving around so much, everyone needs somewhere to go where they can have a family."

As the perennial stray dog, I certainly appreciate a place that can create that sense of community, and in the few hours I was there I immediately felt like I had been welcomed home. What I observed during my visit was truly a family feel -- Jan and her staff talking to Jack, a 3-days-a-week-for-35-years regular, all poking fun at each other, exhibiting the kind of camaraderie you have with someone after many years of knowing them. Rhonda, a friend of Jack's, was also there showing off wedding pictures -- a wedding I missed when holed up with food poisoning. Yep -- I've known Rhonda for years and have had many long, deep conversations with her, much to the chagrin of my close friend Sarah (Rhonda's daughter) who would usually just roll her eyes and threaten to separate us. Within minutes we were all talking over each other: "How do you know Rhonda?" "Oh, we go way back -- don't we?" "I know her through my cousin Nancy." "Oh yeah? Hey Rhonda, have I met Nancy?" "No, but she introduced me to Jim." "They were all here for her bachelorette party." "Oh I know all about THAT, I saw the pictures!" "Sarah showed you the pictures?!?" ...and so on.

But this is an old-school Italian restaurant, hearkening back to a time when that actually meant something, and there's one thing that I still haven't talked about: the food. See, I got so caught up in the overall experience that I overlooked part of the place-people-food trifecta. For the Detroit Restaurant Week preview, I got to sample some of their very classic Italian-American dishes -- hearty, heartfelt foods that make you think of a little old grandma stirring steaming pots half the size of her in the kitchen, muttering to herself in Italian because she refuses to speak English even though she understands it perfectly well. The cuisine is inspired by both northern and southern Italy (Jan's mom is Sicilian and her dad is from near the Swiss-Italian border), so there is a wide range of what can be considered classic Italian-American cuisine. Everyone has their favorites but based on an unofficial Facebook poll it sounds like the perch and the meat sauce are the biggest wins (Jan promises they have some of the best perch in the city). Being so close to Eastern Market they always have the freshest products available practically right off the truck, and if they run out they just walk down Russell St. to get more.

This isn't a terribly trendy place (unless you consider the current rising trend of "old is the new new"). They won't have all the latest fad liqueurs but they do pride themselves on their service: if there is something you want to drink and bygod you're going to come in and drink it, they will order it for you. One customer drinks Nocello, a walnut/hazelnut-flavored Italian liqueur (the alcohol equivalent to Nutella), and Jan swears he's the only one who drinks it. Another customer, a surgeon, requests Lagavulin -- a single-malt Scotch that costs them $78/bottle just to buy. But both of these customers are regulars and these are their drinks when they come in, so Jan makes sure she keeps them in stock. "We are in a people-serving industry so that's what we do."

Jan also keeps a very strong wine list with a lot of Italian wines and common favorites (which she updates regularly for changing times and tastes), but what caught MY eye was the Col Solare, a wine out of Columbia Valley made in collaboration with famed Italian winemaker Marchese Piero Antinori. It's an Old World-meets-New World wine that is absolutely mind-blowing, a wee bit pricey at $110/bottle (pretty average for this label) but my hands-down all-time favorite. If you have expensive tastes and the bankroll to support them, they've got some very nice Barolos, Brunellos, and Amarones to choose from -- big, bold, beautiful wines. Oh, you're a California snob? They've got Cabernet from Cakebread and Sterling ("Vitner's" and label). But if you're looking for the same bang on a budget, look no further than the Terra Andina Carmenere, a killer wine with almost as much body as those bold Italians but only $32/bottle. By the glass, try the Dolcetto d'Alba, a nice medium-bodied red that pairs well with most of the food.

Right right right, the food, the food...from the Detroit Restaurant Week menu I tried the Famous Roma Cafe Tossed Salad -- hard boiled egg, garbanzo beans, and plump tomatoes with their house dressing. I cleaned that plate and tried to clean the next, but the Gnocchi ala Palomina was simply too much. Creamy tomato-basil sauce covering tender potato dumplings--a real rib-sticker and proof that vegetarian dishes can be quite hearty. Finally it was on to the canolli, cream-filled shells with shaved chocolate and toasted almonds using a recipe passed down from Jan's grandmother. Everything here is very classic, nothing fancy or trendy, just big plates of good, hearty food made simply with lots of flavor. You'll leave here stuffed and satisfied, in a "Roma Coma" as another FB friend noted.

Roma Cafe
is a little off the beaten path in Eastern Market (near the FD lofts down the farther end of Russell St.), so it is more of a destination place and not so much somewhere you'll just happen by. They do offer shuttle service to all major games as well as ANYWHERE downtown on the weekends (consider the traffic, and the parking, and the headache...). But ultimately it is the home-away-from-home feel that makes Roma Cafe so special and unique, in addition to the great food and long history. As Jan notes, "This is a great place in a city that is struggling to rebuild itself, but it doesn't need to rebuild. It's like stepping into history while surrounded by good people."



Hearty Homemade Minestrone
Famous Roma Cafe Tossed Salad
Italian Sausage with Red & Green Peppers
Fried Calamari


Roma's Heartwarming Homemade Lasagna
Beef Marsala
(Beef tenderloin medallions sautéed with Marsala wine and mushrooms)
Eggplant Parmigiana
(Hearty favorite vegetarian dish)
Gnocchi ala Palomina
(Vegetarian creamy tomato and fresh basil sauce)
Veal or Chicken Limone
(Choice of veal or chicken sautéed in lemon and white wine)


(Old family recipe – cream-filled shell with shaved chocolate and
toasted almonds)
Italian Rum Spumoni
(Roma Cafe classic dessert favorite)
Italian Lemon Ice
(For a lighter finish)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

DRW Preview #2: Coach Insignia

My latest Detroit Restaurant Week preview venture found me at Coach Insignia, the six-year-old fine dining flagship of the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group located at the top of the Renaissance Center, making it the tallest restaurant in the Western hemisphere. This is one of those places that I have ALWAYS enjoyed. It also happens to be the favorite restaurant of my dining partner's, which spurred on a conversation about all the great memories we both have of this place...

Lavish two-bottle/four-hour dinners where we end up shutting the place down and doing shots with the bartenders at the end of the night...

An evening with some of the organizing members of Detroit Restaurant Week during the first campaign (followed by an EPIC party at the Yacht Club; now THAT was a night lemme tell ya)...

Crashing the British Consulate party during some big something something thing by pretending I was with a bunch of lawyers...

Invading the lounge with a gaggle of gays during the Detroit Guerrillas Thanksgiving Eve 2007 event...

Falling asleep in one of the oversized Alice in Wonderland chairs on my first visit only a few months after they opened in 2004 after attending my company's open-bar Christmas party at the Roostertail and my then-mate wandered off to the bathroom then ran into some people he knew and was gone for 15 or 30 or 45 minutes, can't really say for sure, leaving me to my own devices which translated to me curling up in the chair and falling asleep, wine glass in hand (and you BET it never tipped either)...

Ahhhh, good times...

These chairs.

Coach Insignia has always delivered a consistently great experience for me, and it has certainly always been one of those "special occasion" types of places. But new General Manager Ray Kurmas is trying to change that with their new Happy Hour. Every Monday - Friday, 5-7PM the top floor lounge hosts a casual after-work happy hour, offering $4 drink specials on select martinis, wines, and draft beers, as well as specials on small plates such as a Hot Salmon Tostada ($3), Mini Lobster Corn Dog (the restaurant's most popular item, only $4), and a Kobe slider & draft beer combo for only $5.

This happy hour is casual with no dress code; what Ray loves the most about this is that people can come and enjoy the same great food, atmosphere, and service as they would in the dining room but they can come in shorts & flip-flops and it is more affordable. "This is great for people who want to come up and enjoy the view but can't afford it otherwise," Ray says. "They can have a drink and an appetizer and still experience the same full service and atmosphere." His goal is to eliminate the intimidation factor people feel when visiting a place like Coach -- so typically understood as only a "special occasion" kind of place -- by making it more casual and more affordable, even adding more flatscreen TVs into the lounge area so people can come and watch games, etc. (See? What'd I tell you?)

But let's get back to bid'ness...Detroit Restaurant Week bid'ness, which is why I was there after all. Ray informed me that, as of Thursday night, they were almost COMPLETELY booked solid for the duration of this season's DRW (that's 400 covers PER NIGHT). My suggestion if you really want to make this one of your stops is to call every day around 4:00 and see if they've had any cancellations; you could get lucky. Or you could end up wishing you would have taken my advice when I told you to make your reservations early...I'm just sayin'...

We started with the Chipotle & Watermelon BBQ Short Ribs with fingerling potato salad and glazed root vegetables. The short ribs were tender (note: this cut of meat tends to be fatty so if that's a foodie turn-off for you, try one of the other options), but that brilliant red chipotle-watermelon sauce was outstanding, a bold way to dress up an otherwise basic dish.

My favorite though was the 5-oz. Stockyard's Angus Filet, a contender for this season's "Most Bang For Your Buck" award. Served with haricots verts, Cippolini onion, baby carrot and roasted garlic (also served with a selection of sauces, one being zip sauce and the other two being who cares because one was bearnaise and the other was white and I don't eat white semi-solids but truth be told it was probably horseradish but still), the presentation is simple, the filet all buttery and beautiful, tender and delicious, like buhtah. Meat buhtah. (I have a weakness for filet mignon, and this was a fine show of it. And look -- no char! Blessed be!) Succulent and wonderful, if I could get a table I would come back and spend all of my money on this.

Well, that and the Lobster Corn Dogs. Behold, Coach's most popular dish (and after several years of notoriety one that still has not yet been duplicated elsewhere), the concept of the childhood favorite all done-up for adults: tender, slightly sweet lobster skewered and battered and fried up a deep, luscious, crunchy golden brown, covered in whole grain mustard hollandaise and Napa cabbage slaw. Confession: I have a hard time choking down most egg-based sauces (hollandaise, bearnaise, aoili, pretty much anything remotely resembling mayonnaise), especially when poured on as generously as it was here, but this dish was simply divine and I didn't have to plug my nose to taste the sauce, not even once. The batter is so deliciously crunchy and the flavors of the hollandaise with the just WORKS. No wonder this was such a hit at Tastefests past and why it is their most popular item.

I ended up not having dessert but I did have one hell of an outstanding Old-Fashioned. If and when you go, visit Chelsea at the bar -- she can make a DRINK, that one can.

Corporate Executive Chef Eric Ward is stationed here at Coach but oversees all of the Matt Prentice restaurants. He has been with Prentice for over 20 years, and together they have made a firm commitment to utilizing locally-sourced products, supporting Michigan farmers and markets. The kitchens use all organic products and everything is made from scratch (including all the breads and desserts for the entire MPRG made from scratch in their own kosher bakery). Prentice himself has made headlines in the past year for signing a contract with Henry Ford Health Systems to bring natural, healthy foods into their hospitals (instead of that awful pre-packed garbage...healthy food as part of the healing process, fancy that! AND it's saving the hospital money!), and this commitment towards healthy, high-quality products and buying local has been adopted by all his restaurants, from the casual delis to the high-end steakhouses. Coach Insignia is also a six-time recipient of Wine Spectator's Best Of Award of Excellence. ...I know, I just re-read that and it feels a little tacked-on, but that blurb really didn't fit anywhere else and hell, most of you probably didn't even make it this far anyway.

I've dined here a dozen times if once, not to mention cocktails and parties and banquets, but not ONE TIME have I actually sat in the dining room.

Sign up for their frequent diners program to receive all sorts of deals and discounts (for birthdays and anniversaries as well as upcoming specials, etc.) and you can also download coupons from the website at

And for those of you who tend to avoid this place because of parking issues (to valet at the Ren Cen will end up costing you about $25; nearby garages are $5-10), either do what I do and park in front of Tom's Oyster Bar literally right across the street, OR park in Greektown and take the People Mover over which drops off right in front of the building. It ain't a lightrail but it's what we got.

Detroit Restaurant Week Menu:


Chilled Poach Shrimp
(Louisiana-style Creole and rémoulade sauces)
Poached Pear Salad
(Watercress, gingerbread croutons, pumpkin seeds, goat cheese
and Port wine vinaigrette)
Lobster Corn Dog
(Served with Napa cabbage slaw and whole-grain mustard hollandaise)


Udon Noodle Bowl
(Baby bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, green onions and
curry sauce)
5 oz. Stockyard's Angus Filet
(Served with haricots verts, Cippolini onion, baby carrot and roasted garlic)
Miso-glazed Salmon
(Served with Chinese vegetables)
Braised Lamb and Pappardelle Pasta
(Served with peas and roasted tomatoes)
Chipotle and Watermelon BBQ Short Ribs
(Served with fingerling potato salad and glazed root vegetables)


Crème Brûlée
(Classic French crème brûlée with a burnt sugar crust)
Mini Chocolate Coach Torte
(Layers of cashew caramel, chocolate caramel ganache and milk chocolate mousse wrapped in chocolate)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Greening of Detroit LIVE LOVE LOCAL

I'm going to interrupt the Detroit Restaurant Week coverage for a hot second to bring you LIVE LOVE LOCAL, the Greening of Detroit's 20th anniversary celebration happening TOMORROW at Eastern Market.

Hey look, something I already wrote!
Greening of Detroit is a nonprofit organization that has been around since long before the whole "green thing" was a thing. To celebrate their 20th year of growing a "greener" Detroit through planting and educational programs, environmental leadership, advocacy and building community capacity (that's their mission statement, yo), they've decided to throw a party: LIVE LOVE LOCAL.

"We wanted it to be a fun party, and if you have a fun party you should have good food and good drinks and good music," explains Jessica Lange, Special Event Co-Chairperson. "But it's all about spreading the message about keeping Detroit green."

LIVE LOVE LOCAL takes place Saturday, 9/25, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. inside Shed Five of Eastern Market, the largest historic public market in the U.S. Some of the ways in which those seeds (of knowledge) will be sown (in brains) at this gala anniversary event will be through the LIVE LOVE LOCAL Eco-Village, which will showcase recycling, tree planting, urban gardening and other ways to live green. The celebration will also spotlight Detroit's local food movement by bringing together 24 of Detroit's own "top chefs" to create dishes utilizing all local food products sourced within 100 miles of Eastern Market.
Read the rest of the article in Real Detroit Weekly here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

DRW Preview #1: Caucus Club

What began, in a sense, as the "waiting room" for the London Chop House -- intended to hold the overflow from this world-renowned restaurant -- has now become a Detroit dining institution all its own, and has ironically even outlived its predecessor (which closed in 1991). This newest addition to Detroit Restaurant Week is a legend in its own right, and is one of the few surviving upscale dining establishments that still echo of Old Detroit, the Detroit of untold wealth, power and prestige.

But the fate of the Caucus Club was not always quite so sure. About 20 years ago the restaurant was failing, until a woman named Mary Belloni stepped in as a waitress and decided to buy it out of bankruptcy. She still owns it to this day, and runs it along with her son Robert. Part of the reason for their longevity during a time when all the old Detroit staples are shuttering is pretty simple: Mary runs a tight ship. The waste and excess that are the bane of so many other restaurants are nonexistant here, and this has helped them to weather the storm of socio-economic and demographic shifts. Oh, and also the fact that the food is exceptionally good.

Everything they make is done from scratch using high-quality, fresh ingredients. The seafood, which they are most famous for, is flown in fresh almost daily. It is the consistency, dependability, and longevity of their menu; the freshness and high quality of their products; and also their personal relationship with their customers that keeps them open and sets them apart. “[Our servers] are professionals; they do this job because they love it,” says Robert. In other words, this isn't your usual cast of bored college students serving tables to pay rent and secretly doing shots behind the bar while they stand around waiting for customers to come in. This professional waitstaff all has years' worth of industry experience (one even owned several of his own restaurants and decided to be a server because he just loves the job and loves talking to people), and have over time become friends with the crowd of 90% regulars. “We know our customers and we treat them well.” That's a little more of that Old Detroit hospitality for you.

For the Detroit Restaurant Week menu sampling, I started with the escargot. It's amazing how the more adventurous you become in your culinary romps the less-weird formerly-weird things seem, like snails. Totally not at all weird anymore. Things that make you go hmmmm. The escargot is prepared very traditionally, sauteed with mushrooms and garlic served with a lemon wedge and thick garlic toast on the side. That bread is there to sop up all that beautiful buttery garlic goodness, and mon Dieu what an explosion of wonderful, simple, aromatic flavors. I guess when someone decided to put snails on a plate they figured they better put a KILLER sauce with them, and it worked (you really do need a pungent, tart compliment here though -- those little critters tend to be a bit bitter, not really good as a stand-alone flavor). And myohmy I will eat the hell out of some snail juice, mark.

Next I tried a small version of their Caesar salad (I had a lot more eating to do, so smaller portions made sense -- don't let the above image fool you). Another classic, but don't shirk away from the fresh-ground black pepper; it gives a great kick.

For the entree course I sampled the Grilled Pickerel with brown butter and capers, served with rice pilaf and vegetable (here broccoli). The brown butter has a very subtle sweetness to it, having a rich, nutty flavor that makes it ideal in pastries but also in seafood dishes where it helps to offset the ... you know ... fishiness. The individual flavors of the rich brown butter and the sharp tanginess of the capers all create a great harmony in this dish, and the pickerel itself is sauteed for a nice outer crispness and inner juiciness.

Finally for dessert I tried their signature Gold Brick Sundae. Creamy vanilla ice cream with a thick coating of divinely decadent chocolate and a wafer cookie (that smelled exactly like freshly-baked waffle cones), it inevitably made me think of a milk chocolate Dove ice cream bar in a bowl instead of on a stick. This is the kind of guilty pleasure that would send me straight to confession if I were a practicing Catholic.

There's a reason the Caucus Club has been around for nearly 60 years. Granted not much has changed in that time -- but hell, if it ain't broke don't fix it. Decor that may have seemed outdated and antiquated a decade ago is now chicly nostalgic (I think we can also thank Mad Men for that newfound embrace of retro nostalgia), and with the help of Detroit Restaurant Week the Caucus Club just may see a renaissance of its own.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE ... are you curious about the cocktail made with beef broth, the Bullshot? Or maybe you're wondering whether the Barbra Streisand rumors are true? Perhaps you just want to hear me hail the return of the three-martini lunch, which may or may not have any foundation in reality? Check out the September 29, 2010 issue of Real Detroit Weekly for the Caucus Club Tale Part the Second: Where's the Beef?

Detroit Restaurant Week Menu


Caucus Club Caesar Salad
Classic Wedge Salad
(Served with blue cheese, tomato and bacon)
New England Clam Chowder


Grilled Pickerel
(With brown butter and capers, served with rice pilaf and vegetable)
Crab-stuffed Salmon
(Served with Champagne sauce over a bed of baby spinach)
Cabernet-braised Lamb Shank
(Served with root vegetables)
Sautéed Chicken Marsala
(Served with fettuccine)
Roasted Acorn Squash
(Stuffed with wild rice, mushrooms, apple and walnuts, served on a
Swiss chard)


Famous Gold Brick Sundae
Pumpkin Cheese Cake

The DRW Hit List

Later this week I will have a short series of menu previews for your last-minute decision-making needs, but in the meantime here is a quick DRW rap sheet for you.

This Thursday head to Mosaic for Drinks & Appetizers with Detroit Restaurant Week, complimentary appetizers and drink specials from 5-8PM, sponsored by our friends at Crains.

Friday Detroit Restaurant Week begins. Madness? This is Detroit; we're all mad here.

This week check out the Metro Times for your official DRW guide. It's that thing you always grab at the bar while waiting for your asshole friend to show up who's always late. Wait, are we friends?

And finally, win a DRW date with Metromix!!! Or at least vote on the winning couple. Perhaps I should have noted this sooner. Have I mentioned how these past few weeks have made me want to quit everything, run into the woods and learn the basics of survival the hard way? That being said, BJ I'm TOTALLY going to do that Happy Hour thing I promised you in June. I'll get to it in October, I SWEAR. Where was I now? Ah yes; the DRW MMX date. Click on this link, read the stories, and vote for whoever you think should win a date for 2 at a DRW restaurant. 5 winners will be chosen and they will be announced tomorrow night.

As for me -- I'll be at the Caucus Club tonight doing my usual research. I'll debrief you all tomorrow.

That sounded dirty.

Real Detroit Weekly: Hilton Road Cafe

"How would you describe the menu here?" I ask owner and cook Effie Lambros. "Awesome," pipes in Sara, one of the regulars. "My dad says this is my kitchen."

Effie and her husband Steve took over this charming 28-seat restaurant in January 2008. "I was looking for a cute little restaurant in Ferndale and this popped up!" Effie happily exclaims. "I loved it the minute I came in; it had a homey vibe and I wanted it to stay that way." Just on the other side of Hilton Road from their home, the Lambros family has long-standing roots in Ferndale, and the cafe has become an extension of Effie's own kitchen. The bottom line is that food is their passion. "We're Greek!" Effie jokes.

Read the rest of the article here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Detroit Restaurant Week Done Right: Etiquette

The whole concept of "fine dining" has changed quite a bit over the years. Even prior to the collapse of the housing market, mass mentality toward the implied elitism of fine dining (mmmmyesssss) was shifting. Really you could probably attribute it to the Clintonian days of neverending wealth and prosperity for all when people whose pockets were overstuffed with the spoils of 3-year zero-down ARMs had enough expendable income to dine at those same places that were previously perceived to be only the right of the wealthy. Gone are the days of the Patrick Bateman-era $2,000 lunches on Wallstreet.

You could also explore how media has affected this perception, with such hugely successful shows as Iron Chef, Top Chef, Hell's Kitchen, and the overwhelming popularity of the Food Network. Chefs are the country's new celebrities, thanks to a culture that has become much more curious and knowledgable about all forms of cuisine.

The end result of this cultural shift has meant that more people have had more access and less intimidation to experience fine dining, and so the dynamics shifted, the very definition changed. In the late '80s/early '90s, it was an abomination to walk into a four-star white-tablecloth restaurant in anything other than a 3-piece suit. Nowadays it is a rare thing that any kind of dress code is enforced, and you can just as easily show up in jeans.

There is a part of me that mourns the loss of traditional dining decorum, but sometimes nostalgic traditionalism simply must give way to embracing the new order. I love that I can be out with a group of friends and on a whim decide to get cocktails at the Rattlesnake or have dinner at Iridescence, regardless of how we're dressed. I also love that, in the aftermath of the economic downturn, most fine dining establishments chose to redefine themselves and make their prices more "accessible" in an effort to re-attract that same business from before...which means dinner at a place like Roast will cost me just about the same if not LESS than some of the "casual-upscale" chains like, say, Champps or Kona Grill or anything else on that strip of Big Beaver by Somerset. I love that the people who work in these places are all roughly around my age and all share my twisted sense of humor and most of all KNOW FOOD. I love that, especially here in Detroit, food has almost a cultish following, and people get really excited and passionate about it, blowing up Facebook every time some random decides to serve noodles out of her kitchen or someone hosts a dinner party in an abandoned building.

For this season of Detroit Restaurant Week I was asked to do a piece on fine dining etiquette. I liked the idea, but the more I thought about it the more I realized just how much has actually changed in that arena. With this newfound vibrant youthful energy that exists in the restaurant industry -- that customers now embrace -- the rules simply are not what they once were. So-called "table manners" such as how to properly position your napkin when you get up to use the one really cares anymore. These are the rules for a new era.

Rarely you will find a private club or a particularly old-school restaurant in a very wealthy part of town where there is still a suit jacket requirement. But for the most part, and this includes all of the participating Detroit Restaurant Week restaurants, they'd rather you come as you are. My own personal barometer is that if I'm wearing something I would be embarrased to be seen in if I ran into an old acquaintance, then I shouldn't be wearing it to dinner. Everything else is fair game. Nice jeans, cute flats, a shirt that doesn't have a brewery name on it...minimal effort is required to look presentable, and that doesn't have to mean being uncomfortable.

Table Manners
No one cares if you pass to the right or left. No one cares how many pieces of meat you cut at one time. But there are still some basic rules of etiquette that should be exercised, and they apply to most social situations.

(1) Don't talk with your mouth full. It's gross. I'm sure whatever it is you have to say is of such immediate importance that you can't bear to make us wait, but really -- it's fine.

(2) All that silverware can be daunting. In Titanic Kathy Bates gave the advice to start at the outside and work your way in. That's pretty much how you do it. Things might get a little more complicated if you start dealing with caviar spoons and bone marrow scoops, but I'm thinking you probably won't encounter that problem when ordering from the DRW menus. Cocktail forks, oyster forks...when you order something that has its own specific utensil associated with it (oysters, mussels, crab legs, even steak and lamb) the proper instrument will be brought out to you along with that dish. So just use it.

Also, when you've finished a course, leave the silverware you used on the empty dish. More will come, promise. If you have to ask that's their bad, not yours.

(3) Elbows on the table are still a no-no, just like your parents told you. Feet anywhere else but on the floor are also frowned upon, and I say this as someone who'd rather be curled up like a cat at all times.

(4) Napkins go on your lap. I don't care if it's folded halvsies in a triangle, rectangle, or rhombus -- as long as it makes it to your lap, you're good.

(5) Sneezing and coughing should be done into a napkin and facing away from the table. I'm here to eat the food; not your germs.

(6) Do we need to go over tipping again?

(7) Don't ever shout at the server from several tables away. That's just uncouth. You are not a child.

(8) If you order drinks at the bar first before being seated at your table, it is proper to cash out at the bar and leave a tip with the bartender, even if they offer to transfer the tab to your table.

(9) Those valets really hustle and even if the service is complimentary, you should still give a few dollars' tip -- especially if you closed the restaurant down and they have your car pulled up already and are clearly waiting for you to leave so they too can go home.

(10) If your table is full of smokers and you decide to leave the table during a lull in the meal to step outside, it is polite to make your server aware of this.

(11) If you're unsure, ask. You might find it embarrassing to admit you don't know what something is, but it would be even more embarrassing to stumble your way through the pronunciation and order it only to find it completely unappetizing ("these sweetbreads aren't very sweet..."). No one's going to make fun of you; junior high is a long way behind us all.

(12) Ditto with the wine list. Not everyone's a conoisseur, but the sommelier sure is. Don't hesitate to ask him/her for a recommendation.

(13) If you're really blown away by your meal, send your compliments to the chef. It's always nice to hear when someone else thinks you've done a good job, and no one ever really hears that enough.

(14) This is my own personal behavior guide, but it's one I'm very strict about adhering to: when the server comes to your table, make eye contact. Listen to him as he speaks. Don't thumb through your menu disinterestedly as he rattles off the night's specials. Maintain eye contact, smile, and say please and thank you. ALWAYS say please and thank you. You can shuck every other rule here right out the plate-glass windows (except for tipping) as long as you ALWAYS say please and thank you. This level of politisse may seem excessive, but trust me--it can make your server's whole night. Busboy fills the water: thank you. Server asks to take your menus or remove your plates: yes please, followed by thank you. It's simple. It takes no additional effort on your part. It's mindless grade school etiquette. It's a very small thing, but it shows respect -- both that you are a respectful person and that you respect the hard work that your servers are doing for you. Beyond that you could use a butter knife to spear through the tomatoes in your salad and I'll be straight with you.

There are volumes of writing, whole "rule books" dedicated to the subtleties of fine dining etiquette, right down to how you butter your bread (don't butter the whole piece at once, egads! and so forth). Ignore them. The rules are archaic; dated. They apply to a time when dining was still an exercise in elitism, which it no longer is. Be polite. Be respectful. Bon appetit.

Detroit Restaurant Week starts in one week; have you made your reservations yet?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Detroit Restaurant Week Menus

I've been like a dog chasing its tail these last two weeks. Or a writer chasing her never-ending deadlines. Admittedly spending four days in Chicago without opening my computer didn't help me at the outset but was totally worth it. I apologize to you, my brothers, for not posting this horrorshow information two days ago.

Sorry, I'm reading A Clockwork Orange right now if you can't viddy that.

The menus for Detroit Restaurant Week are up; peruse thoroughly and make your decisions wisely and QUICKLY; I wasn't kidding you when I told you how urgent, so urgent advance planning is.

All of the menus have a savory fall theme and there is little that is a repeat of what you saw in the spring, so if you had a few favorites don't hesitate to try them again. Michigan's fall flavors provide chefs with some of the finest source materials for the most exceptional creations; really it's my favorite time to eat.

That and also when I'm really hungry.

The plot points: Restaurant Week is September 24 - October 3. $28 prix fixe 3-course menus do not include tax & tip. Reservations can be made via Open Table and are STRONGLY recommended. Even urgently, if you will. There are 18 total participating restaurants, listed below with links to their menus for your convenience.

Andiamo Detroit Riverfront
Atlas Global Bistro
Caucus Club
Coach Insignia
Da Edorado Foxtown Grille
Detroit Seafood Market
Forty-Two Degrees North
Mosaic Restaurant
Opus One
Rattlesnake Club
Roma Cafe
The Whitney
Wolfgang Puck Grille

Monday, September 13, 2010

Urgent, Like the Foreigner Song: Make Your DRW Reservations

The scuttlebutt on the street is that reservations for this third installment of Detroit Restaurant Week are filling up fast ... at least one restaurant has reported that they started receiving phone calls the day dates were announced, and the majority of others have given feedback that their books are filling fast.


Don't come crying to me when you can't get reservations; I warned you.

(I'm going to be a great mom.)

Make your reservations through Open Table NOW!

Need I remind you:

Incidentally ... is Lou Gramm's carrot-hued 'fro the best white-boy 'fro in all of 'fro history? It just may be. And don't you just miss the '80s where all the rock songs had sax instead of autotune? I know I do.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Drinks with DRW

Actually the full title of this new Detroit Restaurant Week-sponsored series of events is called "Drinks & Appetizers with DRW," but mine has a little more musicality, don't you think?

New this year, Detroit Restaurant Week is rolling out two special nights of noshing and imbibing. On Thursday September 16 and Thursday September 23, DRW is hosting Drinks & Appetizers with DRW in order to highlight some of the unique bar atmospheres we have here in Detroit -- these aren't just great places to dine, but also great places to, well, drink (i.e., to relax, to enjoy the company of one's friends, to schmooze business associates, to mix and mingle, etc.).

On September 16 from 5-8pm, enjoy complimentary appetizers and drink specials at the Caucus Club, the newest addition to the DRW restaurant roster for Fall 2010. The Caucus Club has a uniquely "Old Detroit" vibe ... well, in case you missed it, you can read about it here. And you simply must try the Bullshot.

Then again on September 23 from 5-8pm, head over to Mosaic in Greektown for MORE complimentary appetizers and drink specials just before the launch of Restaurant Week itself. If you've never been to Mosaic, be ready to be dazzled (but not bedazzled; that's just tacky). Mosaic has probably the MOST visually stunning bar/lounge in the city, with a sculptured blue glass and copper ceiling, granite floors, marble, teakwood, brilliant multi-colored stained glass and marble waterfalls. This place is a feat in interior architectural design; check out some pictures from inside as well as photos of the food from the Spring 2010 edition of DRW here.

Both events are free to attend.

Detroit Restaurant Week is a great way to experience the fine dining aspect of the 18 participating restaurants, but Drinks & Appetizers with DRW is an even better way to discover the more fun, casual component of these places. You don't always have to spend stacks of dollars to stop in for an after-work cocktail; the prices are just as fine as your neighborhood corner bar, and the atmosphere is SO MUCH better!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Detroit Restaurant Week Done Right: Tipping

As I promised you earlier -- and I ALWAYS make good on my promises* -- we're switching things up a bit for the blogging component of Detroit Restaurant Week. You'll still get plenty of my snappy wit and I might even talk about food (crazy, I know), but I'd like for you to think of me as more of your ambassador to DRW, if you will. We'll talk not only of the menus, but of different DRW-related points of interest as well.

Let us begin.

Chapter 1: Tipping

Don't end up like Mr. Pink.

Alright ramblers, let's get rambling. Wait a minute, who didn't throw in?

Mr. Pink.

(to Mr. Orange)
Mr. Pink?
(to Mr. Pink)
Why not?

He don't tip.

(to Mr. Orange)
He don't tip?
(to Mr. Pink)
What d'ya mean ya don't tip?

He don't believe in it.

(to Mr. Orange)
Shut up!
(to Mr. Pink)
What d'ya mean ya don't believe in it? Come on you, cough up the buck, ya cheap b-stard, I paid for your g-ddamn breakfast.

Alright, since you paid for the breakfast I'll put in but normally I would never do this.

Nevermind what you "normally" would do, just cough in your g-ddamn buck like everybody else. THANK YOU.

^You see how I edited that? I did that to be polite.

This here's a post on ETIQUETTE.

Let me start by saying any job in the customer service industry is the worst job in the world. The hours are long, the customers are endlessly tedious, and the pay is usually for shite. I speak as a decade-long retail veteran with many friends in the food & bar industry. It SUCKS. You're on your feet running around your entire shift, you're exhausted by the end of it, the hours are long and grueling, you don't get to just peace out when your scheduled shift is over but instead have to stay until the last customer is gone and all your clean-up is done (sometimes as late as 4AM), you can just go ahead and kiss your nights and weekends goodbye since those are your peak worktimes (family dinners ... friends BBQ-ing at the beach ... weekend getaways up north ... nope, not for these guys). And the worst part of ALL of it is that no one respects you professionally even though you probably work infinitely harder than most desk-jockeys who turn their nose down at you for "not doing anything with your degree" (I speak as a person who is now and has previously been a desk-jockey and knows first-hand how much easier it is to sit around, eat and look at Facebook all day).

Oh, and also, YOU the customers (and I am pointing my finger here at the whole class because a few bad apples had to go and ruin it for everyone), YOU don't make the job any easier. I became convinced during my days in retail that people specifically go shopping at the mall or go out to eat when they're at their absolute ANGRIEST just to abuse an annonymous employee. And said employee must take all this with a fake smile and dead eyes as they think "This f*cking b*itch..." (<---SEE! I did it to be polite AGAIN!) but because their financial security is dependent upon groveling for the so-called generosity of such double-chinned beasts they must suffer through it ALL with dignity and poise, their only reprieve coming from chain-smoking cigarettes out back with the other servers as they rehash the evening's horror story highlights and then go to the nearest bar to do a few shots before bed and coming back and do it all over again the next morning for Sunday brunch and OH what a delight THAT crowd is to deal with!

All of this headache and all of this suffering and all of this loss of time and youth and independence and sanity (can you tell I'm super-happy to be out of retail?) is all for one thing: TIPS. These people depend on TIPS. To pay their rent, to pay their school, to pay their bar tabs and who are you to judge -- this is how they make their living, and it all starts with YOU. The beauty of Detroit Restaurant Week is that it IS all discounted prix fixe pricing, significantly cheaper than what you would pay if your ordered it all a la carte. $28 for three courses is a steal at any one of the 18 participating restaurants, but note that it DOES NOT include tax or gratuity. Okay, with tax (and not factoring in any alcohol) you're hovering around $31 ... now the question is, how much do you leave for tip? 20% would be $6, right? So $6 would be okay?


Whenever one receives a discounted price on a meal, be that with a gift certificate or special offers from such places as Half Off Depot, you should still tip based on what would have been the full amount pre-discount. Now for something like DRW it can be hard to figure what the pre-discount price might have been, so let's do some quick hypothetical math. Your standard soup, salad or appetizer will cost usually $6-$12 dollars, depending on the item. An entree at most of these establishments will be somewhere in the ballpark of $18-$28, conservatively speaking. Desserts are usually $6-$8. Now let's take an average ($9 + $23 + $7), and you're looking at around $40 per person before tax (let's round up to $45 with tax). 20% on that is about $9 (and my thinking is that 20% should be a base amount; exceptional service should look more like 30%). For a table of 4, the difference between a $6 per person tip and a $9 per person tip is $12. Multiplied by let's say 10 groups of 4 in one night and that's the difference of $120. Multiplied by the Ten Days of Restaurant Week (but let's go ahead an give them 2 days off) and that's a TOTAL difference of about $1,000 in the server's pocket. Do you see how quickly it all adds up? Do you see how important it is that everyone understand the difference here?

Let's also bear in mind the fact that Restaurant Week is like Fifth Avenue the week before Christmas during the Clinton administration. Do you remember the hysteria when Tickle Me Elmo was released? 12/14/1996: never forget.

It's kind of like that.

Since this year will be the first year in a decade that I will not be forced to spread good cheer during the holidays with a fake smile and dead eyes, I am paying it forward by petitioning all of you to please PLEASE tip your servers well during Detroit Restaurant Week. If they did more than slingshot your food at you as they ran to take the orders of the party of 15 that came in without reservations at 9:45PM, they deserve a minimum 20% tip pre-discount (that includes booze, too). You don't want to end up like Mr. Pink, do you?

Detroit Restaurant Week runs September 24 - October 3, 2010.

*Valid only before 11PM Sundays-Wednesdays, 2AM Thursdays-Saturdays. Not valid with any other offers or discounts. Not valid on holidays or on Sunday brunch buffet. With coupon only. Some restrictions may apply. Only available where not prohibited by law.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Round 3: New Additions to the 3rd Edition of Detroit Restaurant Week

The participating restaurants for this third installment of Detroit Restaurant Week have officially been announced, and not only are there two n00bs in the mix but they've added an additional restaurant, bringing the total up to 18 overall.

Let me break down that +2 = 1 math for you: the newly-opened Detroit Seafood Market replaces the shuttered Detroit Fish Market (both literally and figuratively: the new restaurant even inhabits the old restaurant's space in Paradise Valley), and the historic Caucus Club has also joined the line-up.

The Caucus Club is one of the few remaining pillars of Old Detroit, a true "gentlemen's club" in the very proper customary English sense that does NOT mean "strip club." Initially conceived as the "waiting room" for the world-famous London Chop House across the street, the Caucus Club is perhaps most famous for being the place where Barbara Streisand began her singing career. The Caucus Club is a relic of -- nay, tribute to -- the former era of Detroit's glory days, and maintains much of that good-old-boy Mad Men-esque vibe. Not stuffy ... NOSTALGIC.

Named "Detroit's Best Business Lunch" by Gourmet Magazine, this is the kind of place where the three-martini lunch is still very much in vogue (too bad you can't also puff a pricey Cuban cigar, that would be SOOOO '50s chic). While you're here try their signature cocktail the Bullshot, a mixture of beef broth, vodka and spices that's been served here since 1952.

Another change to this round of Detroit Restaurant Week is the pricing: there's been a hike in the three-course prix fixe pricing from $27 to ... wait for it ... and you might want to sit down ... $28. You okay? You want some water? Paper bag to breathe in? You got this?

Next week I will start bringing you fun tidbits and factoids to get you ramped up for Restaurant Week, which runs Friday, September 24 - Sunday, October 3. Start making reservations NOW through Open Table (and don't think for a second that I'm kidding).

And here is the complete list of participating restaurants for the Fall 2010 Edition of Detroit Restaurant Week:

24Grille – Westin Book Cadillac Detroit
Andiamo Detroit Riverfront – GM Ren Cen
Atlas Global Bistro – Midtown
Caucus Club – Penobscot Building
Coach Insignia – GM Ren Cen
Cuisine – New Center
Da Edoardo Foxtown Grille – Foxtown
Detroit Seafood Market – Paradise Valley
Forty-Two Degrees North – GM Ren Cen
Iridescence – MotorCity Casino-Hotel
Mosaic Restaurant – Greektown
Opus One – Downtown
Rattlesnake Club – Stroh River Place
Roast – Westin Book Cadillac Detroit
Roma Café – Eastern Market
Saltwater – MGM Grand Detroit
The Whitney – Midtown Wolfgang Puck Grille – MGM Grand Detroit

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Real Detroit Weekly: Tom's Oyster Bar

"Much has changed in Royal Oak over the past decade — gone are the punk stores (Editor's note: read--independent record stores, one of which I met Scott Ian from Anthrax one time...that was cool; also the OTHER Noir), head shops and independent coffee houses you could smoke in (Editor's note: remember THAT???); in are the upscale boutiques, chain eateries and high-rise loft developments. But Tom's Oyster Bar remains a monument of a former era, as relevant as ever in this Royal Oak Redux.

'Tom Brandel opened the first Tom's Oyster Bar in downtown Detroit in 1985. He had a vision of serving the freshest fish in the simplest ways, and having fresh fish and oysters delivered on a daily basis. His recipe for success led to the opening of this Royal Oak location in 1994, and Tom's still remains a Metro Detroit favorite...."

Read the rest of the article here.