6430 Farmington Rd., West Bloomfield; 248-661-4466
Jim and Mary Lark's eponymous European country inn has been around for more than a quarter-century, winning awards for its French-oriented kitchen and vast wine cellar. In the exquisite but simply decorated room, with only 12 tables, discriminating guests dine on a prix-fixe that averages a hefty $75 but includes a wondrous cold appetizer trolley (try a bit of everything), a choice of warm appetizer, a palate-cleansing sorbet, such entrées as rack of lamb, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Dover sole, and a salad. A hands-on owner, Jim Lark patrols his domain, chatting up his guests and making certain that his highly skilled staff takes care of all their gustatory desires.
BEST PRE-THEATER — MODERATE
4145 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-831-3965
Whether you are going to Orchestra Hall, the Fox or even the Fisher, Union Street is a bustling, versatile restaurant that attracts an unusually diverse urban clientele, including local celebrities such as novelist Michael Zadoorian. Over the 30 years it has been in business in a century-old building, it has evolved from a neighborhood bar to a full-service restaurant with global culinary pretensions. Try, for example, chicken kung pao, jambalaya, antipasto salad, Scooby-Doo pasta or incendiary dragon eggs composed of gorgonzola-stuffed chicken breasts in hot sauce over a Caesar salad. Chalkboard specials daily feature bargains on their extensive beer and wine lists.
BEST PRE-THEATER — UPSCALE
4421 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-7500
This category originally read expensive, but that would not do justice to the new, more affordable menu that came with the handsome refurbishing job when the Whitney reopened for business in fall of 2007. There may a bit of sleight of hand here — as the prices came down so did the portion sizes — but that should be irrelevant (who takes a doggie bag to the theater?) when you can feast on five-lily soup, Peekytoe crab salad, duck two ways and roast chicken roulades stuffed with pork and pistachios. And all of this in the most elegant surroundings in town, whichever of the 52 rooms you happen to find yourself in, including the celebrated second-floor men's bathroom.
BEST CUT-RATE SWANKY
31425 W. 12 Mile Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-848-9393
How to enjoy one of the area's very best restaurants without blowing the rent? Award-winning Tribute has dropped its lunch service — which offered a great $20 deal — but, aware of the travails of auto execs, it's slashed dinner prices across the board, an average of 30 percent. Entrées dove from $35-$100 to $26-$45. If that's still rich for your blood, you're offered a free dinner on your birthday (50 percent off the food bill for a party of two, 33 percent for three, etc.). With the Arborio-crusted sea bass still going for $34 and Colorado rack of lamb at $42, it's the only way most of us can hope to find out how the other half eats.
BEST AL FRESCO
La Dolce Vita
17546 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-865-0331
La Dolce Vita is one of those hidden gems Detroit offers to those in the know, as it's nearly invisible, marked only by the neon letters LDV on a building just north of McNichols Road. Park in back, then walk through a courtyard that, in summertime, will transport you magically to a delightfully romantic, shady, treed oasis. Sunday brunch is especially popular, punctuated with jazz that accompanies the mimosas and Bloody Marys, a prelude to a short menu of eggs Benedict, Mascarpone-stuffed French toast and similarly delectable treats. What better way to greet the day?
BEST AL FRESCO — NON-DETROIT
Don Luciano's Place Trattoria
237B Dalhousie St., Amherstburg; 519-736-2917
Urban al fresco has its charms, but for tranquil dining outside, a patio in tiny Amherstburg, within eyesight of the river and Bob-Lo Island, can't fail to soothe the jangles. Many of Luciano's American patrons arrive by boat. After dinner they can stroll among the flowerbeds in King's Navy Yard Park. In between, their gregarious host, Luciano Mancini, treats them to Italian favorites, such as a calamari-and-salmon appetizer, house-made sausage and porchetta, or fettuccini pescatore. Or make special requests when you make reservations: rabbit, polenta, spedini made with lamb, a particular fish.
BEST NEW RESTAURANT — UPSCALE
735 Forest Ave., Birmingham; 248-258-9400
Brian Polycn, one of our area's most celebrated chefs, has put together an impressive, experienced team to run Forest Grill, a handsome new sophisticated bistro on the wrong side of Woodward in Birmingham. Clay-oven baked pizzas, onion soup and Polycn's signature charcuterie platter compose a trio of first-rate starters, while such classics as steak frites and bouillabaisse anchor the mains. In the skilled hands of chef David Gilbert, these dishes are more inventive than they sound. A thoughtful wine list and a thoroughly "green" building are among other highlights in this especially attractive addition to our dining scene.
BEST NEW RESTAURANT — MODERATE
220 S. Main St., Clawson; 248-288-0220
This lovely small trattoria in suddenly chic Clawson specializes in Northern Italian cuisine with many inventive embellishments. Everything is made from scratch, including the pasta, and owners David and Nicole Seals emphasize local produce. Their designer pizzas are among the best in town, and their mains are enhanced by a wonderful variety of garnishing tidbits. Among those mains, the most interesting may be a Tuscan take on spare ribs and pistachio-encrusted sea bass floating on a base of garbanzo beans, goat cheese and citrus fruit. Their wine license limits diners to sample pourings from Fenn Valley, including some surprisingly palatable reds.
BEST NEW RESTAURANT — DOWNTOWN
Angelina Italian Bistro
1565 Broadway, at Grand Circus Park, Detroit; 313-962-1355
Kudos to any new restaurant these days, especially if it serves sophisticated dishes at prices that aren't stratospheric. With a menu that's not meatball-and-red sauce Italian but far more imaginative, Angelina's chefs pay as much attention to the sides — and even the sides' accompaniments — as to the main courses. A house-smoked, delicate, velvety whitefish mousse starter, for example, comes with a pile of flaked Parmigiano-Reggiano; a mound of watercress in a superior lemony dressing; a cup of assorted olives; and a puddle of grainy mustard. With a strudel of caramelized onion and Gorgonzola come a grilled fennel bulb and a hash of diced potatoes and wild mushrooms. Pasta is house-made and put to good use in exquisite little pillows of butternut squash ravioli, topped with toasted almonds. Get the idea? This new venture by the former manager of the Traffic Jam deserves to make it through the recession and become a downtown mainstay.
BEST RESTAURANT TO MOURN
After moving from their smaller place in Auburn Hills to a larger and more attractive spot in Rochester several years ago, Europa Bistro closed early this year. It will be missed for its interesting kitchen, which turned out classic continental preparations at very reasonable prices. Moreover, it maintained one of the most budget-friendly wine lists in our area, with a decent selection below the $20 barrier.
Maria's Front Room
215 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-542-7379
Quite a few folks were bummed when Maria's Front Room locked its doors last year. Then they were skeptical when they heard a new owner was opening the place back up. Could the food be as good? It seems many of them actually think it's better. The new owner bought the recipes and brought back all the best-sellers, about two-thirds of the old menu. There's still the same tasty garlic bread and spinach tortellini but the interior has been spruced up nicely. Their full liquor license is reportedly on the way.
BEST NEW SPINOFF
203 Pierce St., Birmingham; 248-25TOAST
An offshoot of the successful breakfast-and-lunch Toast in Ferndale, the Birmingham branch serves dinner too — and with great flair and fun. The eclectic menu — "Let's try that!" — ranges from duck empanadas to ahi tacos to over-the-top burgers with blue cheese, basil aioli or romesco. Scallops are paired with forbidden rice and pink grapefruit. A vegetarian tart includes brussels sprouts and candied nuts (candied nuts show up everywhere, but the effect isn't pandering). A good wine list, personable service, lighthearted decor, house-made pastries — try the apple Betty in a big crockery bowl. Sequels should always be this good.
BEST RESTAURANT MAKEOVER
201 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-594-7300
Last year, Birmingham's Forté went through a dramatic retooling. Despite the restaurant's talented staff, the concept wasn't bringing enough customers in the door. To boost trade and appeal to local diners looking to eat out twice a week, the changes went well beyond merely lowering menu prices. The bill of fare has become more fun and less fussy, offering everyday food that's a little bit special, using their fine-dining chef to do comfort foods with an unexpected twist, like Kobe beef sliders or "Firecracker Chicken," a whole bird marinated for 24 hours before it's deep-fried and plated upon wasabi mashed potatoes. The retooled wine list is simpler and less intimidating, and the eatery even did away with valet parking for a year, eager to avoid anything that would make potential customers think twice about walking in.
BEST WHILE IT LASTED
Mercury Coffee Bar
From Oct. 20 to Feb. 9, the Mercury shone briefly as a champion of slow and complex coffee, each cup individually ground and brewed. The staff could explicate the espressos like a sommelier. Luscious in-house desserts, fancy sandwiches and panini on Avalon bread, like sopressata with grilled onions and fontina — the owners were offering upscale within a stone's throw of the abandoned train station. But more than one patron was overheard to say, "you can't do Ann Arbor in Detroit," citing $5 PB&Js.
BEST NEW SUBURBAN DINING DESTINATION
Aside from Noble Fish and the Clawson Steak House (our retro winner this year), Clawson was a place foodies sped through as they drove from Royal Oak to Troy. That is no longer the case with the arrival over the past few years of transplant Royal Kubo, mellow brewery Black Lotus, the just-opened Vietnamese restaurant Da Nang, and two other "best-of" winners this year, Due Venti and Sabidee. A central geographic location and relatively low rents have brought these new epicurean destinations to this sleepy little suburb, which may soon contend with Ferndale and Royal Oak for suburban dining laurels.
BEST ANN ARBOR RESTAURANT
115 W. Washington St., Ann Arbor; 734-327-2312
Since 2004, downtown Ann Arbor's Logan has been drawing knowledgeable foodies to its brightly decorated bistro for well-prepared, wildly eclectic fare with an emphasis on Asia and the Caribbean — even though its formal name is Logan: An American Restaurant. Potstickers, tuna tartare and crab cakes are among possible starters while bass with Jamaican jerk spices, Moroccan Cornish hen, and scallops in a Thai coconut-kaffir-lime-leaves sauce reflect the breadth of Logan's culinary repertoire. Skilled servers, an extensive wine list, and the fact that the restaurant used to house the flamboyant Flame bar make Logan a destination "worth a special journey" for Detroiters, to borrow from Michelin's three-star criterion.
BEST EASTERN MARKET
2460 Market St., Detroit; 313-393-1711
Every place in the market is a little bit different, but after a day of shopping or looking at antiques, we always find ourselves walking down to Vivio's. Maybe it's the way the small bar, with its smoking section, seems so intimate walled off from the main dining area. Maybe it's the way the walls look like if you put one more piece of Detroit history on them they'll come tumbling down. It could also be the pub-style mussels served with little bits of sausage in it, with a tray of clarified butter on the side, or the delicious Bloody Marys that come with a cute little sidekick of beer. Or how about the way the game-day crowds fill up the upstairs bar on a Saturday afternoon. Put it all together and you've got the makings of a winner.
Smoke and Spice
1515 Ottawa St., Windsor; 519-252-4999
A French-cuisine-trained chef turns his attention to barbecue. He goes to Memphis for training. And the result is a combination of smoke, tenderness and earthy animal goodness unrivaled since our ancestors accidentally dropped a haunch on the fire. Wings are luscious and meaty, smokier than most. Don't be fooled by the ribs' appearance; they're rather black and dry-looking, with a startling pink interior that, explains Ryan Odette, is due to long, slow cooking over hardwood. Pulled pork is meltingly rich, though no fat is evident. Odette properly leaves the sauces to the diners to apply after cooking: a slightly sweet, mostly tangy tomato-based sauce; a chipotle; and a complex mustard. Yes, it's weird to go to Canada for barbecue, but if your only criteria are the tastes, it's the place to be.
Señor López Taqueria
7146 Michigan, Detroit; 313-551-0685
Two fail-safe criteria for a Mexican restaurant are its beans and its chiles rellenos, and Sr. Rafael López excels at both. The deliciously smoky chiles (poblano peppers) are grilled, peeled, stuffed with creamy Muenster and barely dipped in egg batter before frying. The López beans are whole, not mashed and refried, cooked fresh every day with onions and without lard. Tacos liberally sprinkled with cilantro are only $1.25 apiece at lunchtime. Guacamole is chunky and infused with lime. Tequila, beer and margaritas are served, or try the rice drink, horchata, with cinnamon. Rich, golden chicken soup, crisp whole tilapia, ceviche and breakfast (chilaquiles) served anytime are more reasons to avoid the tourist traps. No more chimichangas!
BEST SOUL FOOD RESTAURANT
Beans & Cornbread: A Soulful Bistro
29508 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield; 248-208-1680
Think of it as gentrified soul food served in a setting that celebrates African-American history while exuding cosmopolitan comfort. Jazz wafts through the room, highlighted by photos of such notables as Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson and our own Aretha Franklin. The food draws people from all over the community: fried chicken, of course, and baby sister's backyard ribs, killer salmon croquettes, pork chops, catfish and the expected sides — greens, black-eyed peas, red beans and rice, and many other staples. Don't miss the waffles and wings for Sunday breakfast.
BEST MEXICAN-ITALIAN RESTAURANT
3710 Junction Rd., Detroit; 313-894-2070
Mexican and Italian foods seem like an odd couple to share one roof, but don't be daunted by this assumption. El Barzón serves the best of both. Norberto Garitas learned to cook while growing up in Mexico, and became proficient in Italian cuisine while working at the recently shuttered Il Posto. The Mexican fare includes garlic shrimp and chicken pipian, which is cooked in a mole verde topped with pumpkin seeds, not the usual fare found in Mexicantown. The Italian side of the menu covers many of the staples of an Italian kitchen, all done well by this talented chef.
BEST CUBAN RESTAURANT
415 S. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-544-6255
More sedate than its boisterous sibling, this cute little place behind Bastone presents classic Hispano-Cuban cuisine from ropas viejas, shredded beef and tomato sauce, to aroz con pollo, chicken with yellow rice and vegetables, to hanger steak with chimichurra sauce. Cuban sandwiches, several unique salads, and the expected mojitos, margaritas and daquiris round out the experience. Moreover, the quaffs from the brewery next door are available as well. With outlets in Traverse City and Ann Arbor, Café Habana will continue to please aficionados of Cuban cuisine — even if the Obama administration has altered some travel restrictions.
BEST ITALIAN — SPLURGE
Ristorante Café Cortina
30715 W. 10 Mile Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-474-3033
No restaurant better exemplifies dedication to every detail than Café Cortina. Rina Tonon and her son, Adrian, are the perfect hosts, welcoming their guests with genuine warmth, proud of what they offer. The food is superb, as fine Italian cuisine is meant to be. The service is perfectly attentive, but never intrusive. The ambience suggests romance, a perfect spot for a proposal or an anniversary. There is a price to pay for all of this, but, to be sure, it's worth it. A trip to a casino is much more costly and (often) considerably less rewarding.
BEST SAMMARINESE RESTAURANT
Tre Monti Ristorante
1695 Big Beaver Rd., Troy; 248-680-1100
No contest here, as this is the only local restaurant (and one of the few in the country) that features the cuisine of tiny San Marino, the oldest republic in the world. That cuisine is similar to what is found in northern Italy, where the mini-state (population 30,000) is situated. Some of the pastas, bread, and especially the Monte Titano dessert are unique to the Sammarinese kitchen. Most of the rest of the light and well-prepared plates will seem familiar. Added attractions include several inexpensive regional Italian wines and, especially, the gracefully decorated room that belies the relatively moderate price structure.
BEST POLISH RESTAURANT
Polish Village Café
2990 Yemans St., Hamtramck; 313-874-5726; polishvillagecafe.net
At Polish Village Café you won't find a list of deep-fried appetizers or gooey desserts on the menu, just a few pages of meat-and-potatoes Polish dishes and their accompanying sides. One of the standout dishes is the Hungarian pancake, a massive potato pancake smothered in a gently spicy goulash of fork-tender pork and vegetables. Or try a bowl of dill pickle soup. It's all prepared like someone's grandmother was doing the cooking and served in a cozy basement atmosphere. Suck on a draft Polish beer to wash down your meal and finish it all off with a glass of Krupnik, a sweet vodka flavored with honey and spices.
BEST GREEK RESTAURANT
579 Monroe St., Detroit; 313-961-1550
Those downcast about the 2008 shuttering of the New Hellas need only walk next door to the Cyprus Taverna to get their saganaki (opa!) fix. Vassos Avgoutis, who runs the taverna with his wife, Eleni, apprenticed up and down Monroe Street for several decades, including a stint at the New Hellas, before he opened his own place in 1994. Aside from the expected Greek platters like lamb and rice and stuffed grape leaves, they feature unique items from their island nation, including savory lamb riganato, fried haloumi cheese, mushrooms in wine and coriander and Eleni's justly renowned pineapple cake.
BEST MEDITERRANEAN RESTAURANT
2900 S. State Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-332-9700
Even though Detroit is home to many splendid Mediterranean restaurants, you'll have to travel to a mundane shopping center several miles from the center of downtown Ann Arbor to find the best in our area. Mediterrano covers the cuisine of the countries bordering the sea for which it is named, from Spain to Turkey on the north shore and from North Africa to the Middle East on the south shore. Here you can find paella, pistou soup, tapenade and a vegetarian Turkish burek in a large comfortable dining space full of geographically relevant kitsch. The portions are generous, the diversity is admirable, and the intelligent wine list covers a wide swath of Mediterranean vineyards along with
New World varietals.
BEST EGYPTIAN-INFLUENCED MIDDLE EASTERN RESTAURANT
43259 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; 248-858-5800
3720 Rochester Rd., Troy; 248-524-0300
35558 Grand River Ave., Farmington Hills; 248-615-1900
4240 Pontiac Lake Rd., Waterford; 248-674-3100
The abundance of Middle Eastern food choices in metro Detroit is one of the delights we can all share — vegetarians and carnivores alike. Start with hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush. We love chicken or lamb shawarma and charred shish kafta, most with hints of lemon, served with toum, the ubiquitous garlic sauce that seems redundant but is nonetheless irresistible. In addition to all this, La Marsa offers koshary, the Egyptian dish that combines rice, noodles and lentils topped with a well-seasoned tomato sauce and covered with a nest of crisply fried onions. Top that!
BEST NEW MIDDLE EASTERN RESTAURANT IN THE CITY
3236 Caniff St., Hamtramck; 313-872-9454
Here's a weird disconnect: In a metroplex with one of the largest Middle Eastern populations in the whole hemisphere, it has been nothing short of challenging to find good Middle Eastern food in the city proper. With the arrival of Royal Kabob on Caniff in Hamtramck, at least that multi-ethnic enclave has a shop within walking distance that can provide everything from an ambitious platter to a humble, wax-paper-wrapped falafel sandwich. Though it does a brisk take-out business, the interior is bright and commodious, offering room for large parties. What's more, it has a gelato bar for your sweet finish.
BEST LEBANESE RESTAURANT
Beloved by vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, it's no wonder that Anita's Kitchen is consistently busy. There are few places where you can fill up on a chicken shawarma wrap for $5 or go upscale with a bottle of Lebanese wine and a braised lamb shank. It's easy to relax in the warm space while munching spicy pickled veggies or downing a pint of Michigan beer. The lemon lentil soup has been known to cure various colds and diseases. Try the mixed mezza platter for a large and tasty sampling of the eastern Mediterranean.
BEST VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT
27641 John R, Madison Heights; 248-547-6763
This cozy family-run place in a nondescript strip mall has maintained a high level of excellence for years. Several generations of Nguyens work in and out of the kitchen to provide aromatic steaming bowls of pho, crunchy whole-fried catfish, unique stir-fries, broad-noodle creations, several duck entrées and lemongrass-accented preparations to patrons who generally leave with doggie-bags. Much of the clientele is Asian, usually evidence of the kitchen's authenticity. Nonetheless, spice levels are toned down for Westerners.
BEST THAI RESTAURANT
323 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-548-5373
Do an informal poll at Bangkok Café's carryout station and you'll find that most people have been coming here for years. It's all about the consistency that starts with their subtly tasty chicken and vegetable fresh rolls enhanced with mint leaves and a tangy dipping sauce and tom yum gai hot-and-sour soup. If a Thai restaurant is to be measured by its pad Thai, then we will vouch for this well-spiced but not dripping-in-sauce version. Even beyond the staples, we've yet to find a dish here that hasn't satisfied our Southeast Asian cravings.
BEST LAOTIAN RESTAURANT
1449 W. 14 Mile Rd., Madison Heights; 248-597-0800
After operating Bahn Nah in Ann Arbor, the Inhmathong family moved their operation to Madison Heights last summer and introduced our area to the Laotian kitchen. The owners hail from the part of Laos bordering Thailand, which helps to explain the number of Thai standards on their menu as well as their often-incendiary spice levels. Larb, sticky rice, pork sausage and basil steak are among Laotian specialties worth a try. But so too is the more generic beautiful-to-look-at and delightful-to-consume crispy duck. Alas, those who are peanut-averse will have to take a pass on the flavorful peanut-based sauces that accompany several of their offerings.
BEST TAKEOUT FOR A CHARLIE CHAN MOVIE
2346 Franklin Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-335-1228
Takee Outee was also a contender for the most politically incorrect restaurant name. It is difficult to believe that an anti-Chinese defamation league or even the U.S. bondholding Chinese embassy has not organized a campaign to close this place up, but it continues to flourish in a strip mall in Bloomfield Hills, with a second Takee Outee in Warren.
BEST ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANT
Taste of Ethiopia
29702F Southfield Rd., Southfield; 248-905-5560; 2453 Russell St., Eastern Market; 313-567-6000 (lunch only)
The flavors of the legumes and vegetables cooked up by co-owner and chef Meskerem Gebreyohannes are so deep and so true that you may suspect you've never really experienced a lentil, a collard so intimately. Though they're cooked with berbere, a mix of 11 toasted spices plus garlic and onions, the flavors that shine through are pure and simple, no matter what sophisticated techniques may have helped that happen. Meat dishes are equally fascinating, with lamb pungent, sweetish and rich by turns, chicken hotter, served with hard-boiled eggs. You have options: the familiar all-you-can-eat smorgasbord on injera, or a good-sized serving of whatever entrée you want — just as in a non-Ethiopian restaurant.
Modern Food & Spirits
1535 Cass Lake Rd., Keego Harbor; 248-681-4231
There are three soups on the menu daily at the Modern. Co-owner Kim Stanton, who concocts them, should be known as the Soup Lady. Try the sampler — all three of them — for only three bucks with an entrée, five without. Choices on any given day might include tom yum broth with Asian vegetable, Cuban black bean, sweet potato corn chowder with collards, and, the real customer favorite, red lentil with apricots. Modern is an upscale neighborhood restaurant with prices that Kim's partner Francis Stanton claims, "even we can afford."
Yossi's Israeli Cuisine
7325 Orchard Lake Rd., West Bloomfield; 248-626-0160
As far as we can tell, Yossi's is the only Israeli restaurant in the area. Israelis are said to make the best falafel anywhere (perhaps by Israelis). Yossi's version is pretty convincing. It's crisp on the outside and moist on the inside, but fully cooked throughout. The other noticeable difference is the subtler flavor, in part due to the use of only chick peas — not fava beans — and a less assertive use of spices. Rollups and stuffed pitas include tahini, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, hummus on request and a side of a distinctive house-made hot sauce.
BEST GARDEN BURGER
The "Stevers McFever"
At Woodbridge Pub, 5169 Trumbull Ave., Detroit; 313-833-2701
Though we've long been a fan of Cass Cafe's lentil burger, over the last year we've been experimenting with the black-bean burger at Woodbridge Pub. The black bean patty holds together well with a convincing-looking finish to it. When it's topped with sliced avocados, marinated tomatoes, caramelized onions and — for a fine-dining accent — a balsamic glaze, it approaches the perfect burger. What's more, it's not only vegetarian but vegan. How cool is that? Named for local musician and friend of owner Jim Geary, this may be the last word (for the moment) in healthful pub grub.
BEST POMMES FRITES
419 S. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-544-6250
One would expect any Belgian restaurant worthy of its name to do a good job with its pomme frites. The curiously misspelled Bastone does not disappoint, with its twice-fried slender beauties offered up with mayonnaise sauces infused with such spices as tarragon, garlic or basil. Not surprisingly, the mussels that should also be ordered are first-rate as well. Bastone's own brew, onion soup, coq au vin and hanger steak are among other reasons to pay a visit to the rambling beer hall.
BEST PIZZA — NEW
This small space, formerly occupied by Flat Planet Pizza, has more of a dine-in feel than the old pizzeria, with somewhat battered tables that invite you to share space with other diners. And the pizzas are flat-crust wonders made from hand-stretched dough by owner-chef David Mancini. The inventive toppings can include black olives, chili oil, ricotta, smoked gouda, smoked prosciutto, anchovies, even an egg. The first time in, you'll likely order a smaller pie, but after seeing how each pizza is a light and crispy work of art, you'll order something larger — or at least a pasta to accompany it. Open a bit later than most market spots, the friendly service and cozy atmosphere aid Supino's bid for gourmet pizza supremacy.
BEST THIN-CRUST PIZZA
2595 Rochester Rd., Rochester Hills; 248-844-8899; 6622 Telegraph Rd., Bloomfield Township; 248-855-5855
The owners of Crust brag most about their ... crust, achieved in less than two minutes in their 850-degree oven: "A perfect crust has a crisp, bubbled exterior and a tender but chewy interior." But the rest of the pie is to boast about too, at least the "Naples classics" that, while not adhering to the Italian government's strict specifications for Neapolitan pizza, are replete with taste-pleasers like fennel sausage, prosciutto, pancetta and fontinella. (MT won't speak for the BBQ chicken and Thai pie.) To make a spinach pizza where you can actually taste the spinach, for example, Crust's chefs mix it with ricotta to keep it from evaporating in the oven's heat. Although competition is fierce in this category, such attention to detail is how Crust maintains its edge.
BEST PIZZA AND COCKTAILS
3249 12 Mile Rd., Berkley; 248-544-4100
Whether patrons are there for the eclectic pizzas or for one of 64 cocktails, 35 beers and 5 premium tequilas, they're packed into this friendly space that sponsors local artists on its walls each month. Toppings range from smoked fresh corn or walnuts on a vegan pizza to jerk chicken and lox; whole wheat and gluten-free crusts are possible. The pizzas are tasty, but so are the girly drinks like the Milk Dud and Key Lime Pie, or if you actually prefer the taste of liquor, a dirty martini, a grasshopper or a pomegranate caipirinha. When the patio opens, it's all better.
BEST BURGER AND A MALTED
Red Knapp's Dairy Bar
304 S. Main St., Rochester; 248-651-4545
Excluding the prices, Red Knapp's Dairy Bar probably hasn't changed much since it opened in 1950. Small children sip their thick malted milkshakes made from hand-dipped ice cream and spin on the chrome stools that surround two U-shaped bars while traffic on Rochester's Main Street rolls by outside. The burgers are big and simple half-pound, hand-formed patties on bakery-fresh buns. The floors are checkered black-and-white and doo-wop music fills the space. This place is so '50s you might almost feel out of place without a ducktail and a pack of smokes rolled up in your sleeve.
BEST CORNED BEEF
Al's Famous Deli
32906 Woodward Ave., Royal Oak; 248-549-3663
There's no shortage of great corned beef in this town. Reubens abound, a delectable mix of flavors vying for dominance, but corned beef is always the winner. A true aficionado skips the extras, choosing plain corned beef, stacked — not too lean — with a hit of plain mustard. Al Winkler has been in the business some 40 years all over town. In our opinion, he and co-owner Craig Goldberg get this year's nod. There are a few tables and a handful of counter seats overlooking the parade of cars on Woodward. If there's space, eat in, while it's still hotter and juicier than when you get back to the office.
Le Petit Zinc Creperie & Cafe
1055 Trumbull, Detroit; 313-963-2805
When it comes to crêpes, it can't hurt for the chef to be raised in France. Charles Sorel produces crêpes that are large and thin but not fragile, folded square. Sweet fillings include Nutella, butter-sugar, lemon-sugar, jam, honey and chocolate-banana. Savory fillings are hearty: a fabulous fresh-tasting ratatouille, a goat cheese-spinach-pine nuts combo, or smoked salmon, spinach and hard-boiled eggs. They're served in a brightly painted and sunny space alongside giant bowls of latte or cappuccino. Corktown isn't Paris, but we can dream.
28948 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-932-7400
Do not be put off by the nondescript strip-mall storefront. Inside, rows of colorful pastries are abundant, as are the fried snacks and spiced nuts known as chat. The real draw, however, would be those dosas: thin, crispy cylinders — much like crêpes — that can be ordered with a variety of fillings. Our favorite is the masala dosa, filled with curried potatoes and vegetables. About 20 inches long, they extend beyond the plate, making them tricky to eat. Pour on some of the sambar, a thin lentil curry that is served on the side along with some chutney. You'll be back.
BEST DEAL ON A TAMAL
2054 Junction, Detroit; 313-554-9087
These square Guatemalan tamales from chef Inocencia Urizar are moist and rich, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, the way a tamal should be. No one, even gringos, should settle for the skinny, dry cylinders that pass for tamales in some Mexican restaurants. Prized as a Christmas dish, a Pollo Chapin tamal — its masa made with broth and lard, and stuffed with chicken — must be eaten with a fork. It would be delicious at twice the price, but it's $3.75 to eat in, or $2 to go.
Peng Lai Pan Asian Cuisine
6130 Rochester Rd., Rochester Hills; 248-656-3800
Seaweed is not high on most Westerners' lists of to-die-for dishes, but the rendition served with a sweet sesame sauce at Peng Lai may win some converts. At least it pleased three 10-year olds who eschew broccoli, lettuce, asparagus and most things green. And the seaweed is not the only reason to go to the upscale Asian fusion place that opened in especially handsome digs in Rochester Hills last fall with the bulgogi and duck (!) gyros as interesting small plates.
BEST SUSHI AND A COCKTAIL
326 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak;248-546-0888
Why is it that sushi and cocktails are so well-matched? Is it the elegant simplicity when both are made well or is it just today's hip thing to do? We spent some time at Ronin trying to figure it out. First we had a tuna belly and a smooth saketini garnished with cucumber. Then it was on to a jade cocktail composed of vodka, green tea and lemon to wash down our soft-shell crab roll. After we ordered a mojito made with lychee syrup and moved on to the fantastic kitchen menu, we forgot the question.
BEST PLACE TO SUCK THE JUICE OUT OF CRAWFISH HEADS
22848 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-691-7145
Food can be mysterious. Every time we go to Howe's Bayou, we order the pound of whole crawfish in a spicy Creole boil. There's not much meat and it's messy eating, but when you crack that bug in half and suck the hot, spicy juice out of its head, the temperature and humidity both rise about 25 degrees and the people around you start speaking in strange swamp dialects — and this all happens before we get into pints of Abita Turbodog and Sazerac cocktails. If you're too faint-hearted for crawfish, try the equally good fried oyster po' boy.
BEST SLOW FOOD RESTAURANT
Eve: The Restaurant
415 N. Fifth Ave., with entrance on Kingsley Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues, Ann Arbor; 734-222-0711
Eve Aronoff has distinguished herself and her staff as proponents of the Slow Food Movement, dedicating themselves to the use of fresh and, whenever possible, locally grown, seasonal ingredients, coaxing flavor out of it all. The clean flavors that taste as food should come from the use of vegetables and herbs not distant from the earth where they were harvested, and meat, poultry and seafood all raised naturally without preservatives. The natural wood floors and brick walls that are accented with food images mirror the purity of the kitchen. Rick Halberg, known for his old restaurant Emily's, has joined Aronoff in a collaboration that can only enhance the experience.
BEST RAW DEAL
Red Pepper Deli
116 W. Main St., Northville; 248-773-7672
Omnivores, rethink: This mostly vegan place serves the most delicious combinations of seeds, nuts and vegetables, in salads, sandwiches and smoothies, almost none of it heated above 105 degrees. You have to be inventive to "cook" here — make bread out of pressed seeds or mayo out of blended cashews, lemon juice and veggies. The chefs go to all lengths to avoid the cooked, substituting agave nectar for cane sugar in a beet slaw, for example. There are plenty of concoctions for believers in wheat grass and goji berries, and even skeptics will find their taste buds awakened by the fresh combinations. Coconut cream pie with a cashew crust is to live for.
BEST GREEN RESTAURANT
Mind Body & Spirits
301 S. Main St., Rochester; 248-651-3663
One look at this restaurant and you'd think the greening of America has finally arrived, in a joint where the rainwater is gathered and leftovers are composted and used to nourish the soil in the greenhouse garden. Mike Plesz, inspired by his daughters, has created not only a restaurant that could be a model for helping save the planet, but also a worthy dining destination, serving vegan veggie grain burgers, vegetarian and gluten-free corn and coconut fritters, MBS free-range, grass-fed organic beef burgers and dairy-free, spicy Vietnamese shrimp pasta. Organic is the buzzword here, even applicable to the beer, wine and liquor served in the upstairs Higher Spirits Lounge.
BEST VEGETARIAN NOT IN A VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT
1600 Rochester Rd., Troy; 248-526-1444
Like most Middle Eastern restaurants, the Lebanese Grill boasts a large number of vegetarian dishes — but this cozy family-run place is special. Among the aromatic meatless specials on its encyclopedic menu are borghul (cracked wheat with tomatoes, onions, green peppers, garlic and mushrooms), madjara (lentils, cracked, wheat and onions) and arayis (pita stuffed with goat cheese and tomatoes). Dense flavorful soups, crisp lemony salads and oshta, a sweet dessert pudding covered with honey and fruit, are among other options. And the wine list is dominated by a diverse selection of the best from Lebanon's ancient vineyards.
BEST PLACE TO SATISFY YOUR MEAT TOOTH
1114 Washington Blvd., inside the Westin Book-Cadillac, Detroit; 313-442-1600
Whether it's an ideally prepared, dry-aged steak or the "roasted beast of the day" twisting in the wood-fired rotisserie off the main dining area, diners can sate their appetites for animal flesh in an upscale atmosphere. But the quality doesn't end with the meat. After a well-made aperitif cocktail, try any one of their appetizers from roasted bone marrow to beef-cheek pierogi. Seafood and sides are no afterthought either. The whitefish is sublime, and the rosemary fries are dangerously addictive. With a sweet location in the restored Book-Cadillac Hotel, a great night out is practically guaranteed.
BEST RETRO EXPERIENCE
Clawson Steak House
56 S. Rochester Ave., Clawson; 248-588-5788
Smokers, high-ball drinkers and Arthur Murray-trained dancers flock to the Clawson Steak House, which seems to be frozen in time somewhere in the decade before Mad Men. Solid multicourse dinners with old favorites such as frogs legs, liver and onions, lobster tail and a wide variety of steaks and chops, along with the live music and dance floor, are the main attractions in this sprawling roadhouse. Later in the evening, after tributes to Tommy Dorsey and Doris Day, the band can get down a bit.
BEST SMALL PLATES
Gala: A New American Bistro
33316 Grand River Ave., Farmington; 248-478-2355
The menu features "bites," tapas-style — in this case, American tapas. The frequently changing choices might include house-smoked salmon, chevre mousse and cracked pepper crackers or pan seared sea scallops, saffron couscous and lemon confetti sauce or pine nut crusted planked salmon with French lentils and lemon (whew!), all less than $15. No, the portions aren't huge, more like sensible, perfect with a bowl of gala shellfish chowder or a mango and watercress salad. Walk down a flight of stairs to an inviting, softly lit room, made even cozier by the live music, usually jazz, on weekends. (No elevator, thus not handicapped accessible).
401 S. Lafayette Ave., Royal Oak; 248-543-1964
Sangria has an atmosphere suited for gathering with friends, drinking wine and munching tapas. On the cold side, we dig the salpicon de mariscos, a mixture of seafood marinated in olive oil and herbs. The seasonal grilled vegetables with garlic aioli are simple and full of flavor. For hot, the patatas bravas measure up, and the beef tenderloin kebabs are tender and tasty in a black pepper oil marinade. These are just a few of the dozens of small plates available at Sangria, all touched with the spirit of the Iberian Peninsula.
Maple Leaf Café
297 Maple Rd., Birmingham; 248-723-1222
One thing a diner must serve is a great breakfast, which the Maple Leaf delivers with its "Here Comes the Judge" — grilled rye bread stuffed with Black Forest ham, jack cheese, tomato and a fried egg. Or try Bananas Foster French Toast and a number of omelets, all prepared with three organic eggs. Then there's comfort food like the five-cheese rendition of macaroni and cheese, the requisite meatloaf, and burgers made with Black Angus beef. Several salads and sandwiches round out the menu. Everything is made with natural and organic ingredients, a nice spin on the genre.
BEST FINER DINER
The Fly Trap
22950 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-399-5150
We've been giving the Fly Trap love for a lot of years now because everything on their eclectic menu is a winner. But we still have favorites. Like the North African spiced charmoula Chicken sandwich on grilled sourdough with jack cheese, caramelized onions and lemon-garlic aioli — a patty melt about as upscale as it gets. Packed with umami, the lemongrass pho is a huge bowl of flavor. It's the spiced beef brisket, potatoes, beets and onions of red flannel hash that we like with our eggs. And who can resist the house-made herbed fruit jams?
BEST FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD BAR AND RESTAURANT
5169 Trumbull, Detroit; 313-833-2701
Open only since September, the Pub has established itself as a mainstay of the Wayne State University area and Woodbridge Historic District, made lovely to look at by neighbor and first-time restaurateur Jim Geary. Restorer Geary took on the former party store out of the best motives: to liven up his own neighborhood. The burgers, pizzas, pastas and sandwiches are top-drawer (order three sliders to sample all the fancy burgers), but patrons also come for Irish whisky, Ghettoblaster, and other Michigan brews. Geary partners with other neighborhood institutions like the Detroit Film Theatre to offer pull-'em-in discounts. Drink specials include a bottle of the house Chilean wines for $10 on Friday and Saturday nights, and bottomless mimosas for Sunday brunch. The latter is recommended for walking-distance neighbors only.
BEST FOOD IN A SPORTS BAR
6550 Allen Rd., Allen Park; 313-389-5050
A shrine to hockey, Broadcast Booth features a substantial menu, along with two old Olympia Stadium seats signed by Gordie Howe. The menu in this sprawling establishment features a "hat trick" appetizer along with traditional bar-food starters, but stretches to include hearty pasta platters, scampi, whitefish and generous steaks. Best of all for those who desire to eat in a quiet spot with televised sports available just around the corner, the Broadcast Booth offers a quiet dining room to enjoy conversation as well as the food.
BEST DETROIT HISTORICAL TOUR WITH YOUR BURGER
450 W. Fort St., Detroit; 313-964-9127
Some patrons come to the homey and homely Anchor for its waxed-paper-wrapped burger, deep-fried walleye and colorful clientele. Others will spend their time between elbow bends wandering around the venerable watering hole looking at the photos and knickknacks that would make a Detroit Historical Museum curator envious. The walls are crammed with photos of such Detroit legends as Walter Reuther, Monsignor Clement Kern, Jerry Cavanagh, scores of TV and newspaper anchors and reporters, and a rogue's gallery of Detroit police commissioners, almost all of whom frequented the Anchor from time to time. Tough guys Joey Kocur and Bob Probert contributed their signed hockey sticks to the display that even includes a wooden news box emblazoned with the name Detroit Times, a rag that disappeared in 1960.
BEST KITCHEN IN A COCKTAIL LOUNGE OR JAZZ BAR
2030 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-961-2543; cliffbells.com
For the past couple years since its restoration, Cliff Bell's has been known for live jazz, cocktails and its stunning interior. Now they can add food to the list. The French-inspired, mostly small-plates menu boasts everything from pommes frites with roasted garlic aioli to fillet of beef. The oysters are fresh and cold. The frog legs are sweet and tender. A beautiful beet salad with horseradish vinaigrette makes a quality foil for cider-braised pork belly with fingerling potatoes. Steamed mussels, duck confit, smoked pork tartine — we cherish the happy hour food specials here.
BEST PLACE TO SING A GERMAN DRINKING SONG
Dakota Inn Rathskeller
17324 John R St., Detroit; 313-867-9722
The Dakota Inn Rathskeller is a great place to gather. On a weekend eve, you'll enter to the din of mirth as friends and families assemble to celebrate birthdays and other life events. You can grab any number of quality German beers to go with a traditional dish of schnitzel or sausage and a side of tangy warm potato salad. There's raucous fun to be had as a performer leads the crowd in an earnest rendition of the customary German drinking song "Schnitzelbank." Don't know German? No problem, you can read the words right off the wall.
BEST PLACE TO HAVE A DRINK BEFORE, DURING AND AFTER DINNER
2138 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-962-9828
For the past few years, Slows Bar-B-Q has been both a symbol of urban renewal and a place to get tasty and unhurried smoked meat. But they're just as much bar as 'cue. The beer selection is large and varied, with a few real gems that you probably won't find in any other area bar. The wine list is affordable and intelligent, not something you'd expect to see in a barbecue joint. And after a satisfying meal, who couldn't finish with a glass of fine bourbon?
27475 Groesbeck Hwy., Roseville; 586-775-7427
Chef Deni is a culinary school graduate who decided to become a barbecue expert. He does it very well. He traveled through the South researching the best of barbecue. What he found, he put to good use — for sure to our benefit. From slow-smoked pulled pork to smoked brisket, from spare ribs and tips to chicken, this joint is a find for 'cue lovers. Try a pulled chicken sandwich, a slight departure from the pork version. On Wednesdays, don't miss the "all you can carry out" lunch buffet, a bargain for less than eight bones.
BEST $5 SANDWICH, STORY AND A SMILE
8500 Capital St., Oak Park; 248-541-9703
"Hey, Baby!" The first time we ordered a sandwich at Ernie's, he insisted on the $5 triple-meat club sandwich. Not because it costs more, he said, but because he wanted us to have the best sandwich that he makes. Of course, we couldn't refuse. While Ernie sliced meat, added toppings and gave our sandwich "the love," he told stories and was just a generally happy dude that spread all his happiness into the small market and onto the sandwich. If you don't leave Ernie's with a wide grin on your face, have someone check your pulse.
BEST DINNER AND A SHOW
6820 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-843-2146
You wouldn't go to Telway for the food — but, oh yeah, people do. With mostly bun burgers at four for $2.25, they're lined up, ordering eight cheeseburgers at a time or "two triple triples, one double double and a black double sugar" — everybody knows the drill. You can smell Telway a block away and for days afterward, in your hair and on your clothes. You'd go for the banter between the customers at the counter, all regulars, and the staff squeezed into a tiny oblong space where burger-flipping, coney-frying and doughnut retrieval take place 24-7. The cook asks the tow-truck driver if he wants his hillbilly chili with a shovel or a spoon. Linda says the economy hasn't affected Telway at all.
BEST NEIGHBORHOOD BAKERY
220 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-398-8018
This tiny little Ferndale bakery turns out some big-tasting treats. Their scones are among the best we've had, crisp on the outside, moist and soft on the inside, coming in a variety of flavors. Our favorite is cinnamon cherry, but the ginger toffee and cranberry orange come a close second. We love to pick up a variety of tiny little cookies by the pound boxed up with a ribbon. The vanilla bean buttons are garnished with a sparkly pink sugar rim and the cardamom walnut rounds are just plain delicious.
BEST CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE
Au Bon Pain
100 Renaissance Center, Detroit; 313-393-2271;
Campus Martius, 800 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-226-6600;
Detroit Medical Center, 4201 St. Antoine St., Detroit; 313-832-4801; www.aubonpain.com
OK, we're already assuming that there may be better chocolate chip cookies somewhere in this city — and as chocolate chip cookie connoisseurs, we'd really welcome hearing your choices so we can check 'em out. But for our money, this Boston-founded international chain offers up the most delicious cookies in the metro Detroit area. In a word, they're scrumptious. Not too hard, not too soft but perfect, just the way we think a chocolate chip cookie ought to be. In fact, perhaps it's not even fair to call it a chocolate "chip" treat because the chocolate is so thick and in every inch of the cookie that it goes beyond being simply a "chip." The other baked goods there are equally good; we especially also love the English toffee cookies and cheese cake brownies (though our cholesterol-obsessed doctors and waistlines don't love them nearly as much ... it should be noted, however, Au Bon Pain uses no trans fats in preparation) — but it's really hard to go wrong with such an old American staple, especially one this delicious. In our last "Best Of," we mentioned that the stores have a "two-for-one" special near the end of the day...but we fear that that deal became so successful that this is the reason that the stores have now made the sale even later in the day. Nevertheless, they're wonderful at any price and at any time of the day.
BEST CRÈME BRÛLÈE
555 Forest, Plymouth; 734-455-9463
Chef Joe Schaffer's two crème brûlèes, vanilla and chocolate, are just the right combination of crackliness, barely burnt flavor and creamy insides that a brûlèe should be. She uses the traditional method, slow-cooking the eggs and cream over a double boiler, and makes only four or five at a time. The chocolate version uses 50 percent cocoa chocolate instead of bittersweet. Most customers go over the top by adding a topping: a fresh fruit sauce of whatever's good that day (say, raspberry-strawberry) or the "turtle": fresh caramel sauce, chopped walnuts and crème anglaise. It's bliss multiplied by bliss.
BEST ICE CREAM
Shatila Bakery & Café
14300 W. Warren Ave., Dearborn; 313-582-1952
If you're accustomed to thinking of fruit ice creams as light — kind of sherbet-y — while vanilla and nut ice creams are rich, revise that accepted wisdom at Shatila. Apricot, mango, pineapple and lemon, made with puréed fruit, are super-premium and super-rich, potent in color and intense in flavor. Even richer is kashta — like French vanilla only more so. Pistachio, coconut, almond, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry are also on hand, as is a vast array of Mediterranean and European pastries. A scoop is $1.45 ($6.50-$7.50 per quart), but think in terms of cents per gram of butterfat.
29101 Greenfield Rd., Southfield; 248-559-5985; also locations in Detroit and Livonia
We like Sweet Lorraine's for so many reasons. Their burgers are fantastic. The salads are big and full of flavor. The beer list is right on. But we really get into a lather when it's time to choose from the dessert plate. There's bread pudding, passion fruit mousse, an apple brown Betty served with a caramel glaze and Ray's cinnamon ice cream, a gorgeous slice of three-layer carrot cake dusted with toasted walnuts and, of course, the chocolate cake under a layer of chocolate mousse and finished with a dark chocolate glaze.
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