3607 W. Maple, Bloomfield Twp.
smaller plates $6-$18
Monday through Thursday; 4-11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 p.m.-midnight; Sundays 4-10 p.m..
The really great thing about strip malls — weren’t expecting that, were you? — is you don’t have to pay to park. Even more impressive is the remarkable way that Detroit-area restaurateurs who set up shop in strip malls — or worse — have made their patrons forget the outside “ambience.”
Root, Kitchen Hanzo, Dynasty Chinese, IndoFusion, and Tomatoes Apizza all spring to mind as examples of how the excellence of the cuisine or the evocativeness of the interior, or both, accomplish that trick.
Bill Roberts has done them one better. He’s set up tables outside his strip mall spot and made them definitively the place you want to sit when you visit Cafe ML. Tall planters, permitting the happy diner to see only treetops and blue sky — no intrusion of harsh motoring-public reality — surround the outdoor tables.
With heated floors and overhead heaters, plus wrap-around windows to be installed when it gets really cold, the plan is to use the outside corner year-round.
As is policy at Bill Roberts’ restaurants, reservations aren’t taken, and on a couple of recent Saturdays he had a long line by 5 p.m. The only reason I can imagine for said policy is “because he can.” The Roberts Group’s restaurants have been delighting the northern suburbs — apparently full of very patient people — for a long time.
At Cafe ML (Merrill Lynch? Marxist-Leninist? No, it’s just the corner locale, Maple and Lahser), I found it harder than usual to place an order, everything sounded so good. Ceviche with scallops, guacamole with lobster, salmon salad with hazelnuts, fish tacos and lobster risotto — those were a few of the dishes I wish I’d had room to try.
The menu borrows from many cuisines and offers more small plates than entrées (just seven of the latter, plus specials). The small plates are divided into small and large salads, soups, burgers and tacos, and then “raw,” “cool” and “hot.”
Raw is steak tartare, salmon with yuzu or ceviche. Cool is deviled eggs with blue cheese, hummus or guacamole. Hot is Brussels sprouts, mussels with coconut milk or Korean fried chicken with crushed cashews. See what I mean about hard to choose?
Chef Shawn Wright’s version of Brussels sprouts is feather-light, deconstructed into single spherical layers, and yet with a complex, earthy flavor, from sriracha, agave and lime. A kitchen helper must be assigned to watch these delicate babies like a hawk, to catch them at just the right moment between browned and burnt. I could have filled up just on these sprouts.
Equally wonderful is sweet potato poblano soup, miraculously not sweet at all, but again earthy and sensual. A kale salad is generous with leathery Serrano ham and Manchego, the ruffly kale adding ticklishness to the mouth-feel. Chicken tortilla soup is satisfying and tastes mostly of corn tortillas.
Main dishes were not quite as stellar as the starters (but then I foolishly didn’t get the lobster risotto). Gorgeous jerk shrimp, with a brilliant stripe of papaya-mango purée, were flawlessly done (as shrimp so often aren’t), but might have been more to my taste without the cubed mango salsa. Brûléed bananas were served alongside with a perfect crackling crust.
Singapore street noodles were not visually arresting; there’s not a lot you can do with brown rice noodles and white bok choy. The dish did have all the right things going on, though — a wealth of vegetable and cilantro tastes, plus liberal amounts of well-cooked shredded chicken and cashews.
A duck special sported a wonderfully crisp, salty skin and sat in a moist bed of green edamame and black rice, braised in an O.J. reduction.
Roberts does well with creative cocktails and boasts a good-sized wine list, with bottles ranging from $28 to $295; and $7 to $20 by the glass. I liked a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: citrusy, complex and more full-bodied than most whites. Sodas are Oogave brand, sweetened with agave syrup; the root beer tasted like ... root beer. Five draft brews from Michigan are offered.
But the most unusual drinks — for a restaurant that’s neither Middle Eastern nor vegetarian —are the housemade fresh juices. One is “Green Arnie”:
Matcha green tea with honey lemonade. Or, go full-bore healthy with cuke-apple-kale or pineapple-beet-ginger.
The green tea is also used to make ice cream, but I had to try popcorn pot de crème, not being able to imagine the combo. Sadly, the measly popcorn, though covered with good chocolate, was just a side-afterthought to the dessert, but the dense vanilla custard topped with caramel and sea salt was plenty wonderful as is.
We understand a lunch menu will be added, but not soon.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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