Best Of 2004

Nutritional value

Best café pizza — Windsor
Terra Cotta
318 Pelissier St., Windsor

As the glorious smell of roasting pizza wafts out the door and into the street, pizza chefs behind a window flip dough and select from fresh toppings and veggies — often organic and grown by the owner — to throw onto a thin crust made from semolina flour, olive oil and water. The dough and sauce are homemade, the recipes handed down from the establishment’s previous Italian owners; the sauce is a rare and perfect mix of sweet and savory necessary for fine pizza sauce. The pies indeed are wholesome, but carry the flavor and texture — crispy crust, hot gooey cheese and toppings with a bite — of the Old-World pizza you’ll find in Europe and in some spots in New York City and New Haven, Conn. The place is small and very charming with little tables covered with tacky plastic tablecloths and candles. The joint is run by a brother-sister team Greg and Dina Gnyp who are as sweet as their pizza sauce. They wait on the tables — quite a challenging job on Tuesdays when Terra Cotta packs up for a two-for-one pizza deal (at $7-$12 Canadian for a pie, what a steal!). You might have to wait 20 minutes but it’s worth it. Try the Quattro Stagioni, divided into four sections, each with a different topping. The salads are great and you can drink wine and beer and specialty sodas. Don’t miss the homemade hot-sauce-for-pizza. To die for.

Best pizza — Detroit area
Tomatoes Apizza
29275 W. 14 Mile Road, Farmington Hills
24369 Halstead Road, Farmington Hills

Add a Culinary Institute of America graduate who apprenticed at a legendary New Haven, Conn., pizzeria to the secret recipe and you get the best pizza in town. Thin crust, garlicky, well-seasoned tomato sauce, a sprinkling of Pecorino Romano and some fresh basil is what you’ll get in the classic Margarita — Naples’ simplest and finest. They call it red pie here. Order half red, half white (sauceless), with fresh tomatoes and lots of garlic and basil. Pizza heaven.

Best restaurant pizza — Windsor
La Zingara Pizzeria
555 Erie St. E., Windsor

The pizza at La Zingara’s is the real deal: thin-crusted beauties simply topped with a delectable sauce and delicate toppings. Choices include a pizza of olive oil, black pepper and rosemary; another is the Maremonte, topped with garlic, parsley, shrimp and mushrooms. Though the pizza is divine, some come to La Zingara’s for the quail or trout that roasts in the wood-burning pizza oven sitting at the back of the dining room, filling the restaurant with mouthwatering smells. The charming storefront trattoria offers such a large selection one could eat here every day.

Best alternative to brunch
6407 Orchard Lake Road, West Bloomfield

On Sundays around noon there is usually a long line threading out the door of this spacious Chinese restaurant. The preponderance of Asian patrons attests to the authenticity of the fare, which in this case is dim sum, a meal of small portions of Chinese delicacies — “delights of the heart.” The dishes include dumplings, steamed or baked buns with different fillings, pork ribs, stuffed peppers, shrimp and any number of other dishes. There are as many as 75 different offerings each day, with something to excite every palate. Each small plate or steamer has three or four pieces to share. Skip the omelette this Sunday and explore the Orient.

Best bread
Avalon International Breads
422 W. Willis St., Detroit

Famous for its hard-crust sourdoughs such as chunky Leelanau Cherry Walnut or old-fashioned Poletown Rye, 7-year-old Avalon has branched out to bake softer, yeast-raised breads. The 313 line, new this summer, includes hamburger buns and a $4 sandwich loaf. The buttery brioche is ever-popular, but Avalon’s biggest seller is Motown Multigrain, perhaps because of the carb craze. The multigrain mixes whole wheat berries, rye berries, sesame seeds, sunflower and flax. Equally scrumptious are all the bread fixin’s, such as organic triple-cream cheese from Cowgirl Creamery in California. October is Italian month, with bargains on focaccia, cheeses, and pesto. (Avalon is also the best place to network with socialists, urban experts, professors, entrepreneurs, artists, DJs, the homeless and other people who can change your life.)

Best Mexican bakery
Mexicantown Bakery
4300 W. Vernor Highway, Detroit

This bakery is always busy, as neighborhood folks line up for their fresh daily bolillos — a simple crusty roll with a rich (and addictive) taste. The wall of bins filled with cookies and flaky pastries attracts children and adults struggling to choose between puercos (a pastry that translates as “molasses pigs”); sugar-dusted empanadas filled with pineapple, apple or strawberry; sweet cornbread; and more. The bakery makes wedding and birthday cakes and sells flan and bread pudding. A little grocery offers Mexican sausage and other cooking ingredients, such as bars of cinnamon-infused chocolate for making Mexican hot chocolate. Watch the bakers through the street-side window.

Best French bakery
Le Petite Prince
124 W. 14 Mile Road, Birmingham

Marcel and Yvette Didierjean moved here from southern France and opened a bakery on a Birmingham corner. Twenty-five years later, their baked goods are a taste of perfection — and they look as good as they taste. Their baguette is a perfect blend of flour, water, yeast and salt; there is none better — crisp crust on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. While a baguette normally begs for sweet butter, here it’s so good eaten plain that you’ll need to clean the crumbs out of your car when you get home.

Best Italian bakery
Cantoro Italian Market & Bakery
19710 Middlebelt Road, Livonia

Mario Fallone opened his Cantoro market in Detroit in 1965. About 10 years later the market moved to its present location between Seven and Eight Mile roads. The Fallone family has been baking Italian breads for more than 30 years. They now supply markets and restaurant in the area. The best prices and the freshest bread are available at the fine little market, which sells a variety of Italian specialties. The ciabatta is the best. Fill the flat loaf with meatballs simmered in tomato sauce and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Yum.

Best breakfast
Club Bart
22726 Woodward Ave., Ferndale

There are more reasons to eat breakfast at Club Bart than reasons to stay home, and good prices are only No. 3 on the list — terrific food and a liquor license are Nos. 1 and 2. Most omelettes are $5 to $6, and you can get eggs Benedict for $6.50. Order a mimosa or a Bloody Mary with your over-easies and life is sweet. Whoever decided to turn the fabulous house-made cinnamon rolls into French toast was inspired. Eggs Florentine sports a terrific lemony Hollandaise, and the poached eggs are just firm enough. Sugar addicts will love the Black Forest chocolate waffle with brandied cherries and whipped cream.

Best breakfast-- north burbs
Beverly Hills Grill
31471 Southfield Road, Beverly Hills

We think it’s hard to beat ham, eggs and hash browns in the morning. Biscuits and sausage-gravy ain’t bad either. But the “grill,” as it’s known, brings in the crowds every day for offerings such as Bananas Foster French Toast, Lobster Cobb Omelette, killer corned beef hash and poached eggs, and smoked salmon scramble. Does a mimosa counteract the health benefits of oatmeal with fresh fruit? Probably not. After all, the orange juice is loaded with vitamin C.

Best healthy sandwiches and desserts
Avalon International Breads
422 W. Willis St., Detroit

Though Avalon is known for bread, you just can’t beat its sandwiches and desserts. For sandwiches, there are always vegetarian and vegan options; a beloved favorite is avocado pesto with crunchy sprouts and other veggies on multigrain bread, or fresh mozzarella, basil and tomato on baguette. The sandwiches are compact but each bite is an experience of texture and flavor and they fill you up, not out. As for desserts, don’t miss Avalon’s Thanksgiving pies (sign up early to order yours). And the bakery’s homemade toasted granola and fruit bars are famous throughout town. It’s probably the most decadent offering ever for the crunchy granola crowd.

Best meal in Eastern Market
Russell Street Deli
2465 Russell St., Detroit

Before Saturday shopping, fuel up on Bob Cerrito’s huge omelettes or scrambled eggs specials, which become more inventive every week. Ingredients change, but think bacon, fontina cheese, roasted red peppers and oregano; or shrimp, scallops, crab and Bechamel sauce. Prices go from $4.50 to $6 for regular omelettes to around $7.50 for specials. Hashed browns are made from scratch. Fluffy pancakes and French toast are served with lots of fresh fruit and real maple syrup. The buzz is happy: there’s something about sharing tables with who-knows-whom that seems to bring out the best in folks.

Best alfresco — downtown
Hunter House at Hilton Garden Inn
351 Gratiot Ave. (Harmonie Park), Detroit

Surrounded by red, purple and magenta flowers, diners are taking advantage of the umbrella tables on the hotel patio and the view of a park across the street. Prices are not picnic-level, but neither is the food: The $9 Caesar salad has a creamy dressing and hearty croutons; the New York strip is tender and sizable; the snapper-and-scallops dish is rich and buttery. Go for a drink and dessert by the on-site pastry chef, whose chocolate mille feuille displays mastery with fudge, orange and hazelnuts.

Best alfresco dining — non-downtown
La Dolce Vita
17546 Woodward, Detroit

The courtyard at LDV is as welcome as an oasis. Squeezed between two buildings with a high wrought iron fence, it’s very secluded and feels very European. What’s fun about LDV is the incongruity: a lovely spot on a downright seedy section of Woodward just north of 6 Mile, with Jaguars in the valet-guarded lot in the back. The management has a sense of humor: Second Sunday of the month is the pajama brunch. “Very Victoria’s Secret,” says manager Dean Cicala. There’s also live music Thursdays through Sundays.

Best Asian fusion
Eurasian Grille
4771 Haggerty Road, West Bloomfield

David Lum steered locals away from chicken chow mein at least 25 years ago at the Rickshaw Inn, instead introducing dishes we’d never heard of. Now he holds court in a strip mall bistro and continues to fuse ingredients from countries and cuisines the world over, such as Crispy Duck Macao served with crispy bok choy and citrus fruit sauce. From South Indian-style Alaskan halibut to ribeye au poivre, from Thai style Chilean sea bass to Singapore noodles, Lum makes his dishes with care. Don’t miss the famous Black Russian brownies. Now that’s fusion.

Best big splurge
6430 Farmington Road, West Bloomfield

Jim and Mary Lark opened this fabulous country inn-style restaurant 23 years ago and have stayed busy ever since. The Larks provide consistently excellent food and service. Their signature rack of lamb Genghis Khan is an Asian treat; the cataplana of shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels and chorizo has been a favorite for years. The fixed-price, four-course dinners run in the $70-$80 range. You can easily double the bill if you sample wines offered on what some say is one of the country’s best wine lists. Eating at Lark is like dining at a food spa — your palate is pampered. Try this for your next big occasion, but make sure your credit card is not maxed out. It will be when you leave, but you won’t be sorry.

Best Cajun carryout
Andre’s Louisiana Seafood Sandwich Shop
752 W. Huron, Pontiac

Andre and Dorothy Williams are the hardest-working team in town. They recently moved from Louisiana to turn Motown on to Cajun food. Their po’ boys are off-the-hook. The catfish, oysters, and shrimp are salty, peppery and crunchy, the way they should be. They’re served on French bread and dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, mayo and mustard, if you like. If Andre’s is serving crawfish étouffée — usually on Fridays — do not pass it up. Try a praline for a sugar jolt.

Best Cajun — East Side
M’Dear’s Creole Cooking
15102 Kercheval, Grosse Pointe Park

The family recipes, handed down through generations — everything with a degree of fire — make this one of the most authentic sources of Cajun food in the area. The gumbo is loaded with so much rice, shrimp, oysters, crab, ham and sausage that there’s scarcely room for broth. “Sizzlers” of chicken, steak or shrimp are cooked with blackened spices in a mellow Kentucky bourbon. Order your po’boy by the inch, stuffed with a choice of fried shrimp, oysters, catfish or andouille sausage.

Best Cajun — West Side
Tenny Street Roadhouse
22361 West Village Dr., Dearborn

The specialty of the house is music — blues, R&B, jazz and of course Zydeco — but the food is no afterthought. It’s spicy but doesn’t rely on heat to make a splash — each flavor holds its own. A $4.50 bowl of smoky gumbo is enough for a meal and too thick to call stew. Jambalaya is thick with shrimp, andouille sausage, chicken and tasso (Cajun cured, spiced and smoked pork). Crawfish is served in étouffée, spiced and breaded as an appetizer, or “creole” cooked with vegetables and red wine. Tenny Street also serves Southern-style dishes such as ribs, cornmeal-breaded catfish bites, pecan-crusted pork chops, red beans and rice and po’ boys.

Best spot for Creole on-the-go
Louisiana Creole Gumbo
2053 Gratiot Ave., Detroit

For New Orleans-style soups, snacks and suppers, one need not travel farther than Detroit’s near East Side. For years, Louisiana Creole has specialized in spicy, bayou-influenced cuisine, including such offerings as beans and rice, seafood gumbo and shrimp Creole. Primarily functioning as a carryout, Louisiana Creole caters to downtown area office lunch crowds, as well as late-night-craving customers. Dishes feature spicy or mild seasonings, chicken, fish, or beef and vegetarian-friendly preparations. The menu is an enticing reminder that fast food doesn’t end at the line for fries and burgers.

Best chain — new
Noodles & Co.
32621 Northwestern Highway, Farmington Hills
17931 Haggerty Road (at Six Mile Road), Northville
470 S. Main (at Fifth Street), Royal Oak
3119 Crooks Road (at Big Beaver Road), Troy

These stylish stores look great and the super-friendly, well-trained staff is eager to please. Each restaurant offers a dozen noodle bowls, a few salads and soups. The noodle bowls are all vegetarian, from $3.95 for buttered noodles and Parmesan to $5.95 for pesto cavatappi — a winner. Add tofu for $1.45, chicken breast or beef tenderloin for $1.75 or six shrimp for $1.95. Everything is made to order. The Indonesian peanut sauté has a sauce that will make you lick the bowl, and the creamy Wisconsin mac and cheese is one of the top sellers. This is fast food at its best.

Best chain — UPSCALE
Unique Restaurant Corp.
Various locations

Upscale indeed — Unique Restaurant Corp.'s latest venture, Coach Insignia, sits at the top of the Ren Cen, with stratospheric prices to match its location. Whoever thought of the name Coach Insignia ought to be called on the carpet — it sounds more like a brand of dorky polo shirts for the GM exec crowd. URC President Matt Prentice says the new car-themed chophouse is the second-highest restaurant in the United States — so mabye they shoulda named it Lofty Grub. Anyway, the re-opening of the sky-high restaurant has been highly anticipated for the past few years since GM has been re-doing the Ren Cen. Go to Coach Insignia for lobster and foie gras. Prentice's dozen Detroit-area restaurants include Shiraz, a top-of-the line prime steakhouse; Northern Lakes Seafood Company, which serves the likes of Stilton-crusted sea bass and soft shell crabs; and Morels, a Michigan-themed perennial favorite (visit in the spring to find morels served many ways). Further down the food chain are the less expensive but equally crowd-pleasing Flying Fish Tavern, Portabella and the new Thunder Bay Brewing Co. URC is not ashamed to offer a Frequent Diner Program for its high rollers— track your points on the Web site and get free champagne on your anniversary.

Best cheap eats — burbs
Falafel King
32748 Woodward Ave., Royal Oak

When in Rome … The first thing to try at the Falafel King is the signature sandwich — falafel patties in a wrap with hummus, tabbouleh, lettuce, pickled turnips, peppers and tahini sauce. At $3.75, the sandwich can’t be beat. Everything is cooked to order, mostly grilled — or, in the case of the chicken shawarma, cooked on a griddle, a departure from the traditional method of cooking the meat on a vertical broiler. And try a cup of the lentil soup. There are lots of good Middle Eastern eateries in town, but none are better than this at any price.

Best cheap eats — Detroit
Kingdom Men’s Café
12400 E. Jefferson, Detroit

If you’re free for lunch, and it’s a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, and you like soul food, have we got a deal for you: for $12, you’ll get fresh flowers on the tables and all you can eat at The Kingdom Men’s Café, a project of the East Lake Baptist Church. The restaurant in the church serves food equal to many soul food restaurants, but it costs less, your plate sits on a linen tablecloth and the service is fastidious. Try catfish, fried chicken, smothered pork chops and baked herb chicken. One of the church mothers makes the lemon pound cake, dense in texture, coated with a lemon glaze, which turns brittle when it cools. The café is also open Friday for dinner from 7-9.

Best chicken dinner
29222 Orchard Lake Road, Farmington Hills

Let’s cut to the chase: The boneless chicken at Al-Ameer’s is the bomb. It should be called, “Succulent Charbroiled Chicken with Lemon and Garlic Sauce.” The meal is served with soup or salad and rice or potatoes and pita fresh out of the oven, too hot to touch, and a plate of pickled vegetables, all for $14.95, or a half order for $9.95. Incidentally, the half order is more than enough for two people for lunch.

Best contemporary North American
Beverly Hills Grille
31471 Southfield Road, Beverly Hills

Midafternoon each day the chef creates dinner specials from fresh ingredients that arrive that day: yellow-fin tuna with a spicy peanut sauce served with bok choy and a scallion-basmati rice; grilled beef tenderloin medallions in wild mushroom beef sauce served with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled yellow squash; mustard-seed-crusted swordfish in a lemon garlic broth plated with tomatoes, spinach and fingerling potatoes. Finish your meal with a fresh fruit cobbler, which also changes daily.

Best contemporary American — north burbs
Jeremy Restaurant and Bar
1978 Cass Lake Road, Keego Harbor

The frequently changing, seasonal menu has only a handful of entrées, but you’re not likely to be disappointed with anything. Even the most ordinary foods — chicken, steak, salmon — are transformed in extraordinary ways. Flavors are intensified, and ingredients are brought together in ways that will surprise and delight; you might find paper-thin slices of peaches in your salad and a red wine reduction in your dessert. Chef and owner Jeremy Grandon is an artist who takes pleasure in both the creativity and complexity of cooking.

Best contemporary American — northwest burbs
Loving Spoonful
27925 Golf Pointe Blvd., Farmington Hills

Chef Shawn Loving describes his menu as “upscale comfort food.” He says that he cooks what he likes to eat, “and then I twist things to make them more elegant.” You’ll notice this as soon as the food begins to arrive. The butter might be blended with a sweet red wine and studded with dried cranberries; salads sparkle with condiments like crunchy jicama, orange segments, chunks of papaya, and prosciutto. If you like ribs, these are slow-smoked and basted with honey and pineapple. Located on the Copper Creek Golf Course, you don’t have to be a member or even a golfer to enjoy lunch or dinner here.

Best contemporary American — East Side
63 Kercheval, Grosse Pointe

Chef Chad Steward is the equal of many celebrated chefs on the west side, but he’s not as well- known. Perhaps it’s the cutesy coffee shop setting in the basement of an office building. Lots of locals know that Jumps is a great spot for lunch, and that it’s terrific for a weekend breakfast, but the eatery is also open for weeknight dinners (except Monday). Check out the specials on the chalkboard. One night featured pecan-crusted scallops topped with dried cherry compote, served with acorn squash puree and a little tower of couscous studded with green peas and scallions. Imagine the colors!

Best French
Zinc Brasserie and Wine Bar
6745 Orchard Lake Road, West Bloomfield

An immediate hit since its Valentine’s Day opening, Zinc draws visitors from as far as Toledo. The dining room design, with its overhead mirrors, magnifies the excitement of closely packed diners who’ve found the latest “Big Thing.” Diners like the rustic French menu with daily specials such as coq au vin, cassoulet, bouillabaisse and sea bass Basque-style, and they love the European beers and French wines — available in $3 to $4 half-glass “tastes.” If you are put off by the notion that all French food is about cream and butter, prepare for Zinc to dispel the myth. A brasserie by definition is an informal restaurant that serves simple, hearty food. Zinc’s Salade Rustique is exceptional. The pan-roasted whitefish with pommes frites and vegetables goes for $10 at lunch and $13 at dinner.

Best hot and sour soup
Dong Sing
40816 Ryan Road, Sterling Heights

The delicate balance between hot and sour is deftly achieved in Dong Sing’s masterful soup. The Szechuan classic is done so perfectly that it might have originated here. The flavors, textures and aromas launch an assault on your taste buds. The slight crunch of the wood ear mushrooms, the chewy texture of the pork strips, the tenderness of the tofu, the spice of the chilies, the smokiness of the sesame oil: all combine to make this hot and sour the unrivaled best.

Best Italian
Giovanni’s Ristorante
330 S. Oakwood, Detroit

It’s the last thing you’d expect in this forgotten corner of Detroit. Giovanni’s is an urbane and celebrated restaurant, beloved by Ford execs and European visitors alike. Ask for a table in the fireplace room, with its old-fashioned chandeliers and wine cellar. Pasta is made fresh every day by an Italian nonna who’s been doing it for 60 years. All the classics are here: gnocchi, scampi in white wine, and five versions of veal, including Veal di Granchio, served with sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus and crab in a brandy glaze. Best bet: scallops, shrimp and artichokes in pesto pomodoro over linguine.

Best Old-World Italian experience
Roma Café
3401 Riopelle St.

Said to be Detroit’s oldest restaurant, Roma deserves its excellent reputation. The famous house salad, dressed with salt and pepper, vinegar, oil and Parmesan cheese, and featuring chopped eggs and chick peas, makes a great lunch on its own, but few pass up the pastas — spaghetti with meat sauce is a favorite — and the veal is as good as it gets. This is no nouveau cuisine; it’s heavy old Italian food and it might give you heartburn. But the wood-paneled bar is romantic and the waiters in tuxedos give the place an Old-World feel; the Eastern Market setting adds to the charm.

Best Italian — Nouveau
Da Francesco Italian Cuisine
49624 Van Dyke Ave., Shelby Township

Located in a nondescript strip mall, Da Francesco is a place you’d never stumble into. But the food is terrific and the prices are surprisingly low. The pasta marinara is a platter of fettuccine topped with shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari; the plentiful dish comes with soup and a salad for $15.95. The pollo foresta is-ah da best-a — medallions of chicken with sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes and lots of wild mushrooms in a Madeira sauce. All of the stuffed pastas and the gnocchi are handmade daily. Even if you live on the West Side, this place is well worth the drive.

Best cheap eats — Italian
Giorgio’s Restaurant
25920 Greenfield, Oak Park

It looks like a retro lunch counter, but choose from the “Counterside Gourmet” section of the menu, and you might as well be in a little Italian trattoria. When you order cherries jubilee, they set it on fire right in front of you, as if you were in the most sophisticated of restaurants. This is a tiny eatery, so takeout is very popular — dinner at Giorgio’s is a deal, and plenty of loyal customers know it.

Best Italian — East Side
Bucci (Formerly Maxine’s Italian Cuisine)
20217 Mack, Grosse Pointe

You can watch Chef Bucci Mamushlari make your dinner in the open kitchen. Start with artichoke tosca; the hearts are halved, dipped in egg batter, sautéed, and served with a lemon sauce dotted with capers. Specify white sauce with the linguine con vongole, so you can really taste the sweet clams, which are plentiful. Chicken bella is a house specialty featuring dried cherries, walnuts and hazelnuts in a lovely Marsala sauce. When he purchased the restaurant, Chef Bucci did not have enough money to change the name. Now he does. Same place, same great food.

Best Middle Eastern — north burbs
Lebanese Garden
43259 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills

This newcomer to the Middle Eastern scene emphasizes healthy cuisine. The Lebanese maza (combination appetizer dish) features hummous, baba ghannoush, tabbouleh, fatoush, grape leaves, falafel, fried kibbee, mixed vegetables and pickles — enough to fill three or four people — for $20. The whole lentil soup is only a bit better than the chicken rice soup. The crushed lentil is creamy without cream. Check the daily specials like stuffed leg of lamb for about $8.

Best Middle Eastern — East Side
Steve’s Backroom
24935 Jefferson, St. Clair Shores

Steve’s is a back room no more, but the name is intact and the food is largely unchanged — and that’s a good thing. The sprightly flavors of lemon, garlic, parsley and olive oil are found in most dishes. Vegetables are used in inventive ways and meat is a minor player. Save room for dessert standouts like the fig tart, or apricots baked in liqueur, stuffed with pistachio nut butter and topped with yogurt, whipped cream, and sugared almonds.

Best new downtown restaurant
1456 Woodward Ave., Detroit

Word spread fast. Oslo was opening downtown with “nouveau” sushi in a beautiful, modern design setting. The restaurant/ late-night bar /club was immediately adopted by those with a stake in reviving downtown. Groups migrate after work to pop sushi and edamame or to share a combination plate or a drink. Surprisingly, the sushi bar is also visited by post-theater and Tigers patrons; the dance floor downstairs plays electronic music for yet another crowd. Everybody’s smiling, and an enthusiastic staff lets you know you’ve come to the right place.

Best pad Thai
Pad Thai Cafe
6601 Orchard Lake Road, West Bloomfield

Predictably, the Pad Thai served at its namesake is excellent. The fish sauce, which doesn’t taste like fish, lends a slightly sour taste to the classic noodle dish. Cooked with chunks of meat or seafood (your choice) and garnished with shredded lettuce, carrots and ground peanuts, it’s a simple yet tasty and filling treat. If you like more ingredients, ask Sue, the waitress and part-owner, to add an order of vegetables to the dish.

Best place to eat and listen to world-class jazz
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge
20510 Livernois, Detroit

With Juanita Jackson, Detroit’s “wing queen,” at the helm in the kitchen, the fried chicken better be good. The greens, yams and black-eyed peas are mouthwatering sides. The catfish is crisp on the outside and sweet and moist on the inside. What a way to enjoy Detroit’s finest jazz scene. The jam sessions during the week attract some of the best musicians around — many are the best anywhere. The food is reason enough to come. There isn’t even a cover charge. Beat that.

Best Seafood — Detroit
Doña Lola
1312 Springwells, Detroit

Some of the best seafood restaurants rely on fresh fish prepared simply. Fish that is lightly seasoned and served with perhaps a sauce of butter and slivered almonds is a fine treat. Joe Muer’s was proof of this for several decades. But at this little Ecuadorian seafood spot in southwest Detroit, Lola Suttles offers several seafood soups and delicate ceviche. Shrimp or lobster tails in garlic sauce are delectable. Dona Lola’s seafood rice, similar to paella, is not to be missed.

Best Seafood — northwest burbs
Steve and Rocky’s
43150 Grand River, Novi

Two of the area’s most respected chefs — Steve Allen from the Golden Mushroom and Rocky Rachwitz from the Chuck Muer group — teamed up to open this appealing seafood restaurant in 1998. Their approach emphasizes freshness and creativity. Elaborate glazes, sauces and side dishes create a harmonious theme for each entrée. Yellow fin tuna is glazed with hoisin sauce, and presented with an Asian rice cake, grilled pineapple and sweet onions. This is one restaurant where non-fish-lovers will find interesting alternatives, such as roast duckling with wild rice, lentils and bacon.

Best Seafood — northeast burbs
Third Wave Seafood and Chop House
19 S. Washington, Oxford

There’s a retail fish store in the back and a sushi bar in the middle, but most folks come for dinners like the Malibu shrimp fettuccine, with a lively tomato-wine sauce and sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, artichokes and shrimp. Asian-style sesame ahi tuna is just barely seared, leaving it red but warm in the center. Dinners come with a very good house salad, a vegetable and your choice of wild rice pilaf, redskin potatoes or chophouse fries. Weeknight specials include oysters, a fish fry, shrimp, and crab.

Best Tandoori Chicken
House of India
28841 Orchard Lake Road, Farmington Hills

A tandoor is a clay oven used to cook delicious Indian bread – naan – and seasoned meats and seafood at searing temperatures. One of the most popular tandoori dishes is chicken that’s been skinned and rubbed with salt and lemon, then soaked in a marinade of yogurt and coriander, cumin, garlic and other spices. The meat is cooked in minutes, surrounded by intense heat in the tandoor. When it comes out of the oven, the chicken is lightly charred on the exterior and moist on the inside.

Best wacked-out sandwiches
117 S. Main Street, Rochester

This is an easy category to win, because there are no sandwiches as bizarre and delicious as the ones served at Woody’s. Do not let that diminish the winners. Don’t miss the “Taste of India Cajun Grinder,” the tandoori chicken grinder, the kebob grinder, the Cajun veggie curry or the samosa grinders. Each is worth the drive to Rochester just for bragging rights.

Best Calamari
George & Harry’s Blues Café
22048 Michigan Ave., Dearborn

Calamari is easy to ruin with too much breading or too much grease. Cook the squid too long and it’s rubbery. At George & Harry’s, chef Nico Dimopoulos makes “flash-fried calamari” that’s airy and crisp. He uses Rhode Island “t & t’s” (tubes and tentacles) rather than the cheaper, tougher Chinese product, and marinates them in buttermilk for two days to tenderize. He coats the morsels minimally with two kinds of flour and sautés them quickly in clean canola oil. Add limes and cilantro sauce and the diner’s evening is made.

Best carryout
18441 Mack Ave., Detroit

“We keep our little corner of the universe happy,” says chef Paul Sulek. Loyal regulars come in once or twice a week for creative entrées like herb-roasted pork tenderloin and potato-crusted salmon, or a side of aioli asparagus. Biggest sellers are entrée salads like grilled asparagus; steak and Gorgonzola (with rare roast tenderloin, walnuts and Dijon vinaigrette); marinated mozzarella (fresh mozzarella balls, croutons, pine nuts, parmesan, and red onions); or the Maurice (inspired by the old Hudson’s famous version, featuring iceberg lettuce with chicken, ham, Swiss cheese, tomatoes, red onions, chopped eggs and gherkins).

Best carryout — Middle Eastern
New Yasmeen Bakery
13900 W. Warren, Dearborn

Although it boasts dozens of Lebanese sweets and baked goods, New Yasmeen is far more than a bakery. It features traditional dishes from southern Lebanon that you won’t find anywhere else in the area. Check out the display case and ask. Many selections are vegetarian and the non-meat eater can feast on protein-rich combos with olive oil, cracked wheat, chickpeas and garlic. Ask for the eggplant-chickpea combination. Or try fateh, a tangy, nutty mix of chickpeas, yogurt, mint and pine nuts, served warm. Three Lebanese breakfasts are available, including a foul (pronounced “fool”) made of fava beans and chickpeas marinated in garlic and lemon. Very cheap sandwiches and the usual lamb dishes are also on hand, and you may dine with plastic forks in a lovely tile-covered dining room. Don’t miss the olives, imported chocolates and other grocery items on stock.

Best chain
Buca di Beppo
38888 Six Mile Road, Livonia
270 North Old Woodard Ave., Birmingham
12575 Hall Road, Utica

Headquarters calls it “a collection of neighborhood restaurants” — 97 of them nationwide, at last count. The corporate mission is to take diners back to the ’50s, when families were large and the meatballs were too. The idea is to pretend you’re in the basement (buca) of a guy (Beppo) who’s emigrated from southern Italy. The family-style platters are bargains: A small pasta feeds three as a main dish, and most run from $12-$15. The array of choices is huge and the quality is high. Sauces feature recognizable tomatoes, not tomato paste. Local favorites are margherita pizza, chicken with lemon and quattro al forno — a sampling of baked pasta specialties. Mangia!

Best contemporary cuisine
MamO Bistro
5880 Wyandotte E., Windsor

The menu is short and inventive. Thirty-year-old chef-owner Ryan Odette unites familiar ingredients in inspired combinations that enable all components to star at once. He combines the richness of duck with the bite of arugula, the acridity of parsnips and the sweetness of apricots and figs. He builds a salad with Gorgonzola, cashews and bacon. Sweet potatoes are mashed with bourbon; barely cooked spinach is served with asparagus; goat cheese is matched with prosciutto cotto and stewed sour cherries. More typical but equally sumptuous: cremini mushrooms with asiago and white truffle oil over fettuccine. This bistro is not to be missed.

Best corned beef hash
Sheila Teas
115 E. Fourth St., Rochester

Traditionalists, look elsewhere. Corned beef hash, the most plebian of breakfasts, gets a makeover at Sheila Teas. The beef is still brine-cured and salty as the sea, but it’s chopped up with sweet potatoes instead of regular spuds. The salt of the beef sets off perfectly the richness of the potatoes, and the generous portion turns out more rich than sweet. Eat this before work and you won’t need lunch.

Best crab cakes
20000 Harper, Harper Woods

What’s the secret of feathery crab cakes, crunchy outside but light as a cloud within? At Brandon’s, it may be the very thin coating of panko (Japanese bread crumbs, both coarser and lighter than others). The homemade white-wine mayo that’s mixed with the lump crabmeat may help. And perhaps the Cholula hot sauce has an impact — there’s a touch both in the crab cake itself and in the mild tartar sauce on the side. As a $9 appetizer or in an $11.25 sandwich with waffle-cut fries, these delicate beauties are enough to make a restaurant’s reputation all by themselves.

Best crepes
Josephine Crêperie and Bistro
241 W. Nine Mile, Ferndale

Here the crepes only begin the fun: From the French and French-inspired menu you can also order house-made wines, patés and coq au vin. The crepes are made with buckwheat flour and stuffed and topped with plenty of filling. Served with vegetable sides, one makes a substantial meal. For an entrée, choose from chicken-asparagus with mustard cream sauce, wild mushrooms and beef bourguignon. For dessert try mixed berries or Nutella with fresh whipped cream. All this and much more (such as mimosas, eggs Benedict and eggs Norwegian) is available for Sunday brunch.

Best Ethiopian
Blue Nile
545 W. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale
221 E. Washington, Ann Arbor

Diners come back to this perennial “best” because the flavors are so intense they almost vibrate. (Or is it because we love eating with our fingers?) Vegetarians in particular are well-served here, although the chicken, lamb and beef are just as good. Dark green collards, a puree of red lentils, bright yellow split peas and cabbage sautéed with jalapeño — each is exquisitely spiced, often with onion and garlic, or with a barbecue-like berbere sauce. Juices mingle as they soak into the injera, which then becomes the best part of the meal. Full bar too.

Best food in a sports bar
Harry’s Detroit
2482 Clifford, Detroit

A gourmet sports bar? Do Lions fans care? Apparently, enough do. Harry’s has a split personality, with burgers, chili and fish-and-chips on the one hand, and Gulf shrimp pasta with artichoke hearts and basil chiffonade on the other. Sometimes chef Jim Lamb mixes genres — like flatiron steak over fried gnocchi, or ribs with roasted asparagus. Salad can be field greens with sun-dried tomatoes and Parmesan, or loaded with bacon, blue cheese, eggs and red onion. A plurality of dishes, including the shrimp quesadilla, carry a fiery component — which makes them well-matched with beer. Unless, that is, you’re ordering a Key lime martini.

Best Mexican
Señor López Taqueria
7146 Michigan Avenue (near Cecil), Detroit

Beans are the measure of a Mexican restaurant, and Sr. López does them right. Cooked fresh every day with onions, they’re whole, not mashed and refried. Standouts are the crusty whole tilapia, chiles rellenos (two poblanos barely dipped in egg batter, grilled and peeled for a smoky flavor and filled with creamy Muenster), guacamole (chunky and infused with lime), the simple $1.25 taco (slathered with cilantro), and chicken soup. A dish not to miss is the Carne de Puerco en Chile Verde — tender chunks of pork braised in a tomatillo and green chile sauce (possibly the best $7 meal in town). Instead of the usual gringo favorites, branch out and try ceviche, mole (red or green) and Mexican drinks like horchata, tamarindo and jamaica. Bonus: Sr. López eschews lard.

Best fajitas
Juan’s Hacienda
31313 Dequindre, Madison Heights

The menu declares that Juan’s is the home of the flaming fajita; this we had to see. These are excellent fajitas: lots of charred green peppers and onions, grilled chicken and steak, well-seasoned. It’s great fun to watch the server pour brandy around the perimeter of the cast iron griddle and set it aflame with a click from a lighter. The liquor gives it a mellow flavor. Go ahead and splurge for the extra cheese ($1) because the flames melt it so nicely.

Best night out when you’re not paying
McCormick and Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant
2850 Coolidge Road, Somerset South, Troy

The McC&S chain is in 22 states, and with its clubby, dark wood paneling, velvet-curtained private booths and cigar-friendly bar, the atmosphere is intimate. The menu changes daily as 35-42 fresh seafood offerings are flown in. But you’ll pay $14 for a hamburger, $32 for a steak and $26/lb. for live lobster.

Best place to take the parental units
Traffic Jam
511 W. Canfield, Detroit

If you and Dad always fight for the check, here’s one place where you don’t have to let him win (entrées are $10-$17). If the ’rents always ask, “Just why is it you live in Detroit, again, son?” you can tell them that TJ’s is a Detroit institution (39 years and counting) and that it makes its own beer, bread, ice cream and cheese — how cool is that? It’s a beautiful and cozy place to eat too: wooden with fireplaces, neat antiques, old glass, and lovely interior architecture. The variety of dishes will please the palates of all generations (meatloaf and lentil burgers, fish-and-chips and goat cheese tart), and no one goes home crabby after TJ’s decadent desserts.

Best restaurant to splurge
31425 W. 12 Mile Road, Farmington Hills

When money is no object, make Tribute your objective. It is, quite simply, the best taste experience you’re likely to find, in an atmosphere of pampering without too much posturing. Award-winning chef Takashi Yagihashi changes the French-with-touches-of-Asian menu daily. Yagihashi uses local ingredients as much as possible while focusing on seafood. A typical bill on the á là carte menu is $100 per person. The eight-course tasting menu — Yagihashi’s whims of the day — is $90, and a different wine comes with each course.

Best restaurant renovation
La Cuisine
417 Pelissier St., Windsor

It’s not easy taking over a 28-year bastion of old-school French cuisine, but the verdict is in: The new owners have won back François Sully’s loyal fans. Chef Harvey Cross still cooks French, of course, but he’s updated the formerly static menu. Alongside standbys like duck confit (now added to salad) and bouillabaisse, Sully serves pepper-crusted salmon with saffron sauce, tournedos Rossini (that’s with foie gras and Madeira sauce) and tournedos St. Andre — a fancy version of beef and melted cheese. The regulars are happy, and so are newcomers.

Best restaurant for a romantic night out
851 Erie St. E., Windsor

It’s the sensuality of the cuisine that makes this place romantic, although the candles, Italian wines and gracious service also ease diners toward after-dinner delights. Nico sets only 14 tables, so no bustle will distract you from the subject at hand. After melt-in-your-mouth provimi veal with four-mushroom cream sauce, all resistance dissolves. The extravagance of salmon stuffed with crab, shrimp and artichokes could make a nun say yes. If you order pasta, make it a short one, like penne salmone with caviar, so you won’t ruin the evening with a slurp.

Best now-defunct restaurant
Alan Manor
3203 Peter St., Windsor

When chef Perihan Alan decided to retire after 21 years, a cry went up from the unique Alan Manor’s longtime fans. What can take the place of an 1877 house filled with antiques and serving a sensuous eggplant dish called “The Priest Fainted”? Where will we get our Manor Delight (phyllo with apricot, coconut and liqueur)? Everyone’s favorite host, handsome Dhirendra Miyanger, is moving to Vancouver, the better to pursue his acting career. Fans of Dhirendra in the “Jinnah” series can look for him in a 13-part CBC anthology about love. Is love of food included?

Best now-defunct restaurant — lunch
Small World Café
111 E. Kirby, Detroit

When Small World closed July 30, after 11 years, workers in the Cultural Center were deprived of their favorite good-lunch-at-good-prices option. Just as important to the legions of heartbroken regulars were the friendly vibes. Unable to agree on a new lease with management of the International Institute, Small World closed. Let’s hope chef Rita Ahluwalia opens anew.

Best place to blow your casino winnings
Iridescence (inside Motor City Casino)
2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit

If you’ve hit it big at the tables, this is the place to celebrate. The wine list runs up to $499. Ingredients are extravagant: Gnocchi are truffled, foie gras is served with caramelized fruit. The seafood sampler includes lobster terrine, a drunken Kamoto oyster shooter in a cucumber martini and caviar sushi. Entrées start at $36 for breast of pheasant. The $41 short ribs won the gold medal for the U.S. team at the Culinary World Cup. Remember that Lady Luck can smile on anyone — there’s no dress code and your fellow diners may be wearing sweat pants.

Best steakhouse
30100 Telegraph Road, Bingham Farms

Now that steak is considered health food, at least by the Atkins-addled, it’s even more important to know where to get your fix of the bleeding red. Top-dollar Shiraz serves only the fattiest grade, prime, which makes for intensely flavored filet mignons, New York strips, porterhouses (20 oz.) and short ribs ($29-$39). The meat is expertly complemented by a selection of sauces: port wine veal essence, béarnaise, morel, horseradish cream or Detroit zip. A side of baked potato is $4, but you weren’t going to order that anyway.

Best sushi noir
1456 Woodward Ave., Detroit

The design is noir but the vibes are not. The owner-architect’s “ahistorical” layout surrounds the diner in wooden forms painted black. The cellar dance floor is the same, with just a few red lights to lessen the murk. In this stylish and informal space, Tokyo-born chef Kaku Usui is sticking to Japanese traditions only as far as he feels like it, and his blend is working. Try the salty river eel, or the spicy tuna, with heat that builds up on you after you eat it. Ask for deep-fried shrimp head, which is not on the menu: Usui calls it his “good-looking potato chip.”

Best sushi — West Side
OJ’s Sushi Bar
29429 Orchard Lake Road, Farmington Hills

OJ Suzuki creates sushi with the grace of a Kurosawa samurai handling his dai-tachi. OJ feels strongly about serving traditional sushi with the focus on the quality of the food, not gimmicks. His creations are as stunning as they are delicious. “Making food requires an artistic heart,” he says. The menu is a little confusing, but OJ is happiest if you leave the ordering to him. Let him know you are not afraid to try the unusual and you’ll be in for a treat.

Best sushi — East Side
Noble Fish
45 E. 14 Mile Road, Clawson

One of the best places for sushi is also one of the least pretentious. You get what you see: a tiny sushi bar in the back of a Japanese grocery. It’s the freshness of the fish and the artfulness of the preparation that makes Noble Fish stand out. Reasonable prices don’t hurt either. Check off what you want on the menu and fill your own Styrofoam cup with water or green tea from a communal pot. Outstanding is the spider roll: a slender cylinder of rice wrapped with nori and featuring the little legs of a (fried) soft shell crab escaping from either end. Thumbs up for the Michigan roll, an inside-out roll filled with tuna, cucumber, avocado, and a spicy sauce.

Best Japanese
Cherry Blossom
43588 W. Oaks Drive, Novi

The menu is more extensive than many other Japanese restaurants, and the restaurant houses a yakitori (grill) bar as well as a sushi bar. Everything is prepared and presented in the graceful Japanese style, with intricate attention to detail. All the standard entrées are offered, as well as items we haven’t seen elsewhere, such as kamonabe — sliced duck cooked in broth at your table, with vegetables, tofu and noodles. Ten zaru combines chilled buckwheat noodles with shrimp and vegetable tempura. Another suggestion: oyako cha, fish broth served in a little iron cauldron with salmon roe, salmon, rice, egg and seaweed.

Best tamales
El Comal
3456 W. Vernor Highway, Detroit

Forget the dry tamales you may have sampled elsewhere — El Comal serves Colombian and Guatemalan tamales that are far superior to the Mexican version — juicier, with more stuffing (and perhaps more lard?). Wrapped in a banana leaf, of course, the Colombian tamale encloses chicken and bacon (or just chicken) and is accompanied by arepa (a corn cake), rice and beans. The simpler Guatemalan tamale comes with a secret sauce made only by owner Elda Castellano, and is served with coffee, per Guatemalan tradition.

Best tapas
Three, a Tasting Bar
63 Pitt St. E., Windsor

Three makes the most of the tapas concept with a menu that borrows from Asian, Spanish, French and more. Every dish tastes like the chef’s specialty. The best way to order is the “plato,” an assortment of five or six dishes, bigger than most tapas: choose vegetarian, meat, seafood or “chef’s mood.” Standout dishes are tempura, a platter of smoky asparagus, artichoke heart and endive, lamb chops in balsamic sauce, and tapenade duck quesadillas. The resident pastry chef makes a sublime dessert plato that, if you’re lucky, will include raspberry crème brûlée. The spirit of tapas infuses the wine choices too: you can order by the glass, the bottle, or the “taste.” If you share, a fun evening is guaranteed.

Best tea
The Upper Crust
75 Kercheval, Grosse Pointe Farms

Tea doesn’t have to be harsh or bitter. The secret is to buy the very best varieties, which will have big leaves, says Upper Crust owner Alison Boomer, and then not to cramp them, nor subject them to light or heat. Her selection is from Grace Rare Tea, and she uses an extra-long filter to let the leaves open out. Pure Assam Irish Breakfast (an Indian black), for example, is smoky and silk-smooth. Although it’s perfect on its own, a spot of milk doesn’t compromise it, and it’s served with a fresh artisanal honey. Try Winey Keemun English Breakfast or Darjeeling Superb 6000 (black), or Gunpowder Pearl Pinhead, a green tea hand-rolled into pellets. You can drink at Upper Crust or take the tea home.

Best Thai soup
Thai Bangkok
9737 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck

A giant bowl of Tom Kha for $2 is medium fiery but so much more — sweet with coconut milk, earthy with cilantro, rich with meat. The flavors play off each other while remaining differentiated. Tom Yum, without the coconut milk, is almost as good, and includes tomato slices along with the lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves. Don’t look only in the “Soups” section: some of the “Noodles” dishes are soups too. Ba-Mee-Mu-Dang combines egg noodles, red roasted pork, bean sprouts, fried garlic, crushed peanuts, cilantro and scallions in a sublime broth. The result is complex and filling yet light — just what you want in Thai soup.

Best Vietnamese
Annam Restaurant Vietnamien
22053 Michigan Ave., Dearborn

Annam is still the best because of the ethereal delicacy of its food matched by the spare elegance of the surroundings. The Nguyen family’s secret is to use fresh herbs — cilantro, mint, lemon grass — and to stir-fry with few oils. Customers’ favorites are chicken lemon grass and catfish cooked in a clay pot with a caramelized sauce. Equally good are the warm bean sprouts with shrimp (a light salad), the appetizer sampler, bouillabaisse, and ginger chicken with eggplant. There’s a wine list and full bar, with Japanese and Chinese beers. Ask your server which wines to order with beef satay or ginger chicken.

Best soul food
1440 E. Franklin St., Detroit

Impeccably dressed couples mingle with those in T-shirts and jeans; romantic twosomes sit alongside big families that bow their heads and say grace before they eat. The combination of elegance and accessibility makes Magnolia unusual and refreshing. Entrées are reasonably priced, portions are beyond hearty. Highlights include ribs, chicken-fried steak, buttermilk-battered catfish and meatloaf. There is a Cajun subplot with specialties like gumbo, po’ boys and chicken voodoo. Two sides come with most entrées: great mashed potatoes, yams baked in syrup, creamy macaroni and cheese, spicy Cajun fries, peppery greens. Fantastic desserts only $4. Open daily, full bar.

Best deli
Steve’s Deli
6646 Telegraph Road, Bloomfield Hills

Everyone has their own yardstick for measuring the quality of a deli. Ours is a pastrami sandwich. Like corned beef, pastrami starts as a brisket pickled in brine, but then the two meats part company. Pastrami is coated with cracked peppercorns, garlic and other spices, then smoked. Steve’s makes a great pastrami sandwich on hand-cut rye bread with a crunchy crust. It’s piled high with meat, but not so high that you can’t get your mouth around it. The sandwich is not too fatty, but not without fat, served with good mustard, and two dill pickles.

Best before the theater
670 Lothrop St., Detroit

Located in the shadow of the Fisher Building, Cuisine attracts a bustling theater crowd. The 1920s house is simple but elegant — there’s a full bar and seating both upstairs and down. Paul Groz’s French-American menu is ambitious and creative, sophisticated and memorable. Each entrée on the short list is classically presented and perfectly executed; desserts are marvelous. The staff knows how to get you out before the curtain rises.

Best sinful lunch
New Center Eatery
3100 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit

The hot item here is fried chicken wings with waffles. Four chicken wings surround a huge Belgian waffle with a big scoop of butter in the middle, topped with a luscious red strawberry. It’s almost X-rated. Lunch offerings are divided between simple sandwiches and salads and more elaborate entrées. If it’s a special day, or if you have a long lunch break (or if you’re the boss), look to the entrées for chicken Marsala, fajitas, jerk-dusted baby-back ribs, lemon-garlic shrimp and more. A side salad of diverse baby greens comes with.

Best trend
New restaurants in Detroit
Who would’ve thought that so many new restaurants would open in the so-called Murder Capital? Some are in the hot locales, clustered around Comerica Park. Others are in practically deserted areas, such as Magnolia, which opened this summer in the (once thriving) warehouse district (now abandoned thanks to casino politics), or Altas Global Bistro, which opened on a tattered strip of Woodward not far from the Medical and Cultural Centers. A leader in this trend, Sweet Georgia Brown, found an enthusiastic audience for its high-end Southern cooking in Greektown. Oslo, all the way downtown, was described by our reviewer as “the intersection of Japan and techno, a club and a restaurant, sushi and American sensibility.” Tom’s Oyster Bar, across from the RenCen, is a hot place to meet after work. Coach Insignia just opened for business inside the RenCen with a bird’s-eye view of the Detroit River. Also in the RenCen: Seldom Blues, a 300-seat restaurant and jazz club. Royal Oak, you’ve met the competition, and it is fierce.

Best Cuban
Café Habana
417 S. Main St., Royal Oak

Café Habana brings an interesting new cuisine to the metro area, in a funky-chic setting, with Latin music, a full bar and good times to be had. Cuban food is simple but substantial. Grilled meats dominate the platos principales, and they are enhanced by fresh and spicy salsas and marinades. Carne asado is flank steak marinated in mojo, a combination of sour orange juice, garlic and cilantro. Dip it into the chimichurri sauce (parsley, cilantro, garlic, olive oil and red wine vinegar). It’s an outstanding merger: the charred-grilled meat with the zesty, fresh flavors of the dipping sauce. The drink of choice: mojitos — club soda with rum, sugar and lime poured over fresh mint.

Best Belgian
419 S. Main St., Royal Oak

The concept here is a Belgian brewpub, and beer is brewed on premises. A sampler served on a plank of wood includes five 3-ounce pours. On the menu are quintessential Belgian dishes, such as moule (mussels), seafood waterzooi (a variation of bouillabaisse), brandade de morue (puree of salt cod, potatoes and olive oil, a staple of the poor for centuries) and twice-fried Belgian frites served with mayonnaise. The house salad is as perfect a salad as we’ve ever had: Belgian endive mixed with baby greens and garnished with cubes of roasted beets, sun-dried cherries and sugary-spicy walnuts. The warm chocolate cake comes with an incredible espresso ice cream.

Best reason to SHAME new restaurant owner
419 S. Main St., Royal Oak

The restaurant is gorgeous. The upper floor is reminiscent of a Grand Central Terminal seafood restaurant, and downstairs, the bar area is ultra-chic with televisions playing sick cartoons and little tables and low couches for hanging out — smoking is allowed — big plus. But where is the selection of Belgian beers? Belgian beers are some of the oldest and best on the planet, and hard to find in this part of the United States. But Bastone serves only their home brews, which are mediocre at best. Who’s idea was that? Please, Bastone, bring us some imported Tappist Ale, some Orvall, Duvall and the exotics! They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years in Belgium, don’t even try to compete!

Best vegetarian
Inn Season Café
500 E. Fourth St., Royal Oak

It’s always the best vegetarian restaurant in the metro area, and it seems as if it always will be. Open since 1981 and now under new ownership, Inn Season has only grown better with age. The cozy dining room is filled with people of all ages in politically correct T-shirts. Fine, organic ingredients are used, and many dishes are available in vegan variations. Look for a menu that changes seasonally, with interesting pizzas, salads, Mexican-inspired dishes, and more. The desserts may be made with organic ingredients but they don’t taste “healthy.”

Best noodles
Noodle House
24267 Novi Road, Novi

Dining at the Noodle House is a genuine Japanese experience; it’s a modest establishment with impressive dishes inside. Most diners are of Asian heritage, and there’s a big selection of Japanese comic books to read during dinner. Choose among the many varieties of soup offered: 16 variations of luxurious ramen (egg noodles), seven of udon (soft wheat noodles), and five of delicious soba (buckwheat noodles).

Best place to convince someone to move to Detroit
Sweet Georgia Brown
1045 Brush, Detroit

Last Valentine’s Day, a reader wrote and asked where to take her Big Apple boyfriend for dinner, a place that might make him feel positively about Detroit. We suggested Sweet Georgia Brown, and the New Yorker was impressed. It’s a place that reflects and celebrates Detroit, from the Southern-inspired menu to the live jazz to the downtown location — and it’s done in an atmosphere that is classy and exciting, gracious and welcoming. Sure, it’s a splurge, but if you’ve really got to impress someone, it will do the trick.

Best kosher
Milk & Honey
6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield

Located inside the Jewish Community Center, Milk & Honey is a gourmet restaurant that happens to be kosher. Fish entrées are featured; the luscious red ahi tuna and the pistachio-crusted sea bass are both perfectly prepared. The selection of vegetarian entrées is creative enough to rejuvenate the diet of lifelong vegetarians, and some of the menu items are so good, you won’t be able to resist them on a return visit.

Best Chinese — northeast burbs
Golden Harvest
6880 12 Mile Road, Warren

There are two menus at Golden Harvest; pretend to be Chinese-savvy and you will be offered the authentic one. Try the walnut shrimp; the presentation is reminiscent of a wedding cake, with the first tier being neatly arranged broccoli flowerets, the next tier shrimp, which are fried without breading, so plump and puffy that they seem to have been reconstituted as clouds. The last tier is a scattering of candied walnuts and sesame seeds. The “icing,” a sweet white sauce, is tempered by the sharp citrus flavor of lemons. It’s an outstanding dish, and there are many others.

Best Chinese — northwest burbs
Hong Hua
27925 Orchard Lake Road, Farmington Hills

“Fine Chinese Dining” reads the menu, and in most respects, that promise is fulfilled. The dishes are prepared with attention to detail, and the menu features many unusual items, such as bird’s nest soup. Salad-seafood rolls are wrapped in bean curd skins and crisply fried. A standout entrée is the squid wrapped around shrimp mousse. Served on wooden skewers, this dish is so beautiful and so delicious that you’ll return for it often. Order it with a glass of white wine for relief from the hot pepper flakes.

Best kid-friendly
Guernsey Farms Family Dairy Restaurant
21300 Novi Road, Northville

We’re of the school that doesn’t believe kids need larger-than-life cartoon characters to dine with them. If you want to give your kids a real Americana experience, try this stuck-in-the-’50s spot, part of a real dairy that produces unbelievably delicious milk, buttermilk and ice cream. The food is all kid-friendly, including broasted chicken, meatloaf, pork chops, burgers and sandwiches. The chicken is memorable, the rest is ordinary, but who cares, because you’re saving room for dessert, right? Get a sundae inside, or a cone to eat outdoors under a 100-year-old burled oak. A ring of boulders around the tree provides seating and endless climbing fun for the tykes.

Best Indian
Rangoli Indian Cuisine
3055 E. Walton Blvd., Auburn Hills

The delicious samosas will win you over: flaky pastry wrapped around a filling of minced lamb or mildly spiced potatoes and peas. Entrées come in small copper tureens; among our favorites: nargisi aloo, a potato scooped out and stuffed with a mix of nuts, vegetables and cottage cheese; tikka masala, chunks of breast meat roasted in a tandoori oven then cooked in a thick and luscious sauce; chettinadu, pepper chicken cooked with fiery peppers in a coconut curry (you need a strong stomach for this one); and paneer tikka, a roasted form of marinated cheese, served with a thick tomato-cream sauce on the side.

Best Latin music with Latin food
The Alamo
15100 E. 10 Mile Road, Eastpoin Send comments to [email protected]