Campus Martius, Detroit
Entrées $12-$18; sandwiches $7-$9
I'm so glad the owners of Fountain Bistro haven't adopted the latest nomenclature of the architecture world, where a fountain is called a "water feature." Wonder if the designers of water features talk about the changing patterns of water play as the fountain's "skill sets."
No matter. One of the joys of dining at Fountain Bistro in Campus Martius is to watch the jets of H2O spurt up, seem to gather themselves into a bunch, and then abruptly drop like a stone. You can see the fountain from anywhere in the small restaurant, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows. You might also catch volleyball players or any sort of downtown outdoors-niks enjoying the oasis that is Campus Martius, either from the air-conditioned inside or from the outdoor tables that are even closer to the water.
The bistro reopened in late June after shutting down for a kitchen revamp that now allows the staff to produce dinners as well as soups, salads and sandwiches. Management calls the short menu "French-inspired," but that's a stretch. Mostly it consists of items whose names would be familiar on a menu at Elias Brothers: burgers, shrimp cocktail, roast chicken, Caesar salad, tuna salad — though mussels and oysters can also be found. The difference, of course, is in the execution.
The salmon with sorrel sauce I had at Fountain Bistro on Aug. 2, 2011, was the best salmon I've ever eaten. It wasn't just the sauce, though that was a miracle of sharp plus creaminess (the Internet says sorrel tastes like kiwi or wild strawberries). The salmon itself was browned just right on top and perfectly timed to achieve flawless flakiness and avoid either dryness or underdone squeakiness. It was served with buttery haricots verts (skinny green beans) and cherry tomatoes that had been either grilled or sautéed to their great advantage.
Almost as wonderful was a lake trout amandine, milder but perfectly fried with hazelnut brown butter. (Note to menu writers: The fact that this dish contains almonds does not mean that "l" is the second letter of "amandine.") And though the Bistro's regular "frites" are fine but not memorable, the fingerlings fried in duck fat are of a different order. They're skinny circles (the thinner the potato, the more relative surface exposed to fat; this is the same principle that makes Ruffles better than non-ridged potato chips), and they're cooked with chewy prosciutto. My only complaint about this sublime dish is the boring standard ketchup served alongside — come on, chefs: You'd have fun creating your own!
The Bistro serves only four entrées (chicken and steak are the other two) and seven sandwiches. The two sandwiches we tried were both splendid. The "BLTA" is so overstuffed it has applewood-smoked bacon falling out the sides, and if the taste of the "A" (avocado aioli) gets lost in the process, I felt sure it was in there making its contribution somehow. In the mushroom ragoût sandwich, melted goat cheese and Brie complement the fungi, and if it's not actually a ragoût (a "thick, rich, well-seasoned stew of meat, poultry or fish that can be made with or without vegetables," says the Food Lover's Companion), we can nonetheless sympathize with the Bistro's desire to seem French. Other sandwiches are turkey melt (again with the bacon) and chicken pesto.
Besides the duck-fat frites, I had less luck with appetizers. Crab cakes were not bad — the right contrasting textures for inside and outside — but not very crabby-tasting. The shrimp Provençale were a bit tough, and lamb sliders quite well done. A warm goat cheese salad was heavily walnuted but neither the pear slices nor the dressing was as flavorful as could be desired.
You can see happy employees with Quicken Loans badges relaxing on the terrace during the Bistro's extra-long happy hour, 2-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, when appetizers are half-off, domestic beers are $2.50 and the house wine goes for $3. I went straight for that bargain and liked the big Black Ridge Cabernet from Napa Valley just fine. A majority of the reds are French, the whites come from all over, and a glass is $6-$11. Six beers are on draft (e.g., Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Stella Artois), and there are a couple dozen different bottles.
An indoor-outdoor restaurant with a fountain view, affordable prices, a liquor license and an expansive happy hour — is this what downtown needs or what? The fact that the food, most of it, is fabulous is more than we could have hoped for.
Fountain Bistro is open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for brunch on Sunday, with a different, changing menu: omelets, French toast, eggs Benedict.
Fountain Bistro at Campus Martius in Detroit.
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