SimmerD: Counting down to Detroit Restaurant Week

We have to admit, when Restaurant Week rolls around, our jobs are perhaps more enviable than usual: we get to pop into some of Detroit’s coolest and most innovative restaurants, chatting with chefs and owners about their businesses and getting a glimpse of the inner workings of the city’s top eateries. 

In the past, we’ve reported on Restaurant Week from the thick of the action. This year we decided to take a different approach, interviewing a couple key players at two prime DRW locations and giving you a sneak preview of some of the delectable items they’ll be featuring throughout the event that begins this Friday (April 20-29).  

We first dropped in to talk with Athina Papas, managing partner of Greektown’s Mosaic. Papas, in her mid-20s when she opened Mosaic with her two sisters in 2005, is probably one of the youngest restaurateurs in Detroit’s fine dining scene, but she takes it in stride. After all, it’s in her blood -- her parents were owners of Pegasus, across the street, which opened in 1981 when she was just a year old. I asked her what it was like to grow up in the business. "I didn’t know any other life, so I didn’t really think about it," she says with a smile and a shrug. 

She does, however, have fond memories of Sunday family dinners at Pegasus, running around the dining room with her siblings and hitting up the indulgent bartenders for maraschino cherries by the glassful. She also cherishes the yearly family trips to Greece, a priority for her parents in keeping their culture alive.

Although Papas respects her Greek heritage, with Mosaic she wanted to create a more eclectic menu, borrowing from several types of cuisine in an upscale yet casual environment.

"We’re in a location where we need to strike a balance between the stadium, theater and casino crowds," she says. Over the years, the menu has been adapted to respond to their clientele, who favor steaks and lamb chops over some of the more diverse fare. However, you can still find things like lobster spring rolls and other Asian-influenced fare alongside the saganaki and filet.

For Restaurant Week, chef Ali Jouni opted to create new dishes not found on the regular menu, and we got to sample a few. Papas says she and Chef Jouni went out on a limb by not offering a chicken entrée, but with such great alternate choices (duck confit; braised short ribs) you won’t even miss it.

Fish lovers shouldn’t pass up the delicately cooked salmon, plated on creamy spinach-garlic risotto and finished with a colorful garnish of diced red and yellow peppers and green olives. The surprise favorite, though, was the vegetarian entrée -- stuffed vegetables, or yemista.

I jokingly note the absence of a token pasta dish for the vegetarians, and Chef Jouni laughs: "I wanted to do a pasta but she (Papas) wouldn’t let me get away with it." We’re glad she put her foot down. The yemista are truly delightful -- lightly charred on the outside but retaining firmness, the vegetables (yellow squash, eggplant and tomato) are stuffed with rice accented with golden raisins, feta and rosemary. The kicker is a zingy lemon sauce that perfectly marries the salty cheese and sweet raisins. 

Across town, chef Don Yamauchi‘s crew is gearing up for evening service at Iridescence. In a few short hours, the dramatic space will be transformed, with dim lights, the gentle tinkling of silver, and well-dressed patrons overlooking the panoramic cityscape below. But for now, it’s the calm before the storm; servers circulate the large, light-filled room polishing glassware and making sure everything is in its right place. 

Chef Yamauchi is able to take some time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his career so far and his time at Iridescence, where he started in 2009 after stints at Tribute and Forte. Three years in, the bloom is not off the rose; his enthusiasm as he talks about his bosses and staff is warm and genuine. He says that overseeing a staff of around 100 as opposed to 30 or 40 -- as he had done previously -- took some getting used to, but that the important thing is maintaining an atmosphere of mutual respect. We talk a bit about the stereotype of the ranting perfectionist chef who belittles and berates his cooks, and he confesses, "I used to be kind of a jerk when I was younger. But as I get older, I’ve mellowed out. All I’m here to do is teach them."

Yamauchi’s work hasn’t always been as glamorous as it is today; a couple of his early jobs were at a Red Lobster and a TGI Fridays. He says of his teenage gig at Red Lobster, "I was totally excited (to work there). I thought it was the shit.” Like many middle-class American families, he says, "Red Lobster was where you went for a 'fancy' meal out." Gradually, he worked his way up into fine dining, and cites 2001-2002 as the period where he came into his own as a chef. "That’s probably the time when I really started believing in what I do." 

One bite of his cooking will make a believer out of you, too. We sampled two appetizers from the Restaurant Week menu, the blackened shrimp and the braised short ribs. What immediately stands out, once you’ve appreciated the beautiful presentation, is the value--both portions are almost generous enough to be considered entrée-size at other restaurants. The jumbo shrimp are stacked high and slathered with a spicy sauce; the corn and bean relish and crème fraîche are a sweet and soothing counterpoint to the heat. The ultra-tender braised short ribs have a sweet and sour flavor from barbecue spices and a little white balsamic, with wild mushrooms adding a touch of luxury. The meat rests on a bed of white polenta with asiago, the perfect medium to soak up the juices. If you want to try something not on the regular menu, we would steer you towards the corn ravioli as an entrée. The dish features fiddlehead ferns, only available for a very short time each year. Chef Yamauchi has also brought back the Hunan shrimp and Kobe burger, a favorite from past DRW menus, if you somehow haven’t gotten your fill of protein from the appetizer course.

As afternoon slips into evening, we bid the chef and his staff goodbye and head off with a contented glow, loving our jobs and eager to share more of Detroit’s excellent dining scene with Model D readers. We hope you’ll all go out this coming week and take advantage of the great culinary talent this city has to offer.

Detroit Restaurant Week-Spring 2012 runs from April 20-29. Go to the the website for a list of participating restaurants and to make reservations. And go here for a chance to win a gift certificate for DRW.

Read more of what Noelle Lothamer has to say about food at Simmer Down!

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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