C'mon down, culinary adventurers: your time is now

Almost a year ago to the day, our Detroit Restraurant Week preview assignment found us chatting up Mosaic’s managing partner Athina Papas about growing up in the restaurant business, family trips to Greece, and her desire to offer a menu of eclectic world cuisine amidst the more old-school Greek eateries on the block. Read last year's preview here.

Fast-forward a short 12 months, and we’re once again seated with Papas, talking about Restaurant Week -- in the same booth, no less. It would feel like déjà vu, except for the fact that Mosaic closed its doors last fall. We’re now in Santorini Estiatorio, a space awash with light blue, white and beige tones and nautical motifs meant to invoke the atmosphere of the Greek island the restaurant is named for. 

Papas says the decision to transform the restaurant was a response to the changing lineup of businesses in the neighborhood, and to customer tastes and demand. "When we opened in 2005, there were seven Greek restaurants on this street; now it’s down to just a few," she says. "And our Greek menu items at Mosaic were always our most popular." So, for the new concept, she and her partners decided to play to their strengths and create a menu of traditional Greek dishes, but with a modern twist. For example, a take on saganaki involves feta wrapped in phyllo and drizzled with Greek honey; the drama lies in the combination of flavors rather than pyrotechnics. 

Papas and her partners decided that for this venture, nothing less than a native Greek chef would do, so they spent months searching until they found chef Panos Manolas and brought him to Detroit. "We wanted someone who understands Greek ingredients, but (Manolas) also has all kinds of European cooking experience," says Papas of the choice. We sampled his vegetarian moussaka, featured on the Restaurant Week menu, and it was a far cry from the heavy, warmed-over versions we’ve been subjected to in some lesser restaurants. The layers of vegetables are perfectly seasoned and not overcooked, and the béchamel sauce is silky and rich but feather-light on the palate. 

Mosaic isn’t the only restaurant to go through a recent transformation; 2012 also saw the closing of Wolfgang Puck Grille in the MGM Grand Casino, and the arrival of two new Puck outposts to take its place: Wolfgang Puck Steak, and Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria & Cucina. While the Grille featured fine-dining entrees alongside more moderately priced items like Puck’s signature pizzas, the celebrity chef called the old menu "confusing" in a January interview with the Free Press, and cited that confusion as a factor in the Grille’s failure to click with diners. 

The new restaurants, housed in the former Bourbon Steak and SaltWater spaces, respectively, seek to more clearly define the two dining concepts. While Steak focuses on higher-end fare, Pizzeria & Cucina offers traditional Italian dishes at more modest prices, and in a slightly more casual setting. The Pizzeria & Cucina was modeled after Puck’s Las Vegas restaurant with the same name, but according to sous chef Jacob Williamson, the MGM location’s menu was tailored to the tastes, climate, and seasonally available produce here in the Midwest. 

Although Steak will not be participating in Restaurant Week, the staff at Pizzeria & Cucina is excited about its inclusion this season.

"This will be a great opportunity for us to showcase some of our signature dishes, like our handmade pastas," Williamson says, also singling out the antipasti salad that head chef Marc Djozlija likes to eat "a couple times a week."

For our visit, Williamson prepares one of these pasta dishes, Fettucine with Wild Field Mushrooms and Truffle Oil. It’s a perfect example of how Djozlija and Williamson are upping the ante for casual Italian by, as Williamson says, "being strict about using the best quality ingredients and brands." This strictness in the kitchen equals lushness on the plate; deep golden strands of pasta are coated with a rich, hearty sauce and plenty of whole wild mushrooms throughout. The dish verges on a religious experience for mushroom lovers such as myself.

Doubling back to Monroe Street, another newly opened casino restaurant gears up for Restaurant Week. Deep in the recesses of Greektown Casino, Brizola’s executive chef Christian Borden is busy finalizing his menu based in part on reports from his vendors of what seasonal produce will be available. Borden is known around town for his eclectic cuisine and insistence on using only the best raw materials; these qualities have built him somewhat of a cult audience among in-the-know diners, who have followed him from the now-defunct Boocoo in Royal Oak to Atlas Global Bistro to 24 Grille, and now to Brizola. 

When the restaurant opened, its menu was a fairly straightforward mix of top-of-the-line prime beef and seafood, but Borden has wasted no time putting his personal stamp on things. One glance at the Restaurant Week menu confirms that Borden’s creativity continues to flourish; we’d be hard pressed to choose between entrées like lamb with a milk, honey and cumin marinade, strawberry chicken on sweet potato noodles with pork belly croutons and sherry mustard vinaigrette, or beef tenderloin medallions with shiitake and bok choi lo mein.

At $30 for a starter, entrée and dessert, Brizola’s Restaurant Week menu offers a chance to experience one of the city’s top restaurants at a particularly outstanding value. Average prices on the standard menu hover in the $40-$50 range for an entrée alone, making the special pricing all the more attractive.

It’s worth noting, however, that although they’re a splurge to most of us mortals, high-end casino restaurants like Brizola are able to offer luxury fare like Colorado lamb chops and Wagyu beef at prices roughly 20-30 percent less than what an independent restaurant would need to charge for the same food; the gaming tables essentially subsidize the food costs.

Bottom line: between the attractive modern décor, premium ingredients, and Borden’s culinary prowess, Brizola offers a lot of bang for your buck whether you go during Restaurant Week or not.

Detroit Restaurant Week begins this Friday, April 19, and runs through April 28. Reservations are filling fast for Brizola and other Restaurant Week venues; to make yours, or to get more information on participating restaurants and menus, go here

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

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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