SimmerD: Great food, fun and ambiance highlight Detroit Restaurant Week

Three nights, three drastically different but equally enchanting venues and meals: like those before it, this fall’s Detroit Restaurant Week was a whirlwind of flavors, sights and sounds. We visited two relative newbies and an old classic to give you a vicarious taste of the town.

On a gray but balmy Monday, we descend upon Campus Martius to check out the newest new kid to Restaurant Week, Fountain Bistro. We walk in to the raspy-sexy strains of Franco-Italian songstress and French First Lady Carla Bruni cooing on the stereo, and take a seat at the bar. As I settle in, I take in the visual as well as aural scenery. The décor here is minimal, but appropriately so; the floor-to-ceiling windows, offering a front-row view of the fountain and surrounding trees and flowers, obliterate the need for any fancy interior design. And despite all that glass, the restaurant has a cozy, cocoon-like feel as the sun sets and the lights come up on the fountain.

For a starter, I tuck into a steaming bowl of pumpkin soup, garnished with toasty, cheesy herbed bread. Much to my delight, the soup doesn’t remind me of pumpkin pie in a blender like so many others of its ilk. This specimen is squarely in the savory camp, with a rich, buttery roux base and hints of thyme. Chef Tyler Herron’s stated French influence continues to be apparent in the main course, a traditional pairing of salmon and sorrel sauce. The salmon is pleasantly salty; the sauce tart and rich at the same time. After we finish the salmon, we drag our coin-sliced fingerling potatoes through every drop of the delicious sauce, leaving nothing on the plate.

Although open for lunch since 2010, Fountain Bistro only recently acquired their liquor license and began dinner service this past June. The lunch choices still outnumber the dinner selections, but manager Majid Abdelnour tells us that the small dinner menu will soon expand, as the clientele has been responding well to the fine dining options. If you’re in the neighborhood from 2 - 7 p.m., stop in for one of the most generous happy hours in town, with $2.50 beers, $3 glasses of house wine, and half off appetizers (try the mussels or lamb sliders). As we transition into colder weather, the bistro will be a spot to warm up between ice skating and other winter activities at the park, with a heated patio and a hot chocolate stand. 

The following evening’s adventures take us down a leafy street in the shadows of the Fisher Building, to a 10-year-old mainstay of Detroit’s fine dining scene. The food prepared by Cordon Bleu-trained chef Paul Grosz at Cuisine is as straightforward as the restaurant’s name: French, upscale, yes, but unpretentious. What sets Cuisine apart from the bevy of Detroit’s fine-dining options are the little touches: a basket of warm multi-grain bread with a chewy crust and soft interior; an amuse-bouche (that’s French for a complimentary pre-meal taste) of cranberry-thyme sorbet. After a first course salad of beets and arugula with fresh, fluffy goat cheese, we try Dover sole with beurre rouge (this version uses tomatoes) and capers. This is a classic combination that, according to staff, routinely sells out when on the menu.

But what elevates this dish from predictable and merely nice to "Pass that over here NOW!" is a generous portion of duck-fat-fried wild mushrooms perched atop the filet. Needless to say, there’s a spirited tangle of forks over who gets to finish those off. A delicate, slightly sweet corn custard brings it all together, tying the earthy mushrooms with the briny flavors of the fish and capers. This dish and others we tasted demonstrate without a doubt that Chef Grosz is not resting on the laurels of being named Restaurant of the Year by the Detroit Free Press in 2002, but continues to move forward with innovative flavors and presentations.

The third leg of our dining triathlon takes us to Cliff Bell's, a venue that straddles the line between restaurant and jazz club with the greatest of ease. Executive Chef Matt Baldridge has been serving up French-inspired fare (with a few Southern accents for good measure) at Cliff Bell’s since 2009, but this is their first time participating in Restaurant Week. Baldridge tells me the interest was there all along, but the timing was never right, always conflicting with previously scheduled private events or with WDET’s Moth Story Slam, which they host on the first Thursday of each month.

Fortunately for us, the stars have aligned this time around to allow them to participate. The DRW menu is rife with fall flavors, like our starter of house-smoked pork belly (translation: inch-thick hunks of bacon), served with fingerling potatoes and what the menu humbly terms "apple sauce" - a cider gastrique with matchstick-cut apples and microgreens whose tartness perfectly complements the fatty, smoky pork. Following this, we share Zinfandel-braised beef short ribs as tender as a baby’s bottom, and a grilled salmon with a knockout side of spaghetti squash in a Champagne cream sauce, so good that I plead with Chef Matt to keep it on the regular menu. He assures us that he is in the midst of a seasonal menu change and that some of the elements of the DRW menu will likely resurface there; I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

Even if the food at Cliff Bell’s was merely average, which is far from the case, the restaurant would still merit a visit for the ambiance alone. If by some chance you haven’t experienced it, first-time visitors are in for a treat in the form of what may well be Detroit’s coolest interior. Original art deco woodwork and mosaics intermingle seamlessly with newer additions: a sunburst pattern behind the stage; a recently-completed mural depicting a bucolic scene in which one of the doormen feeds stray cats. If you’re there to hear live music with your dinner, you’ll want to come after 8 p.m. (check the restaurant’s website for scheduled events); if you prefer to have quiet and conversation, you’ll definitely want to get there earlier. Either way, it’s nice to have the option. 

Although by the time you read this, fall Restaurant Week will have come to a close, there are still plenty of good reasons to visit these establishments without waiting for the spring edition. For those attracted to the budget-friendly appeal of Restaurant Week, note that all three mentioned here have happy hours: In addition to Fountain Bistro’s, mentioned above, Cliff Bell’s runs Tuesday-Friday 4 - 7 p.m., with several drink specials and a menu of inexpensive but intriguing appetizers; Cuisine will begin theirs early November, Tuesday-Friday 4 - 6 p.m. with a small plates menu and half off drink specials. However, be forewarned- after sampling what these talented chefs have to offer, you just might not be able to resist staying for dinner. The bottom line: whether you seek classic and upscale or relaxed and modern, outdoor views or historical ambiance, hushed conversation or live music, Detroit serves up options worth investigating all year long.

Detroit Restaurant Week is produced by Paxahau

Food writer Noelle Lothamer pens a food blog that goes by the tasty name Simmer Down! Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography 
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