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Dish it out: Old and new school eateries serve up good times for Detroit Restaurant Week









Tucked away on Congress Street in the shadows of Detroit's oldest and tallest buildings is a warm, clubby haven of dark wood and stiff cocktails, where bow-tie-bedecked waiters hasten to attend to your gustatory needs. We duck in from the blustery street and are greeted by the friendly glow of Tiffany lamps and the tinkle of happy-hour conversation. We're here for the kickoff of the third Detroit Restaurant Week (DRW), a biannual event created to showcase Detroit's fine dining establishments, whose chefs strut their stuff by creating eclectic three-course menus for a $28 prix fixe.

With its wood-paneled interior, cozy banquettes and classic American menu, it's no surprise that the Caucus Club is a favorite haunt of the power-lunch set. But on this night, a special Restaurant Week preview cocktail party, the place hums with the buzz of a more diverse clientele, many experiencing the place for the first time. Along with Detroit Seafood Market, our hosts tonight are the latest addition to the DRW lineup, and eager to welcome a new generation of Detroiters to their establishment.

The enthusiasm of customers Sean Hyland and Melissa Leger of Walled Lake is just what the restaurant and DRW coordinators from Paxahau Productions had in mind. "We've never been here before but we would definitely come back," they say. "We love hanging out in Detroit." 

The Caucus Club may be one of Restaurant Week's new kids on the block, but it has been a fixture in the city since 1952, when it opened across the street from the once-famous London Chop House to handle that popular restaurant's overflow. "If you're not over 60, you might not know about the place. We're kind of hidden away, not on Woodward, not near the sports venues" says owner Mary Belloni, who took over the restaurant in 1993 and runs it with her son Robert.

Fortunately for younger Detroiters, the old-school ambiance of the chop house vibe still hangs in the air at the Caucus Club. Belloni tells us that most of the staff has worked here over 10 years; one cook has worked in the two restaurants since childhood. DRW director Jason Huvaere says his team included Caucus Club for its "rich history and traditional service. Rarely do diners get a chance to feel this sort of classic ambiance in a modern atmosphere."    

The Caucus Club is known for its fish, particularly perch, whitefish and pickerel. Two fish dishes are among the Restaurant Week menu choices, a Grilled Pickerel with Brown Butter and Capers, and a Crab-Stuffed Salmon with Champagne Sauce, which proprietress Belloni describes as "out of this world." And what would a classic meal be without a classic drink? The bar serves up a few signature vintage cocktails, the most well-known being the Bullshot: beef broth, vodka and a special spice blend, served on the rocks with a lemon wedge and celery stick. 

If you crave fish but traditional isn't your scene, head over to Restaurant Week's other new addition, Detroit Seafood Market. It's just a short jaunt across town on Randolph Street, but couldn't be farther away in atmosphere and attitude. While the Caucus Club harkens back to a bygone era, the Seafood Market embodies the energy of the modern city, as reflected in its vibrant, up-tempo decor. The hardwood floors, exposed brick and high ceilings create a feeling of both warmth and spaciousness, and during daytime hours the large front window floods the room with sunlight. Brilliant yellow lemon-wedge-shaped booths dominate the restaurant's dining room, breaking up the 7,200 square foot space into cozy, convivial units. Patrons looking for a more intimate meal can grab a table in one of the snugs lining one wall and close the curtains to create a private dining haven.

We spoke with general manager Theodore Oresky, who filled us in on the restaurant's brief history -- it just re-opened as Detroit Seafood Market in August after operating as Detroit Fish Market under financially troubled restaurateur Frank Taylor. Oresky is quick to stress that although some of the original staff remain (including himself and chef/co-owner Leonardo Vulagi), things are running much more smoothly under new owner Kenny Akinwale. The original menu Vulagi developed for the Fish Market was kept largely intact, but prices were slightly lowered for the new venture to give a greater value to patrons.

Describing the restaurant's concept, Oresky says it's "like Joe Muir's goes urban chic," recalling one of Detroit's most beloved eateries that once stood on the perimeter of Eastern Market. This "urban chic" atmosphere is fostered not only through visual elements but also musically, with live sounds in the dining room and an attached club called the PV -- for Paradise Valley -- Lounge. The neighborhood, which until recent years was known as Harmonie Park, reclaimed the Paradise Valley moniker in 2008 in an effort to renew the area's association with its African-American roots and the history of jazz and blues entertainment. On weekends, the restaurant's patrons are treated to live jazz piano, while in the PV lounge, DJs spin house music nightly. Martini Mondays are packed.

Since we don't recommend drinking those martinis on an empty stomach, we suggest treating yourself to the Seafood Market's signature dish, Fried Twin Lobster Tails. The lobster meat is removed from the shell, dusted with cornmeal and flash-fried to form a delicate crust.  Because fried food and potatoes are natural partners (think deluxe fish and chips!), the tails are served stacked on garlic whipped mashed potatoes. If fried lobster doesn't sound decadent enough, try the Catfish Belzoni, which is buttermilk battered and fried, and topped with crab meat and lemon beurre blanc (featured on the DRW menu). Oresky admits that fried food is the restaurant's biggest seller, but all of the fresh catch menu selections are also available broiled, char-grilled, blackened or sautťed.

Restaurant Week is runs through Sunday, Oct. 3. Make your reservations now at both the Caucus Club and the Detroit Seafood Market. For a full list of participating restaurants and menus and to make reservations, go here. Bon appetit.

NoŽlle Lothamer is a culinary adventuress, avid cook and food writer. We like those adjectives. Find more of her adventures on her blog, Simmer Down!

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here

Photo:

Diners at the Caucus Club

Tiffany lamps create an intimate ambience in the dining room of the Caucus Club

The classic celery garnished Bull Shot cocktail

A sign over the bar brings a regular interval of inquiries from new diners at the Caucus Club

The Detroit Seafood Market in Paradise Valley

A bustling dining room at the Detroit Seafood Market

Ladies night out at the Detroit Seafood Market

Quaint snugs offer just enough privacy at the Detroit Seafood Market


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