WAKE 'N' BAKE
Best Bakery - Local
Avalon International Breads
422 W. Willis St., Detroit; 313-832-0008
A pioneer in the Cass Corridor rejuvenation, the Avalon continues to fashion a wide selection of healthy and always fresh artisanal bread, scones and cookies, not only for its fortunate walk-in patrons but also for several area restaurants and grocers. From the slender baguettes to the earthier farm breads, you are certain to discover a specific crust and dough that will please your taste. An added attraction is the owners' involvement in progressive politics in our community, a commitment that continues to be displayed each day in their choice of venue for a bakery that suburbanites would die for.
Best Bakery - Mexican
4300 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-554-0001
Can bread be creamy? If so, can it be both creamy and crisp? The bolillo, a simple crusty roll, is both and more it rivals the tortilla, in this neighborhood, as a staple, and patrons line up all day long as new trays are brought fresh from the oven every half hour. They can also take home Cuban rolls (the owners are Cuban), polvorones (sugar cookies in a wide array of shapes and flavorings), puercos (gingerbread cookies) and empanadas de calabaza (pumpkin-filled turnovers). The patrons' favorite cake is the soft, bland, ultimate-comfort-food tres leches (three milks); you'll also find flan and bread pudding. Open 6 a.m.-9 p.m. every day.
Best Bread - Statewide
Stone House Bread
407 S. Main St., Leland; 231-256-2577
Twelve years ago, Detroit journalist and military historian Bob Pisor gave up the rat race to open Stone House, an artisinal bakery in Leland, 20 miles north of Traverse City. His dark and dense Chernushka Rye, soft ciabatta and varieties of crusty baguettes are state of the art. Yeah, 250 miles is a long way to go for your daily bread, but Pisor does ship his loaves all over the country. If that doesn't work for you, there's more than a hint of the Stone House approach at the award-winning Avalon in town the talented people who founded the bakery interned at Stone House.
A WORLD OF EATING
Best Italian - Splurge
29410 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield; 248-356-6600
From its tasteful and interesting decor (check out the murals), to its smooth and professional liveried servers, to its versatile and intelligent Italian wine list, to the sophisticated kitchen, Bacco is everything a refined Italian ristorante should be. Although many of the dishes seem familiar, they are designed with a creative flair that contributes to a singular dining experience. For example, while grilled eggplant or calamari and peppers for firsts and veal scallopini or pasta with clams for mains sound quite ordinary, their fresh ingredients and subtle sauces make them special.
Best Italian - Moderate
22439 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-277-4990
Tucked away in a tiny storefront in a nondescript shopping center, Deliziosa is one of those undiscovered gems whose patrons hope it remains a secret. Although it's billed as an Italian and Mediterranean restaurant, aside from the "Mediterranean" pita bread instead of a crusty Italian loaf, this is primarily a temple of rustic Italian gastronomy. What makes it a little unusual is the lack of veal on the menu, but never fear the osso buco and the scallopini made with beef certainly pass muster. Rich and savory sauces, dense aromatic soups, and pasta al dente highlight the appealing bill of fare.
Best Italian - Chain
Brio Tuscan Grill
2801 W. Big Beaver Rd., Troy; 248-643-6045
Even though it's in the tony Somerset Collection, Brio Tuscan Grill is a moderately priced trattoria that delivers solid food in an ersatz Italian environment so attractive that diners can easily forget that they are eating in a mall. Brio is part of a small chain operated by BDI, an Ohio-based firm that knows what it's doing. Large portions of well-prepared dishes of veal, pasta and beef are complemented by praiseworthy bread, salads and, especially, flatbread that transcend formulaic chain fare as does Brio's sister chain member, Bon Vie, upstairs in Somerset. (See "Best Mall Food" below, for more Somerset offerings.)
Hungarian-American Cultural Center
26257 Goddard Rd., Taylor; 734-946-6261
At this private club where everyone is welcome, portions and calorie counts are high but prices are not. Affable volunteer waitresses steer you to what's what, which includes chicken and veal paprikash with dumplings, stuffed cabbage and goulash (gulyas) this is nostalgia food for those who don't mind if it sticks to the ribs. Noodles fried in bacon grease, egg dumplings in a sea of sour-cream gravy, pork in several forms you'll be lucky to have room for the delicate crêpes or the dense walnut torta. Open only a couple days a week, so call first.
1426 Bagley St., Detroit; 313-963-4546
Each of the 32 counties of Ireland is represented at Corktown's Baile Corcaigh, if only by a stone in the fireplace, and that makes it home for the lassies and lads seeking a slice of the auld sod. They try 29 kinds of Irish whisky, including clear potcheen from County Clare; they eat imported plaice, the fish found in Irish pubs; and they down Irish soda bread and spuds in every form, from colcannon to leek pie. Co-owner Sharon Mooney attended cookery school in Ireland to get the knack.
419 S. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-544-6250
We hate to make an award to a restaurant that does not spell its name correctly but the bustling brewery on Main in Royal Oak delivers several Belgian specialties at high quality and moderate prices, with a nice variety of light and dark beers. The Belgian take on bouilliabase, waterzooi, is one of the more unusual preparations, along with mussels cooked in a choice of sauces and fries with several dips. Indeed, even without the mussels, the crispy fries must be sampled, at least as an appetizer. Moving across the border a bit, the salad Nicoise, coq au vin and steak frites, with a hanger steak thicker than what you would get in Brussels or Paris, all strike a note of Gallic authenticity.
579 Monroe St., Detroit; 313-961-1550
Vassos and Eleni Avgoustis and their son George opened Cyprus Taverna to raves in the early '90s. Proving wrong those who used to suspect that there was only one kitchen in Greektown that prepared food for all of the restaurants and delivered it through a system of underground tunnels, they offered several new dishes and different versions of the old standards. Vassos is the patriarch of his family's restaurant, welcoming guests and suggesting daily specials like lamb riganato and salmon stuffed with shrimp, crabmeat and feta cheese with a lemon dill sauce. Do not pass it up.
Best Culinary Grand Tour
28875 Franklin Rd., Southfield; 248-208-7500
You can put together a virtual grand tour of Europe on the Internet, but why not try something that you can sink your teeth into like Pi's cuisine, which roams the Old World from Irish lamb stew to Greek lamb chops? In between you can stop off for the seldom-seen-here Portuguese salt cod, French bouillabaisse, Hungary's chicken paprikash and Poland's bigos. The reasonably priced wine list also roams the Old World for bargains while the varied beer list includes quaffs from Macedonia and Russia. Live jazz from the New World enhances the evening.
545 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-547-6699
221 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor; 734-998-4746
Other Ethiopian restaurants are less expensive, but none serves split peas and lentils, greens and cabbage that reveal their essences more intensely than does the Blue Nile. These and the little mounds of chicken, lamb and beef, arranged on giant rounds of spongy injera, challenge the diner to make the most of the "all-you-care-to-eat" policy. It'd be worth going even if you didn't get to eat with your hands.
Irie Caribbean Cuisine
45580 Cherry Hill Rd., Canton; 734-844-8892
"Irie" (EYE-ree) means "feeling just fine," and owner Robert Campbell has done his best to re-create the warmth of Jamaica in the Michigan exurbs, with walls and plates of yellow, coral and deep-sea-green and -blue. Besides the spicy goat, chicken and pork dishes and traditional escovitched fish, be sure to order the appetizer sampler with its crab cakes, jerk wings, fried plantains, coconut-flavored shrimp and, best of all, codfish fritters with a mango-coconut-pineapple dipping sauce. Authentic island soft drinks such as Kola Champagne and peanut-flavored Irish Moss are on hand, as are luscious tropical desserts. Unfortunately, no liquor license, no rum.
Señor López Taqueria
7144 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-551-0685
Two foolproof indices for a Mexican restaurant are its beans and its chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles), and Sr. Rafael López passes both tests at the head of the class. The deliciously smoky chiles (poblano peppers) are grilled, peeled, stuffed with Muenster and barely dipped in egg batter before frying. Another reason to skip the Bagley strip and head west on Michigan would be the López beans, which are whole, not mashed and refried. They're cooked fresh every day, without lard. Rich, golden chicken soup, crisp whole tilapia, ceviche and breakfast served anytime are more arguments for avoiding the tourist traps. No more chimichangas!
Best Central American
3456 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-841-7753
Take a break from Mexican food; you may never look back. This summer Guatemalan owners Elda and Rafael Castellano celebrated El Comal's 15th anniversary of bringing customers juicy tamales and the black beans that are eaten twice a day at home, best served with sweet fried plantains and the faintly sour crema. They dish up El Salvador's national food, the quesadilla-like pupusas, and fill them with chicharrones, cheese, beans or loroco flowers, which have a taste, some say, between squash and broccoli. Not Central American but most dazzling is the Colombian bandeja paisa: sausage, plantains, rice and beans, a corncake (arepa), yuca, empanada (meat pie), chicharrones and a fried egg on top.
Tango Bravo Argentine Grill
4600 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-633-0314
Argentinean chefs Ester Gomez and Jorge Bonafé do a masterful job with the traditional parrillada, an array of cuts from the more fibrous parts of the cow, crowned with the pungent garlic- and parsley-based sauce chimichurri. Appetizers like tortilla de papas, a potato-onion pie, don't disappoint, nor do dulce de leche and flan for dessert. This former Subway is now glamorously decorated with bright paintings of hot tango dancers; it's a stylish and surprisingly affordable addition to the Mexicantown neighborhood.
30005 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-851-8200
From the familiar (hummus, kebabs) to the exotic (sun-dried limes, ground walnut-and- pomegranate paste), Pars is seeking both to satisfy the Iranian community and to recruit others to its intriguing cuisine. Chicken, lamb and beef are combined with rice, herbs (cilantro, fenugreek), fruits (raisins, dates) and nuts (almonds, pistachios) to create perfectly grilled dishes new to most Detroiters' palates but very welcome if you feel you've eaten a lifetime's worth of chicken shwarma. Be sure to try the soups and the grilled eggplant starters.
6880 E. 12 Mile Rd., Warren; 586-751-5288
Although the dim sum that won last year's laurels is still estimable, this year we salute Golden Harvest for its regular fare. Maritime delights are one of the specialties on that extensive menu with the walnut shrimp and sizzling seafood platter among the favorites. For vegetables it is difficult to beat their hot pot of garlicky eggplant. Almost all of the clientele is Asian, and many patrons order intriguing-looking items that don't appear to be on the Anglo menu. Walk around the room before taking your seat to see what they're eating, and then point to the tables of interest when your server approaches. And even though she might inform you that Americans don't care for the soup that comes with, order it.
Best Indian - Suburbs
Ashoka Indian Cuisine
3642 Rochester Rd., Troy; 248-689-7070
Ashoka's chefs cook a myriad of complex dishes from both northern and southern regions of India. Vegetarians can delight in the many choices, while the non-veg dishes, as they are called, are also abundant. The lunch buffets a good way to sample the fare are so busy that the food is as fresh as when ordered from the menu. When ordering dinner, specify a thali, which for a couple of bucks adds a tray full off sides that include dal, lentils; raita, yoghurt and vegetable salad; sambar, a vegetable soup or sauce; and kheer, a thin, sweet rice pudding.
Best Indian - Detroit
136 Monroe St., Detroit; 313-963-2860
This tiny northern Indian spot is popular with the masses across the street at Compuware for its carry-out buffet all you can stuff into a box for $7.95. Menu standouts are lentil soup, lamb biryani and vindaloo, chicken saagwala, and a fabulous rice pudding; an "Indo-Chinese" section (Chinese as it's done in India), with spicy dishes like Chili Chicken, is popular with natives of India. It's under new management, reportedly with expanded options. See sizzlnspice.com.
Yotsuba Japanese Restaurant and Bar
7365 Orchard Lake Rd., West Bloomfield Twp.; 248-737-8282
If you seek more than sushi, come to Yotsuba for grilled asparagus wrapped in beef and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds; soft-shell crabs in a light tempura; soups full of fat, slippery udon noodles; asparagus and avocado salad with carrot dressing; or scallops in cream sauce. Every plate is beautifully constructed, both visually and for the palate; water tinkles in a little grotto; the tastes harmonize delightfully while portion sizes are generous. Hard to believe that this is the culture that invented karaoke, which is indeed practiced here in the late evening hours. A twin in Ann Arbor is at 222 Hogback Rd., 734-971-5168. yotsuba-restaurant.com.
Best Japanese Salaryman's Bar
6073 Haggerty Rd., West Bloomfield Twp.; 248-624-8666
This izakaya, or pub, serves plenty of authentic everyday Japanese food to go with the beers, sake and warm sochu that visiting engineers seek after a hard day at work designing cars. They find rows and rows of the clear liquor distilled from barley, potatoes, rice or buckwheat. Complex dishes such as beef and tofu soup, tempura soba (buckwheat noodles with fried shrimp in broth), grilled eggplant topped with ginger and grilled mackerel are presented gracefully and worth staying sober for. This is the place these businessmen go when they're spending their own money.
Best Vietnamese - Upscale
Annam Restaurant Vietnamien
22053 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-565-8744
This most elegant (but affordable) of Vietnamese restaurants serves sophisticated and delicate dishes with Far Eastern grace, in both the presentation and the surroundings. Where else will you find lime dipping sauce, lotus stem salad topped with fresh mint, or soups made with tamarind and pineapple? Annam uses much fish and shrimp, vermicelli, lemongrass, fresh herbs ingredients that make you feel virtuous as well as delighted. They're stir-fried in minimal oil and the result is delicate and refreshing, with an occasional flash of fire.
Best Vietnamese - Budget
30921 Dequindre Rd., Madison Heights; 248-583-9210
The decor is barebones in this strip mall storefront, but the lightness and style of Vietnamese cooking shine through the Spartan surroundings. The clear but chock-full soups are the standouts, especially pho, beef noodle soup, served with bean sprouts and basil leaves. Wonton, udon, vermicelli and rice noodles are combined with pork, duck, catfish or shrimp in a myriad of ways, and the soup-averse can order pork chops. A majority of entrées cost $6.
Pad Thai Café
6601 Orchard Lake Rd., West Bloomfield Twp.; 248-737-5941
Chef Daniel is back. The dining room has been redecorated, but we care most about the food. Pad Thai, the namesake dish, is at its best here. Ask for Khao Soi, not presently on the menu. It's another noodle dish, with a peanut curry sauce, delicious with pieces of lean pork. Requested spice levels are adhered to. The light crispy apple salad is made with Granny Smith apples and onions with toasted coconut, a few pieces of chicken and shrimp in a light vinegar sauce. Healthy whole grain brown rice is available on request.
Best Asian Restaurant You Never Heard Of
Hankuk Oriental and Korean Market
33717 S. Gratiot Ave., Clinton Township; 586-791-8877
Only around 30 diners at a time can feast on homemade Korean fare in the tiny plain eating space next to the larger market out in Clinton Township. All the classics are here, from an unusual salad-like take on bibimbab to potstickers to bulgogi. As in Korea, garlic reigns supreme dominating ojinga-bukum, stir-fried squid with onions and carrots and kimchi-chigae, an incendiary broth full of that cabbage treat, stir-fried pork and green onion. If in the unlikely event you have to wait for a table, you can poke around the market that contains Asian culinary exotica.
A LA CARTE
Best Onion Soup
100 Townsend St., Birmingham; 248-642-5999
For most of us, the upscale Rugby Grill in the tony Townsend Hotel has to be a special-occasion destination. But if are able to find a lot of spare change, this is the spot for traditional onion soup with crusty cheese and a touch of sherry. The cheese is so wonderfully stringy that you might make a mess of your tablecloth, an embarrassing prospect in such an elegant dining room. By the way, choose the old English drawing room over the awkward hallway eating space. And while you are at it with classics, Dover sole makes for a splendid entrée. And, if you're lucky, you might catch sight of a visiting entertainer or ballplayer. MT readers vote this the best spot in town to spot a celeb.
Best Tapas, Authentic
6041 Haggerty Rd., West Bloomfield Twp.; 248-669-6160
The Spanish appetizers here are the real thing, not just any old "small plate." They feature lots of garlic, cheese, olives, shrimp and Serrano ham you could be in Barcelona. Many dishes, like carpaccio with Manchego cheese are rich and wonderful with Spanish wine but the plates of Spanish cheeses and marinated olives are just as good. After 10 p.m., professional dancers illustrate the tango, and the kitchen stays open late to sustain the patrons. www.tucantango.com.
Best Dim Sum
6407 Orchard Lake Rd., West Bloomfield Twp.; 248-626-8585
Dim sum, translated as "delight of the heart," preceded the "small plates" that are so popular today. It refers to the succulent dumplings and morsels, noodles, vegetables, soups and appetizer-portions of entrées that servers deliver on rolling carts. Each cart contains several selections, and each portion is typically small, holding perhaps two or three pieces of each item. On any given day there may be 75 or 80 different choices. The barbecued pork buns and the seafood stuffed peppers are recommended. The garlic chive dumplings are a must. The presence of a huge Asian crowd at Shangri-La attests to its authenticity.
32748 Woodward Ave., Royal Oak; 248-554-9881
The vast majority patrons who come to this plain storefront with space for ten diners are there for takeout. It is comforting to see that the chefs take longer than expected with the orders, which suggests that most of the items are made from scratch. Ultra-fresh and artfully spiced ingredients combine with pickled turnips and yogurt to make a falafel feast. The portions, even those labeled lunch-size, are as generous as the price is modest. Beyond the falafel, the chicken shwarma is moister than most, and the kibbee, made from beef, not lamb, is well-seasoned. You can try most of the menu in foot-long wraps.
Best Brewpub Food
Detroit Beer Co.
1529 Broadway, Detroit; 313-962-1529
There is a good deal of similarity between last year's winner, the Royal Oak Brewery, and its sister establishment downtown. But there are enough differences to hand this year's trophy to the Detroit Beer Co. For one thing, it looks more like a brewery and the intoxicating aromas from Weiss Happening and the Detroit Dwarf are more noticeable. With calorie-laden specialties like chicken smothered in Muenster cheese floating on spaetzle, barbecued ribs basted in the brewery's Red Ale, and brewmaster's shepherd's pie, this is no place for anyone who drinks light beer.
Ivanhoe Café aka Polish Yacht Club
5249 Joseph Campau, Detroit; 313-925-5335
This legendary inland yacht club is still around in its kitschy, nautically themed bar, though it's primarily open only for weekday lunches and for dinner on Fridays. Inside the rambling century-old building that is in its fifth generation of hands-on family management, perch aficionados are consistently pleased by the surprising lightness of the batter and the little critters' moist meat. The creamy coleslaw and broad-cut fries that come with are two other celebrated items on the bill of fare. The portions are generous as are the wine pours and beer boombas. However, there is no place to tie up your boat.
Best Cheese Steak
Gabriel's Hoagie Shop
2585 E. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti; 734-483-5846
There are plenty of good cheese steaks under the radar screen on menus everywhere. But at Gabriel's, cheese steaks are the menu. In other words, the choices are few with or without hot peppers being the biggest decision to make. No pretenses here, just a made-to-order hoagie. Oh yeah, Cheese Whiz or Provolone. Cheese Steaks are not complicated. Visit the Web site of Pat's King Steaks, or one of the true bastions of Philly Cheese Steaks in Philadelphia for the recipe. The quality of the ingredients is what counts. Gabriel's does it right.
23141 Dequindre Rd., Hazel Park; 248-547-1711
In this fiercely contested category, Loui's wins for its deep-dish pies, which have deftly charred-crunchy crusts and an appropriately greasy, sublime blend of cheese and tomatoes. It helps that the pies and tangy salads are served on plastic dinnerware in a quintessential pizza parlor with red-checked tablecloths, hundreds of old-fashioned Chianti bottles hanging from the walls and colorful veteran servers. Way off the beaten track in Hazel Park (although close to the raceway), this family-friendly, boisterous institution that has been turning out the pies for 30 years also features reasonably priced boombas and wine. Plus, you gotta love a place that offers Old Grandad and Coke as a drink special.
Best Pizza - Windsor
555 Erie St. E., Windsor, Ontario; 519-258-7555
The wood-fired oven at the back of the room strikes you as you enter one of Little Italy's favorites. Making pizza in one of these is tricky. The wood is off to one side. The heat is less even. Perhaps this is why Gavino, the pizzaiolo, has been here for so long he's got the knack. The pies aren't the familiar thick bread, laden with mounds of cheese and pepperoni; rather, they're covered with a splash of sauce and a light sprinkling of cheese, then topped with vegetables mushrooms, parsley, olives or artichokes and maybe a slice or two of prosciutto. The Italian way. Delizioso.
Best New York Slice
My Cousin's New York Pizzeria
42967 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; 248-874-9999
You used have to go to New York to see people eating a large folded slice of pizza. Now you just have to go to Square Lake Road and Woodward Avenue to find the real deal. Some transplanted New Yorkers serve a generous slice for $2.25. This is no franchise. The dough is thin, not cracker crisp, but thin and chewy. The sauce has some flavor, not bland, nor thick and cloying. The cheese is creamy. This is genuine New York-style pizza. There are also some heros, salads and pizza rolls; even a few entrées. So far we can only vouch for the 'za.
Best New Idea or Best New Comfort Food
Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup
32407 Northwestern Hwy., Farmington Hills; 248-626-6767
Chef-owner Jeffrey McArthur delivers good food, though not the style served at Tribute, one of the restaurants where he got his chops. The most expensive item on the menu is a $9 soft-shell crab salad. Ten soups change daily naturally the tomato bisque is tops. There are nine grilled cheese sandwiches and six baguette sandwiches. "Comfy Stuff" includes mac and cheese, pot roast, meatloaf, chicken pie and beef stew, each priced at $7. There are salads Maurice, Caesar, Tuna Nicoise, Cobb among them. This place is packed at lunchtime, as it should be.
Best Soup - Chain
Locations throughout Detroit metropolitan area; zoup.com
How does one go about developing some 200 or so soups without also developing considerable girth? The answer to the question is not germane. What is important is that the Zoup! test kitchens came up with a lot of good soup. A recent day's offerings included seafood chowder, macaroni and cheese, Sicilian pizza, mulligatawny and the staple, old-fashioned chicken noodle. Yes, these are all soups. Twelve are always on the menu, which changes daily. There are also fresh salads that can be ordered as wraps and panini sandwiches too.
Star of India
180 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-546-5996
Does anyone not start an Indian meal with a samosa, the Indian version of the pasty, pupusa, empanada, etc.? It's so down-to-earth, yet so delectable. The pastry in Star of India's samosa is just flour, oil and salt it's the multiple layers that make it flaky. The giant-size triangular confection is filled with either ground lamb and peas or, in the vegetarian version, potatoes and spices. The dipping sauces, one sweet and one hot, just gild the lily.
The Fly Trap
22950 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-399-5150
Where else can you get a plate of gingerbread waffles covered in sautéed apples and cinnamon syrup or any number of creative egg rumbles with a side of garlicky fried potatoes? What other Detroit-area diner makes its own herb-infused jams and fermented pickles and hot sauce? From the delicious sandwiches to the ska-powered sound system to the myriad vegetarian offerings, the Fly Trap is quality hip dining defined. And the food is somehow priced similar to a chain restaurant or cheaper! If they served a bloody Mary we might never leave.
Best Pasta Dish
Andiamo Italia West
6676 Telegraph Rd., Bloomfield Township; 248-865-9300
Sometimes the best food is the simplest. Linguine con Salsa di Pomodoro al Basilico, otherwise known as tomatoes and basil, is as basic as it gets. Soon to be on the menus at all of the restaurants in this family-owned operation, this dish is pure Italian comfort food. Simmer plum tomatoes, a little onion and garlic softened in olive oil and some fresh basil, all for a classic dish. Tell your server if you'd prefer another shape of pasta. Specify al dente, slightly firmer than the way it is usually served.
273 Pierce St., Birmingham; 248-645-9123
Proprietor Bill Roberts has the magic touch. Ask him how he does it and he'll tell you that he has great people. Together they run this small storefront fish house. There is always a convivial atmosphere at the crowded bar that you squeeze by on the way to a table. Daily specials complement the regular menu. From appetizers to dessert, it's hard to go wrong with this menu. The soups (a favorite is the lobster bisque) are made fresh daily. The fish is fresh. The choices are varied and interesting, with a nod to New Orleans (gumbo), another to Italy (scampi). Nothing's boring here, ever.
Best Cuban Sandwich
Vicente's Cuban Cuisine
1250 Library St., Detroit; 313-962-8800
A Cuban sandwich, correctly prepared, is somehow better than the sum of its parts. Made with roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard and mayo on Cuban bread, all pressed on a sandwich grill that crisps the edges of the bread and heats the filling; it's warm, crunchy and chewy at once. The heat moistens the meats and brings out their flavor, much better than a cold sandwich made with the same ingredients. Chef Roberto Caceres has been cooking Cuban food all his life. Let the sandwich be a starting point.
Slows Bar BQ
2138 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-962-9828
One secret of Slows' tender and succulent ribs is the rotating selection of house-made sauces: mustard, apple, spicy (fruity and hot but not overboard), sweet (woody) and a vinegar-based North Carolina. Another is the dry rub applied by chef Brian Perrone before subjecting the pig meat to eight to 10 hours of slow cooking over a wood fire in the smoker. Wash it down with one of the 120 beers in a bottle or 20 on tap. Carnivores don't get any happier than here.
Best Collards/Short Ribs
Motown Soul Food Café
3011 W. Grand Blvd., Fisher Building, Detroit; 313-556-9993
These two dishes are best sampled together, as their opposite natures complement each other beautifully. The collards are sharp and pungent, with plentiful ham chunks and a firm, non-squishy character, not limp as so many greens are. They've been cooked just the right amount of time to bring out their peppery quality. The braised beef short ribs, on the other hand, are so rich and tender they dissolve upon the tongue, a sensation that may be as much about their fat content as about their hours in the cooker.
Best Mac and Cheese
116 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-544-7300
Those who have long relied on Kraft for their mac-and-cheese fix will have a surprise coming at Town Tavern. At this smashing new ersatz 1930s tavern, retrofitted to 2007, Beverly Hills Grill founder Bill Roberts refrofits this classic dish as well by using creamy mascarpone cheese flecked with lobster tidbits. This clearly isn't your kids' macaroni and cheese nor is the Town Tavern a tavern, especially since it has no beer on draft. Instead, it's a trendy bistro with a menu that scours the continents for imaginative appetizers and entrées.
Best Duck Soup
27925 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-489-2280
Duck is chicken's well-heeled cousin, and no one would mistake duck soup for a cold cure-all. It's supposed to be rich, and Hong Hua achieves this result by shredding a great deal of dark duck meat and chopping a great many mushrooms and simmering them in a thickened broth. The effect is just ducky. The Szechuan hot and sour soup, by the way, is also way above the competition, more complex and flavorful than hot.
3710 Junction St., Detroit; 313-894-2070
Chef Norberto Garita's home state, Puebla, is famous for its moles (that's where mole poblano comes from). His vibrant mahogany-colored mole combines a long list of spices, chiles, nuts, fruits, seeds and, yes, bitter chocolate to make a sauce for chicken that has an unusual rich, fruity taste, much less cumin-y than many moles. It takes a hand mill, sautéing, pureeing, and "a lot of work and a lot of time," according to Garita. Customers say it's worth it. Also try nutty pipian, a pale green sauce made with pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, chile verde, and hierba santa.
1300 Porter St., Detroit; 313-963-8833
It doesn't seem fair that one of Detroit's best desserts is available only for lunch or at the geezer dinner hour McNally's closes at 4 or 6, depending on the day. On the other hand, bread pudding with whisky sauce could make your afternoon a lot mellower. Chef Rob McDonald first made this egg-sugar extravaganza more than a decade ago, and the deli nearly runs out every day. His sauce uses Jameson's Irish Whisky, butter and sugar in proportions he won't reveal. Eph's now has a second location, downtown, on Woodward Avenue just north of Congress (313-964-4511).
Best Ice Cream
Oberweis Ice Cream and Dairy Store
304 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-336-0303
For some, super premium ice cream this rich and creamy might be considered a splurge. Others have been popping in regularly to work their way through the multitude of flavors in cones, sundaes, sodas, floats, malts and milkshakes. Everything starts with real milk produced without artificial growth hormones. More than an ice cream shop, Oberweis sells milk in glass bottles, cottage cheese, sour cream and other dairy products as well ice cream pies and cakes. They serve fruit smoothies in a variety of flavors such as mango and raspberry lemonade. Udderly Truffle with Caramel Topping makes a very good sundae.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Best Suburban Dining
For more than a decade, Royal Oak, with such gems as the recently shuttered Lepanto and Little Tree Sushi bar, has held the laurels in this category. Recently, however, Ferndale has passed it with more high-quality, adult-dining venues, including Via Nove, Assaggi and Maria's for Italian-Mediterranean, Starving Artist and Christine's for eclectic, and China Ruby and Star of India for Asian, among other meritorious establishments. Although this year's opening of Town Tavern, Ronin and Small Plates portends a strong comeback for Royal Oak, it still has some distance to go before it catches up to its near neighbor.
Best Al Fresco Dining
330 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-584-3499
Even though you know the huge Ferndale public parking lot is nearby, Assaggi has done a remarkable job in creating a Mediterranean oasis to go with its top-notch Mediterranean fare. A fountain, statues, Italianate sculpture on the stone wall, tall greenery along the borders, and old classics piped in to help transport you to the Old World. Saucy dishes such as Moroccan-spiced twice-cooked duck, grilled organic Scottish salmon, and herb-crusted rack of Colorado lamb prevail. Main problem is the attractive environment is conducive to lingering over a bottle of wine, but doing so will be costly.
Best Food in an Art Gallery
Bamboo, Art Gallery of Windsor
401 Riverside Dr. W., 519-256-2262
This category title is insufficient praise for Bamboo, which serves some of the best and most creative food anywhere. That both the food and the space are lovely to look at, with views through the full-length windows of the river and the Detroit skyline, is a bonus. Chefs Jennifer Hillis and Anthony-John Dalupan present dishes from all over the world and add their own twists, such as cream of apple soup with curry, chicken with whipped Brie, and pumpkin crème brûlèe with chocolate. Full bar and visit the gallery afterwards at no charge.
Best Food in Eastern Market
3401 Riopelle St., Detroit; 313-831-5940
Among many good choices the ham sandwich at Hambones in the Gratiot Central Market, the soups at the Russell Street Deli, the bones at Bert's, and the sunrise breakfasts at Butcher's Inn the nod goes to Roma Café. Roma is the oldest Italian restaurant in Detroit. The Roma salad is worth the trip. Dressed at the table with vinegar, oil, salt and pepper (and anchovies on request), it's good enough for a meal. The menu offers enough choices to make deciding your order difficult. Fortunately, it's all good. And the tuxedoed servers lend Roma an Old World charm. Mangia.
Best Neighborhood Revitalizer
Atlas Global Bistro
3111 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-831-2241
This bistro is what Detroit needs: a business that takes advantage of our sterling architectural heritage and isn't afraid to pioneer, this time near the theater district. It occupies a restored 1905 Beaux Arts building, halfway between the Fox and the Max, that had been a candidate for the wrecking ball, thus warming the heart of Detroit boosters wanting to see blighted areas come back. Besides the renovated apartments in the same building, the area has since seen lofts and other businesses moving in. The chefs and owners have won over the pre-theater crowd, and many others, with a phenomenal eclectic menu that borrows from and blends global cuisines, as well as with grand moldings, dark sea-green walls, and floor-to-ceiling windows on an area that's picking up.
Best See-and-Be-Seen Scene
Detroit Breakfast House & Grill
1241 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-961-1115
Power breakfast what a concept. If it's the most important meal of the day, why wouldn't downtown shakers and movers start their workdays by impressing each other over frittatas? Co-owner Frank Taylor says the Breakfast House fills a void for those accustomed to high-end lunches and dinners, although in addition to fancy omelets they'll also find Southern staples like cheese grits and waffles-and-chicken. Breakfast is served all day to the likes of Hizzoner and local newscasters; the menu includes Bloody Marys, mimosas and Champagne cocktails. Reservations aren't taken for small parties, but if you're a "be seen" type, do you need one?
Best Riverside Dining
300 River Place Dr., Detroit; 313-567-4400
After 19 years, Jimmy Schmidt's Rattlesnake Club remains one of the best restaurants in Detroit and one of the few in this lofty category with a splendid river view. In fact, curiously enough, few restaurants of any stripe in Windsor or Detroit have much of a river view. Schmidt's inventive cuisine comes at a steep price, making his celebrated establishment a very-special-occasion place for most of us. The best way to sample the fare and lower the tariff is to take lunch either in the restaurant or on the terrace where many of the same dinner plates appear at more affordable prices, albeit in smaller portions. Moreover, as we move into winter, aside from the blinking lights of Windsor, there is not much to see at dinner as the days get shorter and shorter.
Best View - High
Renaissance Center, Detroit; 313-567-2622
Naturally, the best view in Detroit has always been from the top of the Ren Cen, our tallest building. Coach Insignia is not the fellow who directs the Italian Olympic basketball team, but Matt Prentice's upscale restaurant, the latest occupant of that lofty perch. Unlike its predecessors, Coach Insignia does not do a 360, but is quite stable looking out at Windsor and, depending upon your seat, up or down the river. To escape the hefty dinner tariff you could take the thrilling elevator ride up for a drink or, better yet, attend a wine-tasting night when, for $40 (or more, at the year's end), you'll get the view, along with fine wine and quite decent, often filling, hors d'oeuvres. And without the rotation, no headache.
Best Riverview - Low
Signature Grille and Bar
250 Riverfront Dr., Detroit; 313-394-0667
On the third floor of the Riverfront Towers, the Signature Grille and Bar (perversely, not Bar and Grille) offers spectacular panoramic views of the Detroit River and Windsor. It's small, seating fewer than 60, a guarantee that you will not be far from the wraparound glass windows. The eclectic menu has included such sandwiches as the Archer roast beef and the Coleman ham sandwich. Moderately priced entrées have included chicken marsala and Chilean sea bass. The main problem is getting past the security gate at the Towers (make a reservation) and then finding your way to the restaurant.
Best Pre-Theater - Splurge
670 Lothrop St., Detroit; 313-872-5110
Chef Paul Grosz's elegant, French-accented food, presented in a romantic and comfortable setting in a graceful old building behind the Fisher Theatre, makes for such a pleasing experience that some diners might be tempted to skip Act 1 to linger over a Courvoisier and a luscious dessert. But after a silky lobster bisque, a salad Lyonnaise and perhaps a duck or even rabbit main course, they could move on to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee with their culinary senses overwhelmed by the experience.
Best Pre-Theatre - Moderate
4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700
Whether you are going to Orchestra Hall, the Fox, or even the Fisher, the Majestic is an especially attractive hip venue for dinner. Interesting art lines the brick walls, a colorful slice of urban life strolls past the large windows on Woodward Avenue, and the versatile menu can satisfy most tastes. There is a genuflection to the Middle East with a tangy fatoush salad, well-prepared seafood platters featuring catfish and tuna, and even a tempeh fajita for vegetarians. An accessible wine list is another plus in the establishment run by the Zaineas, admirable entrepreneurs committed to the neighborhood's development.
Little Italy Ristorante
227 Hutton St., Northville; 248-348-0575
With its private alcoves tucked into a turn-of-the-century Victorian house, soft lights, and white tablecloths suited for footsie or even handsie, Little Italy lends itself to amorous murmurs. It's helped by the top-notch and top-price menu (why, oh, why does money spent = love?) and by an award-winning wine list and desserts guaranteed to put anyone in the mood.
Best Food in a Jazz Club
Baker's Keyboard Lounge
20510 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-345-6300
As if great music weren't enough, Baker's Keyboard Lounge is a destination spot for soul food. If you have, for whatever reason, resisted eating catfish, you'll change your tune after one bite of their perfectly fried fillet. Try it blackened for a Cajun treat. The fried chicken is delicious hot and crisp. Other choices include meatloaf, short ribs and smothered pork chops. The black eye peas, collard greens and yams are favorite sides. Use the corn muffin to mop up whatever is left on the plate.
Best Food in a Sports Bar
Harry's Detroit Bar & Grill
2482 Clifford St., Detroit; 313-964-1575
In most sports bars, food is an afterthought. Not so at Harry's at the edge of Foxtown. You'll find a full-service menu that includes the usual appetizer suspects buffalo chicken bites and calamari but also crab cakes with red chili and a cilantro-infused aioli. Where most sports bars would stop there, Harry's turns out char-grilled salmon, sautéed shrimp with penne in Chardonnay butter and a creamy smoked-chicken pasta amid the battery of television sets tuned to ESPN and a homey Wayne State banner hanging from the rafters.
Best Place to Take Your Mother
Purple Door Tea Room
35 Grand River E., Detroit; 313-961-0634
If your mother would enjoy, that is, an old-fashioned tea room without cloying kitschiness but awash in florals, where ladies can enjoy a tranquil pot of tea and a prix fixe luncheon in the heart of downtown Detroit. Owner Christine Biegas of the Biegas Gallery, downstairs, serves soup, salad, entrées and desserts that add up to an unladylike amount of food. The sunny room is a pampered haven from the tensions of everyday life, with eclectic crystal and flowered china on which appear cucumber sandwiches, curried egg salad and fudge whiskey torte. Honor your mother!
Best Mall Food
Somerset Collection, Troy
As befits a mall that calls itself a collection, Somerset's restaurants easily surpass those in ordinary malls. Malls tend to be constituted of chains so it's not surprising that the restaurants in Somerset are outlets of national chains. For those who can afford to shop at the top-of-the-line stores at Somerset, there is the pricey Capital Grille for steaks. For the rest of us whose pocketbooks consign us to Target for buying and Somerset for window-shopping, there is an ethnic trifecta of P.F. Chang's, Bon Vie and Brio Tuscan Grille, all of which are solid, along with the all-American J. Alexander's and California Pizza Kitchen.
Best Gourmet Takeout
Papa Joe's Gourmet Market & Catering
6900 N. Rochester Rd., Rochester Hills; 248-853-6263
34244 Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-723-9400
When Papa Joe's Gourmet Market opened in Birmingham, foodies rejoiced at the selection of produce, wine, meats, seafood and especially the prepared foods that are better than what most people can make at home. Now that their Gourmetrion has opened in Rochester, gourmet has gone to another level. With 500 produce items and all manner of imported ingredients, in addition to all the other quality fare, this is truly one-stop shopping for the gourmand. If you purchase meat or seafood, their chefs will cook it for you with no up charge. They'll use your recipe or suggest one for you.
Best Eat-First, Colonic-After
18700 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-366-2247
Not that the mostly vegan menu here would send you looking for a flush, but if you want one, it's available. The café is part of the Innate Healing Arts Center, which offers hydrocolon therapy administered by Cheeks (no kidding) Colon Care as well as massage and chiropractic sessions. The healthy menu includes pizza (real cheese), vegetable stir-fry, salads, falafel, barbecued tofu, tempeh, smoothies and raw juices, even organic wine, and the entertainment includes live jazz and other musical styles. Need we add, nonsmoking?
Best Up North
213 Bridge St., Bellaire; 231-533-5252
One definition of a bistro is a small unpretentious restaurant. Lulu's is small and unpretentious, but its contemporary décor is bright and cheery: nothing nautical or pine-woodsy here despite its Up North, small town location. The food is upscale, what is often called American cuisine, which today includes Mediterranean or Asian or other ethnic influences, just like the makeup of our population. With adventuresome chef owner Michael Peterson, a Culinary Institute of America grad at the helm, the menu is always interesting. The Rowe Inn and Tapawingo have a more casual sibling in Bellaire.
Matt Prentice Restaurant Group
The word "chain" conjures up thoughts of McDonald's, Wendy's or Red Lobster to foodies. MPRG dispels those thoughts instantly. Matt started his career in the food business with a deli. He now owns two Deli Uniques, a Plaza Deli, No. VI Chophouse, Shiraz a high-end prime beef restaurant Northern Lakes Seafood Company, Coach Insignia, and Milk and Honey, a fine kosher restaurant located in the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield Twp. Tavern on 13, a casual dining spot, rounds out the group.
Best Cut-Rate Swanky Dining
Bistro Bar in Opus One
565 E. Larned St., Detroit; 313-961-7766
Long the classy downtown spot for an upscale continental lunch or dinner, Opus One is beyond the budgets of those without an expense account or who haven't cashed in on the allegedly booming Bush economy. Although still a bit pricey, Opus One's Bistro Bar offers one way to sample the fare coming from the fine kitchen that turns out more elaborate items next door. The hot appetizer platter of lamb chops, shrimp and calamari is one keeper, as are the seafood entrées on a bar menu that ranges wider than most.
Best Affordable Wine List
543 N. Main St., Rochester; 248-650-1390
Despite last year's move to the high-rent district in Rochester, chef-owner Pascal Paviani continues to keep his wine prices low. All the vin ordinaire is priced at $20; the fancier bottles on his "Reserved" list all go for $32. Granted these are relatively short lists, but the pricing makes up for the lack of variety for those of us furious at 300 percent markups at some establishments. Even more important, the bistro's Mediterranean-oriented meals rank at the top of most gourmands' cost-benefit analyses.
Best New Wine Bar
2631 Baldwin Rd., Orion Twp.; 248-393-4337
Wine bars are sprouting up everywhere, even in Orion Township. A tastefully decorated storefront, the comfortable Positive Vibration specializes in a changing list of bottles from smaller producers set at quite reasonable prices. The food that goes with is limited but does include a nicely conceived smoked-salmon platter, a Michigan salad and a more substantial daily special along with the expected cheese and baguettes. Check the schedule for live jazz that supplements the especially mellow canned jazz and reggae (the Marley connection to the name) to sip by.
31425 W. 12 Mile Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-848-9393
When you've just gotten a raise, there's no better place to blow it than this elegant, award-winning showplace with the most delectable dishes around. It's perennially vying with the Lark to be the big spenders' favorite haunt, and surely we regular mortals deserve to join them on Mount Olympus once in a while, for "French with global touches" dishes such as $44 roasted lobster or $85 Kobe beef with foie gras. For the maximal experience, reserve the chef's table and watch the kitchen staff perform its miracles up close.
Best New Restaurant
Dylan's Raw Bar and Grille
15402 Mack Ave., Grosse Pointe Park; 313-884-6030
Strange things are happening in the culinary wasteland that once was Grosse Pointe. For the second year in a row, a Grosse Pointe eatery has won best new restaurant award from MT's resident foodies. Although Dylan's in the original Tom's Oyster Bar has an impressive array of entrées including a first-rate paella, the tapas here are special. With more than 40 substantial and often unique small plates to choose from, you can easily construct a balanced meal that might range from a grilled vegetable salad to three tangy bean salsas, to panko-coated grouper nuggets, to roasted garlic bulbs with red-pepper cream cheese. An added attraction is veteran Marty Ballog on the piano in the lively bar.
Best Restaurant to Mourn
Crush arrived in Southfield with strong reviews and a clientele enthusiastic about its wine-infused Napa Valley cuisine and ambiance. How infused? What other restaurant had the imagination to sprinkle its menus with red-wine stains? To be sure, it irritated some folks when they had to pay for an artisan loaf of bread, and it certainly was a noisy venue, but it was disappointing to see it close after only 10 months in business. Perhaps it was another case of a jinxed location, although that didn't seem to bother Bijou, one of its earlier occupants.
Best Easy Wine Selection
Maria's Front Room
215 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-542-7379
Nothing stops conversation at dinner more than having to examine a multi-page wine list. What to choose among all of those varietals, countries, years, and prices? There are no such problems making the right wine selection to complement Maria's tangy shrimp piccata, spicy arriabiata pasta, or smooth spinach tortelloni, although it's unclear what goes best with their signature garlic bread. Maria's produces only one variety each of red, white and pink wine in the basement. The red is a bit more sophisticated than the white, which is, as is often the case, more sophisticated than the pink. And you can order by the glass, half liter and liter.
Best for Children with Adults
5725 Rochester Rd., Troy; 248-828-2825
Although those opposed to hunting might object to the huge game heads mounted on the walls, most kids love the natural-history-museum-like environment including the moose-and-elk oriented coloring materials, and the dog wall that features photos of hundreds of patrons' best friends. The children's menu covers all the usual suspects. As for adults, the buffalo loaf and venison chili are satisfying, as is the signature dessert that all will happily share warm, freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies.
Best place for a folksy Sunday brunch
1551 W. Lafayette, Detroit; 313-961-0659
Detroit isn't really known for folk music, but a meal during Steak Hut's Sunday brunch will prove that the folkie scene is alive and well. Every week, a rotating lineup of fiddlers, pickers and singers regales the egg-and-potato crowd for free. (The breakfast is so cheap that it seems free too.) The down-home vibe of this longtime Corktown diner is the perfect fit for folk. Owner and grillmaster Gus Kanakis is a genuine music fan and has warmly embraced the new crowd that shows up Sunday mornings. Groups that have serenaded the brunch's mix of Corktown lifers and young hipsters include the Saltminers, Jennie Knaggs, Commonwealth and Nick Schillace. And, hey, you may not be able to order a Bloody Mary, but you don't have to reserve a fin for the valet tip either.
Best Cooking Class
Simply Good Kitchen
1105 S. Adams Rd., Birmingham; 248-203-2450
Bill and Shanny Opadaka love to cook, they love to teach, and they love to meet people and make new friends. They do all of it well. In their newly opened location at Adams Road and Lincoln Street in Birmingham, they teach students to make a full meal which they then eat together. Gather a few friends, bring a bottle or two of wine and watch them prepare a fine restaurant-quality meal. The instructions and the recipes are detailed. They also sell some ingredients and cookware and prepared foods. Check the lineup at simplygoodkitchen.com.
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